Lolo Zouaï (pronounced: "zoo-eye") is someone who has literally been there, done that. After working a string of service jobs for years, the 24-year-old French-Algerian singer-songwriter is riding the wave of her major-label debut album, High Highs to Low Lows, which was released last month to critical acclaim.
The album's 12 songs chronicle the journey of a singer who has stuck with it, from minimum-wage purgatory to learning to love her flaws. In between service jobs, and often on the clock, she wrote songs and DM'd dream collaborators until finding a companion in A$AP Ferg and SZA collaborator, producer Stelios Phili. Together, Zouaï penned all lyrics while Stelios tackled production, showcasing a rare independent streak for a breakthrough artist.
Though Zouaï has put out a string of singles since 2017, I first got wind of the budding star earlier this year on a cred-building song with Blood Orange's Dev Hynes called "Jade," from double-single release Ocean Beach.
But I knew Zouaï's style — which combines clever, French-to-English wordplay with razor sharp R&B hooks and smooth trap-pop trends — was resonating beyond streaming platforms when I heard another cut at a Bushwick, Brooklyn drag show this winter. There, a queen dressed like Miss Universe performed the album's cinematic and autobiographical title track. And I must say, her lyric, "They all think it's Gucci but it's 99 cents, I swear," plays pretty well to a crowd enthralled both by high-camp entertainment and rags-to-riches mythbusting.
As such, the genre-blurring singer has garnered a range of flattering comparisons, from Aaliyah, who she admires, to thank u, next-era Ariana Grande, which she doesn't mind too much. But whatever helps Zouaï's music stick in your memory is fine with her. You'll likely will hear Zouaï's name a lot this year, as she's hitting the road through the remainder of 2019 (get tickets here). It's a life she's perfectly suited for, given her worldly background (born in Paris, raised in San Francisco, spent some summers in Las Vegas with her dad, and currently living in New York). It's a subject that she, like any proper Millennial, fantasizes about, and reflects poignantly on throughout her album. Also covered are mental health ("Here to Stay," "Blue"), her complex family life ( "Summers In Vegas," "Desert Rose"), the high life ("Chevy Impala," "Out the Bottle"), and prioritizing success over suitors ("Moi," "Ride," "Caffeine").
By all appearances, it seems there's no limit to what Zouaï can or will do next. PAPER caught up with her to talk highs, lows, and everything in between.
What's it been like for you since releasing your debut?
It's been nuts, a crazy response. Instagram is one of the best ways to see how it's resonating, from tons of new followers to DMs telling me it's their favorite album in years, which is obviously very flattering because I just started. It's nice to hear that after all this time, I wasn't crazy. What I think is good other people think is good too.
I think what's resonating, beyond it being sonically on-trend, is how personal your lyrics are.
When you're making something, and people who write reviews call it sugarcoated trap or post-Grande pop, I'm like, that's cool, but did you hear the whole album? I made this album a year and a half ago before "Break Up With Your Girlfriend" came out.
I think people just need something to latch onto.
Totally! And duh, I'm totally fine with being compared to the biggest pop star in the world right now. It's not a bad look, let's be real.
How does French pop inspire you? There are elements throughout that remind me of people like Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Camille.
For "Beaucoup," I was 100 percent going for a French '60s Yé-Yé song, something you'd hear in a cafe in Paris. I was totally inspired by folks like Francoise Hardy, Edith Piaf, her melodies in general. I don't really listen to mainstream pop music in France now, I guess because I didn't grow up there so I didn't have the knowledge. I'm not hip over there just yet. All I know are the classics.
It sounds like you've been all over: born in Paris, raised in San Francisco, and you live in New York now, and you spent some summers in Las Vegas.
Yeah, when I was like 10 or 11, I would go out to Las Vegas in the summer and spend it with my dad who ran a pizza shop. I grew up in a pizza place.
"In some ways, my life has been like a movie... You think you know me, but you have no idea."
"Summers in Vegas" and "Desert Rose" explore your family life in a pretty nuanced way. How do you see those songs?
They are two sides of the same coin in one way. "Summers" is a little dark but also is about sort of a happier time in my childhood and "Desert Rose" is a sadder reality of having part of my family not embrace me because of religious beliefs. Both can also be looked at as love songs. Ultimately, though, obviously experiences with my family growing up shaped how I see relationships. "Summers In Vegas" explains how I might seem so cold about love in the other songs. Some people may not read that much into it, but some might. You see that there's a distant relationship I might have with my dad, which is why in "Caffeine," it's like I don't want to get to know you. It's important to have that contrast, because that's who I am.
What's "Moi" about for you? It feels like you're playing a character: on one hand you're a high-class seductress and on the other, you're a world-traveling rock star.
