From studying classical piano at a Parisian conservatoire to experimenting in London studios, Zilla’s unconventional career path has resulted in a sound that’s hard to categorise. Fond of mixing unusual recordings into the intoxicating soup of her music (Zilla’s singles have so far incorporated the sound of everything from a set of handcuffs to a bunch of oyster shells), it’s no surprise that the ever-adventurous Matthew Herbert snapped her up early for his Accidental label.
In Herbert’s own words, “I like the fact that Zilla can sit at a piano and bash out some Rachmaninov and Debussy, but chose instead to make an ahead-of-its-time record out of the ephemera of ordinary life. So many new artists want to sound like their heroes and end up diluting their own identity, but this has never been the case with Zilla.”
Her three singles to date certainly indicate an artist who is resolutely sticking to her own path. The scuttling debut single ‘Get Your Way’, first used for Elle UK’s #MoreWomen #ELLEFeminism campaign, introduced us to her enchanting yet slightly unsettling sound, and was swiftly followed by the lurching ‘Sleepwalker’ and new single ‘Whatever It Is’, which she describes as “a sensual love story with the voices living in my head, the temptation of letting go of sanity and surrendering to the crazy”.
It’s fair to say Zilla’s head sounds like an interesting place to be, so we asked her to give us a tour…
First of all, what’s behind the name Zilla?
Zilla is my real name – full name is Fawzilla Aba Yasmina.
I was named after Princess Fawzia Fuad of Egypt also known as Queen Muluk Fawzia of Iran.
The spelling is from Guinea, a country in West Africa, where my father comes from.
The two LL are silent but people used to pronounce them all the time, as a child it used to upset me but later I started to love it, it’s very unique and it makes me feel special. I always tend to turn negatives into positives, it reflects in my writing and in the way I live my life in general. I also later found out that it was the name of a ’50s gospel and r&b singer from Atlanta, called Zilla Mays.
You started off playing classical piano in Paris and ended up making electronic music in London – how did that happen?
My first piano lesson changed my life. I remember just falling in love with something that seemed like a chore to other people. I loved the challenge and the sound obviously. I was never liked by my teachers at school because I always had a different way of learning things, definitely unconventional. I loved learning the piano and music theory from day one, it made more sense to me than textbook learning. It made my heart beat faster. It made me feel comfortable and it made me feel at home.
My family doesn’t have a musical background but there was always music at home. My older brother was a huge Massive Attack / Portishead fan; that’s how I discovered UK electronic music. House music is huge in Paris too so I was always around those sounds. So when my mum was appointed to work at the Ivory Coast embassy in London, I took my piano and moved there with her.
Were you mainly focused on classical music growing up or were there already other musical influences in the air?
Music at home was a huge deal. My brother played guitar and he was a huge fan of heavy metal. Our arguments were not verbal but more about who could make more noise on a sunday morning with our instruments. I loved rock [and] electronic music but classical wasn’t even a choice of music, it was just my life. I didn’t necessarily listen to it much because sometimes it made me too emotional but I did play it every single day.
Did you always plan to become a singer as well as a musician or did it take a while to find your voice?
I always wanted to express myself through art. I wanted to be a painter but when I was 6 someone told me that if I became a painter I would chop my ear off like van Gogh and die in a mental institute. Sounds silly but it really scared me! I always wanted to be a singer-songwriter and I always sang in my room as a kid.
How did moving to London influence your creative output?
Paris is one of the most beautiful artistic cities in the world and I am so proud to be French but people can be quite judgmental if you think/dress/act out of the box. Moving to London when I was 18 (I have been in London for 10 years) enabled me to be myself 100% every single day without worrying about people staring a bit too much or making comments (not that I give a shit but it could sometimes get dangerous if you dress too outrageously or if you have too many piercings or if you’re black haha).
Can you send us some pics of you in the studio?
The Big Band show was really fun and very emotional too.
Are you concerned about how Brexit might affect musicians in Britain?
Thankfully nowadays music has no geographical limits, we can do sessions remotely and it might make people reach out even more than before.
What’s the best lesson that working with Herbert has taught you?
Accidents are beautiful.
