"What are you doing over there? Come hop into bed with us,” Julia Michaels says brightly.
“I’m having a moment,” the R&B artist, born Solána Imani Rowe, explains quietly. “I’m going to stay here so that my energy doesn't spread.”
The three artists have come together this late September afternoon to talk about the 60th annual Grammy Awards, for which they are all solid bets to be nominated in multiple categories, including best new artist. And though it’s an opportunity to bask in their achievements during the last year, they’re also reckoning with the pressures of success, celebrity and recognition.
Especially SZA, whose 90-year-old nana is on her mind tonight. As a young woman, SZA’s “spitfire” grandmother -- who narrates her granddaughter’s critically adored second album, Ctrl, which reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in July -- was promised a promotion only to have it handed to a white peer. “She was never the same after that,” says SZA later in the night, long after Khalid and Michaels have left to continue rounds of radio promo, planned to coincide with their appearances at that weekend’s iHeartRadio Music Festival. “I would really love to win a Grammy before she dies,” she eventually confesses, tearing up. “I want to excel at something, to follow through, to not be afraid. Now that I’m here, I think I’m scared to care.”
But she does care, and the depths of that care become obvious when the group discussion turns to the February 2017 awards show, and how it ended: with Adele onstage holding another album of the year Grammy and addressing the fact that she had just taken the trophy many fans were hoping would go to a certain visionary R&B singer. “What the fuck does Beyoncé have to do to win album of the year?” the British superstar asked later in the press room.
Khalid, Michaels and SZA all agree that, as Khalid says, “representation is changing in music” -- and that, as Michaels adds, it is becoming “genre-less.” And their ascents are, in many ways, representative of paths now open to artists refashioning the culture, and, increasingly, the Grammys.
Raised the only child of a mother whose military career uprooted him constantly, 19-year-old Khalid established himself as one of the year’s breakouts with American Teen, a stew of folk, R&B, pop and ’80s synth-imbued tracks that capture love and loneliness in the digital era. A few days from now he’ll sing “Location,” which peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, as the opening act for Lorde in Manchester, England. “When I was a sophomore, I remember tweeting: ‘I want to go to the Grammys.’ So for me to win a Grammy -- if I do -- 15-year-old me would be screaming,” he says, beaming.
For Michaels, 23, who grew up in California and spent years co-writing pop smashes like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself,” the decision to step into the spotlight with the release of her own EP, Nervous System, solidified her status as an influential force driving mainstream pop in a more introspective direction. “I’ve been on albums that have been nominated, I’ve been at the Grammys for the past three years, but having it be for your own, it’s so much more surreal,” she says.
SZA, 26, who was born in Missouri and raised Muslim in New Jersey, stretched the very notion of what constitutes R&B through Ctrl, a personal reflection on selfdiscovery in which she asserts, in a direct and effortless way, ownership over her sexuality. And yet the prospect of being recognized this awards season seems so fragile that she’ll only acknowledge it in a whisper: “It’s a blessing.”
Who will be your plus-one, assuming you’re nominated?
SZA: My mom and my nana, who both narrate my album. My granny is scared of flying. She said she would fly if I had a baby or got married. And the Grammys is like having a baby, so...
Julia Michaels: I’m going to bring my manager, Beka Tischker, with me. I couldn’t do this without her.
Khalid: I’d bring my best friend Carlos and my mom. After my dad passed away [when I was 7], my mom became my rock. She’s the one who inspired me -- she sings as well. So when I sing, I’m like a mirror image of her. If the nomination comes, I want her to see the hard work that she [fostered in] my brain.
What do you think your dad would’ve thought of the path you’ve made for yourself?
Khalid: I was actually thinking today that he would be so proud of the person that I’m becoming. I don’t really feel like he got a chance to learn about the creative side of me, and I’m pretty sure he would’ve loved it. The more I grow up and the more I become a man and less of a teen, I see my dad’s face in my own.
Michaels: I don’t think I can choose. I got to work with Ed on this record, and his point of view is so clear. I basically sat down and wrote a couple of melodies, and he just filled in all of the words with everything he was feeling about his [girlfriend] and his relationship. He has always done things that are really true to him, and so has Kendrick. They’re both really unique; they are both really innovative in their own ways.
