Zarif – I don’t have anything in common with any of these people

Zarif may have been the next big thing, but it didn’t suit. She now has a new EP due for release in January that fits her rock edge much better.

Ten years ago, Zarif released her debut album Box of Secrets and, although at the time she was lauded as the next best or biggest soul / R & B act, it wasn’t really her.

Record company influence moulded the sound into a kind of Amy Winehouse 2.0 and while it’s a great album, it didn’t fit too well with what Zarif wanted her sound to be.

Now she has a new EP – Square One – coming out on 29 January 2021 which marks a new direction and a new way of working.

You can hear the lead single, Click.

We wanted to know a bit more about Zarif and caught her in her first ever (!) Zoom interview.

P3dro: Where are you and what are you doing?

Zarif: Well, that’s usually quite an exciting question. But today, I’m at home, where I’ve been for most of the last 8 months, in East London. I’ve just had a guitar lesson, which was fun. On Zoom, which I’m finding strange, but it’s fun. I’ve always played a bit of guitar, but I thought during lockdown that was something I could improve.

Everyone I know has either got better at an instrument, or one of the essential skills that musicians need to know. I can now do video editing. Another friend is really good at graphic design, now.

P3dro: Well, we managed to learn how to poach an egg. That’s been our major lockdown achievement.

Zarif: That’s something I’ve always wanted to learn how to do. Every time I try, it goes totally wrong.

P3dro: You need some vinegar – that’s the thing.

Zarif: Ah. Good tip!

P3dro: Your PR describes you as a grunge / pop newcomer, but actually, you’ve been around for a while. It’s 10 years since Box of Secrets came out.

Zarif: Yeah, it’s been a while. I think they probably meant new to the more rocky world. I’m not really a newcomer!

P3dro: What have you been up to in the last 10 years?

Zarif: Well, I was with Sony and did the ‘Box of Secrets’ era. But soon after that, when I’d left Sony, I had already started writing what I wanted to write, which has always been the more rock side of things. But I just couldn’t get that past Sony.

So, I started writing with John Calvert, the bass player in my band at the time. But then the biggest thing that happened to me in the last 10 years is that I’ve had cancer. Twice.

So, I’ve mainly been having treatment, recovering from treatment. And then it came back again. So I’ve been doing music intermittently through that. I’ve always been writing and recording, even doing bits of the jobbing singer side of things, backing vocals and sessions for people. But my stuff just had to take a back seat.

So, I’ve been kind of cooking up all this music for a long time. And it just hasn’t been the right time to release it until now. I’ve been honing the sound. But as soon as I left Sony and started writing for myself it went into a more rock and electronic direction. More experimental and a kind of going that way ever since.

P3dro: You’re not the first person we’ve spoken to who has made a similar point, namely record companies dictating the sound, rather than that coming from the artist. You’re not being allowed to put out the record you wanted to?

Zarif: 100%. When I first got signed, back then it was what everyone wanted. Now things have moved so that artists can do things themselves, but then it was the be all and end all. Everyone wanted a record deal.

I always found it strange because lots of other friends and artists I knew would get signed on the strength of a demo that has a particular sound. Then [the record company] say they love it. You get signed and they say “Now we’re gonna change it”. I never understood that.

I guess it’s because, at the time, there were a lot of female soul / pop [singers]. There was Adele, there was Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen. But I don’t have anything in common with any of those people.

They’re all amazing in what they do. But it’s not me. And I think people can tell when it’s not authentic.

Don’t get me wrong – I worked with some amazing people and had a really good time and tried to make it work. But I ended up with something that was a lot of fun, but not very me.

P3dro: Yeah, we were watching one of the videos from Box of Secrets on YouTube and it’s a very Amy Winehouse / R & B / soul feel to it.

Zarif: Exactly. I’ve always been told I have a “soulful” voice, whatever that means. I grew up listening to a lot of soul – Aretha, Marvin Gaye and all these people. But I don’t think I sound soulful like that. I guess people put a label on you, maybe.

That’s what happened and they said: “You’re a soul singer”.

At the time of writing, there were probably 100s of songs. Some of them were more electro and at the time I was really into bands like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Phoenix. I was trying to do stuff like that with my friends, but then I’d go into the studio with people [the record company] had put in and it would suddenly be like pop, pop, pop.

And the selection process gets left to the label. But I’d say I want to do this. And they’d say, no, that’s not right. Yeah, it was an “interesting” process.

P3dro: So, there’s a freedom in doing the Square One EP yourself?

Zarif: Yeah, and I did that on purpose. I’m still in touch with some of the industry people, but I just didn’t want to involve anyone. I didn’t want the same thing to happen again.

We made the EP in bedrooms and with friends and favours.

P3dro: When was it done?

Zarif: It was recorded over a long period of time. Just because of my illness, really. We started writing very soon after I left Sony, even though those songs aren’t on the EP, but it was that kind of process of experimentation. These songs began a couple of years ago. And then I did the vocals, maybe last year.

Then there was a big gap between starting it and when I could finish it. So, yeah, it’s been a bit of a long process. But a good process, one that I could experiment, try stuff out, call friends and say: “Hey, come and play on this”.

It’s been nice. Like you say, it was very “freeing”. And, also it’s uncharted territory. There’s something nice about having a label take care of everything, but I don’t have that. It’s the price to pay.

