Interview: A conversation with Lolo Zouai
Lolo Zouai is someone that knows what she wants, and more importantly, knows how to get it. Cognizant of her talent from an early age, she knew that her singing ability could one day take her to stardom, and although her internal compass hasn’t wavered, it has been anything but an easy journey. Whilst trying to make something happen in music she had to work multiple jobs to keep herself, and her dreams, afloat. An indomitable work ethic and hustling spirit derived from immigrant parents of Algerian and French descent, enabled her to maintain this balance, and receive attention from record companies. Despite potential label deals arising, they did not favour Lolo’s vision for herself. Bravely declining offers that many hungry artists would have taken, her patience was rewarded as she connected with producer, Stelios Phili, when moving to New York, on the back of turning down a record deal in Los Angeles. Their chemistry was instant, with the second song they ever made resulting in the breakout hit, ‘High Highs to Low Lows’.
It is a sonic embodiment of Lolo Zouai, sexy yet melancholic, bouncy but also pensive. An apt description, would be a ‘bittersweet banger’, a term that she has coined to describe her unique style. It is a vibe omnipresent throughout her debut album, also titled ‘High Highs to Low Lows’. The listener could be duped into believing her songs are about love and happiness, and although elements of that exist, the levity masks an undertone of sadness. However tracks like ‘Here to Stay’ and ‘Desert Rose’ are obvious in their vulnerability, vocalising the pain of depression on the former, and rejection from her family in Algeria on the latter. Her desire to be honest in her feelings is therapeutic, but far from being self-serving. She knows that by putting out her personal struggle for the world to see, she can relate to those in a similar situation, and let them know they aren’t alone in their own strife.
This combination of upbeat, fun music with a sensitive core, has translated into an ever growing fan-base. She has made major strides over the past couple of years – signing a record deal with Sony’s Since ’93 (RCA), a label which supports Lolo’s creative vision, touring with Alina Baraz, collaborating with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, and, as aforementioned, releasing her excellent first album. I had the chance to sit down with Lolo and speak about her progression as an artist, views on relationships, how her E-40 impersonation led her to her manager, helping people through her music and more:
When did you first discover you were good at singing?
I thought I was good by myself when I was young. I would practise singing in my room, and I’d listen to the radio, copying the artists. I didn’t take lessons, I’d just be teaching myself, and so I’d say from a young age I thought I was good, but I wasn’t ready to show people or sing in front of people, I was pretty nervous about that.
When did the talent shows come along?
Middle school and high school, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I did it, but I was terrified. And then in high school, when I was sixteen, it was my first time performing an original song, and I won the talent show.
That must have been a sort of validation in a sense
Yeah it was nice, everybody likes to win… I like to win.
Would you say you’re quite a competitive person?
Yeah, definitely. Highly… highly competitive (laughs)
Looking back at your older material, ‘So Real’, and ‘IDR’ has more of an R&B feel, do you feel your sound has changed a lot from then to ‘High Highs to Low Lows’?
‘So Real’ was with a different producer, it was kind of like a freestyle… ‘IDR’ fits ‘High Highs to Low Lows’ in terms of the mood. It’s not like I’ve changed, but I think I’ve evolved to make different songs but overall, it’s pretty similar.
On ‘IDR’, you’re telling someone you loved them, but you say you “fucked up” by doing so… why did you feel that way?
Because I didn’t mean it. It’s about being drunk… the song is called “I don’t remember”, so it’s a true story about a time where I blacked out… I haven’t ever since, but writing that song was just a way of turning a bad experience into something good.
Ahh ok… I thought it was the other way round, where you actually did love the person you were talking about but regretted telling them…
No! (Laughs), it was less nice than that… it’s a little bit of a sarcastic song, I don’t really like singing about love, I like to flip things that you wouldn’t expect. If you listened to it in passing, you would think it’s about love, but then if you listen more carefully to the lyrics, you realise it’s actually quite… savage. It’s quite cold… because I don’t fall in love very easily… or at all.
You call your music “Bittersweet Bangers”, where does that melancholy come from?