SZA: Dot [Lamar]. I don’t know Ed personally, though I love him and his music. But I watched [her Top Dawg labelmate Lamar’s] process -- he’s a true, genuine genius. Dot doesn’t play any instruments, but he designed and produced his whole album. From scratch. Like... it’s too much. It’s too incredible. I’ve never witnessed anyone do that, except for maybe Frank [Ocean]. It’s past due. He’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met in my entire life.
Khalid: Kendrick’s album was necessary, especially in 2017 with the world being in a place that it shouldn’t be -- America being in a place that it shouldn’t be. And having someone who resembles me, an African-American male, with so much integrity, so much strength, so much sense of self. The fact that he can step up and use his platform to help other people...
SZA: And still have it sound fly. That’s the crazy part. Making that shit sound hot. He somehow manages to be an activist with a platinum album. It’s very rare. Nina Simone talked about [this], the responsibility that we all have as artists to reflect the time, and I always feel like I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do to reflect it. But Kendrick, I don’t know that he’s thinking about what he can do -- I think he’s just being it. It's coming out of his pores.
Race and gender have been major topics of discussion around the Grammys the past few years. Do you think women and people of color are underrepresented in the industry?
SZA: I don’t think they’re underrepresented. There are tons of [black and women artists]. It’s just a matter of: Are you noticed when you come to the surface? Hip-hop right now is higher-selling than pop music. We know where it originated from; it’s not a fucking secret. It’s a matter of when other people do hip-hop and they don’t look like me, suddenly it’s innovative: “I’ve never heard this before.” No, you have. For the last 100 years.
Khalid: For me, I feel like the representation in music as a whole is changing. When I was growing up, when I was younger -- well, I’m only 19, but I didn’t see a lot of people who embodied me in the mainstream. But they were there. I feel like now, hip-hop and R&B, like SZA said, is so alive, so dominant to the point where it influences others. And it’s great.
SZA: It’s a weird paradox for me. You have one foot [in the place] where Issa Rae was like, “I’m rooting for everyone black!” [at the Emmy Awards]. But then you’re also like, “I’m rooting for everyone just because they are awesome.” Sometimes you feel guilty, because I don’t want to just root for everyone black. But it’s also like, “Maybe my friends might be underrepresented tonight,” and you have to mob for them.
Khalid: I feel like right now as listeners we are accepting the fact that music has no image.
Michaels: Yes, it’s becoming genre-less.
SZA: Hell yes! That’s the word: genre-less. It’s like everything converging in the most beautiful fucking way.
Khalid: It’s me looking at myself: chubby little black boy singing whatever the fuck I want! For folk to be one of my influences, but for me to also use R&B and soul as an influence. I love ’80s and ’90s pop. I feel like music is changing, and it takes us as a whole. We are the change. We do have the power to change things.
What’s the best advice you’ve received from another artist?
Michaels: I worked with Linkin Park not too long ago. I tend to take myself really seriously, and be a bit of a control freak. When Chester [Bennington], Mike [Shinoda] and Brad [Delson] were in the studio, they were having so much fun. Cracking jokes. They’ve been doing this for years and would just go in there and act like it was their first time in the studio. Being around that was so eye-opening. Before I go onstage, I fucking panic. But I’ve been thinking about how there is so much fun to be had.
Khalid: I recently had a conversation with Mac Miller, and he told me I can’t make everyone happy, and sometimes I do need time for myself. I need time to be human and not let all these distractions and all the outside [parts] of my life right now [prevent] me from doing everything that I was doing normally.
How about Lorde -- what have you learned from her?
Khalid: Meeting your influence is definitely the hardest thing ever, because they can either be the nicest or they can be everything you didn’t expect. But she was everything I expected and more. A while back, before I took off, she told me I was in the same position that she had been in a couple of years back. She was herself and she broke through. She wasn’t afraid to get up there and dance. I loved that.
Do you all feel like you’ve adjusted to being well-known?
Khalid: I do the same shit. I don’t like going out. I would rather chill with my friends, watch Netflix, listen to music. I want to keep being myself and surrounding myself with people that I love. I never want it to be: “Since I got all of these people watching me, I got to do something cool.”
