ZUZU has marked her territory in the world of Liverpool indie good and proper, with her punk and grunge-infused sound, and songs with glorious choruses and catchy hooks. She’ll not be Liverpool’s best kept secret for much longer – the wider world will know about her very soon, following her recent signing to Virgin Records.
This year so far has been, in Zuzu’s own words, “a whirlwind”. In February she was, unexpectedly she says, snapped up by the major record label and in March she supported Tom Grennan on his sold-out tour. Next month there’s a release to look forward to, an EP titled Made On Earth By Humans, then she’s back out on the road again, this time supporting Peace around the UK.
We have our chat in Zuzu Stranack’s studio in Birkenhead. Monkey Heaven Recordings is run by Zuzu and her producer and guitarist Kurran Karbal. It’s an airy but comfortable room, with soft furnishings and all manner of personal knick knacks. We’re surrounded by shelves full of books written by inspiring women like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Tool and Red Hot Chilli Peppers producer Sylvia Massy (“this is a book of unconventional recording techniques… amazing stories, like recording through a hose pipe”). Stuffed toys also peer out from any spare surface not covered with guitar pedals and microphones. “I’m a big toy collector,” she says excitedly when she notices that I’ve clocked them. “I love toys, I love Beanie Babies. Anything that’s colourful and probably too young for me!”
Zuzu is a solo artist, but works closely with Karbal. He produces the songs and provides harmonies too, yet the remainder of the line-up is largely fluid, ever shifting and changing. Band members can include members of Hooton Tennis Club, and Tom Grennan’s bass player and long-term friend Julia Lamb. “Sometimes it can feel like a band live, but actually it’s just me. I mix it up.”
As a child Zuzu listened to her mum and dad’s record collections, “The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons,” adolescence bringing with it the natural instinct to go her own way, courtesy of Blink 182, The Libertines, and Arctic Monkeys. The first song she ever wrote was at the tender age of seven. Called Witches From Hell, it was “a bit pop punk, a bit goth. I had a Freaky Friday, Josie And The Pussycats vibe – it was the noughties! I didn’t stray too far did I, to be honest!” she says gesturing to her pink suit and space age kinky boots. “Still going for that Josie And The Pussycats look.”
It wasn’t until she was 14 that Zuzu started taking her own music making seriously. Moving from Mossley Hill to down south with her family pitched her into a world out of her comfort zone. “I had no mates. I thought I’d better get myself a guitar and do something with my time rather than writing all these miserable [teenage] diaries,” she jokes. Then at 18 she signed a publishing deal. “I was writing songs and I was very obsessed by Motown and 60s stuff, which I still am and it’s always going to be inside me – it’s my core, and grunge stuff.”
Her songwriting process hasn’t changed that much since then, Zuzu tells me. After all, if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t need fixing. “I write on my acoustic guitar on my couch in my bedroom. To be honest, it all comes out at once. I never think about what I’m going to say, it all just spills out. I think about the chords maybe a bit afterwards, I like to set the chords off from the melody a bit so that I’m not following the chords all the time.”
Those early years of listening to her parents’ albums have certainly paid off, with singles Beauty Queen and Get Off reflecting the classic air of groove-laden rock, but containing the space to let Zuzu’s bold voice take the songs by the scruff of the neck.
“I still listen to a lot of The Beatles; when you pick apart the songs, they don’t just follow the chords, the melody is always set apart. I used to be a lot more elitist in my listening, I used to think, ‘I’m so cool, I listen to Grandaddy maaaan, I listen to really obscure bands’. But now I bloody love Cardi B! I think she’s boss. I mean, I’m not going to start writing hip hop, but now I’m feeling you can take things from everything. There’s a reason things do well, you can take positives and take good things from all kinds of different music. That’s something that I’m learning now definitely, and trying to do with my songwriting.”
I mention an old interview Bido Lito! did with her about 18 months ago, in which we described her as an “indie starlet”. She laughs as the memory. “Those things are always funny, when anyone tries to describe you. I certainly don’t feel like an indie starlet.”
An indie star to be, possibly? When I ask how she would describe herself, she’s quick off the mark. “A crank. A boring bitch. A cat person. I like to play music. I dunno, it’s such a hard question. As a chick, y’know, people are gonna say something about [that] anyway aren’t they?” She pauses for a moment. “I hate the word sassy.” I hate feisty, I tell her. It’s so patronising. “That’s a bad one!” she agrees. “The sass thing annoys me. People don’t use that word for men, and I’m actually not very sassy. I’m actually quite respectful. Obviously the music is what it is, indie, so I’m happy to be described as anything as long as it’s not negative.”
