Wonderland.

SZA

The singer shares her fears and why she refuses to be confined to one genre.

SZA with headscarf on

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA with headscarf on
All clothing SZA’s own

Taken from the Summer 2020 issue. Order your copy now.

When SZA calls me from her Malibu home, we’re on day 45 of the novel coronavirus-induced stay-at-home order in Los Angeles County. Her 2017 album, Ctrl, has just reached 150 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and her fans are hungry for its follow-up. SZA is definitely working on it — but she doesn’t necessarily want to talk about it. “Deepak Chopra says that when you spend energy talking about something, you use the energy that you would have had to complete the project,” she explains. “I’m just trying to stop talking about it and, you know, do it.”

I’m relieved that we’re talking at all. Back in February, shortly after appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, SZA tweeted, “Not doing any videos interviews or photos for the rest of my life lol don’t ask.” I thought that maybe I’d never get a chance to pick her brain, that her Twitter feed would be the closest I’d ever come to going inside the mind of SZA, but here we are. When I thank her for agreeing to the interview after her previous statement, she says, “The only reason is because I get creative control over this whole spread and I get to take my own pictures for once in my life. I get to dress how I wanna dress and light myself how I wanna light myself. When you don’t get to decide how people see you, or what is even beauty to you, or anyone else… Through the lens of someone else it can just get real dangerous.”

SZA with various bowls of water around her lying the grass

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA with various bowls of water around her lying the grass
All clothing SZA’s own

Earlier that week I tuned in to an Instagram Live meditation session with SZA and fellow queen Lizzo, who’s been a close friend of SZA’s since opening for her on a Red Bull Sound Select tour in 2015. SZA revealed during the stream that she has fears over releasing new music, so I ask her to elaborate. “I just don’t know what represents me at this time,” she muses. “It’s all from so many different perspectives of me. I don’t know if I want to do aggressive me, or trap me, or Joni Mitchell me, or falsetto me, or acoustic me, or some more s**t that sounds like “The Weekend”, but it’s all there. It’s just a matter of what picture I want to paint. What world do I want to build? That’s what makes it scary.”

What SZA isn’t afraid of is having to replicate the success of Ctrl, which saw her nominated for five Grammy Awards in 2018, including Best New Artist and Best Urban Contemporary Album. “I wasn’t moved by the success of Ctrl, because it felt the same way it felt when I made anything else of mine. I was more just grateful and blown away that people were touched by it,” she says. “But in terms of why it was successful and what sells albums, and what sells singles, I didn’t learn anything there. Especially not enough to scare me.”

SZA in pink top and denim jeans with a vacum cleaner
SZA sitting on a work bench in stripe top

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA in pink top and denim jeans with a vacum cleaner
All clothing SZA’s own
SZA sitting on a work bench in stripe top

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised in Maplewood, New Jersey, Solána Imani Rowe is no stranger to the isolation many of us are facing during coronavirus social distancing measures around the world. “I didn’t have any siblings that lived with me, all my siblings are 10 years apart, and when you don’t have any friends or playmates there’s a lot of room to get weird,” says SZA.

“Sometimes I was taking up sculpture, or doing martial arts on my own, or going to the library by myself and looking up UFOs and séances, then coming home and summoning s**t in the basement. When I left my house and tried to talk to people in the regular world they were so off-put by me, like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why you acting like this?’ I think it had to do with only child syndrome, plus being in a random suburb, and being one of the only black families in our five-block radius.”

Her self-confessed weirdness is partly what connected SZA to one of her biggest heroes: Pharrell Williams. From taking a 4am train to Manhattan “on a school day” to watch him arrive at the Good Morning America studios, to interning at his Billionaire Boys Club clothing company and ending up in N.E.R.D.’s 2009 video for “Everyone Nose”, SZA has been manifesting making music with Pharrell for years. And, on Super Bowl weekend in February 2020, it finally happened. “I wanna jump up and down every time I think about it,” says SZA.

SZA sitting on a chair outside in jeans and green top

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA sitting on a chair outside in jeans and green top
All clothing SZA’s own

However, this wasn’t actually her first experience with him in the studio. “The first time he was in the room with Rihanna and stunting for him is how I lost “Consideration”. Rihanna’s like, ‘B***h, I’m taking this song and there’s nothing you can do about it, but I’m gonna do it justice!’” she recalls. “Consideration” is, of course, on RiRi’s 2016 album, ANTI, with SZA featuring.

