t’s not easy to describe Tinashe. The 28-year-old has lived so many lives — child actor, girl-group frontwoman, rising R&B singer, breakout pop star, the disembodied voice rattling around in your brain, singing, “All my friends are wasted” — that no title or label ever feels quite right.
Indeed, only one descriptor comes to mind as genuinely true: Tinashe is free.
This comes across in conversation without needing to use the word, though she does happily and often. During an interview with Insider, the self-proclaimed “slim baddie” spoke of straddling genres, enjoying creative control as a newly independent artist, and living without limits. She’s not even convinced she can’t jump between alternate realities.
“I was just thinking that the other day,” she told me, laughing, “because some stuff was going on that I never, ever, ever saw coming in my personal life, and I was like, ‘When did I shift timelines?'”
But Tinashe’s freedom is most palpable when she assumes her rightful place in front of a crowd.
When she took the stage at New York City’s Terminal 5 in late September, swathed in a silver ensemble fit for a high-fashion reboot of “Zenon,” the room’s gravity shifted. Singing her own songs, surrounded by a set of her own design, Tinashe became seemingly weightless. Tinashe opened her show with “I Can See the Future.” Callie Ahlgrim“When I’m in the middle platform, that’s my main universe.” Callie AhlgrimThe final song on her setlist is “Pasadena.” Callie Ahlgrim
“I’m just so happy to finally be back in the same space with my fans and have their energy around me,” she said.
As she envisioned the “333” tour, which will return to Los Angeles on December 30 for a special year-end performance, Tinashe similarly hoped to “create different worlds.”
The multilevel set mixes industrial scaffolding with leafy decor, coaxing the audience to detach from a traditional, terrestrial mindset.
“Some of the songs I perform in the boxes are a little bit more nuanced. They’re sexier, they’re darker,” she explained, referring to the rectangular structures built on her stage. “Whereas when I’m on top of the box, those are a lot of the songs that are more hopeful, more energized, more excited.
“And then when I’m in the middle platform,” she added proudly, “that’s my main universe.”
This fall was Tinashe’s first time touring independently. She released her first album as an independent artist, “Songs for You,” just a few months before the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic.
When she was forced to cancel her original tour plans and self-isolate, she dived back into music and became “hyper-focused” on her new project.
“I was like, ‘OK, I think the best way that I can pivot this is to just create a new body of work that when the world opens up again I can be excited about that and have a fresh energy to perform,'” she said.
“I didn’t want to make music that felt the way I was feeling, which was nervous for the future, lethargic, just mopey sitting in the house,” she continued. “I wanted to create something that felt the opposite of that and inspired me, and then hopefully it would inspire others.”
Self-isolation bred Tinashe’s latest project, “333,” which she named after the idea that repeating angel numbers provide divine protection and purpose.
On the opening track “Let Go,” appropriately named after Tinashe’s current mantra, she introduces her album with a line that she spends the next 47 minutes disproving: “Waiting on somebody else to save me.”
The sentiment stands in stark contrast to the self-sufficiency Tinashe exhibits elsewhere in her music and that she radiates in real life.
“Within the course of the album, you see moments where I feel liberated. Then sometimes we backtrack, which is a big part of life as well — the cycles that we go through and how we’re able to come out of each of those with a little bit more perspective,” she said.
Tuning in to Tinashe’s story now, it might be difficult to believe she’s ever lost her grit. But as the “Bouncin” songwriter explained, she’s had to overcome many obstacles on the path to her divine purpose — and several that might feel awfully familiar to pop-music fans.
Tinashe, born Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe, grew up in Kentucky idolizing Britney Spears and Janet Jackson. She moved to Los Angeles as a child and landed a few gigs in Hollywood, including a motion-capture role for “The Polar Express” and a recurring part in the CBS series “Two and a Half Men,” but she dreamed of following in the musical footsteps of her favorite women.
“Growing up, I noticed how the public has painted those women — incredible, talented women who have both had to face some type of scrutiny at different points in their career,” she said, calling their ongoing resilience “inspiring.”
“I definitely feel like that still happens to me and to other female artists,” she continued. “But I could even say that now, since the beginning of my career, people treat me differently. People talk to me differently in interviews. That’s encouraging.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/8gueFdP9WI4
The stories of Spears and Jackson have been rehashed in recent years, freshly painted as miscarriages of justice rather than self-wrought downfalls.
While Spears recently emerged from a lengthy legal battle to regain her autonomy, which was stripped in 2008 after a series of public mental-health struggles, Jackson was ostracized after Justin Timberlake tore off a piece of her costume at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, briefly exposing her nipple onstage. Both women were subjected to harsh, unrelenting media coverage and ire from influential men in the industry.
For her part, Tinashe alluded to similar struggles for control. She signed to RCA Records in 2012 after releasing two critically acclaimed mixtapes but quickly became disenchanted with her contract’s “psychologically limiting” expectations.
The messaging was, she explained, “I’m an R&B artist. I have to make music that my fans are going to expect to sound like this, or vice versa. I’m pop now so I can’t make music that’s too urban or quote-unquote R&B.” She felt pressure to make music that was “trendy,” asking, “What do I think my label is going to get behind and push?”
“I was made to feel like I had to choose that I couldn’t be who I am, which I do think is somewhere in the middle of genres,” she said.
Tinashe severed ties with RCA in 2019. Now she hears stories of younger artists using her as inspiration and taking control of their careers from the jump.
“Not taking any of those pressures into consideration has led me down a much more instinctual creative path, and it’s been very liberating,” she said. “Those blockages are not issues anymore.”
Although Tinashe began making “333” with no expectations, she said the essential themes of self-discovery and empowerment were “somewhere inside from the beginning.” She described the creative process as an “excavation.”
Listening to the album feels like traversing new terrain, and you’re not sure whether it’s a simulation, foreign planet, or glitchy version of Oz. (“Let Go” interpolates the melody from “Soon As I Get Home,” performed by Diana Ross for “The Wiz,” a remake of the classic 1939 musical.)
The cover art is similarly surreal, showing Tinashe in a natural setting, posing in the center of what she called a “postapocalyptic brutalist structure” — as though proving that she can ground herself anywhere.
“Having that juxtaposition is important,” Tinashe said. “A lot of the themes for the project and the videos were about where spirituality and tech meet and what that means for people moving forward.”
Though she may not necessarily “subscribe” to theories of simulated realities or alternate universes, Tinashe said she isn’t afraid to keep her options open.
Common assumptions and systems don’t intimidate her. Perhaps that’s precisely what gave her the strength to imagine and execute a better career for herself.
In that sense, the bold claim of “I Can See the Future” — the final song Tinashe added to the track list, her self-described “missing puzzle piece, if you will” — doesn’t seem very outlandish at all.