Dropping today, Zouaï's album is proof she's hitting her stride and ready for more.
Dropping today, Zouaï's album is proof she's hitting her stride and ready for more.
“High Highs to Low Lows,” the titular song of Lolo Zouaï’s debut album, was her breakout moment in 2017. Over the course of a year, the song amassed almost 7 million streams on Spotify and many fans for Zouaï along the way. When you listen to it, you understand why. She occupies a sonic space of her own: R&B, American pop and sprinkles of her heritage through Arabic-inspired beats, a mixture of elements that culminate in what she calls “bittersweet bangers”. The inclusion of verses entirely sung in French, a rarity in American pop music, only supplements the uniqueness of her sound. Coming from French-Algerian descent and being somewhat of an urban nomad herself (she’s moved to 4 different major cities throughout her 22 years), Zouaï plans to help French penetrate the music market much like Spanish has in recent years. The first milestone of that quest starts today with the drop of her debut album. In this interview, we talk about her creative process, the inspiration that sprung her album and highlights from her ascent (which may include some commentary on Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”). With recently signing to RCA Records and catching the attention of millions, Zouaï is riding in on a series of “high highs”.
What are you inspired by right now?
Right now, it sucks because I want to be in the studio. I’m about to put out my album. I finished it a few months ago and want to be able to go into the studio to make a second one, but I have to focus on the tour. So I’m inspired by - just the people I’m going to meet on tour and just wanting to put on the best show. Pretty much just my life at the moment.
Which I’m sure is a whirlwind.
Yeah, I don’t have a lot of spare time right now, so my surroundings inspire me.
Along the tour conversation, what’s been your best tour moment so far?
In France, my family on my mom’s side, there was like 15 people from my whole family just there – rooting for me and waiting for me after, which is something that I appreciate so much because I grew up with very limited extended family.
I read in an interview where you said that you’re naturally a bit of a loner. As your fame is building, do you ever feel like you have pressure to perform yourself, to be “Lolo, the public figure and artist”, and not that loner self?
Well I have those times where I love to be alone. It’s weird, because before I was putting out music, I loved to go out more and now that I have everything out and don’t need to network, now I can just stay home. But I don’t think it’s a pressure, just sometimes you just want to be home alone and working, but you have to go to this event or something that you don’t want to do. If sometimes I don’t feel like performing or I’m just in a bad mood, I’ll just say that on the mic, and everybody will relate and help me feel better. Just honesty, I’m not trying to front. I think it’s important – it’s not realistic to be happy like that all the time.
You’ve made a lot of moves from city to city, have these different spots affected your music and if you were to move again, where would you go next.
Yes, completely. San Francisco, Bay Area, taught me about West Coast rap and R&B, music that I grew up on and started singing. But then at the same time, being from Paris originally, I was always interested in studying French classical music, and music from the 60s and 70s, that really inspired my album too. I just felt like, if you can make a blend of Classical French and Bay Area hip-hop, that pretty much sums me up as a person. I never lived in Algeria, where my dad is from, but I was inspired by Algerian raï music, the traditional music of Algeria.
If I could go anywhere and study more music, I’d probably live in North Africa for a bit, like Morocco, and learn a little bit more about the music. You could make some really cool melodies out of that.
Along the lines of globalized music, you’re a big proponent of infusing French into your music. Why do you think French hybrid music hasn’t taken off in the same way as Latin hybrid or K-pop has in the States?
Because I wasn’t around! I don’t actually know why, maybe French is harder to sing, I feel like Spanish has this really sing-able, flowy quality. It just rolls off your tongue. And French is just really hard to pronounce. But I mean, you see it a little bit, Lady Gaga did “Je veux ton amour, et je veux ta revanche.” She was speaking French. I am trying to do that, I’m trying to break through.
I think the thing about me is that I genuinely do speak both languages. And a lot of artists in France don’t speak English well. They will try to make a song in English and its weird and people don’t like it because it’s not genuine. I think it’s because I do actually speak both fluently – it feels real.
Specifically with “Ride”, what inspired you to write it?
You know, sometimes you just want to show your inner freak a little. Me and Stelios had that beat, we worked on it for a while and we kind of forgot about it because we couldn’t figure out what to do. Then we played it again and I was like, “holy shit”. You know how Beyoncé had “Naughty Girl” and with Shakira, “Beautiful Liar”. Dark pop, Arabian scale. I was like, I need to do this. I had just put out really soft songs, and now I just wanted to disrupt the peace. You know what I mean? I just wanted to do something really hard. It was one of the last songs written on the album, we wrote it like two months ago.
All of your songs have that “bittersweet banger” sound that emanates through it all. So for a bittersweet banger, what are the key attributes that make one up?
Alright, we need a really nice, dense sound. Like a really vibe-y sound to start with. We need fire kicks, something that really knocks. A really good drum pattern that makes you feel like you’re in a rap song. Good lyrics are everything to me. It needs really enjoyable lyrics and a nice title – I like to have good titles. The last touch of a “bittersweet banger” is the ad libs, which is my favorite part to do. It’s at the end, once the song is already recorded; it’s adding all the decoration around it. That’s the best part – it’s the ear candy.
Yeah, it’s the cherry on top, so to speak.
Yeah, the fun part. It needs to feel like a little bit of a contradiction. If the song is sad, maybe it knocks, but if it’s happy, maybe the lyrics are sad. That nice little contrast.
With your debut album, High Highs to Low Lows, what are you trying to say – what’s your message?
It’s my life. It’s really just the story of my life. There are some really positive fun songs and then there are really heartfelt songs. I think there’s something for everyone in the album. It’s more about being really authentic and telling my story through some music that slaps. It’s a mix between moody and sensual and sexy and savage. Well, maybe not savage, but confident, you know? It’s the contrast between being vulnerable and confident.
One last question, have you had any crazy industry moments lately?
Fuck, let me think. It sounds boring, but I don’t think I have!
That’s totally fine too! I feel like there comes a point when many crazy things happen that they all start to blend in.
Like what do you mean? Give me an example though.
I’m pretty sure I saw in your Instagram story you were singing Lil Nas X's “Old Town Road” at RCA, or something.
Oh! Well I just signed my first record deal after two years of being independent and we had this listening party and it was hella fun! And we were listening to that song. You think that’s crazy?
Well, I mean, it definitely looked like a lot of fun!
It was so much fun. I mean it is crazy, how a song like that goes viral overnight.
Oh, I know, it’s just taken off. It’s everything I see.
I know, it’s everything! It shows that people just want to have fun.
Oh wait, I just remembered something! I figure now it’s time to talk about it. It happened a year and a half ago, two years ago, I was flown to work in Miami, to write for Birdman, the rapper.
Like Cash Money’s Birdman, right?
Yeah, exactly! This was in the middle of the Lil Wayne and Birdman beef. And I was in the middle of all of this beef, and I met Lil Wayne. They would always come in and work at different times in the studio. And then at the end of the week, when the writing sessions were over, Slim and Birdman, they invited us all to a home movie theatre that they rented, and we watched “Barbershop”. It was just funny to be in the middle of all of that!
[Laughter] Yeah, you were playing both sides, kind of!
I didn’t know who to choose!
Yeah, in the kind of environment, you just can’t choose. You just have to find out how to appease both.
I know! I didn’t even get to take a picture with Lil Wayne, but he was so nice. And I met Timbaland that same week! He told me I was dope. He’s a legend. That was right before “High Highs” blew up and I kept getting flown back and forth. That was just what I was doing.
The video for Zouaï’s latest single, "Ride", can be found here.