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“I’m trying to be an icon – that’s my goal,” says Tiana Major9, the British singer-songwriter who’s quickly becoming one of the UK’s most exciting musical exports. The 25-year-old rising star is speaking from her East London home a week after our photoshoot with her as the next Elevate artist; a collaboration between GAY TIMES and Apple Music to spotlight and support emerging LGBTQ+ talent as they break through into the mainstream. And breaking through is exactly what Tiana is doing – in a big way.

The Londoner has been cutting her teeth as a performer and a songwriter for a few years, putting in the graft that resulted in her being signed to the prestigious and legendary Motown Records in the US. Much like her name suggests (Major9 is named after the major 9th – a chord highly favoured in jazz) musicality runs through everything she does. From what we’ve heard so far, there’s a fusion of soul, reggae, jazz and R&B in her music with her rich and smooth vocals as the guiding light throughout. But more importantly, there’s raw honesty and endearing vulnerability within her storytelling. Last year’s debut EP, At Sixes and Sevens, brought all of this together for a spectacular introduction – one that even a global pandemic failed to stop in its tracks.

Then there’s her collaboration with EARTHGANG – titled Collide – which was recorded for the film Queen & Slim and has now gone on to earn her her first Grammy nomination. “It’s crazy. It’s genuinely crazy,” she smiles when I congratulate her on the recognition. “I could have never predicted it, as much as I have wanted it my whole life. Like, I haven’t even released an album yet! I just have two EPs and I’ve done shows and things here and there. So for me to have the Grammy nomination at this stage of my career, it’s just, I don’t know, it’s confirmation that I’m doing the right thing with the right people.”

It was confirmation at the end of an unprecedented year when emerging artists like Tiana found all of their best-laid plans flung out of the window. A cancelled tour, delayed writing sessions, and scrapped performances were just a few of the obstacles put in Tiana’s way during a 2020 that was intended to be very busy for her. But it did little to dim Tiana’s positive outlook on life. “Lockdown 1.0 definitely showed me how well we can adapt as people, how quickly we can get things done, and how well we work under pressure,” she says. “A lot of things had to change, obviously. But we got really creative and did a lot of virtual shows. The thought of them at first was like, ‘Oh god, the virtual shows!’ But when I was actually doing them, it was so much fun. The people who tuned in, they really wanted to tune in. There was nothing else for them to do! So the engagement was really really strong. It was a nice time. I got a lot of new supporters. I also started to take control of my health as well as cooking for myself a lot more and doing workouts – even though I fell off a few times! I learned a lot about myself and I feel like it was a good time, even though it was a sad time.”

Once lockdown 1.0 came to an end and restrictions started to relax over the summer, Tiana Major9 took the opportunity to release her nine-track debut EP, At Sixes and Sevens. The title, as she has previously explained, is an admission that she finds matters of the heart to be confusing. These songs hear her navigating through the experiences and relationships she’s had to make sense of that thing we call love. Track one sets the tone immediately, with tight guitar strings plucked to precision under the declaration “I accept my emotions, and allow them to serve their purpose.” This vulnerability is key to what makes Tiana’s music so compelling. The closing track Same Space?, I tell her, is one of the standouts. It’s contemplative lyric of trying to understand a relationship, of being utterly confused of your own feelings, of feeling trapped in the same pattern of behaviour and being unable to break free, all plays out over a luscious, soulful production that offsets the tense emotional journey with a calming, poignant tone. “I don’t know where it came from,” she says when I ask about the track. “Honestly, I guess it comes from past experiences or past relationships and stuff. But I wasn’t even feeling that way on that day.”

I ask what her approach to writing songs is. “I’ve been trying a few different methods to songwriting,” Tiana says. “I usually write down notes and I’ll probably do a one liner or a concept idea. Other times I’ll just get into the studio and just be like, ‘You know what guys, this is how I’m feeling today…’ Other times I would be in with a musician and I’ll have a melody idea that I want them to help me to develop. So I’m just trying loads of different things to see which one works. I feel like me writing by myself works a lot. Like, going into the studio and getting the idea down – like the melody and concepts and stuff – and then going home and finishing it by myself. I think that really works well. I really want to include more people because I’m very introverted!”

Although Tiana started writing songs when she was young, it wasn’t until she attended City and Islington College to do a BTEC in Music that she truly began to discover her talent. This education allowed her to delve into all aspects of music, she tells me, through songwriting, production, sequencing, and performing. “I think that’s when songwriting really stuck, because I had to write a lot of songs,” she adds. “I really liked it. I felt like I found my confidence in college when I was writing songs.”

But it was when she took to the stage that she started to realise that music could become a very real career path for her. “When I was performing, people were really reacting to it – and these weren’t people that I’ve known for ages!” she says. “These were new people. So yeah, getting a good response that really motivated me to carry on. Then I started gigging with my brother.”

