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  • Ben Gibbons

The Collaborative Spirit of INEZ

Singer-songwriter and producer INEZ is one of the most exciting and promising voices in the Pittsburgh music scene. Ben Gibbons sits down with the artist to discuss music, the city, and everything in between.

INEZ Pittsburgh local artist
Illustration: The Pittsburgher

Ten years ago, you could find INEZ in a Pitt engineering lab, struggling to finish her work, being that person in group projects because she was too busy doodling lyrics or dreaming up song ideas. Fast forward to the present day, and you can find the Homewood-raised producer/singer/songwriter/all-around audiophile hoisting aloft a five-figure grant for advancing Black arts in Pittsburgh. The line from point A to point B is neither direct, easily drawn, nor finished, but it’s bold, and INEZ herself was kind enough to flesh out its trajectory for me a few months ago.

In early November 2021, I walked out of the blinding autumn sunshine and into the industrial-looking KLVN Coffee Lab (located on Hamilton Ave in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood), saw a person wearing a shirt that read “INEZ” in big block letters, walked over, and asked, “INEZ?”, fairly certain of what the answer would be. My keen power of inference was rewarded; it was in fact INEZ standing before me. We ordered our drinks—tea for her, espresso for me—sat down, moved once because the coffee lab’s music (which vaguely resembled the Zoo Tycoon computer game theme) was too loud, and sat down again.

In person, as well as on record, INEZ radiates a sense of confidence in herself and in her work. It’s not the braggadocio of a person who believes that their worth needs to be validated by awestruck looks and social media genuflection, but the cool fire of someone who already knows their own value, and carries that sense with them internally. Even back in 2011, when INEZ made the decision to switch from pursuing an engineering degree through Pitt (with a mom who worked at Pitt, no less) to following her musical ambition elsewhere, her thought process was resolute. As she put it, “I kind of woke up one day and realized that it was stupid to waste my time on something I wasn’t passionate about […] I didn’t really think too far ahead. I kind of knew that my feet would fall where they were supposed to. And the rest is literally history.”

A bit more about that history: INEZ soon enrolled in an online certificate program at Berklee College of Music in Massachusetts. “I was a little leery about it, because it was just a certificate,” she told me, “but I started it with the encouragement of some people in my life.” The move paid off; a year later, the school started offering online degrees, and INEZ was one of 150 students accepted out of 3,000 applicants from around the world. Next came a period of intense, and varied, work involving online courses, a full time job, a part-time teaching job, and an internship at a studio. INEZ conceded that it was “a lot, a lot, a lot,” but believes that the experience gave her the fortitude she needed to become an artist, and later, an entrepreneur. She told me, “If you can get through that period of craziness […] and make it out alive, being an artist is really a cakewalk after that.”

INEZ initially wanted to be a producer, but discovered songwriting while working toward her Berklee degree. She never considered stage performance as an option (“I used to dream about it, but not tell people, because I didn’t think I could sing”), but after she graduated, she fell in with a musical crowd in Pittsburgh, and got to work on her own art, dropping several singles over the course of a few years before releasing her full-length debut, Voicemails and Conversations, in December 2019. An intensely personal creation centered on the concept of love—romantic, platonic, and familial—the album, which splits the difference between hip-hop and R&B, intersperses meticulously-crafted ballads, scorchers, bangers, and creepers (written, produced, mixed, and mastered by the artist herself) with snippets of actual voice recordings of INEZ’s family members. About Voicemails, INEZ told me, “The album was really just the foundation for what I wanted people to respect about my writing and my production; it’s a really great cornerstone.” In true INEZ fashion, she announced the album’s release date two weeks in advance, with only 40% of it completed, glued herself to her producer’s chair for the next fourteen days (“I took vacation from my full time job”), finished the mastering process the morning of the release, dropped the album, realized the tracks were too quiet, pulled it from streaming, remastered it in three days, and re-released it to critical acclaim.

INEZ takes an old-school approach, rather than an algorithm-feeding one, to her trade; the art itself sets the pace, as opposed to the streams. Elaborating on her mindset: “When I was growing up […] there was real artist development, and I feel like we’ve lost sight of that because people don’t want to be forgotten.” She’s currently working on an EP, which she sees as a stepping stone toward her next full-length, which is tentatively scheduled for this fall. That album, INEZ shared, will incorporate a broader range of styles than did Voicemails, including opera, world music, and classical influences. About the possibility of people moving on after nearly three years between projects? “If you love what you do and you’re passionate, no one would forget that. You don’t forget the first time you heard a Nirvana album or a Stevie Wonder album. […] It’s timeless, and that’s what I want with every release.”

In this period between albums, INEZ has been busy with a venture called BLKNVMBR. A collaboration with Clara Kent—another standout singer/songwriter from Homewood—the project arose from two artists’ observations, collected over the course of 600 local shows played between the two, that Black artists are often given short shrift in Pittsburgh’s music scene, despite producing some of the city’s most exciting music. About those many performances, INEZ posed the question, “How many were great because of the sound and the venues and these other external factors?” She quickly answered herself, “We can only think of a handful where we felt heard, respected, where the management or the venue treated us appropriately; it’s like 20 times between the both of us.” From my own experience, limited as it may be, it’s easy to sniff out a DIY basement venue full of crusty white dudes playing punk on any given night, but try and find a stage that consistently books R&B and rap artists, and you hit a brick wall. To take steps toward remedying this disparity, INEZ and Kent spearheaded a multimedia effort in November 2020 to highlight music by Black Pittsburgh R&B and R&B-inspired artists, including more established names like Sierra Sellers and Lyn Starr alongside young guns like Najj Andrea and Dejah Monea.

The positive response to the month-long BLKNVMBR push led to a year-round effort, with INEZ and Kent putting their own dollars into both promotion and music production for their cohort of artists. Then, an opportunity for growth: “When we found out that Heinz Endowments [a Pittsburgh-based philanthropic organization] was doing the Advancing the Field Grant [a subset of Heinz’s Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh program], I was like, ‘I kind want us to go for this money,’ and we did!” With support from organizations like the Kelly Strayhorn Theater and Barrel & Flow (the nation’s first Black beer festival), INEZ and Kent got their documents together, submitted a “beautiful and passionate grant,” and were eventually awarded $25,000 to establish BLKNVMBR as a permanent media and promotional house, complete with bank accounts, money for programming, and funds for artists’ own work. The plan is to branch out and establish relationships with other Black-led organizations, connect with those looking to showcase Black talent, and generally “reclaim space for artists who may not just be jazz or classical musicians […] with the renaissance of the talent we have here, we can absolutely be a city that people look at for all genres, so we’re just trying to do our part to make sure that happens for R&B or R&B-adjacent artists.”

People have told me that Pittsburgh’s music community is a fragmented sprawl of cliques. While acknowledging that systemic factors play a role (“We’re all in a city that doesn’t have the support to sustain us as creatives. We’re all winging it”), INEZ believes that this stasis may be partially self-imposed, the result of people’s fear or unwillingness to reach out and connect with each other in a “trash” ecosystem for artists, and she wants to start cracking through the ice, both through BLKNVMBR and through smaller-scale interaction. “Let’s have a conversation face-to-face, let’s get coffee, let’s discuss, let’s email, let’s use all these social media avenues,” she urged. “The more people can put down ego and put down what they think they deserve and just have real conversations, you get so much further.” INEZ’s line has passed through engineering labs, online music courses, frantic recording sessions, entrepreneurship, and now it splits into many smaller lines, criss-crossing a city in desperate need of collaborative spirit, connecting creatives one at a time so that, slowly but perceptibly, they all move forward. ▲

Ben Gibbons is a writer, part-time musician, and full-time music fan hailing from the Philadelphia suburbs and currently based out of Pittsburgh. He graduated from George Washington University in 2017 with a degree completely unrelated to music or writing, but, hey, who cares about majors anyway? He loves and appreciates all styles of music, and has spent the past few years exploring the local scene through his Bored In Pittsburgh blog.

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