Finally Free: Tinashe is Leaving Her Label Issues in the Past & Making the Music She Loves

Jason Altaan


"I just needed to free myself from everything."

Tinashe is getting back to being herself again. After cutting ties with RCA Records following a rocky seven-year relationship, the California transplant tore her entire operation down, which involved saying goodbye to her longtime management team, a decision she describes as the "most difficult thing she's ever done."

The last 18 months have been quite the weight lifted off of Tinashe's shoulders, as she's been on the path to finding the purity and fun in creating music for the love of the sport again, following a breakup with Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons and the arrival of her commercially underwhelming Joyride album last spring.

The humbling journey of self-discovery culminates with the release of her Songs for You project independently via her Tinashe Music label, which unconventionally arrives on a Thursday (Nov. 21) as another indication she's not here to play the industry's games any longer. "I remember when I was on my own right before I signed to RCA and that was when I felt the most inspired, open, happy and ready. You're just not limited by all these thoughts," she tells Billboard. "I think over the course of these last seven years, you just start to think and move in these ways that you never would've before."

Nashe delivers her "most vulnerable" work to date on the atmospheric 15-track effort, as she felt it was "now or never" to open up emotionally from a place of strength. "I think for a long time I didn't want people to see a vulnerable side to me because I thought they would think I was weak," the "No Drama" singer explains. "I realized this is how we process emotions. Breaking out of things you've been doing and giving yourself space is scary."

Rocking a black top and blue hem jeans with tulle flare, Tinashe is pleasant in conversation and has a radiating smile that would light up any room. Her disarming tactics make it feel like we're friends for years kicking it rather than holding a "professional interview" that's going to be broadcast to the masses, but that's just part of her aura.

For this project, the 26-year-old wants to speak personally to her fans who have been on this rollercoaster ride with her since day one. "It's directly for the people that support me. I create art for this connection. It's for the fact it means something to people and it's not about the charts and accolades."

Dive into the rest of our chat, which hits on the story behind G-Eazy's raunchy verse on "So Much Better," the idea of possibly working with Ariana Grande one day, having an ice cube thrown at her during a nightclub performance and more. 

What made you want to move away from RCA and sign with Roc Nation from a management perspective?

I'd been in a relationship with RCA for the last seven years. The music industry was a totally different place and we were selling physical CDs. I didn't even have a Spotify or any streaming services. Literally that year [I got on Instagram]. There were definitely ups and downs. I give them a lot of credit for helping me start out. I got to work with a lot of producers I wouldn't have had the chance to and put out my first album, which was amazing. 

My second album process just wasn't as seamless as the first. I first announced it in 2015, right off the back of Aquarius. For whatever business reasons, it didn't come out for the next three years. With that process of delaying the album, I felt really deflated as a creative. I was frustrated and helpless. I was over it and felt jaded. In my head, I had the idea of what I wanted the album would be. I felt like this would be a great opportunity to do this on my own. I just needed to free myself from everything. I felt like my career was coasting. I'm able to play shows, make money, and I can keep putting out music, but it didn't feel all the way right. 

Did you feel that RCA was pushing you toward more of the pop lane when you were getting going around 2014?

It's controversial to say they were pushing me towards that. I don't consider myself a niche artist or an R&B girl. When I first got in the game and that title was put on me, I was like, "Wait, I don't want to be limited to this." I think I pushed against that and they were like, "Great." Where we went off course was that I felt like the music I was making did fit the pop space. 

With that said, who do you consider to be your contemporaries in music? Would you say Jhene Aiko is in your class?

In a way, yes. She just makes much vibier music. We came up around the same time and started putting stuff out around the same time. We were definitely very competitive with each other early on.

Do you feel that your lane has been marginalized in a way? I look at you or a Jhene and see huge social followings, quality music, but it may not sell the way people would think. Am I missing something?

I think that was what I felt when I was being this "R&B girl." I sometimes feel like they put that title on to limit you. R&B is a very niche genre and it hasn't been the most popular genre since the early 2000s or late '90s. It was a slow process of losing track and getting off course.

How would you describe this stage of your career?

I cleaned house and got rid of both my label and my management. I got rid of my entire team and built it from the ground up. Getting rid of my management had to be the most difficult thing I've ever done. I was with them for seven years and that's like family, but I felt like I had to grow and try new things and take a risk. 

