Tinashe: Stop, Look & Listen

Tinashe Kachingwe is where the rising trend of bedroom R&B meets the mainstream. There’s a misguided preconception that an attractive young woman can’t write her own songs, make her own beats and control her own career. It’s this notion that has most interviewers asking about who she is dating, which rappers hit on her, and what the thirstiest comments she receives on Instagram are. Admittedly, she does repeatedly instruct us not to stop looking at her on mixtape standout ‘Vulnerable’, but we really should be listening too.

London’s XOYO is packed out. Phones are poised ready to catch a picture. Heads shift around trying to catch a glimpse. When Tinashe finally comes into view, she demands the attention of heads and cameras alike; captivating as she writhes, snake-like, to her seductive and soul-baring songs.

Her short set is a tightrope walk between the mystery of Abel Tesfaye and the all-singing all-dancing stardom of Cassie. She plays mixtape tracks like 2012’s ‘Boss’, exposes her pop background with a cover of Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’ and performs a dance routine to Ty Dolla $ign’s ‘Paranoid’ before jumping into her own DJ Mustard-produced hit ‘2 On’ where she reveals her true star-potential. In 25 minutes she has given us Tinashe in a box; multi-talented, multi-layered and at times even conflicting.

The following afternoon Tinashe enters the Whitechapel flat of our art director. She greets everyone politely but doesn’t remove her headphones, heading straight for a socket where she plugs in her iPhone and begins scrolling. Today is the label’s final deadline for her debut album Aquarius, and she still isn’t completely happy with the mixes. As she sits down for make-up she continues to listen, delaying our hair stylist. While it may cost us an extra few minutes, it’s not something we can be annoyed about. The level of attention that the pint-sized songstress is paying to her release is clear, and it’s only something that can be respected. “There are just a couple of mixing things that I want to tweak but there’s just been a discussion about the cover at the last minute,” she tells me later. “They don’t like the cover that I picked, so they’re forcing me to change the cover which is fucked up.”

There is also a vulnerability, despite not being able to turn on the radio without hearing ‘2 On’, here Tinashe is a 21-year-old girl slipping into a room full of people she doesn’t know, who talk about her hair, her skin and how beautiful she is; at times as though she isn’t present. In person she is more the little sister that you want to look after than the intimidating temptress that appears on record, in photo-shoots and videos. Immersing herself into her work, her music, is an escape. Previously her music has been created, for the most part, in solitude. The process of recording her official debut has proven stressful. “Because I’ve been working with other people it was a long process aside from just doing it myself,” she says, still frustrated by the artwork debate. “It’s just a much bigger process than it is to make decisions all by yourself and just throw it online.”

After a while the headphones are removed and she begins getting involved with the conversation in the room as a brush is pulled through her curly locks. She is relatable, funny and instantly transforms the energy of the room as she picks up her phone, fact-checking the gossip that she’s just been told by our hair stylist. She breezes through the shoot, a natural in front of the lens, and soon after is back in the hoody, track pants and flip-flops that she arrived in. She settles onto the couch as the rest of the team dismantle and pack equipment and clothing, returning the room into a flat once again. She apologises before taking a call from her label, and then turns back to our conversation.

Since The Stunners, a short lived manufactured pop outfit that she began her career with, disbanded, Tinashe has been in control of her own career. The majority of tracks on her mixtapes were self-produced and recorded in her bedroom studio, something that she has carried across into the album. “Quite a few tracks were still recorded in my room on the album,” she says. “I definitely wanted to keep that vibe and that essence of where I came from. I’m also just super comfortable, so I feel like some of my best stuff comes from there.” This ability to be so self-sufficient has proven to be an asset to her career. Although she doesn’t believe it to be a necessity she is happy about the convenience that spending hours experimenting with recording equipment in her room has allowed her. “I’ll never have to rely on someone to do something, and also it helps if you’re as particular as I am about how everything sounds. You can explain what you want a lot more clearly to people because you want it better. And you get a result that you really want because you understand what’s happening. It’s very advantageous.”

A born entertainer, with acting credits in The Polar Express and Two And A Half Men as well as a background in dance that started from the age of four, Tinashe’s first love is music – but she always has the bigger picture in mind. She sees these other elements of her arsenal as extensions of her performance, and tries to utilise whatever she has to connect and engage with audiences. Her Youtube channel, for example, goes back to document a much younger Tinashe, talking to her webcam and offering fun facts about herself such as that Kim Kardashian is a kindred spirit (she reappears a year later to inform subscribers that she no longer watches Keeping Up With The Kardashians). Nowadays her content is a lot more sophisticated, but is still used creatively to engage fans rather than just a host for her music videos. One video sees her entering a casting couch situation, where an off-camera voice asks her questions and instructs her to stand and sit. It’s an unnerving watch, and feels as though it is the prelude to something sinister. The feeling is intentional, and is actually a promo for her Travi$ Scott assisted single ‘Vulnerable’, but it suggests that this isn’t the first creepy encounter Tinashe has had to deal with. “It’s supposed to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. They’re like ‘What is this? This is so creepy,’” admits Kachingwe. “I like when people are creeped out.”

The channel also includes various references to the supernatural, including everything from Harry Potter (she is a huge fan and tells me of her plan to find Platform 9 3/4 when she takes the train to Paris the following day) to theories about ghosts and aliens. “I’m into just weird stuff,” she says. “I like ghosts and aliens, I’m not obsessive about it like I was when I was a kid, but I’m still into it.” The feeling of unease witnessed in the video and her interest in the supernatural is something that she believes comes out in the sonics of her music: ”There’s a lot of creepiness on the album. Which is fun for me because it’s such a juxtaposition [compared to] my personality and what I look like. So I think that it makes it a little more levelled and more interesting.”

Since she brings up her looks I ask whether she gets annoyed at all about people focussing on her aesthetically rather than her music. “Absolutely,” she confides. “It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. Obviously I feel like it has given me a lot of opportunities because I’m ‘attractive’ or whatever, but on the same breath it’s hard to get people to really respect you as an artist, because they think you’re just an artist because you’re cute.” While people could be excused of thinking that of The Stunners, since she went solo there hasn’t been any reason to doubt her talent or motives. “This music is so important to me, it’s not that I’m just like a face. It’s a lot deeper than that. So yeah, it is frustrating. But I feel like in time you establish it when you gain more respect from people in turn.”

Tinashe doesn’t seem to mind earning respect though. She sees her album title, Aquarius, as a metaphor for her introduction, and intends to make her mark, not just through music, but also through the other mediums that she utilises as an entertainer. “I think it is representative of a new era of music and art that I’m trying to bring to the table,” she explains of her ambitious entrance into the spotlight. “I feel like when someone new comes onto the scene it can inspire a lot of other people to step their game up in a way. So hopefully more people will be thoughtful in their visuals and videos. I just wanna inspire something new.”