It’s a shame you can’t pay for lunch with Spotify streams. Especially in Lolo Zouaï’s case, when her credit card was declined after trying to buy a sandwich, just as her track, “High Highs to Low Lows,” reached over a million listens. “I cried in the middle of LA,” she laments. “How do I have a million streams and negative seven dollars in my bank account right now?” This is Gen-Z’s portrait of the struggling musician; you sell out every one of your concerts from New York to Paris, rack thousands of Instagram followers and fans daily, work with designers such as Tommy Hilfiger on campaigns, sign to RCA, collaborate with artists like Blood Orange and H.E.R., and still have moments where there’s not enough cash to buy a BLT.
Success does not imply a spoon-fed career, although in today’s age, it’s difficult to divorce the two. In contrast, Zouaï’s music humbles the most jaded; she’s a voice for those of us who spend our summers trapped behind the humid checkout counter, who wear our 99 cent gold hoops till our earlobes turn green, glaze on our lip-gloss in the Employees Only bathroom before the party, have tongues dressed in two languages, and gaze at our dreams waltz with each swirl of the clock.
After a full day photo shoot, Zouaï goes straight to the recording studio. Over the phone, the 22-year-old R&B pop singer explains that this is a normal day for her, jam packing a week of work into a 24 hour slot. “I’ve been doing a lot of tours and music videos. I’m used to that, it’s hectic,” she says. Zouaï explains that her grind mentality is a family heirloom gifted from her mother, who worked seven jobs at one point. Zouaï’s string of base-pay occupations range from working at American Apparels in Paris to taking online orders crammed in the back of a restaurant with no fans in the sweltering heat.
This is Zouaï’s unmatched charm: turning lemons into lemonade, or, perhaps, turning a minimum wage flaming hell into an entire album of raw confessions, razor edged wit, and smack-in-the-face reality. Zouaï often draws on these eight hour days and is unapologetically unglamorous. Her album, High Highs to Low Lows, is beaded with daydreams of escaping her cash register throne and slipping away in a ‘60s convertible. Her track, “Chevy Impala,” presents Zouaï at the hostess stand, fantasizing about saving enough for the vintage vehicle as her fluttering voice sighs, What do I make these tips for?/ Bounce like a ‘64. In another, she professes, And I can’t wait to really get paid not just minimum wage, yeah.
Besides stripping sticky pop beats of the expected plush and ostentatious lyrics by further cementing them with middle class reality, Zouaï also draws on her diverse background from French-Algerian parents. She learned to sing from the medleys of multicultural music swirling through her childhood home. At 15, Zouaï took her talent to the auditions of American Idol, where she came face to face with her nerves. “I was shocked to see that other people weren’t nervous at all,” Zouaï admits. “I thought to myself, ‘when am I gonna be confident enough to perform in front of people?’” A battle with confidence would be the splintering crack in the earth dividing singing as both her biggest fear and biggest dream. “It was weird because I was confident, but my body and my voice would tremble, and physically, I couldn’t sing.”
After building a fan base online, Zouaï’s manager scheduled her first tour. Once she started making music like High Highs to Low Lows, music that embodies her striking flair and distinctive vulnerability, Zouaï was able to overthrow the swarm of stomach butterflies. “Who cares what people think now? This is my shit.”
Indeed, Zouaï’s year has been brimming with high highs; concerts worldwide, her first tour bus, and buying her mom an iPad. The highs climaxed at We Love Green Festival in Paris, “There were seven thousand people and I just couldn’t believe it. They knew all the lyrics.” Her low lows are less tangible. From them, she crafts masterful and heart-wrenching pieces like “Summer in Vegas,” a song about spending time with her father at his pizza store off The Strip. Zouaï’s voice is syrupy with yearning and nostalgic grief as she delicately lullabies, Pour your wine in a red cup/ I saw you hide it under the register/ The desert strip is no place for a kid. “When I was writing it and listening to it, I was crying and could never get the recording right, because you have to really get into this place to record it,” Zouaï confides.
Such is the magic of Zouaï’s bittersweet bangers, each track a tender and unvarnished portrait of herself: shamelessly ardent, at times cheeky, grief-stricken, in love, wistful, and coupled with the unconscious drive to validate and be validated. As much as Zouaï gives of herself to her listeners, so, too, do they give themselves back to her. “When I sing ‘Summers in Vegas’ on stage, there is this one moment where, before it breaks down, I say, ‘You don’t say you love me?’ Then there’s a silence.” Here, in this second of silence, Zouaï unconsciously braids the audience into the song. “I didn’t even realize that I wrote it to where there’s this silence that makes it so vulnerable, to the point where audience is like, we gotta reassure her that we are here and that we do.” And every time, the audience sings back in unison, “We love you!”
Photographer: Robin Harper at Early Morning Riot.
Flaunt Film Directed by Andrew Amine
Stylist: Britton Litow.
Hair: Candice Birns using R+CO and Oribe at Nest Artists.
Makeup: Melissa Murdick using MAC Cosmetics at Opus Beauty.