Mar 2024 25

ReGen speaks with Zoè Zanias on the nature of language and text as a form of communication, relating to the sonic and instrumental properties of her prolific musical output.
 

 

An InterView with Zoè Zanias

By Merv Uzzell (Muzz79)

Originally from Australia, raised in Asia, educated in London, and now based in Berlin, Alison Lewis has applied her worldly and expansive sensibilities throughout her music in Linea Aspera and Keluar, as well as running her own Fleisch Records imprint. For the past year, she has been in the midst of a prolific stream of musical output under her alter-ego of Zoè Zanias, touring throughout Europe and signing to Metropolis Records for the release of a pair of albums that thematically present her as an artist that embraces transition and transcendence – Chrysalis and Ecdysis. ReGen recently had the opportunity to speak with Zanias about the transformative nature of these albums, delving into her creative process, navigating the business side of the music industry, discussing the now prevalent issues of AI proliferation, streaming services and audience ownership, and the effects of language and text over verbal and audible forms of communication.

 

In the last 12 months, we have seen the release of not one, but two Zanias albums. You’ve been touring internationally from Europe to South America. You’re also a DJ, producer, and head of the Berlin collective label Fleisch. Where do you find the time and energy, and can we borrow some?

Zanias: The truth is I’ve overextended myself and I’m very burnt out by all the touring and running the label. The only part of my job that doesn’t lead to burnout is producing the actual music, which I never want to stop doing. I’m quite convinced now that the drive to do so much is actually quite toxic and rooted in capitalism’s stranglehold over our sense of self-worth. For years, I unknowingly equated my productivity with my intrinsic value as a human, but instead of all the hard work leading to anything fulfilling, it just seems to dig the void deeper (though watching a livestreamed genocide and facing total climate collapse that no one is doing anything about certainly isn’t helping in that regard). So, I won’t lend you any of what I have that’s led to all this because honestly, it’s a curse and I’m trying hard to be rid of it myself!

So, you’ve just recently released your stunning new album Ecdysis. What may surprise some people is that it contains absolutely no lyrics; however, it does make for a more immersive, self-interpretative experience. Was the idea of having no lyrical narrative the original premise? Was there also a sense of added freedom with the focus being solely on the record’s instrumental soundscape?

Zanias: Utilizing the voice as an instrument rather than a vehicle of language has been a feature of this project since its inception, and yes, it’s very much about freedom. Even though language has become our default mode of communication, most often stripped down to its very essence in the form of text and now instantly translatable across all its many forms, I don’t think we often think about how extremely recent this development is in our evolution as humans. For tens of thousands of years, we had no text, only sound, and those sounds were particular to specific groups. Communication between groups was restricted by the availability of oral translation, which made ‘first contact’ situations far more fraught than we could fathom nowadays with Google translate at our fingertips. Even with the advent of text, just a few hundred years ago, most people couldn’t read it. Then there’s the fact that languages don’t translate directly and are constantly in flux, always evolving even faster than fashion does (doomscrolling, selfie, unaliving… so many words we use regularly didn’t exist a few years ago). There are layers of meaning we can’t ever access unless a language is spoken as our mother tongue. It’s an inherently clunky way to exchange experience, and I’ve always found it a little frustrating.
So, while I love words and find the construction of lyrics a fun and helpful form of therapy, I sometimes prefer to fall back on music itself as the most effective form of communication – a universal language. And it’s particularly useful for expressing the moments that defy language, the ones we ‘can’t find the words’ for, which tend to be some of the most emotionally potent… perhaps because they’re speaking to parts of ourselves that evolved before we started talking to one another, our most primal experiences.

There is some vocalizing on the album though. It’s very ethereal and free flowing. How much of it, if any, was improvised?

Zanias: Pretty much all of it. The process of making every song on Ecdysis usually consisted of creating parts of the instrumental and then improvising a few vocal ideas over the top and chopping and processing them to create the main themes of the track. It was all very free flowing without much of a plan or ‘learning’ any parts at all really. I didn’t often record second takes since the many steps of processing were difficult to retrace and replicate.

 

 

There are many reoccurring themes of metamorphosis in your work, and the title of your latest LP suggests a shedding of skin of sorts. Do you find the whole process from writing to releasing an album, a kind of transmogrification and a shedding of skin itself?

Zanias: Certainly, the process of writing and producing is always a form of therapy and personal growth for me. With these particular recent albums, I’d just experienced far greater alteration than ever before. My entire life was destroyed and reconstructed over the course of those years, so when I learned about how a caterpillar literally dissolves into mush within the chrysalis before its cells rearrange in the form of a butterfly, the comparison felt far too apt not to utilize.

Your songs are synonymous with nature, and are often filled with sounds from the natural world. Indeed, elements of Ecdysis were recorded in the Queensland Rainforest back in your home country of Australia. How has its application evolved in your music? And have you ever considered diving deeper into the so-called biomusic genre, perhaps making an album created solely from organic sounds and instruments?

Zanias: I think I love digital synthesis way too much to ever go fully organic, but I’ll certainly never stop integrating natural sounds into what I do. I’d love to record more birds in particular. I can’t really say how much the natural sources have evolved in my work; it’s always just been a part of what inspires me and how I work, and I don’t think too hard about it.

