Everybody Loves SZA, Including the Obamas. The Grammy Nominee Loves Them Even More Back.
A candid, infectious interview with the Grammy nominee ahead of her performance at the awards show Sunday night.
Last June, SZA released her debut album CTRL, a collection of songs sopping with pointedly poetic lyrics to touch even the weirdest, most isolated souls. The critical success of CTRL positioned her as the future of R&B, and after five Grammy nominations (including Best New Artist), a stellar appearance on Saturday Night Live, and with her performance at the 2018 Grammys to come this Sunday, SZA has come quite a long way in the past year.
And now she’s also starring in the Gap’s Logo Remix campaign, for which producer-of-the-moment Metro Boomin remixed the 1980s classic “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins, and also features other up-and-comers (Sabrina Claudio, Awkwafin, and Sir John) as part of the new class of the brand’s recent pivot into representing diverse talent. Add an upcoming tour with Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul to the mix, and suddenly SZA is putting in work for what looks to be an even busier 2018.
Calling from Hawaii, just days before her scheduled Grammys performance in New York, she spoke candidly about how much has changed during her year in the spotlight, collaborating with iconic musicians on more than just her sound and how it made her feel to discover that Barack Obama listens to her music (and he doesn’t just listen to it, he loves it—the former POTUS listed “Broken Clocks” as one of the best songs of 2017).
Tell me about remixing “Hold Me Now” for the new GAP campaign. What made you want to get involved with that? I didn’t get to sing, but doing that project with people that I’m friends with was fun as hell. [Choreographer] Tanisha Scott is one of my favorite human beings in the world, in the whole world. She’s so special and she also doesn’t age, which is scary as f—! But I think that whole process was cool. It felt like a cool day with people that I knew already. And Metro [Boomin] is from St. Louis, and he’s a cool ass dude. My whole family is from there.
Was there anyone else on set that you really vibed with? Bria Vinaite from The Florida Project or Awkwafina? You know what was crazy? I don’t watch TV and I don’t know what the f— is going on, but I was standing next to this hilarious girl. She had me crying the whole time! I was like, Why is she so funny? I didn’t even know [anyone], outside of there being one more artist other than me, which was Sabrina Claudio. I was hype as s— to see her! I love her music and she’s so mysterious to me, but she was all human and s— and that was cool! Everybody there was on some very chill s—, and I didn’t realize they were actors or did anything outside of me, Sabrina, and Metro, because I don’t watch TV. But everyone was so interesting and so confident and fun, and down to try these dance moves. And me, I love Tanisha Scott and have worked with her so many times, so I was like trying to find any reason to do too damn much! Everyone was so down to try and also do too much and engage, and that was fun. Being stressed but also laughing with each other.
I recently saw Barack Obama listed “Broken Clocks” as one of his favorite songs of 2017. He did say that! I love Obama, and I just want to reiterate it again to everyone from every hilltop and every mountain: I love him! I’m sorry, I’m done. [Laughs.]
How did it make you feel to discover that he had been listening to your music all year? Bruh, I love him so much! I can’t even form words still. I love his children, I love his wife. What’s crazy is that every time I come to Hawaii he’s either here or just leaving, and I’m always like, we’re so close to each other! I swear, I am so honored. He’s just a beautiful person. I love his delivery, I love his energy about everything. I’m honored. He’s such a grounded person, and to be enjoyed by someone like that gives me hope for myself.
Have you met him? Or Sasha and Malia? I know his kids! I actually met them at three separate festivals and we always scream and have fun together. They’re the coolest, most beautiful girls. Because I know the kids, I never fathomed that he would know who I was. That’s just not the way it works! I didn’t put my parents onto anything really, because I knew they didn’t want to hear it. Or my dad was gonna throw it away if he found out. I don’t know how it happened but I would pay a lot of money to figure out how he ended up listening to “Broken Clocks” and if his daughter had anything to do with it! [Laughs.]
You’ve obviously been making music for a long time, but have the months since CTRL was released felt like a whirlwind? How are you handling all of that attention going into 2018? I don’t know! I think I’m just handling. I’m just trying to take it moment by moment, pay attention, be hyper vigilant, just try to understand what’s happening. It’s very interesting, a lot of entitlement with, like, the way people deal with your life. I’m not used to that because I’m low-key an only child because all of my siblings and I are 11 years apart, and one of my sisters is a half-sister, so I really just grew up with my parents by myself, and they let me really lead myself. I think this is a very interesting situation where a lot of people have tons of opinions and tons of input on my world and life, and that is inhumane, it’s not normal!
Taking that in a positive way, and kind of allowing and deciding what you allow in, and being conscious of what intentions you put out…. The things that were intangible became palpable and everything every person says makes a difference. You either absorb it into your psyche or banish it into the nowhere space. I think there’s a lot of that going on every day inside my brain and body. It’s like speed cleaning for your energy or your brain, but it’s cool. I’m alive. I’m into it! [Laughs.]
