Born and raised in California, Zendaya (which means “to give thanks” in Shona – a Bantu language native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe) kicked off her career as a regional musical theater actress before becoming a fashion model and ultimately landing a starring role on the Disney channel sitcom, Shake It Up.
This fall, the Dancing With the Stars runner-up will continue to take the entertainment industry by storm with the hotly anticipated release of her eponymous debut album (in stores on September 17th, pre-order on iTunes). Already, the record’s irresistibly catchy lead single, “Replay,” has been sizzling its way up the dance charts and is continuing to build momentum.
On the heels of her album hitting stores (which is now streaming in full), Zendaya chatted with me about launching her music career, why her record stands out, her upcoming acting gigs, fashion, the publication of her first book, and much more.
ALEX: Your album hits stores next week. What can your fans expect from the record?
ZENDAYA: I think they can expect a lot of good stuff. I wanted this album to very much signify who I am as an artist and really make it clear to people who I am and who I am creatively. And I think that’s what people are gonna get. It’s definitely all about rhythmic pop, so it’s not just pop music, but it has little influences of other urban tones to it and has got some old school vibes in there. It’s just, you know, a twist on regular pop music.
Stylistically, how similar would you say “Replay” is to the rest of the record?
I think “Replay” is a nice setting tone for the whole record. Do you know what I mean? It just kind of explains my style a little bit – which mixes the two worlds of pop and R&B together. So it kind of gives it a nice tone to begin with. But of course there’s other songs on there that are very different, and some that are very similar. So it’s kind of like, it’s just one of those things you have to hear for yourself.
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
That’s tough. I think it’s really important for me to like every single song that’s on my album. You know what I mean? I have some kind of connection to every single song. I love each in a certain way. My favorites are definitely “Replay” … there’s a song on there called “Fireflies,” which is an amazing song because it again does that mixing pop and R&B thing together, which I think is really cool. A song called “Heaven Lost An Angel” has a super old school vibe, and I feel like it’s just like one of those old school jams.
I see. So I imagine that there’s a lot of pressure deciding which song to release as your debut single. What made “Replay” the perfect choice?
Well, when I first heard “Replay”, I was like, “this is going to be my first single.” I was obsessed with it the moment I heard it. I believe in it. I feel like it’s very different. It mixes that pop sound with a very, almost like R&B melody, and I think that that’s very special and something that’s not been done before in pop music. So, I’m proud of that.
What was your reaction the first time you heard the song on the radio?
I was doing my makeup in New York, and I heard it on the radio, and we were playing it. I jumped up and down, and I like jumped on the beds. I started singing it. I reenacted the whole music video, and then just casually went back to doing my makeup.
How do you feel about being compared to such R&B heavy hitters like Aaliyah, Cassie and Ciara?
I mean that’s really cool. I think Aaliyah definitely had a lot of influence in what I wanted to do stylistically. Obviously in “Replay”, you know, I have a look that I wanted to kind of give an updated Aaliyah flavor to – which is like the long hair, the all-white thing. I had like that tomboy thing, but still very feminine. So that for sure. Honestly, it’s cool to take other people’s inspiration, or to be compared to them is very cool. But again, I’m creating Zendaya. But at the end of the day, that’s awesome to hear, to be compared to those lovely ladies.
What other musicians or albums were you listening to while you were recording your album?
I mean, honestly, for me, my number one goal is actually to make music that couldn’t be done by other people. You know what I mean? Like, I don’t want people to hear my songs and think, “I can see so and so singing this.” I like music that I just make for myself. You know?
You want to make it really unique, of course.
Exactly. So, I mean, inspiration-wise, I definitely love Chris Brown’s kind of music – how he does the whole mixing of those pop and R&B worlds, too. But for me it was mostly about creating my own lane and doing my own thing, and trying to be as different as I could.
Would you say that your music is aimed for your younger fans that watch you on the Disney Channel, or are you attempting to reach out to a broader audience?
