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For a long time Alina Baraz didn’t had much faith in her singing abilities. Growing up she listened to Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston, and latterly Amy Winehouse and Adele—all women with powerhouse pipes that made Baraz question whether she had the equivalent chops. Then she stumbled across Corinne Bailey Rae. “That’s when I discovered tone,” she recalls. “And that was this magical moment where I felt like I could sing.”
While still in high school Baraz joined a college gospel choir and although she was eventually busted for not actually being in college, this group of larger than life vocalists pushed her to the front, teaching her to have faith in and standalone with her voice. Post-high school Baraz went on to half-ass college classes, feeling isolated and dislocated in Cincinnati, until a close friend served up a slice of real talk: “She said, ‘If you’re not going to do this now, you’re never going to make it.’” Her words hit home. Born to first gen Russian immigrants, Baraz went home to her mom and told her she wanted to leave Ohio and move to LA to pursue a singing career. So secretive was Baraz about her nascent talent, at this point her mom didn’t even know her daughter could sing. But her mom backed her dream—she sold their house and they upped sticks to Reseda, California. “I didn’t know what LA was, so we moved two hours away from where I wanted to be,” she laughs, “but I was there.” Baraz was just 19 at the time.
While this move was pivotal—perhaps most significantly in terms of mindset—the irony is Baraz’s big break was in no way destination-dependent. While cruising Soundcloud she happened upon some beats by Danish electronic producer Galimatias, she threw a melody on top and the two wound up spending the next two years communicating solely via Facebook Messenger, swapping sonic snippets and ideas that would eventually coalesce to become their 2015 EP Urban Flora.
Earlier this month the 24-year-old dropped The Color of You. Where her previous release offered pillowy soundscapes with Baraz’s sultry vocals glittering above the vinyl crackle, The Color of You is a molten swerve on R&B-pop. Lux and sensually downtempo, it also features two collaborations with Khalid, alongside stand-out single “I Don’t Even Know Why Though.” Still buzzing from her first Coachella experience (“I had waited to go until I could be onstage, so it felt like a real milestone”), I spoke with Baraz over the phone from her adopted hometown: not Reseda; she’s in LA proper now.
Noisey: I still think it’s wild that you had such a lengthy creative relationship with Galimatias, but never Skyped or even talked on the phone. What was it like when you finally met?
Alina Baraz: I didn’t physically meet him until the EP was done in 2015 and we started in 2013. He was my best friend, but I hadn’t ever spoken with him, it’s really weird to think about! I wasn’t nervous, I was just excited. It’s an incredible feeling when it’s just me and him and we know how much power the music can have. It was a very electrifying time.
Lyrically Urban Flora is pretty relationship-centric, what was your headspace at the time?
Urban Flora was based on one person. I made a conscious decision that I was only going to write about the things that made me fall in love in the first place. The first thing people say about Urban Flora is, “I wish I had a love like yours,” which is ironic because deep down it was one of the worst relationships I’ve ever been through, but I only made it seem like it was good. I wanted to remember it that way.
For a long while your project was faceless—there were no pictures of you anywhere. What motivated this decision?
I really wanted every piece of me to be valued and appreciated. After a while I grew so close to [my fans] I felt like I kind of owed it to them to share more of myself. It was never a confidence thing, I just wanted them to know me by the ear first because that would be the truest testament to the music.
The Color of You represents a stylistic shift, but where you were personally?
At my most raw. It’s the closest I’ve let people get to me. Making Urban Flora I was very closed off in my room, and for this one I was just open to whatever. I wanted to go to the studio and just write about what happened that day.
What does The Color of You mean to you?
I’m infatuated with colors, I’ve always related to them and I try to find meaning in everything by color. To define things we often use comparisons and I felt like I couldn’t compare anything to this person. It’s basically me trying to analyze and define this person: this person is a color I’ve never seen before.
Is this person still in your life?
Yes. This person ended up inspiring me all around, especially towards the end which is what made me name it The Color of You.
What’s your most vulnerable song on the record and where do you feel the strongest?
“Yours” is very telling of my past year. It’s bittersweet and nostalgic. My favorite lyric is: “Paradise in your eyes / I’m not yours and you’re not mine / You say you never want to go / But if you run, you know I won’t follow.” I felt like I was able to combine poetry with what I was thinking. On “I Don’t Even Know Why Though” the chorus is “I just wanna love you” which is very wishy-washy, but I feel the strongest there because I was being the most honest to myself. Something happened just before that session so I just felt a type of way. Someone was like, “Why do you love him?” And I was like, “I don’t even know why!”
Khalid is developing a real rep for collaborating with an interesting range of female solo artists. How did you guys connect?
When I made “Electric” I didn’t intend on it having a feature, but he heard it [via the producer] and just hopped on it. There’s something magical every time we get on a track, just hearing our voices together. We’d never met in person and I invited him to a New York show to sing “Electric.” We were both late, so we actually met for the first time onstage. To this day he’s my favorite person to collaborate with.
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to tackle in your career so far?
Urban Flora was my first project and I didn’t know if I could write, or what my melodies would be like. There was such a success to it and afterwards there was an overwhelming feeling of expectation. For a good two years afterwards everything I was writing wasn’t coming from a place of expression. I realized I have to go live life, go fall in love and get my heart broken so that the need to write and express myself outweighs the expectation.
What’s your goal for the future?
I don’t want to compromise. There’s a huge difference between compromise and sacrifice. I’m willing sacrifice, but I don’t want to apologize for anything. I want to do what I want and feel passionate about it, and that’s always my number one goal.