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ZhalaPhotography Tony Karlsson

Talking healing and vulnerability with Swedish-Kurdish artist Zhala

Robyn’s protégé opens up about why she took a break from music and interviews after her debut in 2015 – and why she’s ready to come back

This week, we’re celebrating women in electronic music as Robyn takes over the site as guest editor. Here, the Swedish pop icon selects an emerging artist she wants to spotlight: her mentee, Zhala.

“I haven’t done an interview in two years – I never thought I’d do one again, actually”, says Swedish-Kurdish experimental artist Zhala when I call her up one October morning. She’s just got back from taking her girlfriend’s dog, a Belgian Griffon called Texas, to get her claws cut. Aside from canine grooming, Zhala has spent the three years since releasing her self-titled debut album moving, reflecting, and beginning to create again.

The only other artist signed to Robyn’s Konichiwa Records label aside from Robyn herself, the Swedish pop sensation’s protégé is back in the studio working on her follow-up project. Zhala was a whirlwind of experimental sounds, trippy vocals, Kurdish folk, and synths, a sound the artist herself calls “cosmic pop”. Her music videos feature similarly otherworldly imagery: women covered in temporary tattoos, an assembly line of hair brushing, “Kim Kardashian in an acid doom state”.

The video for “Aerobic Lambada” showed the artist wandering through a Swedish forest wearing blue and yellow hair extensions and a jacket by this is Sweden, a project created by two siblings who came to Sweden as child refugees, and who seek to challenge notions of Swedish identity through their work. Zhala’s dark features are a far cry from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Swede of public imagination. “I think it’s important to subvert any idea we have of anyone”, she says.

We spoke to Zhala about what inspires her, what it feels like having Robyn as a close friend and mentor, and what she’s got coming up next.

What have you been up to since releasing Zhala in 2015?

Zhala: I moved ten times between countries and cities and the woods, and I’ve been working on songs and a couple of different big projects – I can’t talk about them yet but they’re really big. I’ve been trying to create from a good place in myself.

Do you feel like you’re in a good place now?

Zhala: I am. I think I am. I have been for the last three years! I’ve been trying to find a way to do this (music) in a healthy way. It’s taken a little while to settle, but I’m gonna be doing this for a while, so I just had to find a way to do it without getting really depressed. I’ve been dealing with my traumas and healing.

You’re in the studio now working on your next album – what are you hoping to achieve with it, and what kind of sounds can we expect to hear?

Zhala: I’ve been into magic and dreams and death and taboos. I’ve been thinking a lot about these things, trying to explore them. Dreaming and death are places where we’re not in control; death is something else, but in our dreams our sensors are relaxed and so we dream about taboos: cultural taboos. I find those places really interesting to explore. I wanna dig into the secrets within us, and explore those places. I’m hoping it will sound more… religious.

In what ways has your sound changed or stayed the same since your last project?

Zhala: I think that it’s more serious maybe? There’s still a playfulness, I’ve always had a playfulness in what I do – I wouldn’t survive otherwise – but last time humour was a really big part of what I did for me. Now, I’m more into directness: shame and humiliation and vulnerability. I’m trying to be more direct with those things. I haven’t listened to my old songs in a really long time now, but I was really depressed when I made my last album, and I was super interested in my subconscious mind; that’s also a place where we don’t have much control, it’s also the unknown.

“When I’m on stage I’m really vulnerable, and I questioned, why should I? But then I realised that, for me, the only way to connect and find myself in the most honest place is through my shame. A place that’s beyond fashions and what’s cool” – Zhala

What’s been inspiring you during your time in the studio making this album, and what inspires you more generally?

Zhala: I’ve been really inspired by gospel and love and sorrow, and crying. Crying is a practice I use to release, and that inspires me a lot – trying to open up those channels. So, crying a lot, and again, being raw and vulnerable. It’s been a long journey.

Three years ago, I was certain I was never gonna do an interview again. I didn’t know if I should do this. I question a lot, and I’ve done that a lot over the last three years. Questioning about why – when I do interviews and when I’m on stage I’m really vulnerable, and I questioned, who deserves this? Why should I? But then I realised that, for me, the only way to connect and find myself in the most honest place is through my shame. A place that’s beyond fashions and what’s cool and is just my oath. I need that for my growth, and I just have to deal with the fame and the consequences afterwards. It’s part of it.

How does it feel to be the only person apart from Robyn on Konichiwa Records?

Zhala: I’m super grateful to be there, and that there is a place for me. It feels special; it’s her label and she signed me, she makes me feel special. I don’t think anything is forever; I don’t know if I will be the only other person on that label forever, but for now I’m just happy that there’s a place for me and my music.

Does she mentor you?

Zhala: I would definitely say she has been mentoring me in many ways throughout the years. Providing me with her knowledge and her contacts, all of that. It’s been super helpful and I’m really grateful to have someone so experienced and still really cool on my side. I feel like I can be myself, and that my process is super accepted. Having her as a friend in my life is also a blessing, she’s an amazing person.

We heard you played Statement Festival recently, what was that experience like? What do you think about the concept of an all-female line-up?

Zhala: It was a non-cis male festival, basically. I cancelled my performance because I didn’t feel ready, but I still wanted to go and see and experience it, so I played a DJ set instead of performing live. It was so special! I hope they get billions and billions (of funding) to be able to do this next year and the year after, because it was really empowering… Everyone, from the people working in front of the stage to backstage to the audience, was there to celebrate and share love and empower each other. I’ve never been at a place with 5,000 people and no cis males! It was really special and unique, and I didn’t expect it to affect me this much, but it really did. I felt the importance of a space like that.

How have your Kurdish and Swedish identities influenced your music respectively?

Zhala: Well Swedish music is very melodic; I think that has influenced me a lot. I’ve always been drawn to… music that isn’t pop, rock, or indie, other kinds of Swedish music. I love pop and all that too, but I’m thinking about what I was hearing growing up… everything from children’s songs and music I heard in films and traditional Swedish music, it has this mystical wave in it, and I’ve always been drawn to that. And Kurdish, Middle Eastern music has completely different tones that really resonate with me, tones that transcend me to a rave. It’s a very physical, expressive, the rhythm and the tones in Middle Eastern music and Kurdish music.

What other artists are you inspired by or what other artists do you think are doing cool stuff at the moment?

Zhala: I’m obsessed with Anna von Hausswolff. Oh my God. She’s incredible – she’s so fucking extraordinary and magical. And Lafawndah… she’s really interesting. I love following her and seeing what she’s up to and the art she makes. She’s really cool.

What have you got coming up?

Zhala: I’m releasing a new song at Athens Biennale at the end of the month, and that will be the first song I’m showing from the new stuff I’m doing. It will be exclusively exhibited there for the whole Biennale, before I realise it. It’s called “Play”.