‘Every time I left LA, I’d regroup and… fire someone’: Tkay Maidza steps into her power

‘Every time I left LA, I’d regroup and… fire someone’: Tkay Maidza steps into her power

An existential crisis opened the tap on the Australian superstar’s inspired new album.

By The Sydney Morning Herald

Just before New Year’s Eve in 2021, Tkay Maidza was sitting alone in a Berlin hotel room, waiting for a passport.

It wasn’t a happy trip. Maidza’s literal identity crisis was matched by an existential one; the critically acclaimed young artist had found herself adrift, surrounded by a circle of friends she didn’t particularly want, partying a bit too much, and struggling through a period of creative stagnation. After a string of successful releases and decamping from Adelaide to LA, Maidza was totally lost. The metaphor of waiting for a new passport in a cold and icy Berlin wasn’t lost on her.

“I had COVID, and I wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel room,” Maidza explains, sitting in the bright sunshine in Sydney. “That was the first moment where I realised I was in a very toxic environment. Everyone that I was surrounded by was not really nice to me, and it was a really weird dark night of the soul moment where I’m just like, ‘Wait, I need to change a lot of things. This is not healthy.’”

A world away from that dark European winter, Maidza is sitting on the grass in Camperdown Memorial Park on an unseasonably hot July day. She’s in town for a handful of hectic promotional days for her new album Sweet Justice, and she’s picking at some sushi in between answering questions, watching as a group practice tai chi across the park.

Maidza on the stage at Meredith last December.
Maidza on the stage at Meredith last December.CREDIT: RICK CLIFFORD

“The pace of life in LA is so quick,” Maidza says. “I think my fight or flight is always on because it’s not really a safe country. Everyone just kind of goes around with this sense of danger and you’re just interacting with so many people all the time. My brain is constantly stimulated. I come back to Australia, and I relax.”

Maidza has been based in Los Angeles since the start of 2021, and has found it – like so many expat artists – equally energising and exhausting.

“It definitely did feel kind of lonely at first,” Maidza says. “I was doing a lot of random sessions with people I probably met once. I think you have to really know who you are first, and then it makes it easier to get to know people because they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s no second motive, I actually just want to spend time with you’, not like, let’s be friends and then I hope you do something for me.”

A fiercely driven artist, Takudzwa Maidza’s ascension in the Australian music industry was rapid. Maidza’s family moved from Zimbabwe to Adelaide when she was a child, and music was a constant around the house: her dad had played guitar in bands throughout his life. Maidza, the younger, began tinkering around with his recording equipment as a teenager, making remixes and uploading covers and demos online.

Eventually the experimentation became more serious, and in 2013 Maidza released her debut single Brontosaurus – a stomping electronic hip-hop collaboration with producer Bad Cop that became one of the biggest hits of the summer. The icy and melodic Switch Lanes followed, tailed by an EP called Switch Tape. Experimental, freewheeling, and fresh, Switch Tape quickly turned heads, while on stage the charismatic and energetic Maidza reeled in devoted fans.

Her debut album TKAY arrived in 2016, and while it was successful (it earned two ARIA nominations), Maidza has said in interviews in recent years that the record felt rushed, that she needed to take more time to learn her craft. The second album would have to wait.

’I was like, ‘Who are you and what story are you here to tell?‘… Sometimes it’s okay to be existential.’

“I felt like I needed the time to improve and become more confident in my skills to make another album,” she says now, finishing off a piece of sushi. “I just didn’t think I had a strong foundation… I just didn’t feel like I was ready.”

Instead of diving headfirst into another record, Tkay decided to release a string of punchy EPs: the Last Year Was Weird trilogy. Released in 2018, 2020, and 2021, they featured a string of high-profile collaborations with artists like JPEGMAFIA, DUCKWRTH, and Yung Baby Tate. Maidza indulged every creative urge on the EPs, splicing together hip-hop, EDM, R&B, neo-soul, and hyper-pop. It was dizzying – totally unique, and totally Tkay.

“I started to become more in touch with the music that I liked when I was younger,” she says. “Like Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, and realising I loved SZA and FKA Twigs. I was like, ‘How are they doing that?’. They’re striving and I’m in this weird middle ground where I like some of the songs that I do, but there’s a sense of embarrassment sometimes… I would write songs and I wouldn’t overthink it, but it wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to say.

