Tiara Thomas: All around the world

 

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.

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