EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Alina Baraz tells us all about her new debut album, "It Was Divine," her aversions to self-criticism and the notion of "genre," and what she's been up to in quarantine in our new interview.
For Alina Baraz, her whole career has just been one long period of growth.
The R&B singer— who, quite frankly, rejects the labels imposed by "genre"— is fresh off the release of her debut album, It Was Divine, and the project is already receiving rave reviews. Despite how grateful she may be for the positive reception, Alina reveals that she doesn't make music for the critics— instead, she uses the art form solely to express herself, and anything else is just a bonus.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio as the first child in her Ukrainian-Russian family to be born in the United States, Alina was raised on classical music, but quickly discovered artists like Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill on her own. After moving to Los Angeles at nineteen to pursue her music career, she came across Danish producer Galimatias, with whom she would go on to release a collaborative EP, Urban Flora, in 2015, the first project of her career. From that point on, she became one of the early pioneers of what we now know as "alternative R&B," after signing a record deal with indie label, Mom + Pop, collaborating with Khalid, and releasing her first solo EP, The Colour of You, in 2018.
Now, with a few years in the industry under her belt, she was finally ready to make her official debut. On It Was Divine, Alina is at her most vulnerable. Her sound is more mature and refined, but the content as a whole bears a newfound openness. She opened up to HNHH about how a major part of the process of making her debut album was allowing herself to write about whatever she needed to write about, and using the music to heal. "I was able to purely write it for myself," she notes. "In the past, I thought it was a burden to write about sadness...whereas, with this album, I just let go of all those things, I just didn't care anymore. In the best way possible."
Read our exclusive interview with the songstress below, edited for clarity.
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HotNewHipHop: Thank you so much for doing this today. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me about everything. So your new album [It Was Divine] just came out, not last week but the week before. To start off, congratulations on the release! It was fantastic if I do say so myself.
Alina Baraz: Thank you.
So from what I understand, you've been working on this for quite some time. I read that it's been at least since the summer of 2016, if not longer, if that's correct?
I mean, I've technically been working on it for one year just based off the songs that made it, but I guess you could technically say since I dropped the last EP [The Colour Of You]. Preparing to get in the mental state of writing is equally as important as actually writing the songs, so I feel like I've been getting ready since I started my whole career.
Right. So, from whatever point you would consider the beginning of the process, whether it is when you started writing the songs or when you started to get into that mental state—from that point until the final product when it was released—how has the album evolved from beginning to now?
I mean, I think the topic evolved so much. I think, like, halfway through the album, I was so focused on wanting to write it to someone. I wanted to get out all the things that I wanted to say, but through the whole process, I'm actually writing this to myself and I think that was the biggest point in evolution for me through this album. Like it's so easy for me to talk about self-worth and self-love but it's a whole other story to actually do it. But I think that's where I evolved the most.
So other than that, if there are any other main priorities, whether it be expressing yourself as an artist or if it's sonically or lyrically, what were your main priorities in terms of what you wanted to bring to this album, what you wanted to offer to your fans? Is there anything that you hadn't been able to express with your other projects?
I think the main one was wanting to heal. I think I've always been such a perfectionist, that I'm crafting together songs and I don't think about myself where I should be. And it just becomes [about] what's sonically going to sound really, really good together, and I mean, I still figured that out, but I was able to just purely write it for myself and nothing else, and I just knew. But in the past, I thought it was a burden to write about sadness or anything. I just didn't wanna talk about that. Whereas, with this album, I just let go of all those things, I just didn't care anymore. In the best way possible.
So you've actually said before that your EP, The Color of You, which dropped in 2018, served as kind of a prelude to It Was Divine. Can you speak on that a bit and explain how you see that as a prelude, and how those two projects interact with each other and what their relationship is.
I think it's just a timeline of my growth. I think they all come from me, I write every single song, I come up with all the melodies with all the people in the room, so it's an evolution of myself. Inevitably, it's gonna connect no matter what I talk about because it's just coming from my heart. But at the time, when I started writing The Color of You, I really wanted to write my debut. But as I continued to keep writing, I just knew in my heart it wasn't my debut, so it just felt like the thing that comes before the debut, that's just how I finished it, with that mentality. So to me, they just connect as a timeline of my growth.
With It Was Divine, why did you decide to go with this title? I think it's a fantastic title and it feels very applicable to the content, but why did you decide to go with that title and what does it mean to you? Does it have any sort of exceptional meaning or was it just a nice-sounding phrase? What was the decision-making there?
I think it was all the above. Most of all, I saw the word 'divine' everywhere. Like just literally in dreams, on signs, in the park, in my car a song would pop up. It was just following me around and I take signs seriously in my life. I feel like it's always what I need, I'll just see it wherever I go. But I kind of wanted to leave the 'it' pretty vague and leave all those explanations to whoever wanted to—I just wanted it to be whatever they think 'it' is. I never really wanted to explain the 'it.' I wanted it to be vague and it could be applied to so many things.
Mom + Pop
Do you think that applies to the music as well? Because you said you wrote this music as sort of a healing process for yourself, but in terms of what you said about the title, do you think that applies to the music as well, can it be applied to your fans generally or is it more specific to your own experiences?
Oh I wanted it to be everything. Even sonically, we would go into the sessions with 'divinity' as—just subconsciously even, we would think of it in terms of sonically, what that would be. That's what's so cool to me; I could have been summing up the experience I had with this person, I could have been summing up the experience I had with myself, I could've just been sonically summing it up. It just kind of comes out in every form for me.
