Next week, Tinashe Kachingwe will release one of the strongest R&B debut albums in ages, but Aquarius is hardly the beginning for her. The 21-year-old LA resident crafted three stunning mixtapes (In Case We Die, Reverie, and Black Water) over the course of 2012 and 2013. The trio of homemade releases marked her as a fully formed, multi-tiered talent — a singer, a dancer, a songwriter, and a producer all wrapped up in one kinetic performer. She acts too: Roles as the half-man’s girlfriend on Charlie Sheen-era Two And A Half Men and alongside Tom Hanks in The Polar Express helped her get her career started at a young age. She also spent four years as a member of the Stunners, a girl group assembled by Vitamin C that opened for Justin Bieber at the peak of his teeny-bopper era.
Despite that long track record as an entertainer, for many listeners, this year’s DJ Mustard-produced Schoolboy Q collaboration “2 On” was Tinashe’s first big look. Ever since that song came out in January — and especially since Drake made his own version of the track in May — Tinashe has been rocketing toward hip-hop and R&B’s A-List. The triumphant Aquarius is proof that she deserves her place in the pantheon. The album involves a who’s who of 2014’s top producers (DJ Mustard, Mike Will Made It, Detail, Dev Hynes, Stargate, Boi-1da, Clams Casino, DJ Dahi) and features guest verses from Future, A$AP Rocky, and Schoolboy Q, yet in contrast to your typically schizophrenic major-label debut album, Aquarius bends all those voices toward Tinashe’s own exquisite vision. It’s a sleek, sultry, understated take on R&B that draws from decades’ worth of history while still sounding fresh and forward-thinking. If there was any ground left between the so-called “indie R&B” movement and the mainstream, Aquarius closes that gap for good.
When I talked with Tinashe this week, she had just returned to LA from Atlanta, where she guested with B.o.B at Outkast’s #ATLast festival and shot an undisclosed music video. Read the conversation below.
STEREOGUM: So the album is streaming now. I imagine you’re feeling a combination of pride and nervousness with people finally being able to hear it.
TINASHE: Yeah, I mean I’m such a perfectionist and I’ve micromanaged so much of this project that now that it’s out of my hands, it’s pretty crazy. But I guess it’s a bit of a relief.
STEREOGUM: I read that you made Black Water last year because you were hoping for this album to be done and then you realized it wasn’t going to be, so I guess you have been working on it for a pretty long time.
TINASHE: I have been working on it for about two years. I created all my mixtapes in about a month. So this album was definitely a different process than I was used to. I’m always about having integrity with my fans and staying true to what I say. I felt like they deserved some music.
STEREOGUM: Did this one take so much longer because you were working with more people on it, or because you were more of a perfectionist than on the mixtapes, or what?
TINASHE: I think it was because with my mixtapes I really kind of created it all myself. I made all decisions myself. I was just in my room and got to kind of zone out for weeks on end. And with this project, adding all these other creative people, from all the different producers I worked with, every single different experience with a new person was a learning process, and just trying to get comfortable and having them get comfortable with me and knowing my sound and what I was going for and just learning how they work. It was definitely a process. It just took a lot of time to get things going.
STEREOGUM: One of the things that strikes me about the album is that even though you have a bunch of different producers and collaborators on it, it has a very cohesive feel. Did you describe a certain sound to everybody that you were working with, or did you give some kind of guidance to the collaborators to get that uniform sound?
TINASHE: I think for me it was just kind of, like I said, getting people comfortable with me and what I was going for and who I was. Once I kind of had a handle on the album, I was able to really go back in and make it feel cohesive.
STEREOGUM: The songs that have been released leading up to the stream — “2 On” and “Pretend” and “Bet” — are those all newer, or have you had some of those since early in the process?
TINASHE: I think all the songs are relatively newer.
STEREOGUM: So it was kind of like there were older songs that were like building blocks that ended up getting discarded?
TINASHE: Yeah, I think so, more like that.