Your second single ‘The Sleepwalker’ was inspired by “an intense sleepwalking experience” in Copenhagen. Can you talk us through what happened?
It was the night of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen in my mum’s huge house. It [was] cold and snowy but it was warm and fun because the house was full of people and full of childhood memories. Around 4am, I fell off the bed and it made a really loud noise because I was actually still asleep. My family came running in and found me on the floor shouting and not making any sense and pushing everyone away. I always sleep with an eye mask on because I have had insomnia since a very young age. My family was trying to take off my eye mask but I wouldn’t let anyone touch me and carried on shouting and swearing for a few minutes.
When I came to my senses, I opened my eyes and started feeling a really sharp pain in my right finger. It was really confusing because I had no idea what [had] happened. On close inspection I saw that my finger was cut in a very precise rectangular shape from the nail down to half the length of my right index finger. And my nail was missing. Till this day no one knows what happened because there was no blood on the bed or anywhere near where I was sleeping, no sharp objects, nothing.
It made me realise how incredibly magical the mind can be and it made want to celebrate my nighttime sleepwalking alter ego even more. So I started recording myself sleepwalking and sleeptalking and got even more material from it. The first verse of ‘Sleepwalking’ is purely stories from the recordings of me sleeptalking.
The track contains a lot of unusual recordings – if you could sample one sound anywhere in the world, what would it be?
It would be in a blind massage parlour in Hangzhou, one hour from Shanghai. They are incredibly skilled and they play your aches and pains like an instrument with their hands, it’s completely surreal.
Previous single ‘Get Your Way’ contains some very complex and intriguing percussive sounds. How long did it take to perfect that beat?
We were very quick, the writing is very spontaneous like an improv that turns into a song. The beat was originally called ‘Round’ because I wanted to talk about loops and things that go round and round in my head, I used to obsess over any repetitive sound or an awkward bit of a sentence and repeat in my head until it felt like the loop was closed. Until my head was satisfied.
When you write songs sometimes you will write over four seconds of a loop and layer it and layer and layer it, I love working like that, like the earth and its never ending types of layers of different textures, hot and cold, liquid and solid, soft and hard. I like to build my songs from the thought of something that doesn’t have much to do with music but translate it into the movement of my hands on a keyboard or even the way I hold my mic, the way my throat feels and what shapes and shades come to mind when I hear a particular beat.
Alongside your own work, you’ve also written for artists like Wretch 32 and Tinie Tempah. What track are you most proud of to date?
I loved working with grime/hip-hop producers, I met some amazing people and learnt a lot, I think we made some really fun experiments.
Do you think it’s easier to create a music career in London than in Paris?
It’s very different I think, Paris is more about longevity and people with more experience, London is about the latest trends when it comes to pop. But I think alternative music is incredible in London. Probably easier here because people dare more.
What’s your favourite album of all time?
I love a lot of music, I don’t have a favourite album of all time but in terms of the basis, I could listen to Fever Ray / The Knife and early Björk and early Tori Amos… all of Rachmaninov’s preludes.
There’s some notable vocal manipulation on latest single ‘Whatever It is’, what inspired that approach?
The main voice you hear in the song is actually my voice pitched down and layered with my natural voice. I wanted to write about scary voices in my head and again the theme of turning anything negative into a strength, it is a love story with that voice. It can be at times exhausting and not make much sense, but essentially it is a gift and something that one must accept and embrace. I think it would be worse to ignore it. I hate denial, I like embracing the facts and turning them into dreams with songs and videos and drawings and paintings.
You’ve said the track was partially inspired by Frida Khalo’s ‘The Wounded Deer’ – what other artists have influenced your debut album (visual or musical)?
In terms of classical music – Olivier Messiaen, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ravel have always inspired me, in terms of documentaries The Fear of 13 [and] The Act of Killing amongst a million other crime documentaries, The Truman Show and Melancholia, Freud’s analysis of dreams, L’Étranger – Albert Camus, paintings the majority of Frida Kahlo, I love her and her life story, the mixture of pain and beauty.
Interview by Kier Wiater Carnihan
Photo: Chloe Lamford