It would have made it on to Ctrl had she listened to the advice of Top Dawg Entertainment president, Punch. “Punch gave me strict instructions not to play anything from my album, but I wasn’t about to go in there, to a room with [him] and Rihanna, and play the flops. I’m playing “Drew Barrymore” and I’m playing “Consideration”. I’m playing everything I have!” she laughs. “But Punch says, ‘I’m telling you, do not do this,’ so we agreed that I wasn’t gonna do that. Then I walk in, Pharrell is sitting there drinking wine, and I guess my hands just slipped and I played my album. I played Ctrl.”

SZA thought that session, coupled with another for Ariana Grande that she felt she blew, had ruined her shot of working with the super-producer forever. Thankfully she was wrong and spent a week writing and recording with N.E.R.D. in Miami. “He asked me to do something on a beat, in front of everybody, and I normally record in a room by myself all the time. This was him, Chad [Hugo] and like five other people. So I go into the studio, I lay my crystals down on the floor in a grid and I just start f**king snapping. I’m snapping anything […] I was trying so hard, but not at the same time; it was weird. So then I go over to DJ Khaled’s house to record on the beat once our session’s over. Ty Dolla $ign randomly comes over and we’re making s**t, and then I play it for P and he’s just f**king with me the way I dreamed he would be f**king with me. He ended up extending the session for an extra three days and at the end I was just like, ‘You don’t know how much you mean to me in the realm of black, suburban, weird kids. You validated me in the world for thinking differently and dressing differently, and feeling differently, and that’s priceless.’ I’m damn about to cry right now just thinking about it.”

SZA standing in a tree
SZA in a onesie jumping on a trampoline

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA standing in a tree
All clothing SZA’s own
SZA in a onesie jumping on a trampoline

We get to talking about SZA’s most recent single, “The Other Side”, on which she collaborated with Justin Timberlake for the Trolls World Tour soundtrack. “Justin is a riot,” she says. “He’s funny. I enjoy him greatly. He was so cool and he told me all these stories about how he hears harmonies and how he did as a child, and it really resonated with me because that’s how I felt. My older music had a lot of reverb, a lot of harmonies, and a lot of layers, and Justin can isolate each layer and make it perfect. It’s just like, wow. He made a lot of sense to me.”

SZA spent her childhood listening to Justin’s old band, NSYNC, as well as other boy bands like LFO, Backstreet Boys and Hanson. “I don’t know why, but I was very much an “MMMBop” person,” she says. “I loved that boy band energy. It was intoxicating.” Her diverse musical tastes — including everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Jamiroquai, Björk to Limp Bizkit — all play a part in SZA’s own unique sound, and why she doesn’t want to be categorised within the one genre of R&B. “Nobody does that to white people at all, ever. No one ever does that to Adele or Justin Bieber when they’re wholeheartedly singing R&B. Or Björk, where nobody’s sure what the f**k she’s singing, but it’s energy and nobody’s concerned.”

“It’s like the only genre that we’re allowed to own is R&B and soul, and even then you might get bumped outta that category by somebody with fairer skin and a better marketing team. But I can’t pretend it’s not exciting to see someone who isn’t black execute so exceptionally well. It’s mystifying; the soul is an energy. Like Nai Palm from Hiatus Kaiyote, she’s a f**king force to be reckoned with. She’s one of my favourite voices of soul right now, next to Ari Lennox. R&B is too fickle. I spent too much time growing up on just as much Imogen Heap, and listening to Comfort Eagle by Cake and vibing for people to call me a ‘queen of R&B’. Why can’t I just be a queen, period?”

SZA in bikini standing on a tree branch

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA in bikini standing on a tree branch
All clothing SZA’s own

As we wrap up our chat, talk turns back to our present way of quarantine living and the effect that it’s having on our mental health. Currently living with her best friend Amber, who was her college roommate, plus her dog and a bunny rabbit gifted to her by a former neighbour, SZA isn’t completely on her own — but she is learning how to be alone with herself.

“It’s definitely hard for me because I’m always with somebody and it’s crazy to not have the option to go out and do anything. But that’s when you have to get used to yourself. I realised I don’t enjoy spending time by myself, then I was like, ‘Do I not like myself?’ And I was like, ‘No b***h, you don’t like yourself for a host of reasons and you’re trying way too hard for people that are already your friends to like you because you don’t like yourself.’ So right now I’m learning how to spend time with myself… You can’t waste time pretending or trying too hard. Everyone who doesn’t like you wasn’t gonna like you anyway.”

SZA in a tree lying down
SZA in bikini standing in a tree

All clothing SZA’s own

SZA in a tree lying down
All clothing SZA’s own
SZA in bikini standing in a tree
Photography
Blair Caldwell
Words
Jennifer Lynn
Creative direction and Styling
SZA
Editorial Director
Huw Gwyther
Entertainment Director
Erica Cornwall
Cover Design
Olivia Woodgate
SZA