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Tierra Whack opens up: 'Don't we all fake it?'

The multi-talented Whack worked with the Philly-based visual artist Alex Da Corte to realize her latest vision inspired by Pierrot, the sad clown.
Alex Da Corte
Courtesy of the artist
The multi-talented Whack worked with the Philly-based visual artist Alex Da Corte to realize her latest vision inspired by Pierrot, the sad clown.

Tierra Whack's debut album, World Wide Whack, is explicit content. Not the kind the industry typically slaps with a parental-advisory sticker, but definitely a matter of life or death.

She made it under personal duress, wracked with self-doubt and suicidal ideations while recording a barrage of sad songs for the anticipated full-length follow-up to her whimsical, industry-shifting 2018 EP, Whack World. The 15 songs that did make the cut for her new album paint a vivid portrait of an artist whose success made her question her own reflection in the funhouse mirror.

Whack's full-length LP offers up a decidedly darker worldview, one in which she takes things beyond her signature point of absurdity to reveal the personal anguish she's lived through. That, alone, makes it her bravest artistic statement yet. In this conversation, she's candid about what drove her to the brink and back, to a place where she's learning to see her imperfections as a thing of beauty — despite the tragicomedy of it all.

In conversation: Tierra Whack opens up

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

Rodney Carmichael: Let me start by saying this album is so brave and bold and like just hella human. After spending some time with the album, I was reminded of that meme that you see sometimes online that says, "Check on your strong friend" because it's always your strong friends who tend to suffer in silence. So I kind of want to check in on you before we start.

Tierra Whack: I was doing amazing before the album came out, but I'm very emotional right now and I think it's somewhat of a good thing. But I just didn't realize doing a lot of the press and interviews, I'm revisiting those old thoughts that I had — being insecure, just not being confident. I'm trying to move forward, but each time I talk about it, it still is like a trigger because nobody knows exactly how I feel but me. So in those moments in time when I'm talking about these dark thoughts that I had, it's very triggering. And I didn't recognize that it would be that way.

I've never done this much press in my life, so it's a lot for me. I don't regret anything. I'm so happy that everything's out. Like, this is what I waited for my whole life. Music is therapy for me and being able to speak to exactly all of my feelings that I've been feeling in the past few years. It's like, I'm proud of myself.

Well, you should be. Have you felt the pressure in this press cycle that you're talking about to justify your art or the direction that this album takes?

Nah, I don't feel the need to justify anything.


Everything doesn't need an explanation. Sometimes "just because" — that's the answer. It's just because. I'm just doing what is natural and normal to me. Living in my truth.

Well World Wide Whack is not just the title of your official debut album, which is so, so weird to say. But it's also a character that you've described as the face the performers must wear while showing up for millions. And this character, it takes cues from Pierrot, the sad clown archetype that dates as far back as 17th century Italian theater. What was it about this archetype that really resonates with you?

Well, I want to say this — there's a clown on the cover of Whack World, too, if you zoom in. Clowns are like one of my most favorite things. I just connected with clowns 'cause I felt like everybody sees me as this happy, bright person, and for the most part I am, but there's layers, you know? No person is always one way, every day. And if they are, something's wrong with them. I'm not a cartoon. I always felt like the performer, the clown, that's the only way I could really describe how I feel. Being the artist I am today and human person Tierra Whack.

Clowns, they put on the makeup and they get ready for the day and then they go and perform for whoever — the kids, the party, whatever it is — and then they go back home and they cry themselves to sleep.

Embodying these characters — clowns in this case — it's clearly entertaining and it's layered and it's rich, but for you, it also feels like it helps you get to a bigger truth.

It does. 'Cause in a way it's like, I'm still putting it off on like this "character," but it's me, ultimately. It's me, but sometimes I'm afraid to say the things directly from my mouth, but if I give it to something else or somebody else, then it's like, alright, cool, but I'm being direct like the character. It is me. It is me.

Transparent but also a way for you to hide a little bit. When do you think that first started for you, that feeling of wearing a mask for the world outside? Was it before music? Like growing up?

