Tiara Thomas's Twitter profile says a lot about the life she's living now: "Just a college musician with a rockstar life, early morning flights then back to school the same night."
About a year and a half ago, the Ball State student and Indianapolis native was, indeed, just a college musician. Her YouTube videos — acoustic-guitar-and-voice covers of R&B and hip-hop hits, some originals with the same instrumentation — had picked up modest traffic, on the strength of her bright, soulful voice and capable guitar work.
It was a trip to Atlanta during her 2010 spring break that led her into the rock star life. With fake ID in hand (Thomas is now 21), she made her way to a popular club — "I guess there were some famous basketball players there; I wouldn't be able to identify a basketball player to save my life," she joked during a recent phone interview.
But a friend was able to pick out Washington, D.C.-based rapper Wale from the mix. Thomas didn't know him well at the time — his 2009 Interscope debut, Attention Deficit, was critically well-received but didn't launch any chart-toppers — but she introduced herself, told him what she was up to. Wale was receptive, said he was looking for a Lauryn Hill-type artist. Four months passed without word.
And then, suddenly, Thomas was on a plane to New York City, accompanied by her dad. It was summer 2010, and the day of arrival, she was in a studio, recording a track, "The Cloud," with Wale. Not that she hadn't been preparing all her life; the song, a summery ode to weed, was structured around a riff she wrote at age 16 that Wale heard her noodling around with in the studio.
Things rolled from there. "The Cloud" was released on Wale's 2010 "More About Nothing" mixtape. A video for the song appeared this year, giving Thomas a little more mainstream exposure.
A year after her trip to New York, Thomas signed with a label co-owned by Wale, The Board Administration. She spent much of this summer with Wale and his crew in Atlanta, working on two projects: Wale's upcoming second album, due to drop in November, and her own debut EP, which will release sometime after Wale's album (the title to which she's not yet ready to disclose).
One track from the EP has already been released: "All Around the World," which Thomas says will sound slightly different in its EP version (download the demo via Hulkshare). Although the singer has established herself as a soulful, indeed, Lauryn Hill-type, always armed with a guitar and easygoing riff, "All Around the World" tells of her range: there's the smooth chorus, sure ("I've been all around the world / Came from the bottom / Making for the top / I'm still climbing / Say what you want to, but I'm not coming down"), but there are also more intense, rapid-fire, but still somehow sweet rhymes that announce her presence ("I'm the future of this game") and cleverly reference Teddy Pendergrass and MC Hammer.
Her story starts on the northeast side: a middle school talent show performance of Tupac's "Changes" on piano, show choir at Lawrence North, church choir. Dad got her a guitar after refusing to buy a drum set; Thomas remembers writing her first song in the back seat on the way home from the store. A friend from church taught her chords and a couple songs — one a gospel number, the other India Arie's "Video."
Dad encouraged her to post YouTube videos; her parents were the first to comment on them when she finally did, her freshman year of college. There was B.W. (Before Wale) and A.W. (After Wale), traffic-wise: she picked up a good number of hits for her cover of Drake's "Say Something," but when Wale tweeted the link last year, the video started getting tens of thousands of views.
All along, she's been listening to a wide range of stuff: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (which she says is the record that's had the biggest impact on her); Elton John's "Rocket Man" ("it just makes you feel good"); Tupac ("I don't necessarily think he was the greatest rapper, but he was so real, that alone was touching...").
Thomas was working things locally before she connected with Wale, but she didn't get too far: "What really got me was there were a bunch of musicians, unsigned without that much exposure, and they weren't reaching out to me. They clearly thought I was just another bogus musician who has a dream. And then all of the sudden, I go to Atlanta and, on the first try, this guy Wale reaches out to me when other people happened."
She's starting to get used to all of these new opportunities, the one-on-one meeting with Pharrell Williams, the hang with Rick Ross:
"It was really shocking to me at the time, but as a year went by, I kind of got used to it."
So why isn't Thomas skipping her last year of school and going pro? "I don't want to hear my mom and dad's mouth about it. I did three years of college, I got all these student loans; at least I'm going to get something from it, I'm going to get a freaking degree."
And besides, she has plenty she'd like to do: "I don't know what success is for me, right now. Some people say I'm successful now, but this is not even a tenth of where I want to be. I have Grammys I want to win; I have songs I want to write for people; I have all these artists I want to work with."
She plans to look for a label — either major or independent would be fine; she learned in a music business class that independent is now the way to go — after she graduates. Meanwhile, she's looking forward to getting her new EP out there, which will have some surprises. Take the track "Blow": "If you've only seen YouTube videos of acoustic stuff, it'll probably be really far out. It's completely Cee Lo Green meets Katy Perry...My first try, I sang, and all the words came out. That happens to me sometimes where I start singing, and the first time I open my mouth, I'm like, that's the hook, right there."
And as you read this, Thomas's music is playing in an American Eagle store somewhere in the world. She was roped into a modeling session for the store last year; a new employee for the company was on the outlook for "cute black girls," according to Thomas, and she fit the bill.
But when Thomas got to the session, "I was like, this isn't good enough, me sitting here with all these models. So I wrote this song about denim, and I went through all the American Eagle denim fits, naming them all in the song." Higher-ups liked it, and the song made its way into heavy rotation on the store's Muzak loop.
Thomas performs Saturday at the Earth House for The Up + Up Show, booked by De Gud Life. Thomas points to Jasmine Allen of the De Gud Life as one of the few people locally who gave her the time of day back before she met Wale.