That was one of the first songs I wrote for the album. When I was 19, I moved to Paris from San Francisco. I lived with family there and was working at American Apparel. I was living in this really small apartment at the top of a building and it was 300 euros. I ended up meeting this guy who was older and Italian. I was really young and he fell in love with me. We dated for a bit and after six months, I went back to America to visit my mom. I was thinking about that time, like what the fuck am I doing? So I freaked out and broke up with him over the phone. It was horrible. In the song I say I have three passport photos, which is true: I'm Algerian, French, and American. It's just about how I don't like to be in one place. Someone is not going to change the fact that I'm career-oriented. In the bridge, I sing, "oh mon amour, you're not going to make me stay," which sums that up.
Often on the album, your life seems cinematic. Were you aware of that when writing?
In some ways, yes, my life has been like a movie. But it's also very real to me. That said, I think me and Stelios, my producer, like to make things sound really dramatic and big. Violins, I love, because they always make a song sound grander. I like thinking of songs as vehicles to take you from one place to the next. Having an unexpected outro is one way to do it; a switch-up is very exciting. In "Moi" it gets all screwed-up at the end, because maybe I appear sweet and the way it ends is like, "nah." You think you know me, but you have no idea. [Laughs]
What song represents your highest high and which is your lowest low?
The lowest low is "Here to Stay," which is my favorite song. Whenever I'm in that place, that's when I write my best. It's about depression, but turning it into something beautiful. My highest high would be "Caffeine." "Ride" is good too, it's fun and carefree, but they're both dark. I love darkness in the music. "Out the Bottle" is a high too but the track breaks down.
"Sometimes, all you can do is look in the mirror and tell yourself that you're that bitch."
Isn't "Out the Bottle" about getting drunk on a plane to Paris?
It's like a sequel to the title track in a way. It's not so much about that, but it marks the first time I flew myself out to Paris. I could be in first-class. or I flew coach and got lucky with no one else in my row.
I learned from "Chevy Impala" that you're a Pisces, so you're in good company with Rihanna.
Oh wow [Laughs]. I must say, I love Co-Star for all astrology reports.
Do you use it to decide whether or not you're a good match with someone you want to date?
Oh, yeah. I tell them they should get Co-Star and they're like, ooh, I don't know about all that.
In "Blue" you reference having an Aaliyah poster in your bedroom. What do you like most about her?
Just her demeanor, and I think it's why everyone loved her. She was so calm and confident for such a young person. She was definitely one of the first girls to bring that tomboy sex appeal to the mainstream. She wasn't just focused on music, either, so was sort of one of the first people I looked up to who shifted into acting and was really invested in growing as an artist.
Do you enjoy acting?
I think it would be fun to think about after tour. I've been asked to be in things and it's always like a grungy badass girl who swears and smokes cigarettes. I'd always get the same role. [Laughs]
It seems like your road hasn't been easy, but you're where you've wanted to be. What might you say to your younger self from where you are now?
One of the hardest things for me has been finding a partner, a producer, someone I trust. I'd say to really go with your gut about who people are. If you're not physically in a place to find a producer, networking online is super important. There's so much great stuff and people to work with on Soundcloud that goes unnoticed. There are so many websites that are free where you can also upload your songs and within a week, it's on every streaming platform. It's just about getting your music out there. Find the space and money to record and put it out online. You never know until you try.
You mentioned a bit ago that you were working at American Apparel and writing music. What else helped you pay for studio sessions over the years until getting signed?
I had so many jobs, wanna know how many? Just to pay the bills and keep singing. Oh my god, it was like two American Apparel stores in the States and France, Bareburger in New York, Pizza Beach, the Infirmary New Orleans, The Botanist, all in New York, and the last one, which I always said would be my last one, is called, Llama Inn. I like being social and I liked the work but it would motivate me so much to leave. I'd be writing songs at work. There's something so special about having that kind of time in your life, and definitely to not have anymore.
"I'm not really looking for this album to be number one. I want people to discover me with this album. I want things to build naturally."
You have perspective that some don't. What's next for you?
I'm touring through the year throughout the country, six or seven festivals this summer, then some Europe dates. And also I must say, I'm not really looking for this album to be number one. I want people to discover me with this album. I want things to build naturally. You put it out, it's out, then you just do it again. It's really about the music for me. Building a career takes time, I've learned.
How have you overcome self-doubt along the way?
Luckily, I always had a lot of love growing up. I had so much support from my mom and my sister. I know it's not always like that for everyone, so as far as confidence, it's mostly there, but I definitely have my doubts. Once you start becoming a slight public figure, and people know you and say things about you, it can be mean. It probably gets harder from here. When you start, I think you have to be sure that you can handle what's coming. It's scary but I think sometimes all you can do is look in the mirror and tell yourself that you're that bitch. Do things that make you feel like yourself. That's what I do. The way the industry works is that maybe you start blowing up and then people are like, oh, yeah, I fuck with her now. Oh, but you weren't there when I was struggling. You have to be aware of that too. I've learned that you have to believe in yourself the most.
Photography: Grant Spanier