SZA, a gifted St. Louis bred R&B/pop singer, can hold a tune a lot better than she can a job. Since graduating a year ago, the 23-year old has been let go from one customer service gig after another— the cost of pursuing a full-time career in music. So far, the investment seems to have been worth it. SZA’s first two free EPs, “See.SZA.Run,” released in December, and “S,” last April, impressed with a polished yet emotionally raw sound that belied her relative inexperience. (She only started singing last year.) Now, the unsigned artist is working with hot, of-the-moment producers including the ambient electronic wunderkind Holy Other and Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey, Kid Cudi and fun.).
“It all sounds like Johnny Cash circa 2020,” she teases of the latter.
We caught up with SZA at Crush studios in New York, where she was recording with Holy Other. During our freewheeling conversation, the singer talked about growing up a sheltered science geek, what she has in common with Tyler, the Creator and why she freestyles all of her lyrics.
Billboard: I read you were a marine biology major, which seems like a pretty unusual track to have taken.
SZA: Yeah, science in general is actually super duper my thing. I’m one of those Nat Geo freaks…
Wait, is that a thing?
Like, I literally collect Nat Geo mags and watch “Orangutan Island” on Animal Planet all night.
Where did you go to school?
I’d actually rather not talk about that, just because I’ve been talking about weed and other unsavory things in songs and I don’t want that to reflect negatively on my school or anything. I’d rather focus on other things.
Okay. Are you finished with school?
Yeah, I’m all done, thank God. I was supposed to go to grad school, but… I didn’t. After I graduated I just started doing random jobs. I figured I was going to be a scientist and travel the world or something like that. But in the meantime I just needed money. I got fired from every job I ever had, though.
Well, my last one I quit, actually. That was really cool to have the opportunity to quit before someone fired me.
What were you doing to get fired so much?
The last time I was bartending and I had a show. I asked to take Saturday off and the manager was just like “No! There are tons of girls that would love to replace you!” I had made up some excuse, but I’m the worst liar. I said I had to stay home to babysit my sister and he goes “I don’t give a fuck about your family!” I was like “Wow. That’s harsh.”
When was the last time you had a day job?
I think it was five months ago at Sephora. That’s the one I quit. I went in there earlier today and everyone was like “Oh my god! I heard your songs and they’re awesome!” That was cool. But now I’m just poor and singing all day. It’s nice, though, because I feel so much more compelled to create, as opposed to when I was standing around with an ear piece in, asking people if they needed help with their face cream.
What was it like growing up in St. Louis and New Jersey?
All my warm childhood memories are in St. Louis and that’s where I always think my heart is. My nana and cousins are there. But when I think of what shaped me I would definitely say Maplewood [New Jersey] over everything. It’s such a bubble. It’s a small town with tons of secrets but everybody knows you and your parents and your first and last name. There was nothing to do, so we would do random shit like sneak on the golf course and drink beer or go play in the creek.
What kind of kid were you in high school? A science nerd?
It’s funny. I guess I was a loner. I was a gymnast for like 13 years, so in high school I would go to gymnastics practice and when I wasn’t doing that I would just be by myself being a science nerd. I had like one friend. I used to get in trouble, but not even because I was being cool. It would be for smoking weed or skipping gym or stupid shit like that. I was just doing my own thing.
When did you start singing?
I started singing like yesterday. Literally it was like a year ago. “See.SZA.Run” was totally accidental. I just recorded one song and then another and then it was like ‘You should probably record some other songs and make something out of it.’ I recorded the songs with my friend who lives around the corner from me in Jersey and stole a bunch of beats off the Internet. I had never sang growing up and wasn’t in the church choir or anything like that. And my dad was super strict, so most of the music he let me hear didn’t have any words to it. It was a lot of Miles Davis, Coltrane and that kind of stuff.
Did you have a background in writing? How did you approach that?
So in school, the thing that I was most passionate and excited about, besides science, was writing. It just came natural to me without much effort. I had a lot of fun learning about poetic license and different kinds of prose. And my parents were just very poetic people. When they’re angry and they yell at each other, they yell in prose.
