It’s 1am when I walk into the arches of Can’t Say, a barely over-eighteen’s nightclub under a railway station in the heart of Melbourne. The air smells like a locker room and my soles peel across sugar stick residue smothering the dance floor. The DJ is playing Aqua’s Doctor Jones and everyone is brilliantly wide-eyed and chaotic.
Sure I’m on the other side of the world, but this could be a scene from any town around the world. I’m here to see Tkay Maidza, an Adelaide based MC on her first ever club tour around Australia.
Moving away from the plastic lights of the first room and into a darker second tunnel, a small platform juts in front of the DJ decks with a microphone curled on the floor to the right. The stage is already lined by a row of eager teens clutching iPhones in their palms. A DJ with a pencil moustache plays from his MacBook, cutting between tracks that all sound like Drake.
The crowd grows and the DJs changeover, a tall guy grins in an ice hockey shirt as he fiddles with two USB sticks. And then a diminutive figure with thick, billowing hair appears to the right and all hell breaks loose.
Throwing herself into tracks with a venomous enthusiasm, breaking into giggles, and at times seeming to have more fun than the swell of bodies crushing towards her, Tkay Maidza’s elastic electro-pop is undeniable fun. You will grin, you will dance, and you will have the hook of Brontosaurus embedded in your conscious for at least the next forty-eight hours.
By the time I meet her post-set backstage it’s gone 2am. She’s alert, elated and excitable, wiping away sweat with a large towel and marveling at the crowd. “That was amazing. That was one of my favourite gigs ever,” she enthuses. “It was great. And my song Switch Lanes which is new out and it’s one of my most sentimental songs to make since it’s like my actual diary, basically, and everyone was singing the words back to me. I wanted to cry, I was like, ‘Oh My God’.”
Born in Zimbabwe, Tkay’s family moved to Australia when she was five, settling in the mining town of Kalgoorlie in the country. She moved out of Western Australia when she was ten and finally settled in Adelaide four years ago.
The effects of constant upheaval show through Tkay’s lyrics. Her two biggest tracks to date, Uh-Huh and Switch Lanes both grapple with feelings from outgrowing friendships, and personalities changing. “I had to make new friends all the time and then sometimes you just realise, ahh we’re just friends because we saw each other every day,” she explains with a matter of fact shrug. “Not everybody’s meant to be best friends forever. I’m not taking a stab at one specific person. It’s just like yeah, that’s life.”
In pre-primary school Tkay was skipped ahead, so while she should be finishing her year twelve studies right now, she actually left school two years ago. I ask if that maybe contributed to her changing friendships, if it was a struggle always being the youngest; the last to drink, the last to drive. “I didn’t really care,” she says, another shrug with a smile. “I didn’t really mind. I feel like it’s better because then everyone can make their mistakes and I’ll still be at home.”
Tkay describes her break into music as, “A little bit in the right place at the right time.” Taking a chance she uploaded her music to Triple J Unearthed, kind of an Australian version of BBC Introducing. And then she forgot about it. “I was just like some random little girl who had no idea what was going on in life,” she cracks herself up. “I uploaded it… I don’t remember. I did it as like, ‘ehhh whatever’. You know when you try a new website like ehhhhh and then you just log out?
“Then someone called me and was like, OH MY GOD, you’ve just been played on the breakfast show. Like prime time basically. I was like, WHHAATTTTT?? And I just had people from Universal and Ministry of Sound emailing me like, ‘Hey let’s talk.’ And I’m like, I don’t know who these people are, but their signatures in their emails… they were obviously important because they were like Island Records and stuff.”
Talking to Tkay, she can skip from childish giggles to striking maturity in the space of a couple of sentences. She seems to view her newfound popularity with a pinch of salt, brushing aside the hyperbolic. But she also harbours a steely determination and isn’t shy about her ambitions. At times it’s like you’re laughing with your little sister, at others she’s clearly a force to be reckoned with.
Discounting Iggy Azalea, who came by way of LA, Australia’s never given the world a breakout hip-hop artist or group that I can think of. When I put it to Tkay that she could be the one to lead the way, daunted doesn’t get a look in.
“I would love to be,” she roars. “I wanna be like, that person that starts everything. No pressure, but I think that would be cool, coz I’m really competitive so it would be great to win. I used to play sport all the time. I lived in a country town and I played tennis, so I’d win all the time. I’d have all these trophies for being like, country champion, and then you move into Adelaide and obviously there’s many people who are amazing and better than you. So I feel like this is something I could actually be pretty good at and actually win this on a world platform.”
In one year she’s gone from unknown, uploading her music to Triple J Unearthed, to plans for world domination. Does Tkay think much about what the future really holds for her? “I don’t think so.” She shakes her head, “I’m thinking more about now. I think planning too far ahead is bad, in a way, because then you’ll be destroyed if something doesn’t happen or if it doesn’t go that way. So I just try to do every day as it comes.
“Because I used to plan ahead. I used to be like, when this song comes out it’s gonna have a million plays. And then I’m on Soundcloud like, why’s this just had a hundred plays? What’s going on?!”
