On her new EP, Tkay Maidza professes to love growing up. That’s lucky, because the 21-year-old singer and rapper has had to do a lot of it lately.
“Weird” can mean a lot of things. For Tkay Maidza, it isn’t just unusual or odd, but a dry, distinctly Australian definition that can brush off all kinds of bewildering trauma and misadventure with one satisfying syllable. President Trump? Weird. Terrorism? Weird. Playing international festivals, fronting Nike campaigns and collaborating with Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike and influential French producer Martin Solveig at a time when most of your peers are still hanging at the local food court? Definitely weird.
“You can get a lot from it, but also you don’t,” she says of the word that neatly summarised her 2017. So much so it inspired her new EP, Last Year Was Weird Vol. 1.
“I just had a lot of experiences where I was like, well that didn’t need to happen. You learn from being around the wrong people, and all those things just bunched together … for me there were a lot of unpleasant experiences where I just went, ‘Yeah, that was weird’.”
Broadsheet unpicks the past 18 months with Maidza across a picnic table in Adelaide’s west in the suburban stomping ground of her teens. Swings squeak as the man-made lake beside us catches the reflection of a 1970s football stadium being torn down across the street. “You start to realise, wow, I’m not a kid anymore, but you’re still not an adult,” she says. Those years can be formative, but when set against a backdrop of touring and recording, those everyday mishaps, bust ups and learning curves of early adulthood take on a whole new magnitude.
“It could just be hanging out with a friend, and then they ditch you,” she says. “But if someone ditches me, it’s like, ‘Oh wow, I’m in London and don’t know where anyone is’. It’s more intense than when you’re in Adelaide and you lose a friend – you literally know two people here! I was in Ibiza once, and we couldn’t check into our place, and our taxi dropped us off in the most random place. Everyone’s asleep in Australia and we’re just … stranded. And your mum can’t help you either!” she laughs.
Those experiences gave Maidza the inspiration and agency to take control of her art in a way she wasn’t able to with her first album. “For me it just felt like a collection of songs,” she says of her hyped debut Tkay. “I was touring so much when the first album was happening and wasn’t really in the studio a lot. I could write songs, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to write. Rather than an album, it was just like ‘these songs are strong’.
“After all those experiences I just took six months where I was still writing, but I didn’t know what I was doing; I wasn’t putting any pressure on it. Then in the middle of 2017 I came up with the concept of Last Year Was Weird, and it felt like such a strong title and set a tone for everything.” The first of three releases, Last Year Was Weird Vol. 1 covers a lot of ground, from shit-stirring rap on lead single Flexin to Chance the Rapper-inspired gospel flourishes on Say It and Growing Up.
Booming reggae opener Big Things even features her dad on bass, a small but meaningful sign of Maidza’s growth. “He’s always been in reggae bands,” she says of the cameo. “It was actually one of the first songs I wrote when I finished the album. As soon as I finished the album, after we finished the tour and everything, I just went straight to the studio and said, ‘I want to make a reggae song’. I felt like I needed to make ‘real music’, I was listening to a lot of reggae tracks and just liked how honest they were. That was the beginning of me being like, okay when I’m writing lyrics you have to be able hear what I’m saying, it has to mean something. Every word has to have intention.”
It wasn’t always that way. Despite her parents’ efforts Tkay initially ditched piano and guitar lessons to pursue sport. “Because it was around me, music was probably in me, but I didn’t appreciate it enough to feel like I could do it. The moment I realised I could was literally making Can’t Handle My Ego [Maidza’s dubstep-inspired first single, recorded in a northern suburbs youth centre when she was 16].”
She’s come a long way in the five years since. “It’s just time, and growing into yourself to be able to go from being an apprentice to a shot caller. I think everything’s come full circle and now I’m confident to say this is enough, or this isn’t. It’s a good feeling.”