We hear a lot these days about the power of queer love stories, and the many young artists coloring in the dull mainstream narrative of queer life as one long exercise in struggle and trauma — brightening it with shades of love, infatuation, lust and bliss.
Lesbian pop songstress Zolita is among these artists. On tracks like "Holy," "Like Heaven," and "Come Home With Me," Zolita tells stories of flirty trysts and ecstatic obsessions, with a macabre, witchy edge.
But in her latest song and video combo, "Truth Tea," which PAPER premieres today, Zolita reminds us of the importance of stories that explore the idiosyncrasies of queer heartbreak.
Her most personal song to date, "Truth Tea" is a biting send-up of a cheating ex. The glossy, thumping pop banger tells the true story of a traumatizing betrayal that Zolita experienced when her girlfriend cheated on her with a man.
While that narrative, to some extent has become cliché, the situation remains a common ghost in queer romances, and Zolita's rage is a balm for anyone who's been made to feel "like an experiment."
We find Zolita furious rather than broken: seething with "big dyke energy," as a graphic T-shirt she wears in one scene of the video (which are now for sale on her website) reads, that has prompted fans to call the song a "a gay 'thank u, next.'"
The savage lyrics, inspired by a "classic diss-track" are mismatched with the tropical wind-chime beat, and light, danceable production, a whiplash that mimics the song's emotional cocktail of anger and hurt:
"I heard you went away for the summer/ Met a boy named Lars and fucked him in his car... I heard you met a three out of ten/ Called him Ben, took him home not once but twice," she sings mercilessly.
The video, full of Zolita's signature cinematic flare and provocative aesthetics, is a science fiction drama, set in a sterile white hospital room, where two nurses prescribe her a violently colored dose of "truth tea:" a metaphor for the harsh truths that friends and loved ones to serve us, when they're too painful to stomach.
PAPER chatted with Zolita about the heartbreak that inspired "Truth Tea," life as an independent artist, and her plans to found a "Big Dyke Energy" dance party in LA.
This video feels really personal. What inspired it?
I originally was supposed to release this song called "Black Magic" around this time. But I recently went through a pretty traumatizing betrayal in my life, which felt like something that I needed to express as an artist, in order to process and get through it. So I came up with this idea for a song and video called "truth tea." I knew I wanted it to be in a super sterile: this perfect white room where I would be in a daze and two nurses would help break me out of that daze by serving me "truth tea."
So you came up with the concept as well as you were coming up with the song?
Yeah, I wanted to make this video so badly. I told my manager (I had just moved from New York City to L.A.) that I needed to fly to New York City to make this video within two weeks. He was understandably on the fence us investing time and money into a video that didn't even have a song yet, but I was like "I swear song is going to be good," just trust me. I had the lyrics written and I went into the studio with Lee Newell, who does most of my production on all of my other songs and then this songwriter called Bekah Novi who's also a big collaborator and we made the song. But yeah. Sorry I went off on a huge tangent there. But thematically, I think "Truth Tea" is when you don't want to know something awful is going on, so you close your eyes to the signs and your own intuition.
Exactly and I was definitely in a relationship where I did that for a very long time, and that struggle came up in the songs I was writing and releasing before I had consciously accepted it, like my new song "New You."
What was the "truth tea" in real life for you?
I needed outside forces to help me, I wasn't going to accept it without someone literally telling me what was going on so I had that. I had my own nurses in my life that served me the truth and the proof that I needed.
Is it scary to put out something so personal and angry?
Yes, but more than scary, I'm really excited because it's going to feel so cathartic. I'll finally be able to close that chapter of my life by putting this out. I've never really had a Taylor Swift "call them out" moment before, usually my songs usually come from a very vulnerable and sad point of view: this is the first time both in the song and the video that I really let myself to embrace anger and more of a crazy, manic energy.
There is really vibrant anger in the video.
Yeah! I'm really not an angry person, but this whole experience kind of awakened that energy inside of me because I've always been very forgiving, and kind of live with rose-colored glasses. I trust very easily. I've never felt anger like this in my life, so it was really nice to express that and I'm so grateful that I have music and art to be able to express that because I don't know how I would have been able get through this.
This song is about a very specific story of queer heartbreak, one that I think is an underlying anxiety for a lot of queer people and especially women: of a partner cheating with someone of the opposite sex.
Yeah one hundred percent. That was definitely an anxiety that I was expressing. I've been out for a good amount of time now and I feel very confident in my sexuality. When you're dating someone who is newly queer, obviously you want to trust them and I don't want to seem like I'm saying that everyone who is newly queer is going to do that....that's not what I want to say at all. But this was my experience: and no one wants to be an experiment. That's what this kind of felt like, I felt like a long experiment to this person.
