INTERVIEW: Touching Bass with musician Zilla

With previous guest vocal appearances on tracks and remixes for labels such as Hypercolour and Warp Records, classically trained Parisian pianist Zilla, has begun a smooth upward trajectory. Signed to Matthew Herbert’s Accidental Label, her set of recent releases have offered a preview of what to expect from her upcoming full length debut album.

Having trained at a Parisian conservatoire for 10 years before moving to London, Zilla began to experiment with writing piano-based music over hip hop beats, inspired by her favourite composers and experimental electronica. Her globe-trotting sound reflects her heritage: Zilla’s mother is the Ivory Coast ambassador to Denmark, her father a chemistry professor who fled Guinea’s dictatorship in the 1970s.

Her sound has been described as “surrealist leftfield pop” but Zilla’s self-confessed obsession with all things dark and subconscious add a gloaming element to her sound – like the kind of music you would hear during the hypnagogic state, music that might occur during your “threshold consciousness” just before the onset of sleep.

We chatted to her for some insight into the inspirations behind her strange nocturnal world…..

Set the tone for for us. Why the arts?

I’ve always been into the arts, ever since I can remember. As a kid, instead of wanting to be a vet I wanted to be a painter. Growing up in paris was amazing for that. The galleries, the wine, the cigarettes and the general melancholy, a perfect place to grow my inner creative soul and embrace my sensitivity.
Me and my friends used to wake up at 4am before school, meet in front of Notre Dame and smoke cigarettes and sing Jeff Buckley songs by the seine. Sounds over the top but that’s what I liked the most about growing up in Paris. I started playing the piano when i was 9 which can seem quite late but after 3 years I was already very advanced. I didn’t even practice much but somehow my brain was connecting perfectly with it. I felt comfortable and happy and obviously very privileged to have been given the opportunity to learn an instrument.

At school I was a standard student but I dressed outrageously so teachers tended to hate me. When I played the piano, my clothes made sense. Everything became a part of a performance, everyday was a performance. I would spend as much time as possible in vintage clothing stores trying to find something unique. My conservatoire was my favourite place in the whole world. I would step in and feel focused and it just felt right.

While playing the piano, I would also write poems 24/7 and paint everywhere, on my friends arms at school (in full view of my teachers), on the tube, on my bedroom walls, I wanted to go to Les Beaux Arts (which is one of the most famous art schools in the world) but the opportunity to move to London came along and I couldn’t resist!  So basically, the arts were the only way I felt comfortable expressing myself, from painting to piano to writing and fashion. Also, I have so many secrets and traumas that I don’t want to talk about and that I feel satisfied putting into a song, hence the theme of dreams and my subconscious.

To those not familiar with you, how would you describe your sound.

My sound has always been about extreme contrasts. I am attracted to aggressive beats and singing softly over them. I also like thinking about the writing process as a form of geometry and algebra, a form of layers upon layers, of different shades. It has a surrealist dimension because of the dreams but also because it can be completely irrational at times (I use recording of my sleep-talking in my writing – The Sleepwalker), I am passionate about the creativity of my unconscious mind and simply because I like the juxtaposition of opposite elements.

What are the 5 albums that have influenced you the most?
Bjork – Debut, Post, Homogenic, Vesterpetine, Medulla 🙂 Ok I love Bjork! Fever Ray – The Knife, Lykke Li, MIA – Arular, Santigold – Santogold, so many

You just released your brilliant new track ‘Whatever It is,’ which you describe as “a sensual love story with the voices living in my head, the temptation of letting go of sanity and surrendering to the crazy.” Previous single ‘Sleepwalker’ also reflects themes about losing control and embracing the unpredictable. Why is this an important theme for you?

Because I am obsessed with the creativity of my unconscious mind, I am fascinated by my mental issues, instead of rejecting my anxiety, I embrace it and turn it into art. ‘Whatever it is’ is probably my most anxious song. But at the same time I am asking my trauma whether he/she is my friend or my enemy. That’s why it is like a love song to me because it can be as complicated as a love and hate relationship. ‘The Sleepwalker’ was a fun one because the events that lead to writing this song were pretty hilarious.

Your choice of instruments on ‘Whatever It Is’, were unusual – a toy horn with mexican samples, a black velvet bag, a stone, duct tape, handcuffs and hair clips. Can you tell us what the symbology of these objects are within the context of the track, ie why these objects?

The toy:
I got the toy at a market in Mexico where I went to see one my sisters who lives there, she was going through a massive breakup and although it was a really fun holiday, it was also very full on emotionally.

The bag:
The black velvet bag has a kind of gothic element, of magic tricks, also touching velvet makes me feel very uncomfortable, like I’m suffocating.

The stone:
It’s a recurring item of the beats, a stone is hard and destructive but it’s also protection and reality.

The duct tape:
Because sometimes, I would like the thoughts/voices to stop

It is a weird love and hate relationship for life.

Hair clips:
It seems to be one of these things that I always have in every single pocket, bag – anything I own, hair clips. But it also represents keeping myself together.

You recently signed to Matthew Herbert’s Accidental Label. Herbert is also known for for using everyday objects to create interesting soundscapes. How has working with him shaped your vision and influenced your sound?
It definitely made me think outside the box even more than before, it’s always fun getting in the studio together, sometimes some of my lyrics will come from a random conversation we’ve had. He’s always up to something outrageous.

Any emerging artists on your radar?
I love the UK Grime Scene at the moment.

If you weren’t a musician what would you be?
A painter or a fashion designer.

What can we expect from you in the near future? Any upcoming projects or gigs in the pipeline that you would like to tell us about?
My album is out in the Spring and I am working on my live shows so stay in touch! Z

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