In the summer of 2017, Lolo Zouaï booked a flight from France to Algeria for her cousin’s wedding. Though she’d already sketched out a few songs that would end up on her 2019 debut LP High Highs to Low Lows, the singer found herself searching for her signature.
“I didn’t know what I was trying to say with my music,” says Zouaï, sipping on a paloma (vodka subbed for tequila) at a spot in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. “I just hadn’t really found my thing yet.” The day before her flight to Algeria – where Zouaï’s father is from – she had posted a picture of herself flipping the double bird. Though the post didn’t look out of place on the feed of a millennial pop musician, it set off a chain reaction of events, one which Zouaï feels to this day.
“I was supposed to go for the wedding,” says Zouaï. “Then my mum was like, ‘Make your Instagram private!’” The post had enraged conservative members of Zouaï’s extended family. Distant relatives angrily DMed her and suggested she change her last name on the app. An American cousin who was also going to the wedding warned her not to come.
And then, mysteriously, Zouaï’s flight to Algeria was cancelled. “I found out that (someone in my family) had cancelled it,” says the singer, who adds, “I’m not mad, I’m just hurt.” While she’ll never be sure who it was, Zouaï’s family in Algeria is well-connected and knew the details of her flight. Although the country occupies a prominent spot in her imagination, she doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to return on her own terms.
When Zouaï got back to New York City, where she’s been living since 2015, she wrote a song based on the episode. A standout on her debut, “Desert Rose” lays out the creative mechanisms that make her music so quietly subversive, with Zouaï singing in English, French and Arabic over slow-twitching drums. Heightened by producer Stelios Phili’s expressive twist on late-night R&B sounds, it’s a song that touches on an intense personal matter – her strained relationship with her family, whom she still loves. But the thick sonic mood and alluring presentation has led some fans to misinterpret its meaning.
“Some people think it’s a sexual song,” says Zouaï. “There’s no sex involved, please relax! It was number one on Spotify’s ‘Bedroom Jams’ playlist, so I joked that the song went Magnum. (But) it’s my favourite song I’ve ever written.”
This is how Zouaï’s music operates, and why High Highs to Low Lows is one of the most surprising debuts of the year. The palette of sounds she draws upon – soft synths, drum patterns that develop deliberately – wouldn’t feel out of place on Ariana Grande’s thank u, next or Drake’s odds-and-ends compilation Care Package. But Zouaï constructs a clever tension with her lyrics, moving seamlessly between emotional states. Every song invites a deeper listen. A track like the spare and pretty cafe ballad “Beaucoup” – which Zouaï sings in French – registers as smartly crafted noir, but it’s actually something quite different.
“‘Beaucoup’ is about me breaking up with somebody,” says Zouaï. “It sounds so beautiful and romantic. But it’s savage as fuck.” Zouaï gravitates towards details like this throughout High Highs to Low Lows, slyly alluding to the sounds and scenes of her native France and adopted childhood home of San Francisco. The thumping outro to “Chevy Impala” is steeped in vintage Bay Area rap, so much so that the track is getting a remix featuring a verse from E-40. “Caffeine”, with its accompanying video shot through a green lens – an homage to how much iced green tea Zouaï and Phili pounded in the studio – is an aggressively horny song about a fling she had with a cook at the restaurant where she worked. To make the song completely hers, “Frère Jacques” is tucked into the outro, perhaps the record’s most on-the-nose moment.
Zouaï’s music communicates the presence of many different feelings at once, the internal accounting of emotions that can make joy sweep into vulnerability in an instant. “One day I would be really excited about life and another day I’d want to sleep all day,” says Zouaï of her shifting moods during the record’s writing. “One day, I was being flown out on JetBlue Mint to LA for a meeting, the next day I was working at Bareburger, living in my mom’s apartment. One day I had a million streams, the same day I had -$7 in my bank account.”
Those contradictions are felt on “Out the Bottle”, which ripples with celebratory excess – popping bottles on a private jet, flexing on the haters, getting hammered – before snapping suddenly into focus on the bridge in a moment most drinkers will recognise. It’s that momentary, self-scouring comedown you experience before returning to the party, feeling slightly more self-aware and ill-at-ease.
Zouaï pulls mostly from experience. The singer, now aged 24, grew up middle-class in San Francisco, where she moved with her family when she was just three months old. (“I imagine myself with a backpack on, walking on to a plane by myself and telling everyone around me, ‘I’m moving!’”) Her parents are both immigrants – her mother from France, her father from Algeria – who won the US visa lottery in the late 90s.
“One day, I was being flown out on JetBlue Mint to LA for a meeting, the next day I was working at Bareburger, living in my mom’s apartment. One day I had a million streams, the same day I had -$7 in my bank account” – Lolo Zouaï
After putting down roots on a less-twisty portion of Lombard Street, Zouaï’s father started a pizza joint called Pizza Pino. Now, he’s divorced from Zouaï’s mother and runs restaurants in Las Vegas, a move that echoes through “Summers in Vegas”’s melancholy musing on boredom, longing and missed affection from a distant parent. Zouaï is much closer with her mother: when the aspiring musician moved to New York at the age of 19, she came with her.
Throughout her formative years, Zouaï’s family did enough to get by. She went to a public school in Haight-Ashbury on a scholarship transferring to state school after other students harassed her about her family’s financial situation. Her class commentary is threaded through her work, which is refreshingly upfront about the realities of being broke. In Zouaï’s music, it’s less about the change from rags to riches, and more about the ways in which living like that stays with you. “I’m such a broke person at heart,” she says. “If I use too much shampoo, I’ll put some back in the bottle.”
Since the album was released in April, much has changed. Thanks to a recording deal with RCA and a little touring income, Zouaï has her own place in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighbourhood. She can afford to eat out and to send some money home to her mother, who is now back in San Francisco.
Tonight, Zouaï wears an earth-toned, thrifted t-shirt featuring an illustrated map of Arizona. After our meeting, she’s headed to a party in Manhattan hosted by a member of house duo The Chainsmokers. For an artist who has built her sound around the swirl of emotions happening within her, she is laid-back, funny and open-minded about what success looks like. When the conversation swerves to the topic of kittens, Zouaï lays out her predetermined feline fantasy: the cat will be female, and it will be named ‘Cashew’.
Feeling stabilised by her recent success, Zouaï recently bought a pink tortoiseshell Stratocaster, which she’ll use to explore her sound away from the confines of a Logic window. She thinks she’ll revisit some demos she recorded and see if they sit a little better with her. “I still have lo-fi bedroom songs that are special to me,” says Zouaï, specifically mentioning a song called “Dreaming”. “I still listen to it and it still hits. It still has meaning. That’s something – if it’s timeless, it doesn’t matter.”
Zouaï hopes to steer her music into darker territory, and she’s already bouncing ideas off of Phili for album number two. By the time you read this story, she’ll be back in the studio. She’s also planning to make some aesthetic changes: for one, she wants to dye her hair back to its original colour, brown. While details about Zouaï’s life and circumstances have changed recently, she’ll process the same inspirations, but through a different lens. “Everything that I write is what’s going on in my life,” she says. “Now that I’m not struggling I have to think about what my narrative is.”
High Highs to Low Lows is out now
Hair Adam Szabo at Frank Reps using R+Co, make-up Michaela Bosch using Surratt Beauty, photographic assistant Dara