Even before I meet ZUZU on an icy winter’s afternoon on Bold Street, she already seems the archetypal modern artist. As an unknown back in early 2015, she posted three demos online, including the muted You, a confessional wash of faltering guitars and sombre vocals. The track’s solemn gravity had her become a whispered-about prospect online, leading Stranger Records (stable of smoky-voiced songstresses Lana Del Rey and Charlotte OC) to offer to back and release her next single. As it turns out, this trifold package of raw talent, laptop production and social media intrigue that has become the basis of the modern music industry isn’t the only obviously 21st-century aspect of Zuzu. She was also global before even releasing a note of music by way of her quarter Iranian ancestry, and having grown up between the Wirral, New York and Los Angeles. Now secluded permanently on the Wirral in a space that allows her time to reflect and write, Zuzu is adamant that each place has shaped her music in a different way: “I like writing in different places because different stuff comes out, it’s really strange. Heritage is really important to me.” It’s maybe as a result of these worldly influences that Zuzu’s voice stands out amongst the internet’s musical swamp of mediocrity, rough gems, talent and delusion.
Unlocking Zuzu’s world is not an easy feat, especially if all you have to go on is what the internet gives you. To successfully appraise the artist as she currently exists is to embrace this mystique: hold the trip pop melodies, cryptic YouTube videos and assortment of spiritual images as one, and allow your mind to project. It’s an unusual and unique mixture, as indeed is her name – but she isn’t to be confused with Merseyside’s ‘other’ Zuzu, the Liverpool-based musician who recently supported Courtney Barnett at the O2 Academy. Such visibility isn’t yet the preserve of this Zuzu, but it hasn’t stopped the blogosphere’s murmurings from making her name a frequently spoken one across the desks of industry tastemakers.
Oblivious to all this, Zuzu seems to be developing with each passing month. Her first single, You, was all about her voice: it was placed front and centre in the mix and what was surprising was that, amongst such a familiar environment, her vocals instantly seemed recognisable. Yet her voice was all that remained of her sound when Clever Gains appeared at the end of 2015. If You raised eyebrows, then it was Clever Gains that really announced her arrival as an artist of rare potential. Gone were the hazily plucked guitars, and in their place came a sparse arrangement of lonely stabs of piano, around which Zuzu’s mournful voice described a faltering relationship, infidelity and loss. It’s a memorable and weighty track, which has that strange quality of drifting round your head for weeks, in much the same way that Lana Del Rey’s breakout track Video Games did when it came out in 2010 (yes, it was that long ago). Yet Zuzu laughs about how close Clever Gains came to not being at all: “I recorded it in London with Greg Freeman, but I was really sick that day! I was just getting over a strep throat so I could only record three takes. I was like, that’s all I can do!” While contracting throat infections is hardly a recommended route to success, Clever Gains does have an honesty and rawness to it that now doesn’t seem surprising given the circumstances under which it was recorded.
The longer we talk, the more obvious it becomes that Zuzu is a really inspired artist rather than somebody pursuing a career in music as an alternative to grinding out a living in a bank. The harder I try to pin her down on a period where she became aware she wanted to become a musician, the more she rejects even the idea that there was a decision-making process. Eventually she concludes that, “it’s hard to answer that question because I’ve always been around music; I just do it. And I guess that each month that passes, I start believing in it more and it gets better, and then it becomes something that I do.” Equally, she describes songwriting in a way that makes it sound more effortless than existing: “Naturally, when I get up I do go and write,” she says, seemingly blissfully unaware that this actually diverges from the universal routine of first drowning sleep deprivation in coffee and then heading to work. “It’s probably the first thing I do before breakfast. It’s really strange, it’s like there’s a magnet and I’m getting pulled to the other room.”