Well, I want to take it back to when in school I would get teased a little bit just for the different things that I would do. Or just for the way I looked, and that was rough for me. And then I would go back home to my mom and she would always try to instill that love and that confidence and support. So it's like, alright, everything she said, let me try to utilize those tools and put on this act like I'm confident. I think it's one of those things: I just was faking it until I made it. Slowly but surely I started to believe here and there, but it's a constant battle of your insecurities. It's a shame as humans we could feel so confident when we're in the house and then when we step outside into the world, it's like that confidence just goes away. What happened in that step out of the door? The mind, it plays tricks on us.

Well, you've talked about those insecurities being fueled by you not feeling like you deserve the success that you got, especially after Whack World came out. But I also wonder how much of that was fueled by industry demands.

I don't know if I could give any credit to the industry. It's all in my mind. It's me. And me taking that time to really just reflect and like to sit down with myself and say what's really going on. It's the battle that I face every day: me vs. me, my own thoughts. I have to wake up in the morning and say, Yo, Tierra, you deserve this. You worked so hard for this. This is where you want to be. This is where you'll continue to go and grow. This was always your dream. So live in it. Be proud of that.

Yes. That's self talk that we all have to do.

We got to do that. We got to do that. At one point in time, I was saying more negative things to myself than positive. And that's not fair because I actually am doing the work and I'm getting up every day and putting forth effort, you know? I gotta pat myself on the back. I gotta give myself praise for every step that I am taking. And baby steps count, too.

Did you feel the praise that was coming from the world? From critics and fans?

I felt the praise from everybody else, but I did not feel the praise for myself. I didn't give the praise to myself, and that's what's supposed to matter first. That's the reason I started in the first place because I felt like I was cool and I was having fun and I was just doing me and I didn't care what anybody thought. Then it's like, OK, everybody's like projecting, you should feel this way, you should feel that way, and it was so much me becoming this celebrity, public figure, the star for the first time.

I was like, oh, this is a lot. It's a lot at once, you know? So I didn't really get the chance to digest what was really going on. You kind of get lost in it. Because it's just so many people surrounding me, talking to me all at once, and I'm trying to just focus on one thing at a time.

But it's a lot to take in.

And it's just ... the blessings were pouring. They were all blessings. I was somewhat ungrateful.

Ungrateful or just maybe unfulfilled in a certain sense?

I think both. I think I was just trying to be like, OK, I got this thing moving and yeah, yeah, that's cool, but like, let's just keep going because I don't want to lose it. Coming from like nothing, being raised in low-income housing, North Philly, it's like this is like a once in a lifetime opportunity for somebody like me. I am just a young Black girl. I think I just lost touch of who I was, and why I started in the first place.

You've talked about being in therapy recently. Was there an event or an epiphany that made it feel necessary at a certain point?

Yeah, just really getting to that point of wanting to end my life. I was like, before I do it, I need to try every possible [thing]. I'm just trying to really find a solution. And I had never done therapy. I was like, let me at least give it a try. I was fighting. I was fighting for the will to live. And therapy definitely helped, and it played a huge role. It just was like I came to this realization, like, Yo, it's just me, it's my thoughts. When I'm talking to my therapist, she's saying the things that I already know. It's common sense. Like I said, we let those negative thoughts consume us. You gotta learn to just be grateful and give yourself grace. I feel I'm going to feel every emotion every day. That's who I am. That's who we are as humans. But, you know, I wasn't giving myself enough grace.

The music making process on this album, has it helped you process a lot of the feelings that you were dealing with? Was making the album therapeutic for you?

Yes. It was so therapeutic. It was the therapy that I needed. Like, once I went out and found the truth and I was jumped and beat and life was kicking me in the butt. I was like, alright, let me go in the house and look at all these wounds and bandage up. I had a lot of work to do because I was running for so long from the truth.

What truth do you feel like you were trying to escape?

The fact that I was never really that confident in myself. I was faking it until I made it. All the strength and the power that my mom instilled in me — did I ever truly really believe? Even in school, I was known to be a leader, but I was just putting on this act. Because I saw the Lauryn Hills of the world. I'm like, Yo, Lauryn, she comes off so confident, and if I'm going to be doing what she's doing, I got to make sure I walk in with that energy. I tricked myself. It's crazy, Rodney.

But ain't we all faking it?

We are! We are! I was faking the confidence. But it's like, I did all this work and it's like, You're actually who you are. You're actually who you appear to be.

Obviously, the Whack World EP and everything you've ever done is full of dark humor and a certain surrealist, absurdist vibe.

