It’s been a busy couple years for Adelaide singer/rapper Tkay Maidza. The Zimbabwe-born twenty-year-old first made her mark three years ago after her collaboration with producer Badcop saw ‘Handle My Ego’ and ‘Brontosaurus’ light up Triple J’s regular rotation. Her 2014 EP Switch Tape gave birth to her own fully realised style of meshing hip-hop, pop and EDM into a glorious genre of her own.
Since then, the accolades have flowed, with critical acclaim from Pitchfork to a BET Best International Act nomination, as well as a string of festival appearances including Splendour in the Grass and Laneway, and international supports across Europe.
After the first electric single ‘Carry On’ featuring Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, the years of eager anticipation are finally over with her debut album TKAY out today – and it has already scored album of the week honours on triple j.
Fresh off a tour of the USA, Tkay is back in Australia to hit the road celebrating the release of her debut (dates below), but she’ll also be bringing her perspective to this year’s Face The Music conference in Melbourne this November. Tkay and her manager Craig Lock will be featuring on a panel discussing the unique partnership between artists and their managers alongside Japanese Wallpaper and Totally Mild’s Elizabeth Mitchell.
With plenty to talk about, our writer Kieron Byatt was eager to to chat to the rapidly-rising star about her new record, and the journey so far.
Kieron: There’s a been a fever pitch of anticipation for your debut album since Switch Tape dropped in 2014 – at some point it was even expected to drop last year I believe. Has this process felt never-ending for you, and are you nervous about the reception?
Tkay: For a long time it just felt like some of the songs wouldn’t be done, and it wasn’t because of me, it was just you had a lot of people you had to depend on. So yeah, it was annoying in that sense, but I think it’s kind of cool now it’s done and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. But, you know, whatever happens now will happen!
The second it drops you’re off on a massive tour of the country – would you rather be at home to chill and soak in the album’s impact, or will being on the road help?
I think being on the road helps ’cause then I won’t have time to really look at anything, which is probably better for me. You don’t really want to read bad things or be glued to the internet just waiting to see what everyone says.
Are you in the habit of reading a lot of reviews or reading Facebook or Twitter, or do you try and distance yourself from it?
Sometimes I don’t read anything, but then I think eventually I always end up catching up and trying to see everything, if that makes sense.
Yeah, I suppose curiosity gets the better of you sometimes.
Yeah, I’ll give it a while before I actually read stuff, or my parents end up sending me something, and then somehow I just get stuck into a place where I start looking into things.
You’ve built a solid reputation for a crazy live show; do you have any pre-gig rituals or rider necessities crucial to hyping yourself up?
Not really, I’m pretty easygoing as long as I don’t do a lot before I play, and as long as I don’t talk a lot. I’m really quiet before a show so that’s probably it.
No Manuka honey or whiskey beforehand?
No, I just literally stay hydrated, and sometimes I’ll have tea.
It’s hard to pick a favourite song off the album, but ‘Afterglow’ nearly made me cry…
It really struck a chord with me with its childlike chant of brave loneliness. Do you have a personal favourite? Are you in love with each cut off the album, or are you sick of them all and already onto the next one?
I think ‘Afterglow’ is probably one of my favourites, because it sounds pretty happy – but the chorus is actually pretty sad, and sounds like children crying.
Which is exactly what struck me.
I was super happy when I wrote that, because I thought of the chorus melody myself and had a friend with me and she was like, “I really like that”. The chorus was like, “Where did everybody go?” and she helped me make the sentences complete, which was really cool – it was really organic.
So I really like that song as well, just for those reasons. And ‘Castle In The Sky’ is also my favourite, ’cause it’s just almost the opposite of ‘Afterglow’ – but it kind of has that same triumphant feeling as well, I think.
The artistic process evolves and morphs from song to song. Did you feel a dramatic change in your methods when making this record, as opposed to your past projects?
Totally. When I wrote a lot of the songs for the EP, whenever I wrote it, it was like the first idea stuck and I didn’t change it… and I think writing this album, I literally sometimes write a lot of the songs then a month later I’m like, “I’m starting again”. Or I would write the same verse four or five times until I was super happy with it.
I also had to adapt and work in a lot of different places and force myself to work a lot as well, which is really different ’cause when I first started I just worked whenever I felt like it.
So it’s at the point where it’s fully becoming part of the job now, isn’t it?
Yeah, it was just like ‘you need to do this, otherwise you won’t finish it’.