P3dro: How do you feel about releasing an EP in the current climate, because you can’t gig and promote it?

Zarif: OMG. I’m dying to gig. I wish. I wish we could put on some gigs. For every musician, that’s the fun part of it.

So, it is weird, but at the same time I’d waited a long time and I didn’t want to wait any longer. Anyway, when is the right time?

In the last few months I’ve noticed people engaging a lot more, they have more time on their hands, they’re working from home and engaging more on social media. I’d like to think it means people have a bit more time to click on a link or listen to something new. Who knows? We’ll see.

It’s strange being at home. I’d love to put on a gig right now. Or do some more writing, which I’ve been doing, but it’s strange when you’re not in the same room with other people.

P3dro: It’s tough sometimes to get motivated?

Zarif: Yeah. I work off other people’s energy, I always have. So, while I can write at home and do lyrics and guitar parts, my favourite bit is getting in a room with people, playing stuff, seeing where it goes, experimenting. So, I find it harder on my own, definitely.

P3dro: You mention Yeah Yeah Yeahs and you’ve been compared with Karen O in the past. Who do you think are your influences?

Zarif: I have very eclectic influences. I’m wearing my Police t-shirt. I love a lot of 70s rock like Led Zeppelin – huge influences for me. And then a lot of the 90s grunge things like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Also PJ Harvey, I absolutely love, Radiohead. But I’ve always had a special, soft spot for the more soul and funk based stuff like Prince, Talking Heads and … yeah.

Every day you ask me this I’d probably tell you … and this band … and this band. But the top faves have always been Led Zeppelin, Prince, Police, Bjork.

P3dro: Do you ever think about your Desert Island Discs and how they would change all the time?

Zarif: Yeah, they would change all the time. I think the ones that would remain on there and have done for years would be the first Police album [Outlandos D’Amour] Prince, ‘Sign of the Times’ and, probably one of the White Stripes albums.

Is it five you’re allowed to take?

P3dro: It’s actually seven songs! [Our fuck up – it’s eight]

Zarif: Oh, God. OK – I can’t answer you then!

P3dro: On that point, the EP is out in January, we’ve asked people about the contest between single, EP and album. Why did you decide to release an EP?

Zarif: That’s a good question. I think of all the songs I’d written, these four were my favourites. They worked together and made sense as an EP.

So many people are not even releasing EPs – they’re just doing single and then single. But I thought an EP would be a nice taster of the new sound, without having to wait even longer to get a whole album finished.

I think you can experiment more with an EP because you can do a sound and a vibe, then the next one can be a change. These songs just felt right in my head together.

I wanted to put them out, test the water while I get on writing other stuff.

P3dro: Is there an album in the works?

Zarif: There are more songs in the works. But, as you say, is it an album or an EP? I think you can do whatever you want now, can’t you?

If it ends up being an album, then that would be great and I’d love that.

P3dro: Some people will say the process of putting an album together, thinking about the running order and the process of putting it together … maybe that’s the older musicians who think that way?

Zarif: I think I’m more instinctive than that. I rarely go in with a plan. I prefer that improvised energy that comes out. That’s the real thing. I don’t [want to] manufacture a plan in advance.

There was a friend of mine who got asked to write some songs for a Korean band. They were: “Yeah, cool, we’ll send some beats or whatever”. And then they got given a running order of the album. Not a single song had been written, but there was this running order, a topic for every song, there was even a concept for a video … And I was: “How does that even work?”

So, I’m totally the opposite end of that scale. I’m impulsive. Whatever comes out, comes out.

P3dro: What do you see for the immediate future? Do you see any prospect of doing any gigs any time soon?

Zarif: I hope so. I have tickets to see a gig in Camden next week. I don’t know if it will happen, but I’m hoping things will start up again. Obviously it will be a very different experience – sitting down [and table service].

I love the sweaty free for all, but who knows. Maybe some festivals next year. That’s the dream.

Next week’s gig is an acoustic artist [Longy], but I wouldn’t be buying tickets for a punk gig right now. I want to be in that pit at the front.

P3dro: What’s next on the Zarif timeline?

Zarif: The EP is out in January. I have a video for the second single, which I’m quite excited about. It ties in a bit of my experiences over the last few years. I filmed it just before I had chemo, so I’d shaved my head for the video. It sounds like a terrible sob story, but we’d made sure for the video it isn’t It’s more of a nod to those Empire Records that I love so much.

So, I’m excited about that. It’s been along time since I’ve released music. But there is a reason for it. It’s a weird topic that people find difficult to talk about. Cancer and cancer treatment – it’s the last thing I’d want to do as a sob story, but it’s real and it happened to me. It will explain a bit more about what I’ve been up to.

And, then I’m up for, basically just moving on. And doing new stuff. Before lockdown we did some jamming sessions, so there’s stuff there we can do. And release more. And get the show on the road. Whatever that means.

P3dro: Recommend a band or an album that you think we should be listening to right now.

Zarif: Ooh. That’s a good one. That always puts me on the spot. It’s like when someone asks me to sing a song. But I don’t know any songs. I’m really enjoying the new HAIM album. They’re wicked.

There’s some new Royal Blood things about to happen, some I’m excited to see what that will be.

And Dream Wife. They have so much fun and energy.

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