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Rationale interview: ‘I carved my own path and it’s feeling good’

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Rationale interview: ‘I carved my own path and it’s feeling good’

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Tinashe Fazakerley has finally found his groove. Now known musically as Rationale and championed by everyone from Pharrell Williams to Justin Timberlake, the Zimbabwe-born Brit is in the fast lane to success after years of hard graft, with his debut album out this September. 

Tinashe first moved to England aged eight after an early childhood spent dancing to Michael Jackson, playing the mbira with relatives and staying up glued to the late night reruns of MTV on his family’s only TV channel. London proved an unfriendly place at first: classmates relentlessly mocked his thick accent and he’d end up staying in on his own watching EastEnders on loop every weekend. “I was the kid who never used to go out and play with everyone else,” he says. His lack of a friendship group and continued awkwardness at secondary school pushed him deeper into music, led by a teacher who introduced him to acoustic guitar and producing. “He was this weird stoner guy whose eyes were always red,” he remembers. “He showed me a programme on his computer that he used to record himself and I’ve been doing the same thing, sitting in dark, windowless rooms ever since.”

Judging by his dark, windowless studio hidden in the middle of a Battersea council estate in south London, Tinashe is not exaggerating. He has been busy channeling his profound sadness at the EU referendum result into a new song. “I’ve grown up absorbing a hell of a lot of English culture so I’m really protective and patriotic of a country I wasn’t born in,” he says. “Fuel to the Fire”, from the 2015 EP of the same name, could have been written as his personal response to the controversial Brexit vote, its lyrics speaking powerfully of ignorance and injustice. The first line, “Imagine if we had a choice, I bet we’d add fuel to the fire”, sets the tone for a track that will surely be interpreted politically upon the album’s release. Tinashe wrote the song after feeling overwhelmed by all the negativity and hatred in the world. “The bad news all seemed to be surrounding decisions made by so called learned people out of touch with what society actually wants,” he says. “People make decisions without seeking out knowledge, they add fuel to fires we don’t need. Everyone’s entitled to their vote, including those who voted to leave, but the pessimist in me believes they made choices based on their own selfish reasons.”

Tinashe knows that a life spent mostly in metropolitan London with friends from “all creeds and cultures” has shaped his inclusive attitudes, but he is acutely disturbed by the recent spike in hate crime. “You have to respect democracy but it’s like something out of a horror movie with people acting awfully towards each other,” he says. “This isn’t necessarily my country but I’d fight tooth and nail for it because it’s given me everything I have. I love it to the hilt but there’s a fine line between patriotism between downright nastiness and that’s what scares me.” He has drawn upon racism when songwriting before, revealing that barely a day goes by in his current hometown of Benfleet in Essex that someone doesn’t “look at him funny or even say something if they’re feeling up to it”. “There’s this weird cloud I can’t quite shake at the moment but what can you do apart from try to live your life in the best way you can” he says. “Even the person you may not want to have an opinion deserves to have one. The question that needs to be asked is why some people have lost connection with reality and what people are generally like, the reason why we’re all here.”

Tinashe is refreshingly humble, often verging on self-deprecating (“I’m just a really average human being”), making growing recognition of his talent feel all the more deserved. “It’s always been part of my character not to expect too much, so that if nothing comes along you’re not massively disappointed,” he says. “It’s the underdog mentality. Musically I’ve wanted to get to a certain place and haven’t got there yet, so maybe that’s given me some pessimism to a degree, but that’s off set by hearing hundreds of people sing your songs back at you.” Touring is his favourite part of the journey, but he describes watching people react to songs he’s never played before as an “emotional rollercoaster”. Just don’t go to one of his gigs and not dance. “People in London come up to me afterwards and say how amazing the show was but they’ll have been standing still the whole time,” he says, adding that the audiences feel freer state-side, where he’s just finished a sell-out tour. “New York’s the same as London though – everyone’s cool, so they’re all ‘Let’s have fun! But not too much fun!’” Tinashe, 32, attracts a wide demographic to his shows and once spotted a woman in her seventies in the crowd. Age is irrelevant to him, but it’s a source of anger that for others, it can hold them back regardless of the life in their years. “I have a friend in music whose not too much younger than I am and she’s had a bit of trouble with people telling her she’s too old for the game,” he says. “It seems to be more of an issue for women, which frustrates the life out of me. It shouldn’t matter. I toured with Tom Jones once and he was the same as how I imagine he would have been when he was younger. Nothing stops you enjoying music.”

