Tinashe: ‘People are past the point where they think I’m a mindless puppet’

The R&B star has defied bullies, the wrath of Wendy Williams and the insidious music industry. With her new album Joyride, has her moment finally arrived?

Halfway through school at California’s Crescenta Valley High, budding actor Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe made a new best friend. She was delighted to have found this new acquaintance, and sad when she had to leave school for two months to shoot a TV movie, Cora Unashamed. On her return to Crescenta, she discovered her BFF didn’t like her any more. No one did. Her friend turned into a bully and created a We Hate Tinashe group of which she was leader. She would ring Kachingwe at home to describe exactly how she was going to “fuck her up” at school the next day. She, like everyone else, didn’t like the fact Kachingwe was on TV. “There were groups of girls who would throw food at me in the hallways,” she remembers. “Like, cereal. And milk. Gross stuff like that. People were pretty mean.”

Despite such torrential tormenting, the 25-year-old – now the singer who goes simply by Tinashe – is remarkably sanguine about these experiences. “It led me to be hyper-focused on what I wanted from life and that was how I was able to stay happy and not get depressive as a kid,” she says in the cafe of New York’s New Museum, where we meet to discuss her long-overdue second album proper, Joyride. “It’s easy to feel like the whole world is against you as a kid, but the world is bigger than school.” It’s a lesson Tinashe has retained, applying the same sage standards to “what people are saying online” about her life and music. “Everything will get better. You just have to keep focusing on what makes you happy and what fulfils you. For me that’s making music and performing.” Does she still see those girls? “Fuckin’ bitches,” she grins. “Where are they now?”

Although people no longer chuck food at Tinashe’s head, they do throw a lot of shade her way. They question why her records don’t sell. With her catalogue a combination of subtle, silky trap and rap-infused tracks and glossy hits (Player; the DJ Mustard co-produced 2 On; her collaboration with Snakehips on All My Friends) critics say she’s either too pop or too R&B – or not enough of either. “I think genres should just die,” she says. “As a human being, you don’t limit yourself to being one thing or other; I don’t think people think of themselves in that way. It’s the same for how I present my music, how I listen to music, how I dress, how I live my life. It’s not black and white. Who you are is actually much more complex.”

The last time she spoke to the Guardian the internet disseminated Tinashe’s thoughts on colourism and sexism (“Sometimes I feel like I don’t fully fit into the black community; they don’t fully accept me, even though I see myself as a black woman,” being one quote). Television host Wendy Williams delivered a snippy three-minute bit about the interview. “She’s blaming Rihanna and Beyoncé for her lack of success?” Williams asked. “You have no one to blame but yourself, Tinashe. You gotta make your own path. Mariah, Drake and Alicia Keys are all biracial, so what’s your next excuse?”

Tinashe avoids mentioning the acerbic host directly, but suggests her points were taken out of context. “The biggest thing [about the article] was that it seemed like I was placing blame, which really wasn’t what I intended. If anything I was trying to point out, as testament to my own experiences, that being able to speak without coming across as whiny or entitled is important. I think it’s necessary for women to be able to speak their truth.” She doesn’t regret saying she feels colourism exists. “The more people talk about it, the more people can relate to those kind of feelings. It’s important to have an open dialogue because these things are very real.”

We continue to roam the gallery’s five floors, stopping at artist Tomm El-Saieh’s chaotic abstract paintings. “This is so detailed. It must take days and days just to do one tiny part of it.” Perhaps, I venture clumsily, it’s a metaphor for the long – very long – awaited Joyride. “It has taken a while, yes,” she laughs. “I listened to songs obsessively for months and there’s been so much overthinking throughout the process. I was so stressed out, trying to force things and feeling like everything was out of my control.” She drove herself a bit mad, sending the record to the label prematurely, who sent her off to make more music. At one point she lost her title track after Rihanna reportedly took it for her own album. “Someone sold it to her that I was unaware was shopping it around. He was also dating her at the time, so … ” She fakes a cough and splutters: “Travis Scott. It’s really all his fault. Then when it didn’t make [Anti] I was like, ‘Yeah, so my album is still called Joyride, it would be great to have that back if you’re done with it.’”

