SZA performing at Red Bull Sound Select in Toronto

Five things you should know about SZA

© Maria Jose Govea/Red Bull Content Pool

Learn something new from the Kendrick Lamar-approved R&B singer as she releases her debut album.

SZA
SZA

If you don’t know SZA already, you will soon. An R&B singer who favours cracked, nostalgic vocals over glittery hyper-stylised production, she releases her debut album, Z, on label of the moment Top Dawg Entertainment this week. This follows two smoke-hazed EPs that had the internet hanging on her every note, as well as guest spots on two of the hottest rap releases of 2014, ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron and Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia (Demo) – all of which has propelled her into the spotlight in the space of just over a year.

We caught up with the recent Red Bull Sound Select headliner to get to know her a little better.

She wanted to be a SeaWorld trainer – and still wants to work in a zoo

Before she came around to the idea that she could make a career out of singing – the only people to hear her singing voice before TDE president Punch were her mum, boyfriend and best friend – SZA was studying marine biology. As a child she also trained in gymnastics for 13 years (“I definitely still break into a good handstand randomly”), and so, naturally, at one point she wanted to be a SeaWorld trainer.

“When I get angry I still say to my manager that I’m going to move to Madagascar and take care of dolphins and never sing for the rest of my life,” she says. “I’m actually about to get an internship at a zoo. I can’t tell you which one! I want to keep it a secret – I’m just gonna wear a hat every day, and a wig.”

Jazz is her comfort zone

In a household where she was sheltered from most pop culture and plugged into her dad’s record collection, Incognito, Jamiroquai and Groove Theory played a big role in SZA’s musical development. “I fought it for a long time,” she says, “because I thought: nobody’s gonna relate to me.”

As well as showing that love in her fluid sense of melody, it comes through in the richness of her voice. “I listen to Ella Fitzgerald like, every day... I have a rasp to my voice, and I don’t really know how to tenderise my vocal cords. But it turns out people don’t mind it.”

She got fired from her bar job for going to play CMJ

“The last job that I quit – I actually got fired. I was bartending and I asked to take off. It was for CMJ. I had a show, but I lied and said I had to babysit for my sister,” SZA laughs. “One of the girls I used to bartend with texted me recently like, ‘What the f*ck happened to you?’ I was like, ‘Uhhh, I sing a little bit...’”

She’s basically R&B’s Emily Dickinson

SZA started out writing poetry as a teenager, and her music is soaked in its influence. “I think people who write shorts stories or poetry or anything tend to write similarly to the poetry that they read as a kid,” she says. “I used to read a lot of Emily Dickinson, and I think Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up was my first poetry book.

“They’re super vivid and colourful, and Emily is super romantic; she started a poem with ‘Oh the Earth was made for lovers.’ It’s all this crazy damsel bullshit, and I think that’s awesome. I can’t help but want to be as vivid as her.”

Her songs usually start out as freestyles

“I freestyle most of my songs off the top of my head,” SZA reveals, “so I don’t really think about them until after, and then I realise that I must be trying to tell myself something.”

“I tried to write songs the traditional way, to write it down, but everything sounded really sh*tty... I realised that when I freestyled, that’s when my truth came out. I didn’t have time to lie to myself.”