It’s this instinctive relationship with music that’s evident in the soulful, spaced-out melodies of Clever Gains, and it seems an integral part of Zuzu, both unconsciously and intentionally; she describes how her past obsession with the guitar has given way to a fascination with writing by piano, a less familiar instrument to her, because: “I like that naive aspect of it; I’m not thinking about what I’m playing so much.” Consequently, the resulting music is her melodic and emotional reflexes unedited, which is maybe why it sounds so personal, which makes me wonder whether that made her think twice before sharing it all online. “When you’re writing stuff, you don’t really think about whether people will like it,” she replies. I tell her that I probably would do, at which she fires at me, “are you a Virgo?” I’m an
Aquarius, I tell her, a cynical one. She sighs, “Ohh…” and trails off disapprovingly, as if I’d just told her that I’m old mates with George Osborne and we sometimes go out hunting puppies on his estate. Eventually she comes around: “It’s funny… I won’t get into astrology,” although it’s clear that we are definitely into astrology, “but yeah I feel like some star signs over think… I have a friend who tells me that I beat something into the dust until I figure out why it’s making me feel like that.” It might frustrate her friend, but it clearly makes for a great songwriter: it’s that interrogation of faith and emotion that makes Clever Gains such an emotionally resonant track.
Zuzu is already differentiating herself musically with her stark and woozy dream pop, and it’s no surprise that her clear vision comes from her immersion in music. Asked if the sound that she’s arrived at on Clever Gains is permanent, she’s reluctant to commit herself: “I just wanted that song to be rough because that’s how I heard it and I like electronic production. But I like loads of different things. Today I was listening to Grace Jones’ Private Life; it’s a jam.” Shocked by my admission that I’ve never got into Grace Jones, she starts grilling me about Talking Heads, obscure German bands, and finally settles on Californian synth group Gardens & Villa. “They’re quite psychedelic. I liked their new record because they went in a different direction; I admire artists that take risks.” It all both explains why Clever Gains has those artful idiosyncrasies and that restraint that you’d expect from more experienced artists, and promises a lot for her future material.
Seeing as the year has just turned when we meet, I ask her for her favourite album from last year, expecting to hear something like Julia Holter, Grimes or Beach House. Instead, she says that the album she listened to most was Mystic Dhun by the now-deceased Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I’m slightly wrong-footed by this, but she explains: “My dad is a yogi. When I was younger we would always have music and mantras around a lot. You inherit a lot from your parents.” There’s much truth to that final statement: it turns out that her mother used to be a backing singer for Prince as well as a recording artist (of some note) in her own right. Although her parental influence didn’t make becoming a musician inevitable, Zuzu claims it couldn’t help but have an impact on her. “When I was younger I wanted to be a writer,” she explains, “but we had a lot of musical equipment in the house, and a whole bookshelf full of CDs.” The central element of Zuzu is undoubtedly herself; in fact, so far her music has been almost uncomfortably personal, but it’s clear to see what she’s inherited in that slightly mystical, serenely paced quality to Clever Gains and an infinitely wide informal musical education.
Considering her influences are as esoteric as you can get, she slightly surprisingly sees her music as approaching something at the fringes of pop music. “It’s maybe soul or alternative. Or cosmic. That’s what it’s tagged as online – I think I was feeling pretentious that day,” she jokes. “But of course it’s pop as well. Pop gets a bad name but it’s not even a genre now; there are so many subgenres around it.” She might not have invented an entirely new subgenre yet, but the intent and the ability are both there and you get the feeling that it won’t be too long before we’re hearing more cosmic soul. Crucially, she has strong ideas about what she wants to achieve and a defined vision that she won’t let anybody compromise. To achieve that end, she has started doing her own production – something she has in common with the most recent impressive pop graduates, Grimes and FKA Twigs. If she can match them for ambition and imagination as well, we’re in for something really special; if you draw a line forwards from the plaintive You through to the sultry Clever Gains and extrapolate it into the future, it’s not hard to see it happening. With recording sessions with Dan Carey (All We Are, Childhood, Bloc Party) now completed, an EP promised and an intention to get an album done this year (as well as to start playing live in Liverpool and London), it’s certainly a curve that’s worth following over the coming months.