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Lizzo on Judging ‘Drag Race,’ Working With Prince and Becoming Eternal

How the ‘Fitness’ singer went from down and out in Houston to winning the ultimate cosign

lizzo artist to watch

Andy Madeleine

When Lizzo left her hometown of Houston in 2010 after the breakup of her rock band, she was close to giving up on music. Then she got to Minneapolis. “Within a year, I was playing First Avenue,” says Lizzo, 30, mentioning the city’s most famous venue. “Within two, Prince had asked me to come to Paisley Park to record.” Working with Prince on his 2014 album Plectrum­electrum helped crystallize her approach, fusing her love of pop, rap, rock and funk into a sound of her own. “It gave me confidence to be an artist, not just a rapper or a singer or a girl in a band,” she says. “When you’re an artist, you become eternal.” After turning heads with her first major-label EP, Coconut Oil, in 2016, Lizzo toured with Haim and served as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race, where her breakout hit “Good As Hell” was performed during the episode’s Lip Sync for Your Life battle. Now, with singles like the twerk-ready “Fitness” and the funky “Boys” taking off, she’s on a new level of creative freedom. “I definitely feel like an outsider,” says Lizzo, who’s working on her first full-length album. “But I’m making cool shit! That’s all that matters.”

First things first: how was your experience as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race?
To work with RuPaul is a dream. It was a bucket list [item]. I’m very fortunate to have been in the same room as RuPaul. You learn so much just by watching the way RuPaul operates. Apparently there are some petitions for me to be a permanent judge [laughs].

What formed your early love for music?
Music was one of those things I couldn’t avoid. I had to do it. I started playing the flute when I was 12 and I studied music theory all the way up until college. I fell in love with writing first, then I fell in love with music. I didn’t have an exact moment. It was always there.

My love for hip-hop came when I was in middle school. I had so many different outlets for music, whether it was flute, writing, rapping or dancing. My family always says, “You were never not going to do music. We always knew that was something you were going to do.”

Were there other musicians in your family?
I have a very musical family. Everyone can hold a note. Everybody can sing. Everybody can play an instrument. Nobody was a professional musician.

How did you end up moving from Houston to Minneapolis?
Minneapolis is one of those things that just happened. Everything is just happenstance, you know? My [rock] band had broken up and I was really, really sad and unhappy in Houston, [wondering] “Why is nothing working? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?”

Then out of nowhere, this guy was like “Do you want to come to Minneapolis and be in my band?” And I was like “Whatever!” I went to Minneapolis and I played a show at the Varsity, and this girl came over to me crying and said, “I don’t know if you live here but you need to be here and we need to see people like you here.” That was the most love I had seen from any show in one person. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. It changed my life.

And now you’re based in Los Angeles.
Obligatory. I moved here for two reasons, none of them because I wanted to be here. I have so much anxiety, and always get weirded out living in places that are on fault lines. But here I am. I moved out here because I was working on Coconut Oil and I had gotten a gig hosting the show Wonderland. I was like, “This is temporary,” but two years later I’m setting up shop in Echo Park.

Coming from two scenes with distinct sounds, how have you attempted to fuse aspects of Houston and Minneapolis in your own music?
It was hard, to be honest. It was really hard having an identity. I was born in Detroit, and my entire family lives there. I lived there until I was 10 years old in the church. I couldn’t listen to secular music, so all I knew was gospel. When I moved to Houston with my immediate family, I just had this whole world open up to me. I could listen to Freestyle Fridays on the radio and Lil Flip was like one of my [idols]. Destiny’s Child were still coming up. The whole world of music opened up before my eyes. My older sister was getting into indie rock  — she was playing Björk and Radiohead in her room and going through her emo phase in middle school and high school. I was a classical music head. I loved classical flute. I had all of these backgrounds, and I still struggle with a sound. When you love everything, it’s hard to choose. When I moved to Minneapolis, I learned how to blend.

Very early on in your Minneapolis tenure you were co-signed by Prince. What was that experience of getting his support and working with him like for you as a new artist?
It was extremely surreal. Mind you, I’ve been doing music my whole life and I hadn’t been very successful at a music career. Then as soon as I get to Minneapolis on a whim, I get to do something that a very small percentage of people have gotten to do.

I used to be so upset that I never had co-signs. I was like “How come all these other rappers get co-signs?” I always thought about who got the rap cosign. I’m too weird for the rappers and too black for the indies. I was just sitting in this league of my own. To be embraced by Prince and co-signed, I am eternally grateful for that. I can’t complain about not getting a co-sign anymore. I got the ultimate co-sign.

When you’re an artist, your career isn’t defined by trends or age. That’s the biggest lesson I learned from Prince: perpetuate positivity, and also art is forever. Be eternal.

Do you still feel too weird?
Hell yeah! I never really felt cool. I feel like there’s all these people in the industry who are cool and you see them linking up. Everybody’s friends and they keep hopping on each other’s songs. It makes me feel lame. But I just got to be on Big Freedia’s song! It’s starting to change. The weirdos are starting to come together.

You’ve also become a powerful image of body positivity, especially showing that fitness and health are not defined by a clothing size.
I feel like I’m on a mission. Since the moment I started performing, people — mostly men — would look at me after the shows and be like “How do you do that? I’m tired just looking at you!” And I’m just so sick of hearing those comments after my shows! You’re out of breath looking at me because you’re shocked that I can do this. You don’t say that to FKA Twigs or Beyoncé. You’re going to say it to me because you expect me to be exhausted. What is it about me? Oh it’s my size, cool. Alright.

My entire life I’ve dealt with that. I’m a very stubborn person, so I’ve spent my whole life trying to make those people feel more dumb for assuming that I should be tired because I’m this size. I work out five times a week. I drink kale smoothies every day for breakfast. My blood work is immaculate. But I got backfat and I got a belly. Everybody looks different. Everybody has different packaging. I do this shit so little girls in the future don’t have to worry about this bodyshaming. This bodyshaming in the mass media is holding us back, but it ain’t holding me back.

Having recently turned 30, what were the most important lessons you learned in your twenties?
I learned that age isn’t real. I learned that we don’t really realize how young we are in our minds. I thought that by now I’d be levitating and mature. A lot of people — not me, though — thought they would be married, with kids. A lot of people I know that are 25 feel that about themselves and aren’t. Your twenties are for yourself and no one else. You should spend them selfishly learning how to unlearn all that shit we were taught as kids about getting older.

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