TKAY is both innocent and experienced in its breadth and scope – you’re still young, but there’s clearly a lot on your plate at the moment. Do you feel like you have to channel a sense of immaturity to give your music its youthful playfulness, or does it come naturally?
I think for some time, when it was supposed to come out last year, a lot of the songs sounded less playful, so I think I had to listen to a lot of artists I really liked and to a lot of fun music, and just remember what I did when I first started. I think I just needed to go into the sessions and not take them as seriously as I was at some points last year.
It was just easier to come up with a lot of really fun choruses, it was just easy to write, because I wasn’t being like, “It’s this thing you have to do,” but “It’s the last time you’ll ever get to do this kind of thing,” and “You need to write songs and have fun.” That was how I changed my mentality.
The album is self-titled, so is it a timeless representation of who you are, or more of a vessel of your identity here and now?
I think it’s here and now – a snapshot of who I am now. Most of the songs are how I felt at that time.
You’ve called your music “a soundtrack to a high school girl’s life”; do you see this changing any time soon?
I don’t think so. It will probably grow or mature a bit more ’cause I have always liked to do music that was kind of anthemic for youth and lifting people up – it was like what Major Lazer and stuff do, ’cause I just think that’s amazing, and it really speaks to me. So that’s how I’m always going to be – it might sound like five-year-olds are singing for a long time.
I suppose you can only tap into a certain era for so long. You’ve also described your music as “sarcastically happy” – does that exclusively apply to your time in high school?
Yeah, I was definitely sarcastic to a lot of people. (laughs) Most people would know that if I act like that to them, then they’ve broken ice.
On that note, if you had to cast a teen-girl movie with TKAY as the soundtrack, who would be the cast and the director, and what would a brief synopsis be?
I would have Hayden Paniterre in there. I reckon Selena Gomez, who’s really cool as well. I reckon Zendaya would be cool to have… And I reckon Keke Palmer and totally Taylor as well – you’d have to have her.
Other than working with producers, TKAY is virtually without guest artists, which reminded me of hip-hop classics like Ready to Die and Illmatic. Do you think feature spots are becoming a crutch and was it a conscious decision to limit them on your debut LP?
Yeah before Killer Mike there literally was none at all and he was like the last and only feature. I wanted to do everything myself and I didn’t want to be that person that didn’t finish songs because I wanted someone else to add something to it, and I feel like some people do that sometimes. They begin the song and then they’ll be like, ‘I can’t do this, I want someone else to do the second verse ’cause that’s what I need’. But I didn’t feel like I needed that.
Sometimes I feel like if you have a lot of features, it almost doesn’t feel like your album after a while. You might have, say, Kendrick featuring, but then it might sound like a Kendrick song rather than being yours. Then every song might sound like it belongs to whoever’s featuring.
A bit of the Dr. Dre syndrome.
You’ve said in the past that you found it tricky working with rappers on songs. How did the Killer Mike collab happen and did it confirm or disprove your original apprehensions?
No, that was totally easy ’cause I had finished my verses and the chorus. We had an idea of what the song was going to look like, if you get what I mean, how it was going to be structured. So when we asked him it was just super easy. He asked what the song was about and I just gave him the lyrics and everything, and he came back with two verses – and they were so perfect and really easy.
He’s a veteran and he clearly knows what he’s doing. Sometimes when you work with a lot of younger people it just can be a clash, like two writers who don’t really work well together, writing together, but I think that was really cool what Mike did.
And actually, at the start of his verse he does call you “Tkay baby”. If Killer Mike called me “baby” I’d probably giggle like a school boy.
I was laughing the first time I heard his whole verse, it was so good!
Do you ever geek out when you work with the names you work with or do you keep it professional at all times?
Usually I geek out ’cause they need to know that some of the things they’ve done are really important for me and it meant something, and that’s why I’m even in the music industry, so I always make sure they know how important they are.
‘Carry On’ feels like more than a simple “fuck the haters anthem” – it’s a generational war cry. Do you feel empowered or restricted by being young?
I feel like it’s empowering. It’s exciting because, if people are saying you’re doing as well as you are, it’s almost like you have so many places to go. If you’ve just started, you feel like you’re threatening for a lot of older people as well, which is fun because you feel like a hooligan almost.
Your new song ‘Tennies’ from TKAY is a fierce warning to anybody who wants to step to you, but your reserve in public appearances and interviews is so bubbly and warm. Is the more brawling side of your character something that only comes out when you want it to, in the music?