You have described your music as authentic and vulnerable. How integral as a tool are your own vulnerabilities when composing?

Zanias: As integral as hydrogen to water. Without it, there’d be something totally vital missing, and I’d also have no reason to compose. So, my music just wouldn’t exist!

Just prior to the release of Ecdysis, you put out a single of three remixes of your previous song ‘Chrysalis.’ It includes a very poignant unplugged version called ‘Larva.’ Could we possibly see an all-acoustic Zanias album one day?

Zanias: It has certainly crossed my mind. I’m just not sure if I could maintain interest in a project that’s so minimal since one of my favorite parts of this entire job is the production of ethereal, alien soundscapes. I’d have a hard time resisting ‘adding more’ to something so minimal.

Last October, it was announced that half of the staff at Bandcamp were to be laid off after its takeover from Songtradr. Obviously, there was a lot of concern among its users that this meant the end of the platform, or at least how we know it. As someone who uses Bandcamp yourself, does the lack of a viable alternative, especially a more profitable one than, say, the likes of Spotify concern you? And I guess as a someone who runs her own label, do you think that smaller independent distributors are more important than ever?

Zanias: I’m absolutely terrified for the future of Bandcamp. The entire underground music industry really depends on them – I certainly do. Without it, my work wouldn’t be financially viable, so the prospect of it degrading in its quality or disappearing has me wondering about the viability of my future as an independent artist. Audiences also don’t seem to have the money for music anymore, so sales are going down, and I think even more people just find the allure of cheap streaming too convenient to pass up. If Bandcamp crumbles, I don’t know what we’ll do really. We need a universal basic income. So yes, smaller independent distributors and platforms are vital. We can’t survive without them, and survival is already tenuous at best.

 

 

Trends and scenes come and go, and the way music is produced is also ever evolving. One of the latest and most controversial methods is the use of AI. What is your personal view of its role in modern music, its potential for abuse, and how it changes the future landscape of the industry?

Zanias: I haven’t heard any AI music that isn’t total garbage yet, so I’m sure my opinion will change when I do. At this point, I feel like we’re heading into a future in which art made by machines will be mass produced and available for shallow purposes, in the same way human musicians are already creating characterless ‘royalty free’ music for YouTube videos, ads, etc. But the need for a human experience will remain and real art made by flesh will always be in demand, at least for a passionate niche, if not for anyone looking for music to actually move them. This may even lead to a favoring of sounds that are less ‘synthetic,’ and more likely to have been made with physical instruments (so maybe a fully organic album of mine may yet come to pass!).
There will be a lot of sources of income lost, but music is barely alone in that, and like all other applications of AI, it’s just accelerating the failure of capitalism to adjust humanely to technological advances. The truth is advances in technology can and should liberate us from labor, and the solution to all these ‘jobs’ disappearing would be a universal basic income – something easily feasible if governments actually taxed the ultrawealthy.
My biggest fear about AI, though, isn’t loss of income or the production of music; it’s the loss of shared reality. These ultrarealistic videos are about to make it very difficult to discern what’s real from what isn’t, and our ability to share information reliably online may disappear quite fast. That’s also another reason why it’s so important to resist the current imbalance of power – the ability to control perceived reality will usher even more power straight to the top, just as it’s already been doing with online bots and ridiculous political memes. Our civilization is on the precipice of serious fuckery, and I don’t think anyone is prepared.

You have many collaborations under your belt including working with Dax J on his Offending Public Morality LP, Black Rain’s Dark Pool album, and Ancient Methods on the track ‘Andromeda.’ Whether it’s remixing or writing, how do you like the collaborative process? Do you have a collaborations bucket list?

Zanias: It’s nice not to have to begin with an empty Ableton project sometimes. I absolutely love writing melodies to things, so having an instrumental to latch onto and immediately begin writing allows me to dive straight into the flow state. I’ve been very lucky in most of my collaborations to work with people who’ve been instantly happy with what I’ve made. Whenever I’m working on new collaborations, however, I always have that fear that I’ll send something over and they’ll hate it, and that’s not a feeling I enjoy at all. Working on my own is quite blissful since I’m freed of expectation, deadlines, and fear. So, I actually never instigate collaborations and tend to just accept a small selection that flow my way. Since I don’t think about them until they’re in front of me, I don’t have a bucket list. I do instigate remixes of my tracks though, and tend to just approach my friends for those.

What does the next 12 months hold for you?

Zanias: I’m done with staying busy. The new era is one of recovering from my past mistake of prioritizing productivity and the expectations of others over my own wellbeing, so I’m trying to keep my feet in one place as much as possible. We’re planning to do just two small tours of the U.S.A., since we’re finally getting visas for that, and then occasional one-off shows at some festivals in Europe. I’ll also play some Linea Aspera gigs at the end of the year, and will always be working on new music of course. I’m a fair way into my next album and have two exciting new collaborations on the way. More remixes of ‘Chrysalis’ will be coming out over the next few months as well.
 

 

Zanias
Website, Facebook, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram
Fleisch Records
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp, Instagram
Metropolis Records
Website, Facebook, Bandcamp, YouTube, Instagram

 

Photography by Tim Darin and Hidrico Rubens
Live photography by John Rohrer of John Rohrer Art – Wave Gothik Treffen 2023
All photography provided courtesy of Zanias

 

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