Tiana Major9 might be the sunniest perfectionist you’ll meet. Usually, someone who aims for flawlessness can end up trapped in a stranglehold of high expectations, overwork and ‘what if I’m never good enough?’ anxiety. You’re more likely to picture an ambitious high-achiever with their head in their hands, or their eyes reddened from another long night STRIVING towards their GOALS, rather than spending a day idly on a sun lounger. Being a perfectionist can grind you down. But Tiana has established herself as one of the UK’s rising underground voices in a blossoming R&B-adjacent scene, all while holding herself up to a high standard – she still knows how to take a step back, laugh and re-assess.
We’re chatting about her upcoming debut EP, Rehearsal @ Nine, when she mentions her move from studying music to pursuing it as a proper career. “I wanted to go to BRIT, I didn’t get into BRIT,” she says, with a laugh, referring to the much-lauded BRIT School that counts Adele, Loyle Carner, King Krule and FKA Twigs among its alumni. But City and Islington College ran a similar course, and “you know what? It’s just a name.” She says that with all the respect for BRIT School, yet with the calm that comes from believing she could succeed in her own way, too.And so the east Londoner – born and bred in Newham – figured it out. Since debuting in 2017, with the digital release of single “Merry Go,” she’s built up the sort of steady buzz that usually implores the quick release of an avalanche of singles, an EP, and maybe an album, within a year and a bit. But that’s not how Tiana’s gone about her business. She’s about to drop Rehearsal @ Nine EP, which we’re premiering here in full, after spending years building up her fanbase on the local gig circuit as a teen. She’s basically not looked back in the four or five years since. Now, all her energy’s coalesced into the pull-at-your-gut jazz-inflected melodies and intimate lyrics woven through Rehearsal @ Nine. Presented like a sort of mission statement, the EP looks poised to establish her as, yes, a rising young artist, but one who’s dedicated to the craft of songwriting and playing live in an almost old-school way.
It’s clear, even from a few minutes of chat over the phone, that she’s in this for the long haul. “I want longevity,” she begins, taking a break on her day job shift to talk to me, “and I feel like the only way for that to happen is for people to know who I am, rather than just listen to my music and like my songs. I feel like I really wanted to make my stamp.” She says this with the innate knowledge of someone who’s grown up online, and has seen how quickly the playlist landscape has turned musicians and their work into individual morsels of entertainment to be consumed, then discarded. Sure, one-hit wonders have existed for decades, but Tiana’s onto something else. The way she describes it, she’s hoping to use the immediacy of streaming as a way to teach listeners about who she is, and not just as a short-term distribution strategy.That relies on songwriting steeped in openness. She manages to make her work personal without it feeling like dreary ‘dear diary’ scribbles. Last year, I wrote about her gorgeous, shimmery single “Mr Mysterious,” which pulls and lifts you along its melody line in unexpected ways. It’s not a paint-by-numbers hit, designed to sound like something faintly familiar. Instead PRGRSHN’s production helps Tiana two-step from the deep groove of the song’s chorus into the sparkling explosion of its piano and bass-driven verses. You know how 00s R&B videos would set a transition to a sort of twinkling sound, like someone running their hands over a set of metallic chimes? Tiana’s music creates a similar feeling, that bubbles in your belly and uses unconventional chords and harmonies to take your hand and pull you in her direction. Elsewhere on the EP, she toys with ideas of seeing your city as a dark place, on “Dearest Dystopia,” or with the simplicity of waking up to a good-ass day, on “Altitude.” Throughout this EP, she’s not afraid to demonstrate both her vocal prowess and the music theory she picked up while studying music and songwriting with her brother.
Her artist name hints at that. Tiana Major9 derives from one of her favourite chords, the major 9th – jazz heads will already know that it’s favoured in the genre, for its unresolved, leave-you-hanging sound. I ask how Tiana feels, more generally, about being labelled a jazz act, though she isn’t strictly one. “I can’t really help it, what people call my music,” she begins. “When they I’m jazz-fusion or jazz, I don’t mind that – my name is Tiana Major9.” Now she laughs. “That’s a very common jazz chord. But I wanna get to a point where I’m seemingly genre-less, but would still have that jazz element in all my songs.”She names Amy Winehouse as an inspiration; someone who blended several genres, “reggae and jazz and swing and all of this into her music” while still being resolutely herself. Growing up, Tiana says she was exposed initially to gospel before she branched out into her own discovery. “I was definitely into Yolanda Brown and the gospel scene because I went to church, and my mum was heavily ‘in’ the church… she’s still Christian to this day.” She had to find the R&B scene on her own, landing on Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo, as an adolescent. “I’d been hearing Lauryn Hill since I was young, obviously – I knew who she was. But it wasn’t until I started to do my own research, listening to the songs that weren’t number 1 hits, that I really found it resonated with me.”
Watch an exclusive making-of video of the process behind the EP
Watch an exclusive making-of video of the process behind the EP
Around the same time, she’d been acquiring a taste for performing. Because she mentioned taking music seriously at about 18, I mistakenly assume she hadn’t been a ‘stage kid,’ and ask if she’d always secretly hoped she’d be the next Whitney Houston but wasn’t sure how to get there. “It wasn’t a secret at all,” she says, laughing. “My mum was always the one pushing me to sing at family functions. At school, I’d go for all the school plays. I’d let everyone know what I wanted to be in the future. Drama schools, and all of that.” She giggles again.As a young woman now, armed with both her music theory knowledge and her live gig experience, she’s starting to see that sometimes she can be her own biggest obstacle. “I’m trying to stay positive. I’m really trying to unlearn certain behaviours I have, whether those be me convincing myself that a song is terrible, or that my work isn’t as good as it is.” She relays a story about writing a song, recording it, and then thinking, ugh I don’t like this – what was I thinking?“But then when I revisit it, I’ll really love it. And I think that’s down to my anxiety about the song. So in 2019, I’m definitely trying to be more open about my music and positive and to also understand that not every song I write is going to be perfect.” She stops briefly, reaches for the right words. “I have to almost be child-like and just create. I find it scary, this pressure I place on myself: ‘I need this to be amazing’,” and she laughs to herself again. “Like, ‘I need it to be SICK.’ 2019, I’m trying to be a little less… critical of myself.” And indeed, she’s ever the sunny perfectionist.Tiana plays a headline London show at Hoxton Hall on Thursday 28 February and 'Rehearsal @ Nine' is out on Friday 25 January in all the usual places.You can find Tshepo on Twitter.