Zuzu took some time away from music last year, yet that period and the stressful time leading up to it ironically, in its own way, helped her make the Made On Earth By Humans EP. “I was feeling quite suffocated,” she recalls. “I want people to take whatever they want out of it but [the EP] is definitely about expectations and things. The second track on the EP is about literally running away – ‘Fuck this, let’s just get out, I can’t deal with the clouds and rain anymore’.”
“I do think about living up North…,” she continues, weighing up her words before she speaks. “I love it so much, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but I also think this winter’s been a long one, hasn’t it? Maybe it’s because my year felt… when you feel a bit suppressed, the weather can feel like that too. Anyway, that’s what I wrote the song about. Getting out, getting out into the sun.”
The EP is mixed by Dan Grech (Lana Del Rey, The Vaccines, Circa Waves) and the last song on the EP, All Good, is a personal favourite of Zuzu’s. It’s an older song, and pre-dates the time she took away from music. “It’s got aliens in but it’s not actually about aliens – it’s about tripping out of yourself.”
She’s relaxed and assured chatting to me in the studio, reclining on a comfy sofa as she describes how happy she is to be able to record the songs with Kurran in their own studio. “We’ve been waiting for this, a long time to release a body of work. I wanted it to be us to have our stamp on it, to have fun and put weird stuff on it.” That ‘weird stuff’ includes a theremin, and the idea of experimenting with different instruments is to her “all the fun. That’s why I want to do it [record] here.”
After Made On Earth By Humans comes out, Zuzu already has a plan for what the year looks like, with her label laying out a schedule that packs in a fair amount of work. She’ll record another five or six songs – and there are already working titles chalked up on a board in the studio, hinting that the graft has already begun. They’ll be released as a series of singles, maybe another EP, but Zuzu has her sights set beyond these initial steps. “I’m hoping next year we’re going to record the album.”
There’s a new video for us to enjoy as well. The entertaining strangeness of the What You Want video from last year, directed by Zuzu herself, was a spoof inspired by the film I Heart Huckabees. The tale of existential detectives following her around, inspires confidence in her next one. “It’s important to me that the videos come from me and my brain. I’m super into having creative control of videos because I feel it’s an extension of the music and I feel sometimes people can get a bit can get complacent with it, and before you know it it’s someone else’s idea. And it can be something completely unrelated to you. Or something you’d never do or wear.”
With the new video, “It’s subject to change because we haven’t shot it yet,” she warns, but so far guarantees aliens, and a 60s vibe, a beauty pageant, and her band as alien hunters travelling around in a motorhome. “I’m going for a retro futurism thing but at the same time I’m really into having really stylised and obscure people in very normal places,” she explains. “Even before all this I was doing my videos on a shoestring trying to get some of my ideas through and now it’s a dream come true because… everything will be pink and blue and yellow and there will be aliens and a caravan…”
At the meeting when the Virgin Records deal offer was made, she remembers “I was confused. I was, ‘What’s going on?’,” before adding “100% I did not see that coming at all. I was fortunate that the man who signed me [is] very in line with my vision. I’ve only been signed to them for two months, but they’ve been nothing but encouraging of my ideas. I’m still waiting for the catch! I still feel, ‘What’s going to happen? It’s going too well!’”
This vision consists of unapologetically being her own person creatively – zany music videos and alien references very much included – and not bending to the will of those around her. “I feel like a knob for even saying it. My vision! It sounds super lame,” Zuzu laughs. “I just mean as an artist it’s easy to be sidetracked and railroaded quite a lot. I don’t think people intentionally mean to, but everyone has a vision of what they want you to do, or what they think you should be or sound like. I know the ideas I come up with are a bit wacky, I’m not gonna lie…”
Wacky is a good thing in my book. Certainly every artist has their own vision of what they want their work to sound like and how they want to communicate their ideas. Zuzu is no exception to this – the exceptional thing about her is the quality of the songwriting that underpins her work, and the quiet ambition and self-assuredness in her ideas that convince you that she’s going to make it to the top.
Made On Earth By Humans is released in May via Virgin Records.