Tinashe Kachingwe seemingly came from nowhere to become a fixture on the Billboard singles charts with “2 On,” but a visit to the singer’s home reveals a long road to stardom.
A poster from her time with a childhood modeling agency hangs in one corner. Memorabilia from Tinashe’s late ‘00s stint in teen pop girl group the Stunners mingles near artwork from her mixtapes. Overlooking her bed is a shelf housing glass trophies from years of competitive dancing — ballet, tap, jazz — and affirmations are strewn all over her room (“Don’t wait. Work” and “Imperfection is beauty,” to name two).
And then there’s the bare-bones recording studio alongside the turquoise-colored wall, where work began on her major label debut, “Aquarius,” released Tuesday. Janet Jackson’s “Janet” rests by a computer, mixing board and keyboard, and a nearby whiteboard bares a lofty goal: “And the Grammy for best new artist goes to Tinashe” (courtesy of her 15-year-old brother).
“I’ve always had this crazy tunnel vision ... the same end goal in mind, as long as I could remember,” the 21-year-old says, turning her attention to the many relics in the La Crescenta home she grew up in and which she still shares with her parents and two younger brothers. “Even if the game plan has changed and shifted along the way.”
When Tinashe (pronounced tin-AH-shay, it means “God Is With Us” in her father’s native Zimbabwe) debuted with “2 On” in January, the thumping club banger could have easily been swallowed by the mass of bouncy songs on the radio. But the number, with its hypnotic, minimalist beat from West Coast hitmaker DJ Mustard, gained steam on urban radio as a strong entry in a song-of-the-summer race dominated by heartthrobs and rappers.
“It’s almost like it’s still taboo for a female to make a party song. It’s really strange, not like girls party any less than guys,” Tinashe says, curled up on a couch in the living room. “That female perspective was something that was missing, and still missing for a lot of records out there.
“I can’t tell you the last time I met a female engineer, and I’ve never worked with a female producer, and that’s crazy to me. I want other young women to be inspired to do it. I really don’t get why there isn’t more.”
After spending her childhood acting (appearing in “The Polar Express” and “Two and a Half Men”), Tinashe was recruited to the Stunners at age 14. The group released an EP and toured with Justin Bieber but split after four years.
Having gleaned the basics from logging studio time, she began recording herself in her bedroom studio. In early 2012, she issued her first mixtape, “In Case We Die.”
Filled with trippy electronic beats and syrupy harmonies that glide from sensual to brooding with the same effortless lilt that made Janet and Aaliayh genre chameleons, the mixtape reinvented Tinashe as an alt-R&B siren.
She scored a deal with RCA Records and continued issuing mixtapes to the Internet from her bedroom — 2012’s “Reverie” and 2013’s “Black Water” — as she began crafting songs for her debut album. It was the first time working outside her bedroom studio alongside other producers and songwriters.
“People weren’t really familiar with the fact that I had a perspective,” Tinashe recalls. “When I started working with other producers — especially ones who had created hits in the past — it was hard for them, I think, to listen to somebody who seemingly just came out of nowhere.”
“Aquarius” is one of the strongest R&B debuts in years. Built around spacey interludes, flickering synths and slinky, future-R&B productions, the disc unfolds over minimalist down-tempo beats and hushed, breathy rhythms steered by Tinashe’s sultry vocals.
Apart from the swaggering “2 On” and “All Hands on Deck,” she rarely chases club hits, instead opting for a trippy mood album that updates the ‘90s cool of Aaliyah, TLC and Jackson, whom Tinashe samples on a track.
Schoolboy Q lent a verse to “2 On,” Future meets her sexy come-ons in “How Many Times” and ASAP Rocky fills in for an unqualified lover on “Pretend.” But there are left-field moments too: Devonté Hynes bringing an electric guitar solo to icy cut “Bet” and production from Stargate, Mike Will Made-It and Blood Diamonds. There’s even a cameo from a 7-year-old version of Tinashe on the sweetly cooing piano ballad “Deep in the Night” — the first song she ever wrote and performed.
Despite the litany of players, Tinashe emphasizes that the vision is hers.
"[The label] understood that we had to stay true to a certain extent to what I’ve already created for myself. They gave me a lot of creative control, especially for a new artist,” she said. “Of course, there was some compromise, but amidst the compromise, it never strayed too far.”
Standing in her kitchen, she still can’t shake the pressure she’s feeling ahead of the album’s release. The stakes are higher, considering that the project rested on her vision.
“That title, ‘major-label debut album,’ is held at a much higher esteem than a free Internet project, as awesome as I think they are,” Tinashe says. “I’m still very proud of those projects, and they were important to creating who I am as an artist, but this is just on a different level.
“I’m confident in the material. I just want to feel that it’s well received.”