For the longest time, Solana Rowe just wanted to be Lisa Simpson.
“She was so jazzy. She played the saxophone. She was an outsider,” the 23-year-old musician giggles in a basement bar in the East Village, leaning back into a brick wall. She touches the pile of floppy curly hair on top of her head, and winks. “She had big hair.”
Over the past year, Rowe and her big hair have created music under the name SZA, stumbling upon a spacey, modulated sound that crosses the swirling beauty of Purity Ring and hollow emptiness of the Weeknd. She’s just released an EP, S, the first of three she’ll put out in the coming months (the others will be named, yes, Z and A), and her latest single, “Aftermath,” has already caught the attention of the tastemaking Internet, and has been featured on blogs like Stereogum and SPIN.
Not bad for someone who started making music only 11 months ago.
“My boyfriend’s best friend was rapping and suggested I come to the studio and try something, and he was like, ‘Just sing whatever’s on your mind,'” she says. “Then it played back and it sounded fly.”
Rowe, in a T-shirt and skinny jeans, has a big personality that bubbles over when she speaks. Her hands add to the conversation, landing on the table before her to help solidify certain points. She carries herself with a charming self-aware assurance, and is constantly joking. You’d expect nothing less from a vegan who writes lyrics about being made of bacon, like she does on the aforementioned “Aftermath.” She’s learned confidence over time, and reaching this point of ease wasn’t simple.
Raised an Orthodox Muslim, Rowe spent the first 10 years of her life in St. Louis, Missouri, before moving to Maplewood, New Jersey. Her parents kept her sheltered, not letting her listen to the radio, watch MTV, or experience culture outside of their approval (an exception was made for The Simpsons, which her father loved). “It alienated me,” she recalls. “It made me weird and uncomfortable, and I had freckles and all these things that made me awkward. I wore a hijab on my head and people would wonder, ‘Are you bald under there? Do you have hair?'”
It’s a lot to heap on the already simmering cauldron of teenage angst. She sought relief.
She first got a taste of the outside world when a neighborhood friend introduced her to rap music, sneakers, and fashion. The two would sneak out on the weekend, Rowe following her around “like a little duckling” into the big, bad world. She attended an Ivy League school, where she majored in marine biology. After graduating, she took the natural next step: bartending in a strip club.
Rowe was earning $600 a night, and feeling not at all guilty about her post-education education.
“I was so sheltered my whole life,” she says. “My parents are so nosey and I lived in such a conservative town, so it was easier for me to go find a job that was random. I made a ridiculous amount of money, and no one had to know anything about me. Nobody even knew my real name.”
The spring sun leaks into the bar, splashing across Rowe’s freckled face, and she laughs nervously. She wonders, now that people are learning her name, whether she’s been too forthcoming. The press game is still very much a new thing for this Lisa Simpson-loving marine biologist strip club bartender who has, almost by accident, created a sound that seamlessly blends dreamy chillwave with Quiet Storm soul—very now, but rooted securely in the past.
The Delfonics’s “Hey! Love” begins to play softly in the bar. Rowe leans back, closes her eyes, and starts softly humming, swaying along to the sweet, soulful track. After a minute, she snaps back out of the trance.
“Sorry. I love that song,” she laughs again. “Look, I’ve no idea why I sound the way I do, but you do whatever the fuck you want to do. If you want to work at a strip club and get your money and still have a degree in marine biology, it’s possible. If you wanna be an artist but don’t fit in a genre, fuck it, create one.”
Lisa Simpson would be so proud.
See SZA at Glasslands on Friday, and Pianos on Saturday.