You’ve collaborated with some great artists, most recently with a music video for “The Weekend” directed by Solange. What was it like working together with Solange to transform that song into something visual? I am just generally obsessed with the way Solange visualizes earth. From the way her performances are set up to all of her videos, even being married to Alan [Ferguson], and her Instagram is so intense! I wanted to be seen through her goggles for a day. I think that was the opportunity. It’s crazy when you get in a situation where you have so many people that you love and respect from afar and you just want to figure out if you had an opportunity, how would they see you? How does this translate to them? It was cool to see how I translated for her. It was beautiful.
In terms of your lyrics and sound, how do you navigate incorporating a male perspective or voice, such as including Kendrick Lamar or Travis Scott on a track, while also championing your perspective from a woman’s point of view? I don’t really think of myself as “including” a man. I feel like, “This song would sound nice with this tone of voice. Who has this tone of voice and understanding of melody? Travis!” That’s where that came from. It couldn’t have been anybody, it definitely had to have been him. But I don’t ever think about incorporating anything “masculine”; I just try to follow my thoughts wherever they go, and do what I would generally want to listen to. [Laughs.] Those men are usually a pure reflection of my inner dialogue. It ends up being a weird reflection of, If I was this person I guess this is how I’d feel. Or, if I was a man. I trust him and Kendrick.
You write your own personal insecurities into your songs, but you also incorporate some universal topics about relationships and self esteem that most young women seem to really identify with. Would you say your work has any sort of feminist drive to it? No, I feel like people who are the most effective or people that end up being the most political, they’re usually people who have no idea what they’re doing but are just doing whatever they’re doing honestly and loudly. I feel like trying to figure out, “How can I be a good activist? What is an Activist™?”, I never got any answers from myself or any answers for how to help others. That is where I hit a wall. When I just decided to be myself, that’s when you get questions like, “How do you feel about feminism?” And I have no idea, this is just when I decide what I’m not tolerating and what I genuinely think and a little bit in between. I’m grateful it brings any women together because that’s the goal, bringing anybody together—not just women. I guess that’s the job of an activist.
I guess that could be seen as the job of an activist or artist, whichever label you’d choose to give yourself? Definitely don’t call me an activist, it’s dangerous as f—! [Laughs.] Because it takes so much responsibility on top of that. I’m just trying to be me as a human being. I feel like when you say “activist” you have to have so much clarity, and I don’t always necessarily have so much clarity on how I want to help others, I just have this weird deep urge to help other people. I’m trying to let god guide my body and use it as whatever kind of vehicle or vessel it needs to be. I don’t know if I have anything scaffolded or blueprinted out like a true activist would, but I definitely have the aspiration.
I remember hearing last year that you were working with Kevin Parker from Tame Impala and Mark Ronson on an upcoming musical project. Do you have any updates on that? I feel like all of us have been saying the same thing, we’re like, “We just don’t know!” This all started super accidentally. Originally, they asked me to come in to write some lyrics for another young lady and I was cool with that. I was sad, but I was also cool with that because I was like, “Damn, I can’t believe I’m in here with Tame Impala and Mark Ronson! This s— is so crazy!” I just decided to try my best anyway, because I was like, “Well, you’re definitely not gonna be in here with Tame Impala and Mark Ronson and not do your best!” So I just tried really hard and I guess me trying really hard translated as, “Wait a minute, we should maybe keep her?” And I was like, “Really?! Oh s—, I have to try much harder again.” I couldn’t believe they were down to keep me and form this mini group together. I was shook! Super honored, but shook. This was before my album even came out. I was still going through mixing and mastering while I was with them so it wasn’t like they saw me on the internet or TV and were like, “We must work with her!” It was just on some, “I like SZA.” I really appreciated that! I f—ing love Tame Impala. I love Mark Ronson. It was really powerful that they even wanted to work with me, so after my album came out, I wasn’t in the same place anymore. I didn’t have any free time. I hadn’t worked on any music. It’s been all over the place and I never imagined that I would be in a space to not make music because I did that for four years with nobody wondering where I was. [Laughs.] And now I feel like I have no time! I wanna complete this album with them so bad and I know they’re all just like, “Well, none of us saw this coming, but we’re happy for you!” We’re all just so busy so we’re trying to meet in the middle. Hopefully Kevin puts out some more music before me because I love that boy! I love all of them!
He released those Currents b-sides this year and they were so good. Oh my god! Right? The way that he makes his music is so crazy. He’s so casual about it. Dangerously casual. It’s beautiful. [Laughs.]
Given that the Grammys are so soon and you’re headed back to New York in a couple days, is there anything in particular that you’re doing to mentally or spiritually prepare for the big day? I am! I’m supposed to have an appointment with my yogi person at 1 o’clock but I’m gonna miss it! [Laughs.] I think. I’m trying to prepare and get my mind and energy right for the Grammys, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to make that appointment today. So, we’ll just hope for the best! I’m grateful, no matter what. I’m gonna bring my mom and my granny.
Related: Solange Directed SZA’s Powerful and Poetic New Music Video