I don’t know, I think it’s a natural thing, I’ve always been very in touch with my feelings, and so when I’m sad I’m not afraid to express it. I think when I’m sad it’s the best time for me to write my music. I just tap into my feelings and I put it in the songs, but sometimes, they sound happy, but they’re not. ‘Brooklyn Love’, sounds fun, but if you listen carefully to it, it’s about an unfulfilled relationship.
Yeah, I guess ‘High Highs to Low Lows’ is a great example of a ‘bittersweet banger’. Was that the first time you worked with Stelios?
It was actually the second time. We’d worked together a few months before that song on a different song. It was cool but it was different. And after I came back, I had this new idea which was going to be ‘High Highs to Low Lows’. I knew exactly what kind of sound I wanted, so he had more direction from me.
What do you think it’s about him in particular that makes you guys click so well together?
He’s Cypriot and has a lot of that musical culture in him. He grew up listening to his grandpa playing instruments, so he has this musical sense to him, that I feel is similar to my musical sense. We relate on that level, he has no ego, he’s just so different from any producer that I’ve ever met. He’s such a hard worker, and gets the job done. He also makes music for ads, as his main job, so he’s able to make any type of sound, because ads will ask him for a particular sound, so he’s had the chance to create every type of genre of music. So he’s able to do that.
With ‘Chevy Impala’, when you say, “and when the sun sets, I don’t mind, ’cause I’ve got all the time”, what do you have time for?
It’s like “don’t worry”, because I’m still young and “when I wake up I’ll be in my Chevy Impala”, the Chevy Impala is a metaphor, it’s actually me. So when something bad happens, it doesn’t matter, because when I wake up I’ll still be myself. It’s deeper than what it sounds like! It sounds like, it’s about a car, but I’m the Chevy, I’ve got a tough body, but a soft interior. It’s like, “don’t worry, I’ll be fine”, because what always reassures me is that I’ll always be me, and no-one else can be me.
What do you feel has led to you developing that tough exterior?
I think just my life… I’ve had to be strong… I think that’s what it is. Growing up in San Francisco, you see everything from a young age, you see homelessness, you see drugs, and… not in my family at all, but on the streets. But you’re exposed to a lot at a young age. I went to school in the Haight District, which is like the hippie district, so I saw a lot of…. you see a lot! My mom never sheltered me from reality, so I just developed strength from that.
‘Caffeine’ and ‘Ride’, are very sexual songs, you’re very direct in what you want…. have you always had that confidence?
Yeah. From a young age, definitely. I’m not afraid to – not only sexually – but in my life, be confident and know what I want, and know how to get it. I feel if you just go for something, you can make it happen. For my career even, I always thought that this was going to happen, and I had to make it happen. You’ve got to go for what you want, and I feel as women, we don’t expect women to be singing the same thing as men, but when we do, other women are listening and they feel free. Whenever I’m listening to things like that, I’m like “ayyy!” You can be more free on a song than in real life…
Yeah I get that….
It’s just a more fun way to be free and express yourself.
Where do you think that comes from?
Just myself… what do you mean?
Has anyone put that drive within you?
I think my parents… they’re pretty bold people. They’re both immigrants, they moved to America, my dad started a business, he opened restaurants. My mom’s French, she has an accent. I feel when you have an accent, it’s harder to get a job for some reason, but she’s still a boss.
Within that song, you’re going for what you want sexually. The narrative generally is that men just want something physical, whereas women want something more i.e. love. Do you think that’s true?
No I think that everybody is the same. Everyone wants the same thing, everybody wants love… I don’t think most men want sex, and most women want emotion, I think it can be the opposite too.
I really like how ‘Look At Us’ transitioned from ‘Moi’… I read that you thought that 21 Savage would sound good on the song-
Have you approached him?
I would! He’d relate to that song… it’s about coming up
You’re into Bay Area Rap, do you think the best Rap comes out of there?
I think there’s so much good rap everywhere, but it’s definitely one of my favourites. Too Short, and E-40 are just the legends…
Would you approach them for a feature?