Wait, can I say something really quick? I'm sorry. 'Cause you like dark humor — my mind is racing, like always. So I woke up this morning and then I rolled over on a bed and I put a salt and vinegar chip in my mouth and then I started choking. So I got up and I was like, man, I almost died on the day my album came out. And I was like, how cool would that be? And then I just laughed. You're the first person I'm telling that.

Like see. That's that absurd.

Like, I don't take anything serious. It's like I do, but I don't. Like, we're not getting out alive. That's just the point of it all.

So, hold on, you were really choking that bad on these potato chips?

Yes, I was choking. Like, I was down on my knees. Like, I rolled over, sat up, and then got on the floor. I was like, Goddamn.

Hold on, where was your manager? Where were people?

I was in the room by myself! It was almost over. I almost didn't make it here.

I think in our minds, when you reach your status, there are just like people and handlers all around you at all times.

I'm not there yet. But I mean, even still, I just love my privacy. I need privacy.

Well, yeah, this album does get deep. And I'm curious: When did you know that the mood of this album was gonna be darker and more different than anything you've done in the past?

For a long time, like, every day I would go to the studio, I would only make sad music. It was so depressing. I'm like, I'm tired of my own self. And then I took a break from the studio, and that's when I really started putting in that time to just figure out what is going on with me.

So that was the therapy. I started working out, exercising, all of these new things that I had never done like before. I'm just like, yeah, I just need to try something, find some inspiration somewhere. I was just trying to figure it out. I didn't know really what, but I was like, OK, I keep going to the studio and I'm making the same stuff. I don't want to continue on making sad music. That's not who I am. I was ready to get up out of that darkness.

So what was the first song you made that let you know you were headed in the right direction?

I think it was "Difficult."

I love that song.

Other songs, I'm like complaining. I'm slumped, and I'm just sinking. And in "Difficult," it's like I know what this is. I figured it out and I just have to keep figuring it out. But I remember the feeling of like, OK, yeah, this is cool, people need to hear this. We all suffer and we go through things, but we got to keep pushing and like how you said: Don't we all fake it? Yeah, we all do, but we have to sometimes believe we got to trick ourselves into believing and then actually believe.

Well, do you ever run out of ideas, Tierra? Or do you have the opposite problem where you're constantly flooded with them?

No, I run out. I'm human, man. I run out. It get dry for me, man. It'd be so dry. And that's when I go outside and I go play and find new things to do and try and then I go back and I have something to talk about. That's why I said, too, I'm so proud of this. I'm not ashamed of this project or anything that I've done at all because I wouldn't have anything to talk about if I didn't go through these things. And as an artist, this is what we live to do: give our truth.

How many songs did you make that didn't make the album?

Get out of here. It's like, 300 songs.

Are you serious? Since when?

I have a lot of music, and so many songs, they'll never get to see the light of day.

Do you have a Prince vault?

Yes, I do. I got a vault. A Whack vault.

And they won't see the light of day because why?

Because they're not good songs. I don't make hits. This is not a hit factory.

I mean, I think a lot of people would disagree with that, but—

That's the thing, too: I'm not delusional or anything. I know I'm not perfect, and this album I'm promoting imperfection. It's OK to not be OK. Like, it's fine.

On "Numb" and "Burning Brains," you start to use this vocal manipulation. For a lot of people it feels like you're a different person. You have like this deadpan, really numb delivery on "Numb" and then on the hook of "Burning Brains" you got like this kind of mumble mouth garble. You've done that even going back to early in your career on "Mumbo Jumbo." How much of it is natural?

It's just how I feel sometimes. I can't explain it. I just feel like that.

Is this like regurgitating the feelings that you're trying to get rid of or something?

Yes, just like a big glob of — you know, the mucus commercials, Mucinex? I just feel like that, just like, yuugh. So "Burning Brains": I'm talking to myself. "Driving me insane / All you do is complain / Headache, my brain." I'm talking to myself. People think I'm talking to somebody. I'm talking to myself. I find the negative in everything. "Soup too hot / Ice too cold / Grass too green / Sky too blue / You're never satisfied / Can't love you, I tried / It's been a rough ride / Going out of my mind." I'm talking to myself, Rodney.

I thought you were mad at somebody.

No, I'm talking to Tierra, Tierra Whack. I keep telling you it was me. I had to take accountability: You're the reason you're not happy. And you deserve to be.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8, or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.