I think it’s for all audiences, you know. It’s for my younger fans as well as for the newcomers. I think it’s just time-transcending music that anyone can listen to.
Awesome. Well “Replay” is continuing to burn up the dance charts. Do you have a favorite remix of that song?
That’s really hard because I was blown away when I heard all the remixes. They’re all so different! They took a song that I thought couldn’t be done any other way and made it amazing. I was like, “wow, this song is different in so many other ways, and it’s so creative!” It’s just really cool to be a part of.
Do you have plans to tour in support of the record?
Yeah, yeah! I’ve been touring for a while now. I tour around all over actually. We even went to Canada a few weeks ago, and I think that’s important. Not only just to promote the record or to promote my new stuff, but also just to get more in touch with my fans and meet fans that I probably wouldn’t have been able to meet before.
Absolutely! Earlier this year you came in second place on Dancing With the Stars. Congratulations on that! Were you surprised how far you got considering that you’re the youngest contestant in the show’s history?
I was not surprised. I think that because I was younger, I worked just as hard – if not harder than everyone else. And plus on top of that, I was balancing school and everything else that comes along with that. I think you should walk into everything you do with the intention of doing the best you possibly can. So I walked in there feeling like I was going to go as far as I possibly could, and, just had a really open mind, and was very happy and focused. I think that’s the key to success in general – to go into things with a successful point of view.
What was your favorite routine from the show?
My favorite routine, I think, would be … oh man, that’s a tough one. I think, “Argentine Tango” was one of my favorites, because that was one of the hardest ones that I did. Just to say that I actually did it and completed it and conquered it is a big deal for me.
Between singing, acting and dancing, you’re the definition of a triple threat. Is there one of those activities that you hold closer to your heart than the others, or are you equally passionate about all three?
Honestly, I’m equally passionate. There’s not one that I love more than the other. I think they all kind of come together. They’re hand-in-hand anyway, you know? Like if I’m doing a music video, I’m doing a little bit of singing, and I’m doing a little bit of dancing, and I’m doing a little bit of acting. You know what I mean? It all kind of comes together.
Totally. So with Shake It Up ending, do you have any other acting gigs lined up, or are you using this time to focus more on your music?
Well, I’m definitely focusing on my music, but currently I’m in Canada shooting a Disney Channel movie.
Oh, great. Is there anything you can tell me about that?
Not too much, but it’s called Zapped, and it’s a really cute, cute story line. I think it’s going to be a really great movie. And it’s funny! But still very real.
As a former fashion model, how has your style evolved now that you’ve transitioned into a pop star?
I think it takes everyone a little while to really understand their style and who they are. And for me, I’m kind of like the tomboy/urban thing. That’s, you know, really my thing. And then, you know, when I go for the red carpet, I dress it up and get a little girly – but there’s always some kind of edge to it. It’s not just, you know, regular. There’s some kind of oomph.
Last month you also published your first book, Between You and Me: How to Rock Your Tween Years with Style and Confidence. What inspired you to write this?
Like I said, I like to be a positive influence for my younger fans. I think that it was just kind of a way for me to help them, and just get them through the tween years, which can be kind of crazy. It’s more a book of giving back and hopefully just trying to make those years smoother. It’s yet again another good, positive influence in their little tween lives to help them get through whatever kind of craziness is going on, and just a way to offer sound, regular people advice. Not from a teacher or from a parent, but from more of a big sister point of view.
Now that it’s winding down, what’s your favorite memory from this summer?
I think there’s a lot. I’ve accomplished a lot this past summer. I’m very proud of everything I’ve done. I think it’s gone by really, really fast. I just like performing. That’s one thing that’s been very important to me. All the work I’ve done on my album, and everything I’m doing with Vevo is really cool. It’s been a great year and I can’t wait to keep going. Also, being on The View was crazy, so I’m very proud.
Is there anything else about your album or anything else that you’d like to add that we didn’t talk about?
I think that’s it! It’s genuinely me and I really hope that everyone enjoys it!