Smile Politely

Confidence in sound: An interview with zzo

zzo is a singer/keyboardist/producer who writes dreamy, spacey, indie-pop. Zoe Willott single-handedly wrote, performed, recorded, mixed, and mastered her nine-song debut album, Telling Other People’s Stories, which was released October 31st, 2018. Each song has its own distinct character, yet the album as a whole is very cohesive. The songwriting is masterful, almost objectively, with each song being well paced.

While zzo makes use of retro vibes and elements of nostalgia attendant to the genre, nothing sounds recycled or prepackaged. Her lyrics are sometimes fantastical, but the feelings that she describes and evokes are relatable and real. All of this is accomplished with a delicate vocal delivery, and intricate, lush instrumental layering that rewards repeat listening. The album is available via her Bandcamp for “name your own price,” so there is virtually no excuse for not owning it. 

Smile Politely: First things first: is it pronounced “Zee-Zo,” or “Zo?”

Zoe Wilott: “Zee-Zo.”

SP: Let’s talk about your writing process for a minute. 

Willott: It kind of depends from song to song. I get a lot of inspiration in the car, actually, so I have to keep it in my head before I stop. [laughs] Sometimes I think of phrases that I like — word phrases. Sometimes I think of chord progressions that I like, or a bassline, or a beat, or something. But I don’t ever hear something fully in my head. I have to build upon a bassline of some kind of musical idea.

SP: The title of the record is Telling Other People’s Stories. Are those truly, actually, stories that you’ve gotten from other people that you’ve made into songs, or…

Willott: Yeah, so, there is inspiration from my life in there, but none of it is completely personal. It’s all at least partly inspiration that I’ve found from movies and TV, or my friends, or other musicians. It depends, song by song.

SP: So, “Lost at Sea,” for instance, describes a woman leaving her family to meet a fish-seller in a coastal town, never to return. How much of that is a true story, and how much of that is fictional?

Willott: Oh, that’s completely made up. 

SP: Really. That’s crazy! It sounded so far fetched that I thought that it had to be real. 

Willott: Part of that was an exercise in storytelling. Since then, I’ve written more personal things, and it’s kind of easier to not be as literal now. Even though I am trying to be a little more literal with my lyrics, because sometimes I feel like I get into the thing where I’m trying too hard to be metaphorical, do you know what I mean? So, I don’t know. I don’t want to sound too deep or anything, I don’t want to be that “pretentious musician.”

SP: No, I mean, I think you nail it — putting out enough images where the listener can picture a situation and get what the characters are going through without being too on the nose with it. 

Willott: It’s hard, it takes a lot of editing. 

SP: So looking at lyric writing, what is that process like for you.

Willott: Lyrics are really hard for me. First and foremost, I’m a musician. I’m a music student at the U of I, so I’ve been doing music since I was eight. I have not written a lot, but I have been involved with music since I was little, so that part always comes a lot easier to me than the lyrics. Lyrics are so difficult sometimes. Sometimes I hear a song in my head, and I hear the melody, but then when I add the lyrics, it either doesn’t fit the feeling of the song already, or it’s like… kind of cheesy. I don’t know how to describe it other than that. Sometimes it’s just a happy song with happy lyrics, and I’m like this… is not what I wanted to go for, really. So, that’s a hard balance. Between the feeling of the lyrics, and the feeling of the song, you don’t want to be too far in one direction.

SP: So you try to find some balance where you don’t have, for instance, a heavy mood to your music, matched with overly dark lyrics.

Willott: Right. I’ve found that a lot of my songs sound really happy, but the lyrics aren’t actually that happy. I’ve had some friends talk to me about it, and they’re like, “You know, once I listened to your lyrics, they seemed kind of depressing.” I’m like, “Oh, OK.” [laughs].

SP: Well, I mean, it seems like optimism a recurring theme in your lyrics, even if sometimes the theme is that your optimism is being beaten down a little bit. Is that about right?

Willott: Yeah. That part is personal. The meaning behind it is personal. Just the way that I tell it on this particular record uses other people as a vessel for the feelings that I have.

SP: That sounds good. So this EP is nine songs. Have you written much before this, or is this your first project?

Willott: This is my first project.

SP: When did you start working on these songs?

Willott: Last summer. At the beginning of summer, I was like, “I kind of want to do something different with my music.” I switched over from the Classical Department to Jazz Piano. So that kind of played a part in it. The Classical Department — I don’t want to say it’s bad. It’s a great program, I love it, but it just wasn’t for me. There’s not a lot of creative freedom in it. You play a lot of the same pieces of music as other people. There’s this big canon of works that you have to get through before you can play anything else.

SP: Is there a lot of pressure, there?

Willott: There was quite a bit of pressure, yeah. Moving into the Jazz Department, I could pretty much play whatever I want, so that was really freeing, honestly. So I was like, “Why don’t I just play something that’s completely not what I’ve played before?” Everything I listen to is like indie-pop, indie-rock, indie-folk, so I was like, “Why don’t I try to do it?”

SP: That’s awesome. So you started writing the EP last summer — mainly using keyboard for everything, or…?