“I was like, ‘Who are you and what story are you here to tell?’” she continues. “I guess the EPs were me discovering myself and realising that it’s okay to express my emotions without even understanding what’s going on. Sometimes it’s okay to be existential.”

After that dark night of the soul in Berlin, Tkay knew something had to shift – but it didn’t happen overnight. Upon returning to LA she was meant to head straight back into the studio for more sessions, but, as she puts it, she continued spiralling. She’d fly back intermittently to Australia to be with family and reset, and each time fly back to LA a little bit stronger, more settled. Maidza calls them her divine intervention moments.

“Every time I left LA I would regroup and kind of… fire someone,” she admits. “I just needed that space to regroup and then do some work, like stock-taking, get rid of more people, just be by myself and be with my family.”

In the middle of all this she parted ways with her manager (“I just felt like they were making me work for the sake of it”). Then another divine intervention: Maidza lost her passport again. This time, once again in Germany, Maidza connected with her new manager, who boldly told her she’d finish the album in a month – despite having struggled to write any music for six months. Maidza was sceptical.

“I got back to LA, and I wrote eight of the songs on the album within a month,” she laughs. “It poured out of me. I just had to go through that separation of the old people I knew.”

Perhaps understandably, Sweet Justice is, in so many ways, a breakup album. It’s a shedding of old expectations, of old structures, of bad friends and bad situations. Tkay had a mantra for the record: “I’m never choosing compliance”. When asked why that appealed to her, she pauses.

“It’s basically me coming to terms that I’m never really going to fit in, and it’s a choice as well,” she explains. “I think I’m an interesting artist and that’s what makes me special. It’s good to become better, be a better singer, better rapper, but I just have to be okay with knowing that I’m never going to be doing whatever anyone else is doing. And it’s an active choice, but I also have to check in with myself every time to be like, ‘You chose this and it’s fine’.”

Sweet Justice was crafted with the help of some A-listers, including Kaytranada (Our Way, Ghost), Canadian producer Stint, and Flume, who Maidza teamed up with in his studio in Northern NSW. As with all of Maidza’s releases, it’s a gauntlet run through a stream of genres and influences that she seamlessly whisks together.

Songs like WUACV and Silent Assassin are bruising, with sludgy, distorted basslines and see-sawing vocals. But Sweet Justice is also the warmest release of her career, many of the tracks (including stunning highlights like Out of Luck and Love and Other Drugs) opting for a heavy-lidded R&B palette that recalls Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and TLC. It was a conscious choice, says Tkay.

“I have better respect for the music I make now,” says Maidza of her new album Sweet Justice.
“I have better respect for the music I make now,” says Maidza of her new album Sweet Justice.CREDIT: DOMINIC LORRIMER

“I feel like my favourite music happens when I channel that future nostalgia,” Maidza says, as we walk through Newtown. “I feel like it’s such a spiritual and soulful mix. I think that’s what helped me make it more cohesive because I had a guideline for what my singing should sound, and what kind of production, what kind of chords. I just wanted it to be spiritual and soulful.”

Maidza pulls out her phone to show me the mood board of the album, scrolling past pictures of the Romeo & Juliet 1996 film poster, A$AP Rocky, Rina Sawayama, vivid reds and burnt oranges, metals, and the Justice tarot card.

A short time later Maidza and I are scouring the crates at Repressed Records on King Street, and chatting idly about new albums and TV shows. “I’m so upset. Yikes,” Maidza quips, when discussing the disaster that was The Weeknd’s The Idol. Moments later she laughs, and pulls up a copy of Last Year Was Weird Vol. 3, posing for a picture.

This year marks 10 years since she broke out with Brontosaurus, and for Maidza, Sweet Justice feels like a true coming of age.

“I have better respect for the music I make now,” she reflects, placing her EP back among the pile. “I think the whole 10 years has been about me becoming confident and comfortable in myself. I think I’ve learned to be more intentional with what I want to say and what I want to do and to be confident and back myself up.”

She pauses, and smiles: “I’m stepping into becoming a boss.”

Tkay Maidza’s Sweet Justice is out on Friday. She performs at Melbourne’s Forum on November 23 and Sydney’s UNSW Roundhouse on November 28.

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