It's hours before the second weekend of Coachella, and SZA has no idea what to wear. This is surprising to anyone familiar with the St. Louis-bred R&B singer's trademark quirky-cool style, composed of oversize jerseys and acid-washed ripped denim. But she quickly makes clear that she's not the type to spend a substantial chunk of time curating an outfit. "I don't like to shop," she says, while hastily perusing racks at American Vintage in L.A. "It creates so much anxiety."
The truth is, she could wear a garbage bag and audiences would still be captivated by her brutally honest lyrics and soaring, soulful vocals. Born Solána Imani Rowe (her friends call her "Sosa" for short), the 25-year-old former Sephora employee studied marine biology in college before becoming the first-ever female to sign with Top Dawg Entertaininment, home of Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. Below, we talked with her about the joys of thrifting, feminism, and working with Rihanna on Anti.
When you go thrifting, are you a targeted shopper? Do you look for anything specifically?
T-shirts, for sure. Summer camps make great ones; banks have cool emblems, too. I just got a new nature one with otters all over it that's super fire. Thrifting just feels less serious.
How has your style evolved over time?
I went through this phase of Spandex, high heels, and fur coats when I was my late teens and early twenties; before then I lived in overalls and baggy T-shirts. Now I'm combining both in a comfortable space—if I'm in the mood to wear heels, I'll wear heels, but I feel just as comfortable in Converse.
You told us back in May that you used to wear a hijab when you were younger. Is that why you've come to embrace your voluminous curls?
I've always loved playing with hair. I used to want dreads like Lauryn Hill, but my mom wouldn't let me. Wearing a hijab never made me feel any more conservative—it made me feel safe. Then, after 9/11, I became the butt of a joke on the playground, so I stopped wearing it. Kids can be really cruel when you're the only black girl in your Girl Scout troop.
What's it like being the sole woman on a record label?
I try to represent for the ladies, but not necessarily in an obvious way. I don't give anyone a reason to treat me differently: I don't pout a lot, I don't cry a lot—even though that's human and everybody does it—I don't let it be me. Woman or not, I never want to be a waste of energy. You want to be able to carve out your purpose. That was always my goal.
"Babylon" features a lot of deep lyrics and biblical references. Where do you find inspiration for your songs?
When I write, it's like there's another person talking to me from my subconscious. When I wrote that song, I was having some really frustrating moments with spirituality—my parents were giving me the hardest time and felt super disappointed in me. I had quit my job, got fired from a strip club, and everyone was looking at me like they expected the worst.
You also co-wrote "Consideration" for Rihanna's album, Anti. Did she give you any advice about the music biz?
I still have no idea how that happened. I wrote a song and played it for her, and we just vibed. She's so cool and calm about everything—she definitely made the industry seem less foreign and alienating. I always look at myself and ask, "How did I get here?" She really bridged that gap for me with her sense of knowing and being. It was dope.
Watch the music video for "Babylon" above, and buy Z for $8 at the iTunes Store.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.