Willott: I used all Logic sounds. Recently, I figured out how to get sounds from my keyboard into Logic, so that opened up a whole new world of possibilities, because I can use the sounds that I already like on the keyboard, but yeah. Last summer was all learning Logic, too, because I took a recording class freshman year.

SP: At U of I?

Willott: Yeah, at Allen Hall. They have a recording studio in the basement. That sounds really bad [laughs]. It’s not like, in the basement, it’s a good studio [laughs]. So I took a class there, learned a little bit of Logic there, but it was only like — I don’t remember if it was one semester or two, but it was a pretty short class to learn all of those things, because Logic is just so extensive. I mixed it myself too, and mastered it myself, which was very hard to do in my home — like my hometown home — because we don’t have any fancy equipment or anything like that.

SP: So just all headphone mixing, or…?

Willott: I tried to mix on as many things as possible. I have speakers, so I tried to mix it on that, and then some Sony headphones, and Apple earbuds. Phone speakers, car speakers. I tried to mix it everywhere, so that it sounded good everywhere. I’m still really self conscious about it, honestly. Sometimes I listen to it, and I’m like, “Oooh, that could have been higher there, that could have been lower there.” 

SP: No, it sounds good! I was curious about that. The drums are more subdued, but obviously important, and I was wondering if that was an intentional thing, to get the keyboard sounds more in the front.

Willott: Yeah, I really like the whole soft synth thing, like I listen to a lot of Beach House, and I like a lot of the producers that put out music, so they put out samplings of stuff. A lot of really spacey, wide, synths. I love those sounds, so I wanted to get that in there.

SP: You’ve got sort of a retro vibe in some songs, like 1986 does have an ‘80’s vibe to it, obviously, in a good way. It reminds me of the Twin Peaks intro music a bit. 

Willott: Now that you say that, yeah, I can see that.

SP: Do you draw inspiration from retro sounds?

Willott: Yeah, I do. A lot of the people that I listen to now are kind of inspired by that. A lot of the dream pop, bedroom pop, artists now, use a lot of those ‘80’s, ‘90’s sounds. I like the Cocteau Twins a lot, they have a lot of those kind of spacey sounds. Heaven or Las Vegas in particular was very much what I was going for with that. 

SP: Got it. So you recently put a band together, right? What’s the band made up of, instrumentation wise?

Willott: So, we’re actually all jazz majors, so that’s fun, because we already know each other. It’s me, a drummer, a bassist, and a guitarist. 

SP: Nice. Are they pretty much replicating what you had done on the EP?

Willott: Yeah, we are trying to get as close as possible to the recordings. It’s kind of hard though, because I used those Logic sounds, and I don’t have those on my keyboard. I got a new keyboard recently — a Roland VR-09 — so you can kind of like, mix the attack, decay, sustain, release envelopes on there, so you can kind of make them sound a little different. They have effects on there and everything too, so I can get pretty close to the sounds on there—

SP: —You said you can adjust the sustain and release —er, what were the parameters…

Willott: The ADSR envelope? You know what I’m talking about when I say that?

SP: I don’t.

Willott: OK, well, you’ve got the attack of the note, the decay of the note, the sustain, and the release, and they’re all changes to how it sounds. It’s probably easier just to hear it.

SP: Cool. And I apologize — I totally derailed your answer earlier. You were saying that you are trying to closely replicate what was done on the EP, and you’re kind of getting the instrumentation behind you to do that. Moving forward, do you see yourself continuing to write everything, or do you see it becoming more collaborative? 

Willott: I think it will be a little more collaborative. I still want to write everything, but I want my friends to play on it, too. It’s more fun that way. I’m not just sitting in my room, slaving away at a computer, trying to make this sound like a guitar, trying to make this sound like a bass. I could actually use bass sounds, because I have plenty of friends who play, like the band could help me play. I’m trying to learn new instruments, too, which is more difficult than I thought it would be.

SP: So what else do you have planned for the band?

Willott: That’s a good question. I’m trying to work on a second album right now, but I want to take my time. I feel like I rush myself a lot with the process, because I just want to get something out now. Yeah, I got one done in one summer, but it’s much harder to come back and get fresh ideas that aren’t just copying what you’ve done before, or copying other artists. That’s been really hard. Sometimes I start writing a song, and I’m like, “This sounds just like the song I was listening to five minutes ago!” 

SP: That’s alright though — just using inspiration for a starting point.

Willott: Imitation is a good way to start, I think. Usually, I hear it in my head as imitation, but when I get it out into the DAW it sounds much more different than how I heard it in my head anyway, and it sounds much more original by the time I get it out.

SP: Your first album has been really well received. Does positive feedback end up creating pressure on you in the writing process, or are you able to just disregard it?

Willott: I don’t know… at the end of the day, it’s just for me. If I like what I’m putting out, I think that’s what matters the most. I try not to worry about what other people think. I try to make sure that I’m confident in the sound before I put it out, and if I’m confident in it, the rest doesn’t really matter. 

zzo has a few shows lined up in the near future:

Photo by Ethan Slaughter

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