Tinashe describes himself as a “closet feminist”, but only because he does not want to let his opinions overshadow his music. “I could sit on my social networks all day talking about the examples I have of women being treated awfully, not being paid enough or being respected as much, but there’s a time and a place,” he says, insisting that he knows when to speak up. The son of a single mother, Tinashe is himself fiercely independent and firmly believes that record labels should not pressure their acts into being untrue to themselves. “If you want to dress scantily and you enjoy doing that, then more power to you as a lady, or a man, because that’s your identity,” he says. “It’s when it’s forced onto you that it’s a problem, but I luckily haven’t had any issues with that on my label.”

The decision to change his name to the moniker Rationale came after realising that for him, “everything always comes back to music”. Before joining forces with his current management, Tinashe was going through a rough patch. Dropped from Island Records after just one, much poppier album, he had a publishing deal as a songwriter but was running out of money and battling to hold down a number of jobs, one of which involved working for an unnamed charity, ringing people up to thank them for making a donation, only to ask for more. “They’d give you this speech in training that you could wheel out to appeal to people’s emotional side,” he says. “It was called ‘the rationale’ and it pulled on all the heartstrings, explaining the reason for the charity’s existence. I read it twice and then quit. Months later I was thinking of a moniker and I realised that every time I quit a job it’s because I want to make music. It’s my reason for being.” Just like that, Rationale was born, but Tinashe is “dead proud” of his roots. Saved, released under his own name in 2010, failed to gain traction but helped him onto the steep music industry ladder. “I was massively into Bloc Party and guitar bands at that time. I’d be in Brixton every single weekend watching bands,” he says. “That straight-haired, fringed boy was not necessarily the man I am today. I’m much more mature and I’ve found a sound that I really enjoy. But I’d never want to delete my history.” 

Tinashe might work alone in his tiny studio, but he is open to collaborating with other musicians both on his own records and on theirs. “I’d love to work with Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and Rick Rubin, but I’d also like to write for some pop stars, just to see what it would be like,” he says. “You get to drop your ego and that’s fun. I’ve worked with Dan on a couple of things for his record with Bastille, but it’s me me me for the moment.” Politically engaged he may be, but Tinashe has also drawn heavily on that “me me me” for his new album. One, as yet unheard song, is about his biological father, an “interesting human being who ‘liked the company of many’”. The chorus is lyrically intense, written after suspicions began growing that he was perhaps more like his dad than he’d like to think: 

I don’t want to go lonely

I don’t want to reach out in the dead of night and find no-one to hold me

But I’m burning my bridges at the speed of light

I’ve got a monochrome candour

Hollow in the middle but I can’t deny that I’m just like you

“It’s frustrating because I’ve never had that male role model in my life,” he says. “I’m not saying I started to enjoy the company of many or anything, but I did start to notice chararacter traits that reminded me of what my mother told me about my father.” Tinashe is critical of acts who enlist “19 billion songwriters” to help them pander to a trend and get their music playing in clubs. “I think as an artist it’s important to write songs that actually mean something to you,” he says. “They’re the songs that are going to stand the test of time. If it has a meaning behind it, hopefully it will help or inspire somebody rather than ‘I shake, shake, I dance, dance’ or whatever it may be.” It’s taken a while, perhaps longer than he would have liked, but with an appearance on a widely watched US chat show and a support slot on a major tour lined-up, the future’s looking decidedly rosy. “I’ve found a great place where I can honestly make music and not mimic or join the latest fad,” he says. “I’ve carved my own path and it’s feeling good.”

Rationale’s new single “Palms” is out now; the album is out on 23 September on Warner Music

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