SZA's Unlikely Path To Pop Stardom

10_SZACourtesy of Jessica Lehrman. Illustration by Ammiel Mendoza.
"Music was a secondary thing — it was sort of a fluke," says up-and-coming singer SZA. And though she hasn't always planned for a career as a pop star, things are quickly headed in that direction. The former ballet dancer and gymnast recently signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (also home to Kendrick Lamar) and dropped two excellent mixtapes (See.SZA.Run and S) over the past year. With a sound that mixes airy pop and sultry R&B, the 23-year-old has a knack for picking superb producers, including Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Kanye West), WondaGurl (Jay Z), and left-field electronic artists like Holy Other. We spoke to SZA about her decidedly nonmusical influences, cinematic music, and finally growing into her voice.
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Unlikely Inspiration
"I was never really inspired to become a musician, but I was definitely inspired to create art. Most of the people I looked up to weren't your typical artists, like a favorite gymnast, ice-skater, saxophonist, painter, or movie director — I really love Spike Lee. Growing up, my dad only listened to like Coltrane, Miles Davis, Incognito, and Jamiroquai. My personal influences came from dancing with American Ballet Theatre and doing pieces to Björk. That's the only time I had really any outside influence to music. So, the people that I fell in love with on a musical level were always much older. Jamiroquai is just, like, the shit for me."
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Imperfect Pitch
"I have a little bit of a voice and it's grown a lot, but I was never really trying to sing — it just kind of fell into place. At the time, people I knew were really trying to sing, but I wasn't one of those people. I was like, 'Good luck with that. I hope it goes really well for you!' [laughs]. I didn't know I could sing until other people told me that I didn't sound like a dying animal. If someone asked me to sing something on one of their songs, I didn't know what to do...I just went for it. Looking back, when I hear myself, I sounded like a singing 5-year-old. I was really nasal — it just sounded crazy. I needed vocal-training."
Spontaneous Song Sesh
"I love Emile Haynie's work with Lana Del Rey, [Kid] Cudi, and Kanye — it's so cinematic. When I heard his style, I was like, 'This sounds like Lord of the Rings.' He invited me over to his insane art-gallery studio, which is gorgeous — I had never seen anything like it before — just to talk. He started playing random keys, and I started singing. By the end of two hours of what was supposed to be a meet-and-greet, we had our first song...Usually all the sessions that are supposed to be a big deal go really bad for me. I'd rather accidentally stumble into something fly, than be like 'I'm going to go make a hit with this person because this person makes hits.' Nothing ever happens that way."
Seeing Is Believing
"I'm naturally visual. I think because I have a really short attention span. My new project is all based on the movies and visuals that I saw as kid that inspired me, stuck with me, and haunted me. Seeing Six Degrees of Separation sparked my whole addiction to learning about Kandinsky, and how he painted on both sides. Or the movie Matilda. Now I have a whole intro about Miss Honey. It's all based on cinematic experiences I had as a kid: my life through movies."
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