Once I made those changes, I felt completely different. I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I had no pressure in the studio anymore, which changed the game for me. I remember when I was on a major label, you’d go into the studio with a producer and you get one day and you feel like we have to make a f---ing hit. We got the next eight hours to do it big, and by adding that pressure, it genuinely taints the creative process. 

It felt very different in the studio and I didn't have to be like, "Let's make a radio smash." I was just throwing paint at the wall and seeing what sticks. I was doing it all from my house, which is amazing. It was really natural. I'd be there just rolled out of bed in my sweatpants, so when people came into work with me, they were like, "Okay, this isn't any of that Hollywood sh--. This is real." It was as if we were friends in high school and like, "Let's make some songs." That energy carried through.

Did you expect your career to take this path years ago?

No! Absolutely not! None of this happened the way I would've expected this to happen, but it feels right. I feel like the universe has me on the right path. I'm in tune now. All the things are going to fall into place.

You think you know, but then you realize you be learning a lot. I wouldn't trade any of the experience I gained. Even if I was now in 2014 or 2015, I would have done everything differently. 

Do you still care for that mainstream success?

It's just different now. I care, of course, because everyone wants to be successful, but that's not my goal with creating. My goal in general was to get back to my roots and do everything the right way. And to allow people the chance to discover me for who I really am.

What made you want to open up on this project? You called it your "most vulnerable work to date."

Initially, it started with the era I was in when I started working on the project once I left RCA. Right after I released Joyride, I started to delve into the recording process again and I felt this was my opportunity. It's now or never. Being able to put yourself in a vulnerable place emotionally is actually strength. It's like, "What's going to happen now?!" And that goes for all of my relationships. There was a real moment when I was like, "I'm just here by myself." 

In the past you said, "You pretty much put your heart and soul and emotions into all these songs and then you put them out there for the world to judge and tear down and pick apart. It's terrifying and it can really mess with your head." Is that something you feel has been in the back of your mind when it comes to your creativity?

Especially after what I've been through. I've released several singles and none of them have had the same success as my first. You always kind of have this feeling of doubt. I never want to have that energy. That doesn't breed success. It's always in the back of my mind, but at the same time, you have to be fearless. This is what we do! 

G-Eazy was talking crazy with his verse on "So Much Better." Is there a backstory there?

He had an out of pocket verse. Lyrically, I feel like he's pretty raunchy a lot. I was like, "Whoa." I was actually there when he recorded his verse, which is unusual. He was writing his verse and goes in the booth and saying his verse and looking at me while he's saying it. I was looking at my friend like, "Can you believe this?" I felt like that energy was real and tangible so we had to use it. I've known G-Eazy for a long time. 

Who's "Life's too Short" about?

That's actually my favorite record. It means a lot to me. 

I feel like it's about Ben Simmons.

No comment. [sips tea and raises eyebrow]

Did any collabs not make the project?

I had one with MadeinTYO, but the producer sold the beat to somebody else. It was one of my favorite songs. 

We need a song from you and Ariana Grande one day. It's long overdue.

Yeah! I would f---ing love it. We're the same age and I feel like we kind of make similar music, honestly. We definitely do. I've never met her, but I think that would be the first step.

We saw Drake get booed off stage at Camp Flog Gnaw. What did you think about it and has anything like that ever happened to you?

It has never happened to me. [Knocks on wood.] Probably the worst thing that's ever happened to me was this one time someone threw an ice cube at me in a club. It's not so bad, but I remember being like, "What the f--- was that?!"

I thought it was a really interesting social experiment. He's obviously extremely successful and these people should be happy to see literally anybody. Low-key, I think they were just trolling. I think a lot of that is mob mentality. You think most of those people didn't want to see Drake? Some people booed, so then they started booing. that's how people are -- sh--ty. It can happen to anybody.

Who were some of your favorite projects of the decade?

I remember when I first got into the game, I was listening to Syd and The Internet heavy. Ego Death was my sh--. I listened to a lot of PartyNextDoor. My favorite Drake album, Take Care. My favorite Rihanna Album, ANTI. I really loved Ty Dolla $ign's Beach House 3

Why drop this project on a Thursday?

I just wanted to drop off cycle and hammer in the fact that I'm not trying to be a part of the system. This is just for y'all. People add these weird conversations around first-week numbers and I wanted to throw a wrench in that situation.