Were there any other working titles that you had that were scrapped for It Was Divine or was using that word always in the plan?
Yeah, it was always the plan. I feel like, for me, album titles always come at the last possible second, where everyone is frustrated with me because they don't know what to create for the album cover. But that's just like how I work. I thrive off of that kind of pressure, so it was always just that.
Your frequent collaborator and close friend, Khalid, is featured on "Off the Grid" [on It Was Divine], and you two have worked together throughout both of your careers since pretty early-on. How did you two initially connect and begin working together so closely? Why do you think you work so well together as artists, why do you think you mesh well together?
I think it's just one of those rare connections. Along the way, I've met people that I just genuinely love and they love me back and it's just a pure connection. But our first song was "Electric," and we didn't get to work on it together. We had a mutual A&R and he just sent it to [Khalid] and didn't tell me, but it was the biggest blessing of my life because I was amazed at his talent and then we just became friends. We met each other on stage because we were both running late. I asked him to come sing "Electric," and so we both were late and just met each other on stage and I thought that was the coolest story. But ever since then we've just been amazing friends and I love writing with him in the studio. I love being around him, period.
Are there any other artists that you've connected with on that level and that you consider to be a really good collaborator because you vibe so well together?
I haven't really dipped into this world of collaborations within artists, so my first experience was with Khalid. I mean, I would definitely love to, but I think the most important collaborator is the person I executive produced this album with, Spencer Stewart, those things are so important. To find someone that believes in this as much as you do. But I haven't had that kind of connection with anyone else yet, like Khalid.
Are there any artists or producers that you are interested in working with on your next project?
I feel like I've spent so much time looking for the perfect producers that just mesh well and so I've kind of found that within this album that I'm excited to get back in with. There's a producer named D'Mile and he's insanely talented. I just look at him as one of those living legends, like you just get to know them. There's another one, Dante [Jones], he's in a group called THEY. if you know that group?
Yeah, I think I've heard of them.
I mean they're both mega-talented, but I've only gotten to work with Dante. Everyone that I've gotten to work with, I want to work with them again. I'm so excited to work with them again.
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When you started out, you were sort of notoriously difficult to categorize into a specific genre. A lot of people said your music kind of blurred the lines between Pop and R&B. Do you think that your music still reflects this lack of fitting into a concrete genre, or do you think that your sound has evolved more towards one genre or leans more towards one side now?
I feel like when I started this I kind of like defamiliarized myself with words like 'genre' or 'single.' I think when I start to think in categories, that's just where I lose it, it's just not gonna come out how I want it to. But there's a lot of R&B elements in this album. And in Urban Flora, electronic elements were prominent, so I guess you could definitely pick up like prominent categories. But no, I feel like I'm still kind of an outcast to genre and that's just how I grew up, too. I always felt like an outcast, so it makes sense that that's just how I consider my music, too.
So you don't think about things like genre? That's not a major concern for you when you're making music, it's more just about what feels right?
Oh yeah, that would be the death of my artistry, if I started thinking in terms of what it fits into. All the creativity flies out the window if I start thinking of it like that.
Kind of shifting gears a bit, obviously everything going on in the world right now has been affecting everyone and has been an overall negative experience, but a lot of artists have been talking about how, in terms of having the time and space to create, it's been positive for their artistry. How has being in quarantine and isolating yourself from a lot of the world and having more free time to think and work creatively affected your creative process, if at all?
If anything, I thrive in this situation. I don't want to be insensitive to anybody that can't go to work and all these things, but for me, I've always been such a homebody. It's a little toxic, but I can stay in my apartment or house or wherever I am for months without even thinking about having to leave. And I started Urban Flora even with Galimatias and he was overseas, so it's always just been kind of normal for me to work by myself in a room.
Have you been working on anything new since going into quarantine?
Yeah. I feel like I'm usually so depleted after a project whereas this time I was so energized. I've been working a lot, there's these websites that I never knew about that you can do real-time sessions with people and that's how I've been working.
Who do you name as your greatest influences, whether it's musically or personally. It could be anyone in the industry, it doesn't just have to be a musician or a singer, it could be anyone that works in music.
I mean that's always so hard to pinpoint because I think every moment of our lives leading up to right now influenced me. So the things that I struggled with when I was 15 and 16, that influenced me, that influenced my writing style. All the people I grew up listening to, I grew up listening to classical music because my parents would play the piano, and then my brother was obsessed with hip hop, and then I found artists like Amy Winehouse and Sade and Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu. So it's like endless inspiration due to my bringing up, due to my environment. But Amy Winehouse is someone I still—I always talk about her. When I need to get back to my roots, to ground myself, that's who I'll listen to. I think that subconsciously inspires me.
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And my last question, just off the top of your head, what is the best piece of advice you've received about how to succeed as an artist?
Oooh that's so hard! Oh my gosh. I don't know about the best, best one, but one of them was for sure to not criticize yourself and let others do it for you. Just forget the criticism. I think the worst thing you could possibly do is not put something out because you're scared of reception.
Was it one person specifically who said that to you, or has that been something that's come up a lot from different people?
I don't remember where it came from but I'm grateful it's stuck in my head because that's definitely something that you can get in your head about for sure. But, especially with this album, I've just let go of criticizing anything. If it makes me happy, I really could care less about how it is received. But it's just a super big blessing that it was received well. That's just a happy bonus.
For sure. Well I think that's all that I wanted to ask you today, but thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
I'm so happy for all of your success, and congratulations again on the album.
Thank you! Thank you so much.
Stay safe, take care of yourself, and I hope that we'll be able to cross paths again in the future.