From left: Hayley Kiyoko, Lauren Hudson, Allie Gonino, Marisol Esparza and Tinashe Kachingwe
The Stunners... (from left) Hayley Kiyoko, Lauren Hudson, Allie Gonino, Marisol Esparza and Tinashe Kachingwe. Photograph: Larry Marano/Getty Images

Meanwhile, fans and trolls lined up to wonder where the album was and whether it might sell more than her “critically acclaimed” (translation: didn’t sell well) debut, 2014’s Aquarius. This is another aspect of “the business” that Tinashe has little time for. “You’re either at this super-high level of fame and dominating the whole world or you’re a failure, which is just not accurate,” she insists. “My definition of success has changed over the course of this album. I’ve learned that making the music and art and videos I want to make, that’s enough for me. I don’t feel like I need all the accolades.”

It has taken Tinashe time to reach such a place of self-satisfaction, however. With more than 200 tracks recorded and “numerous” iterations of Joyride in the vault, the album seemed destined never to see the light of day. Finally, last summer, Tinashe let go a little. She moved into a new home in the Hollywood Hills with sweeping views of LA and turned the guesthouse into a studio. She invited friends, producers, writers, graphic designers and artists over and together they zeroed in on the music, artwork and videos.

“It was a really big turning point for me because I was able to focus creatively and get all my thoughts in one place. It really gave me perspective on what I’d already created and what I still needed to work on. It was more focused, more purposeful.”

Joyride is a delightfully sleazy bop, full of red-light R&B, woozy hip-hop and lyrics that linger on hook-ups and getting high. “It’s a snapshot of when I wasn’t in a relationship and I was trying to find myself,” she says. “That sense of confidence and almost braggadociousness was something that I wanted to express on the album – ‘I don’t need anybody, I’m good.’” She is now in a relationship with the basketball player Ben Simmons, another reason she’s living life a little lighter. “Ben has been an important part of being able to let go of the album creatively. Because you can get crazy,” she says.

Funnily enough, it looks as if Joyride could just be a hit; the Offset-featuring single No Drama clocked up a million views in one day, while the delightfully tactile Me So Bad and title track Joyride are streaming at rapid rates. The album is self-assured, a bit frivolous but occasionally weighty – such as on Easy on Me, which voices her frustrations with politics in the United States. The track, an interlude, is one of two Tinashe has produced on Joyride, having taught herself Pro Tools when she was 17. “When I first got on the scene I was honestly shocked that I could work for a whole year with hundreds of engineers and producers and not one would be another woman. We need to see more representation.”

Tinashe with Charlie Sheen on Two and A Half Men.
Tinashe with Charlie Sheen on Two and A Half Men. Photograph: Publicity image

Having been in the entertainment industry for so much of her life – as both an actor (including her role as Celeste Burnett on Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men) and a singer (who could forget her stint in the Stunners, a shortlived girlband signed to Columbia in 2007) – Tinashe has a deep understanding of the seismic shifts occurring at the moment. She believes, however, that the music business has a long way to go in order to catch up with the rest of the entertainment industry when it comes to the #MeToo movement.

“Mostly it’s people’s perceptions of what it means to be a female artist and how you deal with your sexuality and people respecting your creative opinion. I haven’t had any straight-up, very outwardly sexist experiences in the music industry; I’ve been very lucky. Maybe one session where I had to walk out where I was uncomfortable. But for the most part I’ve worked with really great people. The issue is really a systemic, cultural one that impacts across the board.”

It’s time to leave the New Museum – Tinashe has a stack of CDs to sign before getting up at 4am to do Good Morning America. Before she goes, however, I wonder if she is really as happy, as calm, as sorted as she appears?

“Honestly, yes. I think people respect me as an artist now. I’ve been making art for a good number of years. People have got past the point where they think I’m just a cute girl or a mindless puppet of a record label.” She may not yet be a superstar, but actually Tinashe is really very successful. And that’s more than enough. “However this album does, I’ve come to realise that I’m not going to stop making music if it isn’t a hit. I can say the same for the next album and the next album. So be it. I’m going to continue to make art and everything’s gonna be OK. I’m happy and confident and excited and proud of what I’ve done. Life is all right!”

You believe her, you really do.

Joyride is out now on RCA Records


Hattie Collins

The GuardianTramp

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