But it’s funny, now that I’m actually singing I don’t write any of my lyrics. I just kind of freestyle them off the top of my head. Whatever comes to my mind I just let it out the way it comes, which sometimes doesn’t make any sense even to me. Poetry to me is audio/visual now. I’ll see an image or hear a beat and it will make me think about fields or something I saw on TV or a place that I read about, like Tahiti or Bali. And then I try and sing based on the imagery I see in my head.
Besides your dad’s jazz, what else did you listen to growing up?
Some Jamiroquai, Bjork’s “Joga.” A lot of my contemporary music tastes came from dance, because I was dancing in the American Dance Theater and the American Ballet Theater. I also had this mix CD from a friend with Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Lucy Pearl, LFO— all of this stuff that was being played on the radio that I didn’t really know much about. I guess now I’m a mixture of all of those things. A little bit of cheesy LFO, a little bit of Miles Davis, a little bit of Bjork. Everything I’ve experienced I just kind of absorbed and regurgitated.
What do your parents think of you pursuing music?
Um, I don’t know. At first they were like, ‘You can do this on your own time,’ because they were paying for school, which was a big deal. So in their eyes, I kind of just pissed it all away to be a musician. But after they came to the first and second shows they were like, ‘Hmm, okay. I guess you really wanna do this.’ They saw that I didn’t care if I wasn’t eating or sleeping or whatever.
They’re getting to know me all over again. I don’t think they knew this side of me and all this stuff that I sing about. I’m pretty sure they’re really confused. But those are the homies. I think they’re just trying to figure out who they raised or if they even had a hand in who I became. They spent so much time trying to protect me and being super conservative, so now they’re like “Whose child are you?”
What artists are you listening to currently?
Now that I’m making my own music I’m having a field day. I’ve been listening to tons of Animal Collective, The Knife, Beirut. I love Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange,” which I recently heard and is pretty fuckin’ crazy. Purity Ring, Bjork, because I will always love her, and a lot of Brazilian jazz. Basically when things are fucked up I’ll just go back to bed, put on some Brazilian jazz and crack the window.
This is random, but do you know who also told me they love Brazilian jazz and Jamiroquai?
Tyler, the Creator.
No way! You know what’s crazy, that actually doesn’t surprise me. He’s really something else. He’s got a glow, though, like seriously. But he’s interesting. He’s a poet, but I think he tries not to take himself too seriously.
There’s an amazing skit on “S” with Eartha Kitt talking about not compromising for love. Where did you find that?
It’s from this documentary [“All By Myself,” 1982]. The crazy part of that skit is that in the actual clip she’s sitting in her garden with no makeup on and no wig in a moo moo pajama dress surrounded by dirty puppies, but she still speaks with the confidence of a queen to that man asking her questions. You would have though she was on the red carpet at the Met Gala or something. It’s all about the energy. She just exuded pure boss and she had that dignified aristocratic accent. Sometimes I inadvertently sing in the same tone and accent she spoke in.
How did you end up working with Holy Other? He hasn’t done much producing for other people.
We basically found each other through people telling each of us how amazing the other was. He finally happened to be in town and working out of the same studio I use [Crush] so I swung through and I was blown away. We’ve been working together for two days now just having a good ol’ time.
How did you meet your other producers?
Felix [Snow, the main producer on “S”] and I had a mutual friend who said we should meet and we just started hanging out. He’s completely not the textbook producer. If you’ve ever seen him he wears sunglasses inside all day and sandals all year round. He’s basically always in yacht mode. He has a Tamagachi and a Giga Pet, so he’s a character-and-a-half. But we’re like family. I went to his house in Connecticut and played with his menagerie of animals and met his parents and ate soup. Patrick [Lukens] and WNDRBRD [other producers on “S”] are friends of Felix.
“S” is the first in a trilogy of EPs, right? “Z” and “A” are next?
Yes. But there’s so much other stuff that’s happening now. I’m working on a lot of interesting things that I’m not allowed to talk about that weren’t a part of the original plan. But I promise they’re interesting. Some cool partnerships and collaborations.