She was handpicked to support Dua Lipa on tour and counts both Dua and Billie Eilish as mega-fans. Sophie Goddard speaks to Lolo Zouai about the success of her debut album, unusual rider requests and why she’ll always be grateful to indie artists…
Her debut album, High Highs to Low Lows received over 26 million streams and with writing credits on H.E.R’s Grammy award-winning debut album and comparisons with everyone from Charli XCX to Ariana Grande, the buzz around Lolo Zouai is growing, fast. Born in Paris, Zouai (pronounced “zoo-eye”) moved to San Francisco as a child, now calling New York home (we speak while she’s LA during lockdown, preparing to return home). And while Covid-19 saw this year’s planned tour with Dua Lipa put temporarily on hold until 2021, this is one woman – it turns out – who has more than enough to keep her busy…
How do you think growing up with an Algerian father and French mother has influenced your music?
I think it gave me a wider knowledge of world music from a young age. I didn’t notice it was influencing the way that I sing, the way I wrote melodies or the way I did my runs. Traditional Algerian music has these beautiful runs and melodies that are really hard to do. So I think somehow – I don’t know if this is possible – but through my blood, I’m able to sing because of where I’m from.
Are your parents musical?
They’re actually not. They love music – my mum played saxophone when she was little – but they’re not musical people. My mum really wanted me to get into music and to try new things. So I took piano lessons in San Francisco and played the trumpet because my grandpa played the trumpet. I did it because I wanted my mum to be proud of me.
Who were your influences growing up?
When you’re a kid, you just listen to the radio and what your parents are playing. So I really loved Mariah Carey, Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera. You know, the big divas of the time? That was before I started listening to my own stuff. I was really into the radio and there was a lot of R&B and hip hop where I was in San Francisco.
The way we listen to music has changed so much. It was a lot harder to explore and discover new music back then…
Yeah, for sure. Sometimes I would hear my mum had a new cassette and it was a random artist. Like there’s this group called Vaya con Dios and I listened to them a lot when I was little. It’s either super niche or on the radio. In high school I started developing my own music tastes.
When did you start thinking music could be a viable career option?
I have a very vivid memory of running around the courtyard in elementary school in third grade, thinking, ‘I know college is far away, but I really don’t see myself going’. I did end up going to music school for one semester and it was so clearly the wrong choice. On the first day, I thought, ‘I just want to make music’. When I moved to New York, I thought, ‘Well, why can’t I do it?’. It’s crazy because even though I only started five years ago, now it’s even easier for people to just pop up because it’s been done a lot by indie artists so people have this blueprint of what you can do to make it with streaming. Whereas back then I had no idea how available it was to to indie artists – I didn’t even know you could put out music independently.
I guess you learn so much being in the industry and it takes a while to get to grips with how everything works…
Yeah. I learned about it because when I moved to New York, I started hanging out with these guys called KidSuper, it’s like a clothing brand and music. And they taught me you can use TuneCore, which is this website where you upload your music for $10 a year and you own everything. They taught me how to be an independent artist, so I was doing that for two years before I signed. You learn a lot and realise there’s so much that goes on behind an artist who just ‘pops up’. Sometimes it gets frustrating because it’s really about connections.
Do you think being an independent artist shaped you?
Yeah, definitely because although I am signed, I still kind of feel like I’m an indie artist. Like, I’ll reach out to designers and photographers directly and make my own mood boards. But I have this amazing team all over the world who can help me connect if I want to work with a director or artist. They can help me make my vision a little bit bigger.
Now there’s such immediacy between artists and their audiences thanks to social media. How do you feel about that?
It’s really helpful to be able to DM my fans and if they have a question I can answer immediately but there’s definitely times when it’s important to step back, like during quarantine. It’s just not healthy to always be on your phone. I’ve been learning it’s important for me to take a step back and not post or not be on Instagram for a while. Because I am an artist, but I’m a human also. And if my mental health isn’t 100% I won’t be able to do my art. It’s about balance.
How do you keep yourself in a good place mentally?
Exercise – jogging and running really helps my brain. That and just having a really good group of friends to talk to. Giving myself time alone. And expressing myself through my clothing and makeup, that’s really important for me to feel like myself. Like dyeing my hair and doing things that are superficial, but make me feel like myself, which is super important.
It’s interesting to think that a lot of artists who came before you haven’t always been able to creatively express themselves to the same extent. It must be liberating to have that control?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t feel like anyone is controlling me or telling me what to do at all. It’s like I’m choosing what I want my career to be. So if I choose to take a few months off Instagram or a few months off releasing music, I can do that because it’s going to better my career in the future. But I’m a workaholic so I probably will never do that!
You’re opening for Dua Lipa for next year. How does that feel?
Oh, it’s so exciting. She’s been killing it, her album is amazing. I feel like it’s going be this really, really fun tour. I just feel super honoured to be able to perform for such a big audience, it’s going to be crucial. She’s a super hard worker and she’s really sweet. It was crazy to have it postponed, but it makes so much sense and it’s even more time to prepare and there’s more music to be made…
Do you get nervous before you perform?
Yeah, definitely. I have this thing where I just don’t really want to talk to anybody because if I talk about it, then I’ll realise what’s happening. It’s better just to just go on stage. I take fifteen minutes of alone time before I perform, just get in the zone.
What’s the weirdest thing on your rider?
Seaweed. Seaweed snacks, you know, like dry seaweed? I love it so much. I think that’s probably the weirdest thing. Honestly that’s usually all I care about. I don’t drink beer so I don’t care about that but if there’s no seaweed, I’m like, ‘That’s all I wanted!’ Just water and seaweed.
Who would you love to work with?
There’s a lot of people I want to work with. Right now, I would love to work with Grimes. We’ve been talking a bit so hopefully we get to make something crazy as she’s so, so talented. And there’s a Belgian artist called Stromae and he’s made some of my favourite albums, he’s super creative. We could do some little French thing. He’s so good at producing, they’re both really good at producing.
When you write music, do you write in English?
Yeah for the most part, I start everything in English and usually the French comes when when I have no idea of what to say in English! Sometimes I’ll have a sentence where I’m like ‘what can I put here?’ and then I think ‘I could just put something really simple in French here and that’ll work’. Unless I’m writing a song intentionally in French. I have done one – Beaucoup on my album.
How did High Highs to Low Lows come together?
The title actually came to me way before the songs were made in 2016 – it was originally ‘low lows to high highs’. I put it in an Instagram caption, then realised I liked it and deleted it – you never know who’s gonna steal ideas! I liked the fact it secretly had my name in it – Lolo. Then I went into the studio with Stelios [Phili, producer] and had a lot of ideas because I was supposed to go to Algeria and I didn’t end up going because of family issues. That inspired Desert Rose and so many songs on the album. When I put out the single I had no other songs finished and it was it was kind of stressful because the song actually ended up doing super well on Spotify and went viral. And all these labels started hitting me up but I didn’t even have anything else!
If you could choose a song you wish you’d written, what would it be?
Oui by Jeremih. Because there’s the little like French twist in it too and I’m like, ‘OK, that would have been so tight’. I think that’s a really ingenious hook.
What do you hope the future holds? Are you someone who sets goals?
I have general goals. It’s not like, ‘by this day I need to have done this’, it’s more things I want to try to do. I want to keep making music but I don’t want to limit myself to only music, I want to tap into as much as I can. I’m not like ‘by Wednesday I need to have a Grammy’ [laughs] but I think about my career in the long run and how to maintain and sustain my business. I’m a very career-focused person, but certain things I don’t even want to say because I don’t want to jinx them…