Artist and Musician TiKA on Ego, Music and Identity

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Welcome to My Story, a weekly series dedicated to creatives of colour and their paths to success. By championing these diverse stories and backgrounds, we hope that our cultural conversations will expand and that respect for our differences will flourish.

Five years ago, multidisciplinary artist TiKA began recording a debut full-length album and quickly became a beloved voice in the Canadian music industry, thanks to a series of critically acclaimed R&B singles that she released as fans patiently awaited her album Anywhere But Here. In that time, TiKA snagged a spot in a couple of Sephora campaigns, dazzled her growing fanbase with magnetic live performances, and explored other mediums like filmmaking. But the album never came. Today, TiKA has released Anywhere But Here, her long-awaited, half-a-decade-in-the-making, full-length debut album. Unsurprisingly (for those who have followed her music in the last few years), the record is already garnering praise from critics.

We sat down with TiKA (virtually, of course) for an unfiltered conversation about all things ego, music and identity.

On releasing an album during the pandemic

“It’s super weird. Because of quarantine there’s a different energy and a different vibe. Most of the [promotional] things that I’m doing are via Zoom. I had to do streaming performances and in order to do them, I needed to be near my band, so I came out to Montreal to be here to be with them, so we could perform together. The shows themselves are in a rehearsal or studio space and they’re live-streamed so that feels strange, too. But all in all, I’m grateful that I’m able to release this body of work. It’s been five years in the making and I feel like it’s a time where people need super vulnerable music like this.”

On ego getting in the way of art

“The music itself was completely done in 2019 or 2020. But I went through many different photographers to finalize the artwork, so many pictures and so many different artistic directions. I think that speaks volumes about my ego getting in the way of the art. In hindsight, now that I’m finally putting it out, I feel like my ego really played a larger part than I realized in terms of how long I took to release it. And releasing art should not be about that. You’re just a middle man, you’re a messenger, a conduit. But because of ego, sometimes we want to beautify the gift, or make it different, make it look prettier, wrap it differently. That was my fear and apprehension saying ‘Do I sound good enough? Am I good enough? Do I need to change myself physically?’ I feel like this album is about me unpacking some of my own shit. Montreal changed and inspired me, and gave me permission to slow down. Before, living in Toronto, which is such a fast-paced city, it felt like I was bulldozing through my work and art rather than being meditative and intentional. And the lack of affordability in Toronto is a huge thing, especially if you are a marginalized artist. So Montreal — in terms of affordability, mental awareness, mindfulness, slowing down — played a major role in me being able to see myself. Prior to [coming here] I don’t think I had as much self-awareness as I do now. I eventually realized that this album has very little to do with me. I needed to just release it to the stratosphere and let it live and exist out there. I was sitting with this for five years because it made me feel uncomfortable or it was too vulnerable. I wasn’t able to deconstruct those emotional aspects of myself prior to moving [to Montreal].”

On taking care of her mental health during live performances

“Performance has an element of over-exerting oneself. Even with that spiritual feedback that you get from the audience, you still always end up emotionally and physically depleted. You’re giving more than you are receiving. I was once talking to Daniel Caesar and he asked what performing feels like for me, and I said it feels like I’m about to touch God’s hand. It’s the highest high. If you suffer from chronic illness, all of it leaves your body when you get onstage and for a moment, you’re free. But it always comes rushing back afterward. It’s an out-of-body experience and your physical body pays a toll for it. If you suffer from anxiety, when you get onstage your anxiety is still in your physical body but your spiritual body is gone; you’re floating elsewhere, and when you return back into your body you feel everything. So yeah, it’s exhausting.

In that respect, quarantine has been really good for me because it’s put me in a position where I have to look inwards and I don’t usually do that. Plus, the way we built this project, all the records sound intentionally timeless, so whether someone finds it now or 20 years from now, it won’t combust in like, T-minus 24 hours. If I do get to perform live after the pandemic, great. I think I will have given myself time to heal [from the process].”

On being a Black artist in the music industry

“It’s been a very painful, eye-opening experience to learn what people’s expectations of me are. If you are a Black artist, there’s a level of perfectionism that’s expected of you. You can’t show up and be Black and just be. It’s only in the last few years that folks have started showing up as themselves. For instance, artists like Summer Walker and Ari Lennox have recently been very vocal about their boundaries and their needs for privacy. I think it’s so brave of them to be vulnerable like that. You never would have seen that in the past because we’ve always had to show up poised and perfect. The Beyoncé vibe [was the only option]. But there’s a disconnect between perfectionism and humanity. I’m in the process of learning — and unlearning — those things.”

On Prince as her biggest musical influence

“I was just obsessed from the moment I came across a vinyl of his at my grandparents’ when I was 14, particularly with the song ‘I Would Die 4 U.’ Of course, this was pre-internet days. When the internet was later available to me, I was like ‘I gotta know how these records came to be.’ There was this website for super fans to discover vault records; that’s how I found out that ‘I Would Die 4 U’ was about Prince as a Jehovah’s Witness. He wrote it from the perspective of the holy trinity. It changed my lens of him so deeply. Like how brilliant is it to write a #1 pop hit that’s really from the perspective of God and loving someone so deeply that you would give your life for them? I thought it was so beautiful that he could take something like that and then turn it into a dance-pop song. But I wanted to do a cover of it as a ballad because I didn’t think people were really understanding the depth of the lyrics. The day I got the record back from the engineer was the day Prince died. I was devastated. I wanted him to hear it and shade me or something. You know how shady he was. But that experience definitely changed me in terms of how I write. Now my writing is less structural and a lot more intentional. I really try to draw from a place of honesty and vulnerability.”

On using makeup as a means of self-expression and exploration

“I love makeup and I think it plays such a large part in being able to play a character or be someone else for a day. I’ve always found it interesting how masc or how femme I can look by using — or not using — makeup, so exploring how far I can take beauty is just another element performing for me. I remember seeing Prince perform and it was the first time I had ever seen a man dress like a woman; he had long hair and was wearing heels and furs and becoming very exploratory in terms of this non-binary modality. I’d never seen that before and it just inspired me so deeply. He pushed the boundaries in terms of gender identity onstage. I found, and still find, that so sexy.”

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