STEREOGUM: The album is called Aquarius, which is your astrological sign, and then there is the line about “the dawn of a new era” on the title track, à la “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.” I assume there’s supposed to be a double meaning?
TINASHE: Yeah, for sure. I mean to me it’s kind of a metaphor, and it represents, like, this is my introduction to a lot of people musically who maybe haven’t heard anything of mine before, and I’m just bringing to the table a new kind of music and entertainment, hopefully.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you are kind of reaching a new audience who haven’t heard you before, I know “2 On” was my entry point, but as I’ve gone back and looked at the mixtapes and everything you’ve done before, I imagine even though you’re young, you probably feel like a veteran almost. It must be kind of weird to be like, “This is my debut album,” when you’ve already done so much other stuff.
TINASHE: It has been a long time coming. I’ve put a lot, a lot, a lot of hard work and time and effort into this album and into my career in general from being in entertainment since I was a kid. For people to think it happened over night or — just to be seeing all of this exciting stuff come to fruition, it’s definitely exciting. It’s surreal. It’s a long-time coming.
STEREOGUM: Your focus for a long time has been music, but do you think you’ll continue to act at all? Would you take acting gigs if that opportunity came up?
TINASHE:I think. I hope in the future to kind of get back into it and do some more acting. I think that makes sense for me in the future. But I wanted to establish myself as a musical artist so people would know I was taking it seriously and it wasn’t just something I was trying out for fun.
STEREOGUM: One of the things that caught me off guard on the album is that guitar solo comes in at the end of “Bet.” It was very unexpected and very cool because you don’t hear a lot of solos these days. How did that come about?
TINASHE: Well, Dev Hynes is just one of my favorite artists, and I’ve worked with him on some other songs in the past, and I wanted to feature him on the album. And I love guitar solos and think they are cool, so it was an idea that I had, and I thought it came out really awesome.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been listening to “Pretend” a lot ever since it came out. I want to make sure I understand it right: The idea is that it’s about carrying on a relationship when your heart’s not in it?
TINASHE: Yeah, definitely. I felt like it was a relatable song because I feel like a lot of people have been in a position when the relationship is really coming to an end and you’re not necessarily ready to leave or make that move, but you know that you can feel in our heart that it’s not necessarily right.
STEREOGUM: The song itself came out sounding really beautiful, really dream-like. Did you and Detail do other songs together?
TINASHE: Yeah, that was definitely my favorite. That song was special. It doesn’t really sound like anything else. To me it can stand on its own, so that was what stood out.
STEREOGUM: “2 On” was already blowing up on its own, then it got that boost from Drake too. Did he tell you he was going to be remixing it before it went online?
TINASHE: No, I actually had no idea. I found out on Twitter the day it was released, so that was a nice surprise. He didn’t really tell me at all. Total surprise.
STEREOGUM: You performed at his event in Toronto, but had you crossed paths with him at all before? Did you know him at the time he made the remix?
TINASHE: I’d met him before, but we weren’t … like, I didn’t have his number when he did it or anything like that. We weren’t like friends, but after that came out we kind of became friends, and then he invited me to do the OVO Fest.
STEREOGUM: You talked earlier about having to feel out the different people you were working with and kind of get on the same wavelength. It must be exciting to have so many big names who want to work with you. Practically everyone who is at the top of the game right now is on the album.
TINASHE: I was really blessed to be able to work with such talented producers. I had a big wish list of people I wanted to work with, and I was blessed to work with most of them. So yeah, I don’t know why it happened, but it was awesome, and I’m really proud of how the album came out.
STEREOGUM: Anything else you want to add?
TINASHE: I definitely want people to know that this music was still created in a really genuine place, and I am staying true to my roots of recording music in my bedroom and writing music on my own and making sure that it still really feels true to who I was and true to my artistry.
Aquarius is out 10/7 on RCA. Stream it here.
[Photo by Michael Schwartz.]