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Rising R&B singer SZA connects to the goofy and unusual

R&B singer SZA is keeping good company these days. Her latest EP, “Z,” features appearances from labelmate Kendrick Lamar and Chicago’s own Chance the Rapper, and recently she decamped to a studio with Coldplay singer Chris Martin, recording what she termed “beautiful sounds” for a project that’s still TBD.

“I was so confused [when Martin called], and he was like, [adopts British accent] ‘SZA, I think you’re wonderful!’” said the 23-year-old singer, born Solana Rowe in Maplewood, New Jersey. “I still can’t believe it. I’m a pessimistic person, so in the back of my mind I was like, ‘Is this a really [mean] joke? Is he going to come out and say I was some charity case?’”

The spotlight on SZA, who specializes in atmospheric R&B jams that hover in the air like incense, should only grow brighter in the coming months. In addition to a slot at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, the singer is also completing work on her third EP, “A” (following “S” and “Z,” naturally), an album she described by saying, “Any mark I missed on ‘Z’ … I’m hitting here."

Pitchfork only gave your most recent EP a 5.9 on a scale of 10. Did you accept the festival invite to get out there and prove them wrong?

[Laughs] No. I don’t see the need to prove anything. Their opinion is their opinion. I don’t think a website has anything to do with my real life or the actual fans that come up to me or bump my music in the street when I’m on my way to the grocery store.

Why did you think Chance would be a good fit for a feature on the song “Child’s Play”?

I just think he’s brilliant. His voice has a real texture and tone. It has character. And his subject matter is like a free-write exercise, and I admire that. I think it’s awesome.

On the same song you also talk about ripping the heads off your sister’s Barbie dolls. Were you as bad as the evil neighbor on “Toy Story” who tortured and disfigured toys?

[Laughs] I wasn’t like a weird, toy sadist, but I didn’t see any value in things I didn’t relate to, which is something I’ve carried with me my whole life. I’ve never looked at a Barbie doll and seen myself. To me it was just like, “OK, it’s a piece of plastic painted to look like a white woman.” And I was just curious how they were put together, like, “How is the head staying on?”

What kinds of things did you relate to growing up?

I was super close to my parents, and I more related to culture. My dad is a self-proclaimed anthropologist, and he would take me to Little Italy and Chinatown and teach me about the culture. I went to science camp, and I’d come home and we’d go collect methane gas from the pond or whatever. I was more like a “Bill Nye the Science Guy” watcher.

I read the song “Julia” was partially inspired by Julia Roberts.

I think Julia Roberts is one of the most beautiful women ever. She’s just awesome and odd-looking. She’s also goofy. She’s never had the perfect laugh, and she has questionable teeth. I think I’ve always related to that character in life, whether it was her or Lauryn Hill or Lisa Bonet or Bjork—that odd one out. Everyone wants to feel like they’re able to connect to someone, and I would look to people I saw more of myself in. “Pretty Woman” is my favorite movie … and I found so many similarities with her character. She’s vulnerable, and she’s supposed to be this seedy person or whatever, but she’s actually this crazy, slowly budding flower. She’s just conservative with her feelings, and that’s something I find interesting to explore.

Do you have any interest in acting?

No way. Being in front of a camera is terrifying to me. Being behind a camera, however, is exciting. Having that control and being able to dictate the emotion based on lighting and color correction, and the way a good shot list can be the difference between “Snakes on a Plane” and “The Way We Were.” But being in front of a camera I don’t know what to do.

Who would play SZA in the film adaptation of your life then?

Whaaat? Oh my god. Probably Willow Smith, oddly enough. I think she’s brilliant.

So what are the odds you’ll be able to coax Chance out for a guest appearance during your Pitchfork set?

I’m not sure [laughs]. I know there will be a lot of interesting things going on during my set though, so you’ll probably just have to be there.

Andy Downing is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic @andydowning33

SZA, 6:15 p.m. July 18 at Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park. $60 Friday passes available; all other tickets sold out.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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