I just told the story exactly as it happened, both in the lyrics and in the video. People can take what they want from it and I think even though it's such a specific story it's also one that obviously so many people experience. You see cheating and betrayal storylines all over T.V. and the movies. Everybody loves a good betrayal, cheating story.
Speaking of movies, I feel like a lot of your videos, especially this and "Holy," are told so cinematically. You're a filmmaker as well as a musician - who are your cinematic influences?
I love Steven Klein's video work and photography and then I love David Lynch of course, kind of like that eerie off-putting visuals and vibe and color and all of that. I'm definitely inspired by '90s fashion films and fashion shows.
I also loved the embrace of the grotesque and weird in this video.
Definitely. My past videos are very put together and I'm hyper-aware of myself and my body. In this video, I really wanted to let myself be a little bit more ugly and just try to embrace that craziness as much as possible.
Musically, this song really reminded me of Dua Lipa. Who in pop are you listening to right now and inspired this?
Definitely! I love Dua Lipa she's great. I love Kehlani, and Post Malone. I think people who have a dark R&B vibe and strong melodies are the artists that I gravitate towards a lot. For the sound of this song, I was listening to Nicki Minaj's new album a lot. She embraces anger better than anybody else that I know in the mainstream. One example is the song "Barbie Dreams," just like a classic diss track. Originally, I had hip-hop production and a classic diss track in mind, but when we went in the studio we decided to go for a more carefree and danceable and fun, just because that's what we were feeling and I thought that would be a nice contrast to the really savage lyrics.
How involved are you in the creative production of your videos?
I'm literally involved in everything –– like I made food for the set. I drive the van, I drop off the equipment. I'm an independent artist, no one's telling me I have to do anything. I'm doing it because I need to and I want to. But from the idea, to raising money, to producing and pulling together location I'm doing it all. And then bringing together all the people I collaborate, who I've been working with since my first video. I have this really symbiotic creative relationship now with a crew of people, and we all know each other so well, which is really important. When you're in front of the camera, when you're directing yourself you have to put so much trust in the people around you. There's no time to look at the footage, so I have to be like did you guys like that shot, do you think that that was a good one? And I have to trust that.
I feel like especially being so personal and sexually open in your work, you have to trust people around you, or that kind of vulnerability isn't possible.
Yeah I think that because all of my staff are 99% female and/or LGBTQ makes for such a good set energy and definitely translates in the video.
How do you self-motivate as an independent artist?
It's exhausting but it's what I'm choosing to do it and it makes me so happy, and it's so fun. There are so many stressful aspects of it, but at the end of the day when I get messages from young fans saying that one of my songs is helping them through some experience or helping them come out or helping them embrace their sexuality -- that's what I come back to when I get frustrated. When I come back to the core of why I do what I do, that's what motivates me.
What was your decision like to move to LA?
I loved living in New York and I made my whole group of collaborators they're all out in New York and it definitely shaped who I am as an artist but for music, pop music is all pretty much out in L.A. But I was coming out here every few months, so it made more sense and I'm glad I did. It's definitely easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing and like, "Oh I need to make a sound that sounds like everyone else so like Spotify will pick it up." Because there are so many incredible musicians doing similar things. So you want to stand out but also you want to have a sound that people are going to like and going to want to listen to. It's trying to strike that balance.
Are you trying to sign with a label?
Right now, being independent is working for me. I'm definitely not closed off to signing with a label, but it would have to be the right people and the right team.
Last thing, tell me about your "Big Dyke Energy" shirt in the video.
Yeah! So I was seeing big strap energy but I never say big dyke energy. I have this cult of girls symbol that I use in a lot of my work and I wanted to make another iconic piece that people could have from the video.
So we made shirts and on the same day that the video comes out we're launching the shirt as well so people can buy that. And also, me and my really good queer friend out in L.A. are actually talking about starting a party series called Big Dyke Energy.
That's amazing! Those spaces are really necessary.
Yeah! The fact that women don't even have a set bar to go to... I mean we have some events you know kind of like in New York, like in New York you have The Woods. And here there's a night at The Abbey on Wednesdays. But there's no set queer female space. It's very heavily gay male centric obviously in West Hollywood, so this would be for women and non-binary people.
That sounds like exactly what LA needs.
Yeah because there's a lot of amazing queer girls out here, we just have to get them all in the same space.
Photos by Victoria Brandt