One gig led to another and over time Tiana Major9 caught the attention of the iconic Motown Records label. Stevie Wonder. The Jackson 5. The Commodores. Marvin Gaye. The Supremes! Motown Records has a rich history and changed the face of music forever. It’s a golden legacy to become a part of, so has Tiana adjusted to the fact she can now call herself a Motown artist? “Yeah, I think I have. I really have now,” she smiles. “My team, I feel like they get me and they understand me. It feels like everyone was really all-in on trying to make my music as big as they feel like it deserves to be. I just have great people around me. People that push me and motivate me and encourage me. To be from the UK to and flying the flag for us here, it’s lit!”

Having grown up in London but working on music and being signed to a major label in the US, Tiana Major9’s music has a transatlantic edge to it. You can hear the polished production from the off, but Tiana has made sure that she retains some sense of her Britishness in her music. “I feel like I’ve had experiences with American songwriters who suggest for me to sing certain things in the songs, but I’m just like ‘I wouldn’t say that as a British person,” she tells me. “1) I don’t know what that means, and 2) I wouldn’t say that!’ So I feel like I maintain my Britishness by writing the way I speak. I try to make my lyrics very conversational, I use my own slang, and use my accent. Just putting myself in it, you know?”

Authenticity is a word that gets banded around too often, but there is no other way to describe the truthfulness that shines through Tiana’s music. At Sixes and Sevens was an honest approach to admitting her confusion in love, so I ask if she has more clarity now that she’s working on her debut album. “I think it definitely helped me find clarity. I feel like I understand my emotions better,” she says. “I’m still learning about them but it’s definitely helped me to understand how I felt in those moments that the song is inspired by, and just how I want to be as a person. How I want to love people, and how I want to love myself. The album? Yes, I love writing about love, so there’s always gonna be love songs on my album.”

Taking time to love yourself for who you are is critical for members of the LGBTQ+ community who traditionally have spent years suppressing their true identity, and are forced to deal with the consequences in early adulthood. It’s been a journey for Tiana, but she is at the stage where she isn’t afraid of embracing who she is. “I think now that I’m a bit more comfortable in who I am, it’s becoming a lot easier,” she tells me. “I feel very free to write how I feel, what I feel, and I’m bisexual so it’s like, I have songs about men. I have some about women. I’m ready for everyone to hear it! I’m really ready. I feel like it’s quite freeing. Writing is my vice.”

Tiana Major9 joins a growing wave of queer female artists breaking through and releasing some of the most exciting and innovative music out there. As part of the Elevate campaign in the past 12 months alone we’ve featured Rina Sawayama, Arlo Parks, Victoria Monét, L Devine and Gia Ford, who have had great success. “I’m proud of us!” Tiana beams. I ask why she thinks there’s been this incredible influx of queer female talent in the past few years. “I feel like people are a bit more accepting of themselves and others,” she says. “We’ve still got a long way to go; a very, very long way to go. But I feel like everyone is a little bit more comfortable in themselves because there’s representation. You can find someone that’s quite similar to you just by searching for it, you know. And we’re a bit more connected as a people. We’re being more open with others. It’s lovely.”

Tiana is right, of course: positive representation is crucial for young LGBTQ+ people to understand that they’re not alone, they’re completely normal, and that who they are is what makes them special. She does admit however, that growing up in a religious community meant that she didn’t necessarily see herself represented until later on. “I grew up Christian. I grew up in the church. I just didn’t realise I was queer until much later,” she says when I ask if she had any queer role models when she was younger. “But I’m still doing my research. I’m still trying to find people.” It’s quickly followed by glowing praise for RuPaul and the revelation that she is a big Drag Race fan (Tiana thinks the current UK series is better than the US and she’s rooting for Tayce, so we are all aligned on that). “I also love Meshell Ndegeocello,” she adds. “She’s got a very distinctive style and plays guitar. She’s a queer woman who talks about her life and she’s very honest in her lyrics, and she’s someone that I’m really looking towards.”

As for 2021, Tiana has started the year with her brand new single On Read with Lucky Daye, and it’s one I’m pretty sure most of us can relate to: the pure anxiety you’re filled with when a love interest has seen your message, but doesn’t reply. It continues Tiana’s knack for a smooth soul-drenched bop that lends itself to repeated listens. “Do I leave people on read?” Tiana laughs when I pose the question. “I mean, the thing is yeah, my family say I do it all the time! But it’s not on purpose! At all! I have so many things to do and my head is just scattered! I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna come back to that’ and then I forget. People that know me don’t take it personally anymore. It’s never bad intentions, it’s always ‘I genuinely forgot!’” Hey, you can’t blame the girl – it gets busy when you’re on your way to becoming an icon.

Listen to Tiana Major9’s new single on the GAY TIMES Queer & Now playlist on Apple Music below: