The French-Algerian adopted New Yorker is an R’n’B starlet innovating through her inclusivity.
Lolo Zouaï (pronounced “zoo-eye”) isn’t your everyday pop or R’n’B star. Born in Paris to French and Algerian parents, the singer moved when she was three months old, her parents winning the ‘90s Visa lottery and re-locating the family to the San Francisco bay area, where she grew up. Now an adopted New Yorker, her multi-cultural, multi-locationary past and diverse urban present have collided to create a sound that is mesmeric and unique, combining soft, luscious vocals with hazy DIY production, forming something infectious and, importantly for the young singer, different.
This multi-cultural background comes across strongly when listening to Zouaï’s music. Hit single “High Highs to Low Lows” has a verse sung entirely in French, and the melodic impact of predominantly Arabic language musicians like Khaled (of “Aicha” not “WE THE BEST MUSIIIC” fame) are notable throughout her singles. As our conversation progresses, Zouaï politely waiting until we’re finished to tuck into her scrambled eggs, the influence that her upbringing has had becomes increasingly clear. This is someone who is dedicated to her roots, resisting the option taken by many of re-branding to fit the perceived desires of labels and radio listeners. Still independent, she explains that she will only sign when the time is right, to a label who understands her eclectic personality and sound, and not a minute before.
This is characteristic of a singer who is wise beyond her years. Be it regarding labels, her overcoming of stage fright, or her aims for the future, Zouaï speaks with a maturity that is striking for someone still so young, and this bodes extremely well. At a time where, especially in the United States, division reigns, the efforts made by artists such as Zouaï to link cultures, and build bridges not walls, is refreshing and vital. It is understandably seen as a cliché to talk about the “power of music” – everyone and their aunt has heard the phrase – but this is a rare case where the saying rings true, the singer’s efforts towards inclusivity a real example, and one that will hopefully be followed by more and more artists as the world of art responds to its grim political surroundings. Challenging the tired Western-centric view of music that has pervaded the industry for too long, Zouaï’s decision to embrace, and not shy away from, her roots sets her apart, and with new music and visuals on the way, I cannot wait to see what she does next.
How are you?
I’m good! I just did a European tour, and went to a bunch of new places; I was in Switzerland, Belgium, and these smaller cities like Freiburg. It was amazing because we’d do like these packed basement shows, and I kept meeting these die-hard fans who were like ‘I never thought you’d come here, why’d you come here?!’ (laughs). Then I did Lisbon, and Paris, which was nuts, crazy. And now I’m in London, and playing tomorrow night at Corsica Studios. The airport lost our merch though!
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?
Yeah. It was always what I loved to do, but when you’re young you don’t really realise how that’s possible, because I didn’t really see it anywhere around me. My family weren’t musicians – they loved music, but it wasn’t ever put on to me. I did have piano lessons, and I learned to play the trumpet in sixth grade, then I started messing around with my voice on this voice memo recorder when I was younger – I would reverse it, and so on. When I was 19 I went to college for a semester, in Nashville. It was so different. It was kind of an awesome experience – I started performing at like basement parties and stuff – but I dropped out because it was so expensive. My major was song-writing, I had gotten in by submitting songs that I’d written, but I never even got far enough into the course to do a song-writing class. I always wonder how that would have been, because I feel it’s kind of a weird thing, teaching someone to have good taste.
Who did you listen to growing up?
Being in the Bay Area in San Francisco, I was always just listening to the radio. And my mum would also always listen to classic French music. So I was really into that, and pop and R’n’B at the time. I was obsessed with it, I had the Britney poster…she’s iconic.
Would you say your music fits into a certain genre?
It’s hard, because I have a lot of different sounds. My songs are all different genres really, but they also all fit together. I would say it’s pop and R’n’B, with some Hip-Hop influences. Melodically, it’s got kind of Arabic vibes…it’s so fucking hard to describe! I think it’s different. I’m not going for a standard structure; I’m trying to make it different. Melancholy. Bittersweet (laughs).
What’s your process for making songs – do you focus more on song-writing, or production, or what?
Me and [acclaimed producer] Stelios Phili – who’s like the GOAT by the way – start with a simple beat, then we’ll get the melody, then we’ll focus a lot on the lyrics, and then the production. We work on production together a lot, he’s the one who’s doing most of it physically, but I direct him sometimes, and we work on it together. I produced certain songs like “Challenge”, and some songs that I have coming on a later project, making beats with logic and stuff. But yeah, everything’s important!
You were born in France to a French mother and an Algerian father but relocated to San Francisco when you were young, but you’re now based in New York. Why the change?
I think New York has brought me back to my roots in a sense. We record out of this basement – it’s a great studio but it’s in a basement in the lower East side – gritty, and grungy, and there’s so much history in it. We always say that there’s the ghost of Michael Jackson in there; he comes to visit, and gives us advice. Not in a creepy way! (laughs)…There’s this feeling that it’s been lived in, and there’s a lot of greatness in that studio
I read somewhere that you used to listen to “Aicha” by Khaled when you were little, which is so funny because my mum remembers driving round London with me as a kid standing , ith my head out of the sunroof, belting it out…have you been inspired by any other non-English speaking artists?
Really? No way! Khaled for sure…I don’t know if I’ve necessarily been inspired by it, but there was this song “Ya Baba” by Sidi Mansour that I loved growing up. Then a lot of French women: Edith Piaff – her songs are insanely beautiful – and Francoise Hardy. Oh, and Brigitte Bardot, more for her badass aesthetic and general vibe.
How important is it for people to look beyond UK and US music?
It’s extremely important. I think that, nowadays, all the cultures are coming together. There’s Spanish coming into all pop music, and I’m excited to do that with French, because I think it’s kind of lacking in the U.S. at the moment.
You’ve been featured on a few tracks, but I’ve noticed that you tend not to feature others on your singles. Is there a reason for this?
I’m very picky (laughs). I do have a collaboration coming that I’m very excited about, but I can’t say who it’s with. The thing with collaborations is that they have to come naturally – I’m not going to force it. I’m not on a label, so I’m not like paying 20k for a verse, I would rather it happened naturally. It’s situational.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with?
When I was younger, I really liked The Weeknd’s album, so I’ve always said I want to work with him. I also want to write with Ty Dolla $ign, I love him.
Talk us through you process a bit, do you hole yourself up in the studio for ages, or is it very collaborative?
It’s really just me and Stelios in the studio. We work really well together, we don’t really need more – it clicks, and we’re comfortable together. There’s definitely no one rolling through, not like a rapper’s scene (laughs). I don’t like to have people in there – it’s too personal!
Are you into fashion? Is it something you give much importance to?
When I look up to an artist, it’s not only for their music, but for their style, their presence, what they stand for. So I think my personal style has always been something I give importance to; I love thrifting, I think it makes it more fun. I was just in Amsterdam, and I saw this brand Daily Paper, which is super fire. I love Tommy Hilfiger a lot, vintage things. KidSuper is the brand I work with in New York, but I’m just starting to understand high fashion, I haven’t had the chance to wear it till now!
Do you have any memorable music industry stories or fan moments you’ve experienced while coming up?
I’ve been recognised a couple of times, and I’m just like “wait, me?!” (laughs). It’s crazy – it doesn’t happen every day, but for it to happen was amazing. Oh, oh! One time, ok, so I was CityBiking in New York, on my way to a Beyoncé concert…it’s a long story…
Tell the story!
Ok, so basically, these people that wanted to work with us brought me and Doug, my manager, to the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert in New Jersey. But, the only way to get there was by helicopter. So here I am, CityBiking to the helipad, straight up, and I was like “Imagine if someone saw me right now”. You know when you’re like, “Imagine if someone recognised me right now”, then no one actually does, right? So I’m biking and listening to some music, and this guy on the street screams “LOLO! I fuck with your music!” I was already feelin’ myself – I’m going to a fucking helicopter to see Beyoncé – and it was just amazing.
That is a music industry story. Now, “High Highs to Low Lows” blew up, with over 5 million streams worldwide and not that much promotion Have you noticed any changes in your life since that song came out?
Literally no promotion! Yeah, I mean I’m not as broke anymore, which is what the song was about. It’s just launched my career – it’s not a dream any more, I’m actually doing it every day. You start trusting people a little bit less…it’s scary to put yourself out there, and once people start knowing you, you start becoming more aware of yourself, and your brand, and how you come across. It’s a little difficult, but it’s just about adjusting!
How much do you think you’ve grown as an artist since you first started out?
I’ve grown so much, I know myself now, I know my style – the music I used to record was so different, like anybody could have sung it, whereas now I think it’s really true to me. I think I’m just going to keep growing every day. Especially as a performer – I had stage fright like seven months ago, which is terrifying. I’m good now, but it was debilitating – it was my biggest fear.
What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry now?
Don’t wait for somebody to help you, just do it yourself, at least in the beginning. And just put something out! There’s all these websites like TuneCore who can do it for ten dollars, or for free. People don’t know how easy it is to put music out – you don’t need a label.
What would you say your ultimate aim was?
I want to have a long career. I want to have a lot of albums, and I want to be around for a while. Connecting with people is the biggest thing – being able to help others through your music, and being able to help yourself, is the most important thing. I feel like the biggest goal is to get rich, and then give away all your money!
What’s next for you?
Videos, new music next year…be ready because I’m coming in hot next year.