Ummm, maybe if it was a Bay Area crew… I think features have to be natural. I wouldn’t just hit up 21 Savage, unless I know him… or if we were in the studio together. I think it has to be natural, otherwise it can just look weird, when you see a rapper on a singer’s song, and you know that they’re not actually hanging out. It seems like it’s been paid for, and manufactured. I’m not about that. I’m very about staying authentic… but if E-40 hit me up, I wouldn’t say no! (laughs)
(Laughs) I’m sure if you tag him in enough posts online, he’d hit you up…
He actually liked one of my Insta videos… I was doing an impression of him… it’s actually how my manager found me. My manager found one of my songs on Soundcloud, ‘So Real’, and then he looked on to my Instagram. He saw two videos of me singing E-40. One of them was me dressed up as E-40, doing the “#sofargone” challenge. It was a popular instrumental, that everyone was doing freestyles over. So I chose to do it as E-40, rapped it in his voice, and my manager liked it. He cracked up apparently (laughs)
‘Desert Rose’ is one of my favourite tracks from the album. Looking online, it seems to be the track that hits fans differently as it’s very personal. Would you say it was therapeutic for you?
Yeah, definitely. It’s one of my favourite songs, I’ve ever written. I think it’s powerful because it’s about my family in Algeria, and just feeling far away from them, because they told me not to come to Algeria. I was supposed to go for my cousin’s wedding, but they told me not to come, because they weren’t happy with what I was doing with my music. I’m not even that out there with my music, I’m pretty chill. So I was really hurt by that… but at the same time, I totally understand where they were coming from. I live in America, and they live in Algeria, it’s just a completely different culture, and religion also comes into play. It wasn’t out of anger, it was out of sadness and love. So I tried to make something that sonically they would feel familiar with. A lot of people have told me, they feel the same way about their family. Someone even told me, he related to it, because he was gay, and he grew up in Egypt. It was very difficult for him, so it was great to know that it helped people get through some real experiences.
Do you feel it’s been a process understanding your family’s decision?
Yeah, I was pretty upset. I understood it, but I was mad that family wasn’t coming above that. They wanted me to not use my last name for my music, but I was like, “well, it’s my last name too! I’m going to make my own legacy from my last name”… but now I totally understand it… it’s ok, I get it.
That’s your dad’s family, so when he found out, how did he react?
He was just like, “oh, don’t listen to them”, but I don’t think he knew the extent of what they were sending me and saying.
Yeah, because he’s also the black sheep of his family. He moved to America, so I got it from him.
Do you feel quite settled in your identity now?
Yeah, I mean, I try to not overthink it. I just realise that I’m many things, and I’m not one thing. We all are many things, but everybody wants you to be one thing. I’m a lot of things, and that’s what makes me interesting.
When you perform ‘Desert Rose’ live, do you find it difficult?
It’s one of my favourite songs to perform. I do a little bit of Arabic dancing at the beginning, sometimes I cry… certain songs, I just cry, which annoys me, but it means I’m really feeling what I’m saying. And sometimes I just try and avoid the actual message and just sing it.
With ‘Blue’, and on ‘Here To Stay’, you use colour to describe emotions…
I kind of see colours… I don’t think I have that thing where you can hear colours
I do feel every song has a colour. ‘Blue’ is the first one, because I’d dyed my hair blue, but ‘Here to Stay’ is like a response, so the blue fades to grey. I think colour is a great way to describe emotions, because in those two songs blue is sadness and grey is numbness. So I was saying that I’m going from sadness to feeling like nothing. You know what I mean? But yeah, it’s a creative way to talk about feelings.
And it’s vivid as well…
Yeah it’s vivid. Because then you get to see what I’m thinking and what I’m seeing, when I’m writing it.
With, ‘Here to Stay’, that’s a song which is about depression. You’re an extrovert and quite an expressive person, do you feel that because of those two traits, your lows are more intense?