Michaels: I don’t know if you ever get fully adjusted to the photo shoots and the promo. But I will tell you that there is nothing like the unconditional love that you get from a fan. I was in France a couple of days ago, and I was posting things on Instagram Stories and this girl who had followed it found me and just started crying. And you realize that this young girl who lives all the way across the other side of the world is so affected by everything you say. She feels like she knows you. You’ve written something that feels so close to her, and I feel that’s what we strive for -- to have people feel on a deeper level.
Khalid: It’s overwhelming.
Michaels: I’m a super touchy person, so anytime someone wants to give me a hug at meet-and-greets, I’m like, “Come here!” I always end up with a cold, but I don’t care.
SZA: My immune system has taken the craziest hit, but I can’t not meet them. It would feel worse missing a meet-and-greet than it would getting sick.
Does it ever feel overwhelming for you?
SZA: I was sleeping on a futon with a person I barely knew two years ago, so this is just a completely different situation. It’s interesting to all of a sudden be considered valuable.
Khalid: It’s a good feeling.
SZA: It makes me confused. “How was I not valuable before all of this? Now I become valuable?” But then you think, “OK, I’m fine. I’m still going to eat off the floor, still going to not lotion and still going to do all the shit I would do anyways.” All of those things have to continue to happen. I would have never thought someone would consider me valuable, though. I wasn’t popular in high school; I had no friends.
Michaels: I was homeschooled. I had no one.
Khalid: I was in and out of places; everything was temporary. Losing friendships. And there was that feeling of value. I had to take a step back in the process of creating the album where it was like, “I have to find love for myself.” I’m still striving, still finding self-acceptance. I’m 19, still learning things about myself and the energy that I don’t need to be around.
Michaels: I think we all are.
Julia, has touring for your solo career affected the songwriting process you have with other artists?
Michaels: No. A lot of the songs that I’ve written have been for pitch, which means that the artist wasn’t even there. When you do these promo runs, you don’t really get time to be creative, but when I’m home and I get a couple of days off, the ideas start to flow. Being alone can really do a lot to a person in terms of introspection. I start sessions next week to hopefully put out new music at the beginning of the year, and I’m really excited about it.
If you guys win, where will you display your Grammy?
Michaels: I have a music room in my house; a very small, cute little place where I keep my piano and my little leather sofa. So I’d probably put it right there. Or buy a chain and wear it around my neck.
Khalid: I would have to buy a house to put the Grammy in. [Laughs.] Either that or keep it in my mom’s house, but I know I’m going to want to keep it.
What would you wear to the ceremony? Do you go casual? Dressy? Go for theatrics and get carried in an egg, like Lady Gaga in 2011?
Michaels: I would dress up! It’s a moment. I’ve worn Dior for most of the things that I’ve done, so I’d love to do something again with them and wear something really unique.
Khalid: Honestly, I would just come as I am. Fuck it! I want to be comfortable, not like, “Damn, this is too tight on me; I can’t move.”
SZA: I’m in between. I’m either going to go in jeans, a rolled-up T-shirt and some Chucks -- just like hella comfortable -- and a blunt. Or full Cinderella.
Khalid: Actually, I’ll probably need to dress up nice. My mom is probably going to make me dress up.
Chart blitz: Earned his first three top 10s on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart in the same year, making him the first act to do so since Fetty Wap in 2015.
New artist buzz: At the VMAs, he won best new artist. The BET Awards also nominated him for their version of the prize (although he lost to Chance the Rapper).
Huge debut: Ctrl, her first full-length, non-mixtape album, bowed at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 in July and ruled the Top R&B Albums chart for two weeks.
Sales "Galore": In September, Ctrl’s lead single, “Love Galore,” featuring Travis Scott, was certified platinum -- SZA’s first such plaque.
Helping friends: She has co-written 17 songs that have reached the Hot 100, including Justin Bieber’s “Friends” with BloodPop, which hit No. 20 in September.
On her own: Her debut single, “Issues,” peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100 in June.
As heard on TV: The Nervous System EP track “How Do We Get Back to Love” premiered on the final season of HBO’s Girls.
Photography by Eric Ray Anderson