Keeping up with social media, checking stats, it’s certainly a new pressure on musicians, but not a dismissible one. I’ve seen bands become absorbed by their online presence. But is it something Tkay dedicates a lot of time to? “I do see stuff,” she shrugs before getting excited, “Coz there’s this cool thing on Facebook when you get the blue tick, the verified thing. There’s this secret app for the verified people and it’s called Facebook Mentions. So there’s this feed – every time your name gets written it gets shown in this feed on Facebook. All these random people from the other side of the world.”
I ask if she ever has to use Google Translate. “Yes!” she shrieks. “Sometimes I have to do that! Sometimes I have to translate it and it’s still broken English and I don’t know what they’re talking about. I think some Polish DJ wrote something. It was in foreign language and all the people commenting, it was like ten comments in their language and quite a few likes on it and yeah, it was cool.”
So does Tkay feel Australian? She pauses to think, “I feel Australian but I don’t feel Australian. I just feel like, I don’t know. I feel like a world child. If I go back to Zimbabwe I’m not going to fit in. Here, I fit in but I don’t feel like this is my home either. So I’m just everywhere.”
Tkay recently left the Southern hemisphere for shows in LA, New York, and London. It was her second time in London post a family holiday aged ten. I ask what her impressions were of the USA. Did anything surprise her? “I feel like when you go to London it’s not exactly what you think it is, but you still feel it. There’s a kind of vibe,” she searches in a moment of stasis. “But when you go to New York it’s EXACTLY what you think it’s going to be like. You see people busking and they’re so talented but they’re on the side of the street and they’re dancing and you’re like, I wish I could dance.
“We were on an underground train and these guys they came in and they just started swinging on the poles and doing some breakdancing and at the end of it they were like, ‘OK thanks give us money’. Like, ‘You just watched us dance for you.’ And I’m like, we didn’t really have a choice, but they were amazing. That’s the weird thing, everyone’s working the whole time and no one ever sleeps. Everyone wants to chase their dreams and get there, so that was just the most awakening thing for me.”
A recent Guardian article wrote about her CMJ show at the legendary SOB’s in New York, a place she tells me was, “Actually like gangsta culture”. I ask her to expand and describe the venue. “It was street,” she drawls. “It was, say I’m performing, right? Then I’d bring ten of my friends just because I can and we’re all gonna sit in the backroom and smoke and do weed and all this stuff and if you look at us? Don’t look at us because we’ll pulver you.
“Like, that was the vibe that you got. And there was four lots of crews and they have ten friends each and the back room is smoky because everyone’s smoking. I was just like, I DON’T EVEN DRINK. I’m just like, Oh My God I feel so white compared to these people! I was like, what is going on? I feel so innocent. I feel like I’m fourteen or something. That’s how I felt. It was weird.“
In LA Tkay played the night after Mø, a popstar she’s got listed as a future best friend, right after Charli XCX whom she tells me would be the Taylor Swift to her Lorde. “I love her, she’s the coolest thing ever. I’ve never met her. I’ve just seen her on the Internet, every day.”
But how about Azealia Banks? Tkay has mentioned her as an early influence and it’s easy to draw comparisons. “Yeah, she was an influence,” nods Tkay calmly. “When I first started out I listened to her. I still kind of do but not really. I was like, this is so different and this is amazing. That’s why I loved it, and I just love her whole style – like, long hair. I had long hair before I knew who she was but I was like, oh this is actually cool. I’m not weird. Someone has really long hair and they don’t think it’s weird. So that’s why I loved Azealia Banks so much.
Watch or read any Australian interviews with Tkay and you’ll hear the phrase ‘blowing up right now.’ It’s at this point in the interview that she bursts out laughing, interrupting with, “Hahah, like how’s it feel to be famous?”
I nod. “I’m not famous.” She shrieks back in giggles.
Hype can be a dangerous thing though, take Azealia Banks as an example. Is Tkay feeling the pressure yet? “I mean, it’d be cool to be huge off a couple of songs but obviously you have to follow it up. Its kind of stressful coz you’re like OK this could happen but I have to keep going. I’m still going up and they want to see me keep going up and at the same time I’m like, ahh I don’t know if I can back up this next song because I can’t make the same song twice kind of thing.
“So I just have to keep reinventing my mindset and finding new stuff to talk about and just tell the truth and whatever I feel like, but it has to be cool. It has to be fresh. There’s always new music everyday so yeah definitely sometimes it’s stressful but at the same time it’s the reason why people were listening, because I was doing whatever I felt like in the first place. So I think I have to just keep doing what I feel like.”
And what does she feel like, in the long run? Even though she refuses to plan ahead, what’s that secret achievement niggling in the back of her head? “Ultimately?” she questions, pausing. “I want a platinum record. My ultimate goal this year is to be signed internationally to a label as an artist. I want to be signed in America. We’re talking to people. So that was my ultimate goal since I was a child. If someone signs me before I’m an actual adult, before I’m nineteen or something, then I’m a prodigy.”
And how long until her nineteenth birthday?
“It’s in a month!” she screams, falling back against the sofa. “I just want to have a great album and just tour a lot and see the world.”
Is the world ready for Tkay Maidza? I’m pretty damn sure she’ll be everywhere.