When you think about writing an article on a musician, you hope for someone who has a unique and distinctive sound—something that sets them apart from the pack, something that makes them stand out from the flurry of other spotlights on the “next best thing.” But even then, when writing about a unique musician, it’s easy to compare them to someone else—Ariana Grande to Mariah Carey, Sarah Bareilles to Ingrid Michaelson. However, writing about LA-based singer Zoya is difficult precisely because of her uniqueness. Zoya’s music, her voice, her lyrics, her sound, don’t remind me of anyone else. Her brand of world music takes the intelligence and savviness from her education at Berklee College of Music, her South Asian heritage and background, and her raw and confessional lyrics to create a fusion of folk, indie, and global influences that is entirely unique. The lack of comparison or a point of reference makes her music special, and impossible for words to do it justice.
When I sat down to speak to Zoya about her music, her success, and her experiences, I was struck by how much I related to her as a writer. My biggest struggle has been finding my voice in my articles and putting my personal experiences to paper, so what resonated most with me when listening to Zoya was how deeply personal her music is, and how I could hear pieces of my own experiences and the experiences of those I know in her lyrics. When I shared these feelings with her, she noted that “all artists feel things a little more than regular people…I’ve always felt deep emotions…whenever I see something and experience something, things that happened, things that I feel like I can’t say out loud, I write about it.”
The experiential part of her music—the fact that all of it comes from her life, what she knows, and what she has seen—is something that I deeply connect with as a writer. “I never really want to talk about anything I haven’t experienced face to face, because I don’t know it,” Zoya told me. “There’s just a difference in how people view the world…I want to experience it full on before I write it.”
Her openness to experience is visible in the way she talks about her journey as a musician. She talked to me about how when she was dropped off by her father at Berklee, he said, “The only thing that I’m gonna tell you is to meet everyone, even the doorman.” She lives by this philosophy, constantly seeking out new opportunities, new people, and new moments that she calls “atomic moments,” which has allowed her to experience so much of life fully.
“I don’t block anyone off, I don’t judge anyone for anything, everyone has their own story,” she told me. “Being open to that has opened a lot of opportunities for me, and I’ve met a lot of cool people and been through a lot of cool opportunities if I hadn’t been open to those kinds of things.”
Her openness, vulnerability, and love of exploring and experiencing the world is translated into powerfully relatable lyrics, and is precisely what makes Zoya so unique. When I spoke to her, I related to her as a writer, as a South Asian, as a young woman, and as a human being. Even outside of my interview with her, the level of awareness she possesses about herself and those around her is deeply apparent in her music, particularly in songs like “Her Belly,” “She Was,” and “The Girl Who Used To Live in My Room.”
Her self-awareness and her acute understanding of the world she lives in is also seen in her humanitarian work. When she visited India with her father, she visited a school that a family friend had opened—the Tulsidas Ki Saray Government Secondary School in Udaipur. It serves 276 students, many of whom walk to school without shoes, eager to learn. They sit in 11 classrooms in a building with no electricity: no light, no fans. In an effort to provide these children with the best learning environment possible, Zoya is working to raise money to give the Tulsidas Ki Saray School electricity.
Her next album, Zoya: Plugged In, will be an electronic remix compilation of nine of her songs (which you can preview and pre-order here), through a collaboration with eight music producers. All of the proceeds from this album will go to the Tulsidas Ki Saray school in Udaipur, India—it will be provided straight through Zoya, and will not be filtered through another charity, ensuring that all of the money goes directly for its intended purpose. While speaking to me about this project, it is clear how passionate Zoya is about helping these children. She recognizes the differences in her experience from those of the children, and the privilege inherent in that, but wants to be able to take that privilege and her platform as a musician and an artist to make change.
What is so refreshing about Zoya as an artist is that everything that makes her music special is conveyed in her daily actions. Whether it’s through her humanitarian work or through a conversation, it is clear that Zoya’s music is an embodiment of Zoya herself. That is why it is impossible to do Zoya justice through words on a page. The way to truly understand her is through getting to know her through her music.
Zoya: Plugged In is a compilation album featuring 8 different producers who have remixed a track from folk-fusion songstress, Zoya’s, albums The Girl Who Used To Live In My Room & Letters To Toska. To preview and pre-order this album, click here.
All the proceeds from this album will go to provide electricity to the Govt. Secondary School, Tulsidas Ki Saray, in Udaipur, India. Zoya : Plugged In is a collaboration project that hopes to raise awareness through electronic music for the need for electricity to provide for a better educational environment. The minimum fundraising goal is $5,500. Make sure to buy the album in October 2015 to contribute!
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