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Tierra Whack Talks Creative Process, Netflix Recommendations And Checkers’ Fries
If you were to ask a bored music fan to describe exactly what kind of artist they’d like to see emerge to shake up the status quo, chances are high that Tierra Whack would be nearly made-to-order. She sings, she raps, she jokes incessantly, she laments the loss of a friend and a pet, she sings an expletive-laden country tune. The 23-year-old Philadelphian had released less than 40 minutes of music under her own name when she was nominated for her first GRAMMY (for Best Music Video) last year. And perhaps it’s just as well that she sidestepped the genre categories in her first GRAMMY go-round. In fact, the nominated video was for “Mumbo Jumbo,” an infectious melody sung in pure mushmouth with no actual words. Imagine Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” recast as Soundcloud-era R&B — well, you can’t really, can you?
She followed it up with Whack World, a 15-minute audiovisual tour de force that gives Lemonade look standard-issue. Comprising 15 one-minute songs by a virtually unknown artist (with a bright and colorful video for each one that splits the difference between Hype Williams and Dr. Seuss), the unprecedented project topped Noisey’s best-of-2018 list and made both Pitchfork’s and Robert Christgau’s top tens. Most other publications found room for the one-of-a-kind release somewhere on their year-end as well. It’s safe to say that there’s no obvious predecessor to Ms. Whack in any genre, and she’s just getting started. We spoke to her via phone about her instantaneous success and her first experience attending the GRAMMY Awards ceremony.
Congratulations on your nomination! “Mumbo Jumbo” was the first video you’ve ever made, right?
Thank you so much. Put out to the public, yeah.
That’s amazing to be recognized right off the bat —
For the very first one, right? Yeah!
And then you unleashed Whack World, which is like almost nothing that came before it. Do you consider it to be an “album?”
Nah. Uhh… I don’t really like to give it a title. Just a collection of songs? A bunch of different ideas that I just put all into one pot.
What was the biggest challenge for you in putting it together?
It wasn’t really a challenge, actually! It was just fun, because I have so many different sounds and flows.
Is it harder to write one-minute songs or three-minute ones?
One-minute songs are easy as hell!
It wasn’t a pain to get everything down to that exact 60 seconds?
No, not at all. I just got used to the time, I would get a feeling almost, like, ‘it’s about to be over, time to wrap it up.’
Did everything make it on there or do you have a lot of one-minute outtakes lying around?
I have a bunch here, it was about a total of 60 songs.
You didn’t want to go for a full hour of very short tracks?
An hour’s just…too much for the first thing that people are gonna know me for.
Were there also videos you shot that you didn’t use?
Not for Whack World, no. I knew I had the 15 songs, so I shot 15 videos.
So the visuals were entirely figured out after the music was done? Or did you write any of the songs with the video in mind?
I can never finish a song without having a visual in mind. That’s the way I finish anything almost, I have to see it in my head. I’m a visual person. Because you’re creating a story, you have to bring it all together.
I was curious because you just dropped the song “Only Child,” and it’s your first big release with no visual attached. Was it important for you to make sure people focus on the words and music this time?
Yeah, definitely. Let me see if I could just grab their ears.
Was it weird to figure out how to do Whack World live?
It doesn’t even feel… it’s funny because my DJ Zach [Whack, or just Zach! when he performs solo] mentioned that, but it’s never weird. Sometimes we would do the songs twice.
Was there a conscious attempt to show off as many different sides of you as you could? “F*** Off” is one of my favorites and I’ve been curious about your relationship to country music.
I just surprise myself every day. Each day I record I’m always doing something different that I’ve never done. So I feel like I’m a new artist every time I go to the studio. And I have so much to offer so why make it all one thing? But I definitely hold Dolly Parton down. A lot has been going on for me and I’m always doing interviews, press, and everything, so stuff might not hit me at the moment but later, I remember it. I hear something and then it might stick at a random time.
Do you put your ideas down into an app?
Yeah, I’ll use Notes or my Voice Memo app a lot, or I’ll just text or call my manager like what do you think about my crazy idea. He’ll remember anything I bring up, even if it’s like a year from now.
What was the last idea you put down in your Notes app?
Ummm… [checking] Do I wanna give that up? Let me see… oh right, somebody already did it before, but growing up, one of my favorite movies was Bubble Boy, and I’ve always wanted to perform in a bubble.
Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips performs in a bubble. And I think he just got married in one, too!
That’s fire! That’s so fire.
So you’ll have to top that.
Yeah, it’s not like, original, but it’s something I just want to do and put my own twist on it.
For all the colorful visuals and playful language on Whack World, you display some real sadness on “Four Wings” and “Pet Cemetery.”
There’s sadness on almost every song.
Was that a conscious thing you wanted to contrast with all the bright and perky videos?
That’s just who I am, that’s how I am. I may seem all happy and la-la-la but I’ve been through some real s***, you know? I’m half and half. But I think everybody is that way.
You sing in many different voices on Whack World. Are there any you’d like to bring back and do more with?
There’s no telling.
What about remixing a one-minute song into a two-minute song?
Nah, I don’t like that at all. Why are we making a Men in Black 8? Why are we making Final Destination 30? It’s classic, leave it alone. I don’t want to see another Chucky. Some things you just have to leave it there. Let it be.
So there won’t be a Whack World II then?
Not that I know of.
I’ve never thought about that! It’s funny because these celebrities, we don’t actually talk about music, we just talk about regular, personal real-life stuff. When you just put those names up, I’m like ‘Wow, I can’t think of anything musical we talked about.’ But it’s like, if it’s something you do, like…my friend works at Checkers but she hates Checkers’ food. She’s been working there for like two years and she’s like, I hate it.
They have really good fries, though.
Exactly! I argue with her all the time, like, “Please bring me fries!” She’s like, “No, I hate it!”
And if you ask nicely, they’ll mix the banana shake with the chocolate shake.
That’s crazy, that sounds really good.
So what was it like for you to attend the GRAMMYs for the first time?
It was really, really, really chill. I was eating pizza outside because they wouldn’t let me bring it in. It just felt like I went to a graduation or something.
How did you choose that colorful outfit that you wore to the event?
I went to a store in Philly and I saw the coat, I thought it was so fire. So I bought it, found the designer [Nancy Beringer], she’s from Philly and I thought that was cool, she DM’d me and we were talking and I said I was gonna wear that coat to the GRAMMYs so she said, “Oh, I’ll make you a dress to go with it!”
And where are you off to now?
Right now, I’m about to get up, go eat some Cheerios and probably listen to some beats or something. I was watching TV, this new show The Umbrella Academy is so good.
I just finished Russian Doll so maybe I’ll start that.
Wait, Russian Doll is good? I’ve seen the trailer but I was like… I’m not sure. I just got done The Umbrella Academy like an hour ago, but I hate when something is good and it only has one season. You get so addicted; I’m gonna store that in my files and wait ‘til the second season.