SZA On 'Ctrl,' "Drew Barrymore" & Trampolines
Since her 2013 signing with Top Dawg Entertainment — home of GRAMMY-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar — the industry has kept its eye on rising alternative R&B star Solána Rowe — aka SZA.
While she has a handful of EP releases to her name and has written songs for artists such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, it's her debut studio album, 2017's Ctrl [TDE/RCA], that has launched her into the stratosphere. The album, which AllMusic.com describes as full of "frank songs that wield power," peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 on the strength of songs such as "Drew Barrymore," "Broken Clocks," and the platinum-selling "Love Galore" featuring Travis Scott.
Now, in this exclusive Recording Academy interview, the singer/songwriter opens up about Ctrl, her feeling of responsibility to her fans, the meaning behind her analog-based album cover as well as how she gathers inspiration from film and freeform physical expressions.
How has your life changed since you released your album, Ctrl?
People noticing me [and] that never happened before. I was quiet in high school and relatively unpopular, so being noticed is not something that I'm used to. Being noticed on a very different end of the spectrum is very intense, but it makes me feel like I have a responsibility because I feel like every person that I'm meeting at a meet-and-greet or at a show — or that's listening to my album or that I'm seeing on the internet — I see that they're genuine reflections of me.
I didn't know that because [I'm] telling [my] truth, [I would] get to introduce [myself] to friends that [I] didn't know that [I was going to] have. They're really [my] friends because they relate to the same things [I] relate to, they think [my] same thoughts, they love the same aesthetics — so I have a lot more friends than I ever imagined. But that is a great responsibility to take care of those people and those minds and cater to their hearts and what they deserve as people. I want people to feel like they're loved and cared about and part of something way bigger than me, because to feel alone and not a part of anything was crazy growing up.
What song on the album are you currently most emotionally attached to?
"Supermodel." It was the first time I ever sang something, freestyled something, all the way down. I never made an acoustic song before. My friend taught himself how to play the guitar the day before, so he's only repeating the same two chords the whole way. And he was like, "No, you can't do this, you can't just use this loop." I love a loop because I don't write physically. I write in my brain so loops help me keep track of my words or where I'm at. I've never felt sadder listening to those chords or thinking about where I was or talking about a boy that I don't care about anymore. But it took me to a weird place. They say certain chords evoke certain emotions from you, like sadness. It made it very easy for me to express and talk s*** at the same time without stopping.
What is the story behind the album's cover art?
My parents never had a Mac — PC only. And my mom kept the giant box we had forever upstairs. She must have brought it from [her] office before I was born or something strange. I spent so much time crouched over a desktop. I felt like that was my world and that's before there was even any world to see on the internet. Something about the analog-ness about a landline, computer, email only — like when you had to explain things in email and really talk to people like you knew them.
We've heard that you find inspiration outside of music. Can you tell us about three of your biggest inspirations?
I'm a visual learner, so film is a huge inspiration to me. I'm very into details, so I watch movies just for the details. I'll watch Blow for the hair — everyone's hair looks great in that movie. [I] watch Scarface for the 'fits. I live in my imagination, so sometimes movies help me get lost. I feel like I'm in it. Like Poison Ivy. I wrote "Drew Barrymore" about Poison Ivy or Never Been Kissed because I connected to [the character] Josie Grossy, like I am Josie Grossy. Film just really takes me to a weird place where I'm making a soundtrack to a movie I've already seen that already has a soundtrack, but this is what that movie means to me, and that's what I'm translating.
[Another inspiration is] gymnastics or dance. I was a gymnast for 13 years, and I was a dancer for maybe 10 of those. Any kind of expression, any explosion of expression — it doesn't even have to be dance or gymnastics. I love any sort of intricate freeform expression. I love going to Skyzone [in California] because it has a trampoline, and that's a freeform expression. That is so inspiring for some reason, getting your blood going. I never feel more inspired than when I'm leaving Skyzone.
And then art. There [are] so many different types of art, especially now that [the number of art] mediums has grown. I'm very inspired by any type of visual art and physical expression.