When I’m sad, and when I feel that way, it’s very difficult for me to be an extrovert. But with my career, you can’t be like, “oh, I don’t feel like not doing this interview today”, you just have to… so instead of faking it, I just try to be honest and be like “oh, today’s one of those days”, and be more mellow. But that makes the happier days that much better. It’s like “oh yes, I’m in a good way!” (laughs)
The final track of the album, ‘Beaucoup’, it’s a super stripped back song relative to your other songs… what was the process behind that?
I wanted to make a song that was classic, French, and a play on the Francoise Hardy songs. She makes these beautiful ballads. Stelios was really down with the idea, so we just played it on the guitar, and we wrote it. And you know how the album is so beat focused, and I wanted the last song to be a “aahh” (Lolo exhales), like a breath of fresh air. I wanted the song to be something I could play for years, so that you couldn’t tell when it’s from. So we recorded that, and I remember we recorded the whole thing in thirteen minutes in one take. I feel like it was one of those moments… like my voice sounds different in French. It sounds more mature… which I like. And, it was a challenge for me, and I’m just happy with how it came out. It’s a classic.
I’d agree… so I went to look at the lyrics translation-
Oh you translated them?!
There’s an English translation on Genius
I put them on there
Oh, those are yours?!
Yeah, I got you!
So I read one of your lyrics, “when a man sees a woman, he sees her in pink, but when a woman sees a man she sees other things”, what did you mean by that?
And it rhymes in English too, which makes me so happy! Well, I was just flipping it to- because in my mind, guys always see what they want to see when they see somebody. Like guys are very optimistic, that’s my experience but it’s not all true. But sometimes girls don’t want love, sometimes they just see… other things. It’s up to you to imagine what other things, it could be… money… success… power… lust… yeah.
What do you go for in guys aside from love?
I think someone with ambition… I mean, I’m very career oriented, and I’m very driven, it’s not my goal to have like a big family. I want to set myself and my family up for a good life. But yeah anyone who’s hardworking, nice, ambitious, I find all those qualities attractive.
You want to be a global superstar, but why?
I don’t know… I think it was always my dream as a kid, and maybe I’ll find out that I don’t actually want that, but that’s what I’m working towards. I think my music has important messages, and it touches on depression, women taking control, and just certain things that have helped fans on a smaller scale. If it can reach a bigger audience, I’m sure it can help more people. That’s why I make music in general, to reach people and help them. But yeah I don’t know… to me sometimes life is just a game.
Yeah it is…
Like it’s not that serious… but at the same time it is… but at the same time it’s not! So it’s kind of fun, to see if I can make it. It’s just fun, it’s like “here we go, let’s do it”.
I do think success to a certain point is a game
It is right?! I also think we’re so consumed in wanting to be successful and rich, and I’m like “why?” It’s not the point of life… but at the same time, it’s fun to try (laughs). I know it’s a weird way to think about it… I think we want to be comfortable, and not want to worry… and have security. But I think past that, you don’t need to make more money…
I think human nature is always wanting more..
Yeah, that’s just how we are…
Your music is already very personal, but do you feel on future music, you might delve even deeper?
I might yeah, why not…? I’ve already touched on it in ‘Desert Rose’, which was something I’ve always wanted to write about. I don’t know if I could rewrite about that, it’s just one of those moments. I think I need to experience more… I always say that I want to get my heart broken, but I don’t know if it’s possible! I really want to get my heart broken…
Could be like Adele, release your best stuff after heartbreak…
I just want to write really sad love songs, but I can’t make it up right now! Somebody break my heart please (laughs)
Your priority is making great music, but for you, what is great music?
I think music that makes you feel… I think lyrics are the most important part of achieving that. Lyrics that make you feel different things. I don’t know… because what I think is great, might be different for other people. But I think great music is what makes you feel, and what sounds good obviously (laughs), and it can reach the right amount of people. But if I like it, then I’ll think it must be good.
So with your listeners, what do you want them to get from your music?
Just a sense of who I am. Because it shows all my sides… my personality traits… my life story. I think the fact that I’m able to be so vulnerable in my music, makes people think that they can be vulnerable too, so it might help. People that go through a lot can listen to my music, and see that they’re not alone.
Read more from Tashan Patel @tashan.patel26