It usually only comes out in the music because like you said before it’s almost like I’m being sarcastic but I’m having fun. When I’m writing I’m like, “oh, I just feel really angry”, but I’ll try to say it in a bubbly way.
So there’s no likelihood of you pulling a Solange in an elevator anytime soon.
No (laughs) or if I did only like two people would know (laughs)
What was it like working with Salva and Dre Skull? Did you get some face time with them or was it all via email and social media etc?
Working with Salva was in person and he was so nice. When we weren’t writing he was just welcoming and was like, “If you don’t feel like doing anything or if you’re bored you can just hang out at the studio ’cause we’re always here”.
He just had a lot of time for me and he was really accommodating which was really cool. And Dre Skull, I didn’t meet him, but he was really nice and also patient through emails.
You’ve been called “genre-warping” and I feel that applies ten-fold to TKAY – is this something you actively try to pursue or is it an organic part of your sound?
I think it’s organic because my mind changes every day and a lot of different sounds will captivate me, and I think when I made it I was writing for the sake of writing, and writing what I wanted to, and then putting it together it was like “oh, a lot of these songs don’t really join together or make sense” – but I think it makes sense in a way ’cause that’s who I am.
Your music is such a beautiful chaos of blended sounds and influences it feels like an insult, to me at least, to ascribe it to one genre. How about you? Do you consider yourself a hip-hop artist? A pop artist? A dance artist? Or just an artist?
I feel like I would just call myself an artist because I do feel really weird when someone is like, “Oh, she’s a pop star” and I’m like, “Uh, I’m not a pop star”. And my music isn’t just pop either so sometimes it’s just kinda weird.
TKAY doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before inside our borders. Artists like yourself have ensured Australian music has come leaps and bounds in the last few years. Do you think our music is starting to become more universal?
I think so, there’s so many people who have come up in the last 12 months even that have made really cool sounds, you’re just like, “Where did this come from?” It’s exciting when you realise it’s all from Australia. And it’s really cool ’cause that means there’s more competition and it’s going to inspire a lot more people.
You’ve been non-stop since you dropped ‘Brontosaurus’ way back when, does your journey up to this point ever feel surreal? Are you a little tired?
I feel like it’s gone really quick but then when you look back it’s also a long time since ‘Brontosaurus’. Its really crazy cause a lot of stuff has happened in that time, but I cant really see myself doing anything else, really.
Yeah it’s weird ’cause a lot of things have just come together, and you look back and you’re like, ‘how did that even happen?’
TKAY feels deeply personal but there are severe political undertones on songs like ‘Drumsticks No Guns’. Even though you’ve been incredibly busy the last few years does Australia’s socio-political landscape always inform you in some way?
I see it on Facebook, a lot of my friends are the type who write really long paragraphs about politics and my parents always talk about it, so I feel like you can never really escape it – ’cause as you grow up it’s in your face a lot more.
If you had to say one thing about the new album to someone who was unsure about listening to it, what might you say?
I would say… (laughs) I’m not sure what I would say. I would probably say, “Just have a listen and you can judge what you think,” because I can’t really tell them what to think about it.
TKAY is out today via Dew Process, and Face The Music takes place on November 17 & 18 at the Melbourne Music Week Hub, the State Library of Victoria. Tkay’s panel, ‘The Idiosyncracies of Artist Management’, is on the 17th from 11:30am – 12:30pm, and conference tickets are on sale now.
Tkay Maidza ‘Tkay’ Album Tour
Special Guests Sable And Midas.Gold – Aus. Dates Only
Wed 26 Oct – Cassette Auckland NZ
Thu 27 Oct – Empire Christchurch NZ
Thu 03 Nov – The Triffid – Lic / All Ages Brisbane QLD
Fri 04 Nov – 170 Russell Melbourne VIC
Sat 05 Nov – Metropolis Perth WA
Thu 10 Nov – The Metro – Lic / All Ages Sydney NSW
Fri 18 Nov – HQ Adelaide – Lic / All Ages Adelaide SA
Sat 19 Nov – Uni Bar Hobart TAS
Also Performing At
Thu 29- Sat 31 Dec – The Falls Music And Arts Festival – Lorne, VIC
Thu 29 – Sat 31 Dec – The Falls Music And Arts Festival – Marion Bay, TAS
Sat 31 – 02 Jan – The Falls Music And Arts Festival – Byron Bay, NSW