Lola caught up with Cornwall native Zola Courtney to chat about her craft, pandemic-induced creative challenges and the importance of authenticity...
Self-proclaimed country girl Zola Courtney made the big London move aged just 16, having gained a place at the esteemed Brit School, with an alumni including pop royalty Adele and Amy Winehouse, as well as smaller-scale success stories such as FKA Twigs, Rex Orange County and King Krule. Deciding to remain in the capital post-graduation, since Brit School, Courtney is currently one of just a handful of artists signed to Tap Music, with fellow label-mates including Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, and Oklou (to name just a few). Last year saw the release of her soul-laced EP, ‘Nothing to Lose’, solidifying her presence as an up-and-coming nu-soul star.
For a young musician on the cusp of big things, this past year has been perhaps the most testing yet, although, on the whole, lockdown 3.0 appears to have been a wholesome affair for Courtney. ‘This is gonna make me sound old…’, she warns me, revealing gardening, long walks and bird spotting as some of the cleansing ventures getting her through the latest lockdown. Great outdoor adventures aside, lockdown has seen a gravitation back towards her singer-songwriter musical roots. ‘The old way I used to write was literally sitting in the garden with a guitar and writing a song’, differing greatly from the time-precious studio sessions which fill her time in the capital. ‘I’ve spent four years in London doing sessions where you go for a day, write this song with a producer and come home’. Stepping away from time-is-money London life has seen a return to a more familiar, slower-burning writing process, writing songs and then gradually tweaking them over the course of a few weeks.
For all its peace and quiet, Cornish lockdown living has posed some creative and technological challenges for the singer. With her electric guitar and recording equipment all stranded a few hundred miles away at her London home, she’s had to make do with just a piano, her sister’s guitar and the power of the voice memo. At first glance, this might not sound too bad, right? Well, you’re wrong, for not one, but two reasons. The failed-transit problem feels twice as bad because of the fact she’s managed to do this for both lockdowns, with the reverse having happened last year (leaving her equipment in Cornwall while spending lockdown in London). The situation also proved really-not-ideal when, in the midst of her equipment palava, Zola got the call up to perform (virtually) at Radio 1’s Big Weekend 2020. Zola was set the task of a festival standard performance armed with just a piano and an iPhone. To make matters worse, the lack of editing equipment meant that the recording itself had to be as close to note perfect as possible; no wonder, then, that she started to go slightly insane. ‘It took me three days to do and I nearly lost my mind ‘cos I just had to play this song over and over again’.
Lockdown may have bolstered creative productivity, but it’s also offered the chance to take matters of technology into her own hands. ‘We’ve sort of been forced to be a bit more creative with what we’re making and creating’. Zola reminds me of a mid-lockdown interview she filmed with the help of her two sisters; a truly wholesome family affair, where one sister interviewed whilst the other filmed. This year has also seen Zola learn to edit, she tells me: ‘I’ve learnt a lot more new skills and learnt that I can actually do more than I thought I could’, proving to be an empowering process, making her rethink and question her previous reliance on photographers, editors and so on.
Needless to say, the music industry is a notoriously difficult space to navigate as a young woman. With the power of hindsight, Zola reflects that she felt like a fish out of water as an 18-year old finding her feet as a young artist in the capital. BRIT attempted to prepare their budding musicians for the daunting formalities of the industry, providing two years of ‘industry lessons’ - a nitty-gritty crash course covering contracts, publishing deals, PRS and the likes. The lessons provided a feeling of empowerment entering the male-dominated and nepotistic music industry; a ‘base level’ of knowledge, which ‘gave me a bit more confidence going into meetings with all these grown up men...I could sort of understand. I remember someone saying ‘Gosh, you actually ask questions, which is really interesting?’ Ugh.’ Zola agrees industry lessons were helpful in outlining the basics of the industry, but in reality, it was a different story: meeting managers and A&Rs aged just 18, Zola now admits that she had ‘absolutely no idea’ what she was doing.
Four years later and Zola puts her now industry-savvy knowledge down to a combination of learning on-the-job and living with other aspiring musicians, Olivia Dean and Blossom Caldarone. ‘All three of us have gone through this process at the time together. We’re so much more clued up on it now having been in the industry for four years… we’ve experienced it altogether and I think just from experience we’ve learnt so much. So much… I mean, I wonder how I even managed to even do it at 18… but it’s been really helpful and lovely having them to bounce off and talk about things with, and figure out things. I think I’d be in a really different position if I didn’t have them for the support and advice.’ Even over the Zoom airwaves, I’m touched by the passion and gratitude with which Zola speaks of her fellow female artists. She emphasises the very different journeys each artist has been on - we passionately agree that young female artists are so often clubbed together or directly and reductively compared to one another - but underlying this is a strong and empowering female support network.
‘I think it’s so unique to be in the situation I’m in. I’ve lived with them since I was 18, we’re all best friends and we’re all artists. I’ve got another girlfriend who’s also an artist as well. We’re all in quite a unique situation, and I definitely wanna emphasize the unity of all us because the music industry likes to tear people apart a little bit. And I think women artists - more so than men - are always compared against each other… I always get asked ‘Do you get jealous?’ and it’s like why?! I care about them so much and all I want for them is for them to do well… honestly, that doesn’t even play into it for any of us, ‘cos we’re so close and just want the best for each other… We don’t need to be compared… it’s this competitiveness that I hate about the industry. Things are made to be competitive when it doesn’t have to be, we can all be in the same space, doing our own thing, it’s not like one of you has to make it and the rest of you can’t, do you know what I mean? We can all exist alongside each other.’
Lockdown has bombarded us all with blackhole-esque amounts of spare time and self-reflection. For Zola, this period has really solidified her motives for becoming an artist, with fans increasingly reaching out to reveal how much her music has touched them during this testing period. There is nothing show-offish about this confession; Zola describes such occasions as ‘bonkers’ and ‘completely surreal’, making sure to firstly, always take the time to reply to individual messages, and secondly, show her Mum every new fan message in a state of disbelief. Both as an artist and a listener, lockdown has reignited an appreciation for her craft. Pre-lockdown, it was something of a struggle to listen to music purely for pleasure, making lockdown a rare opportunity to kick back and relax as a listener. ‘I was listening to so much new music, which I don’t actually usually do to be honest, because I’m so surrounded by music all the time. Sometimes I find it hard to find it pleasurable, listening to new stuff, because it feels so worky.’
Musically, Zola draws inspiration from a vast array of musical histories and genres, citing late ‘00s nu-soul icons Duffy and Amy Winehouse as major influences, as well as more contemporaneous artists such as Anderson .Paak (we fangirl in equal measure over his NPR Tiny Desk Concert). Taking a moment to scroll through her Spotify, she lists the breadth of artists she is inspired by; slow-burn RnB artists SZA and Daniel Caesar, nu-soul stars Lianne La Havas and Leon Bridges, soul-tinged indie folk singers Michael Kiwanuka and Flyte, as well as the some of the greats, including Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra. On Winehouse’s epochal release ‘Back to Black’ - stylistic echoes of which resonate strongly through Zola’s soulful tone and conversational lyricism - she muses: ‘I’m just so intrigued in how she gets that sort of motown, soul sort of feel and sound across in that album but is still contemporary and modern and lyrically just genius. I’m so intrigued by that and I think I’m constantly trying to figure out how I can blend the Stevie Wonder/Aretha Franklin influence into my music and still keep it contemporary, and still keep the Andersoon .Paak references in there’. Finding the right balance of old and new has been something of an artistic challenge: ‘I think I’m always trying to figure out how I can incorporate both. Keep it contemporary and keep it soul, old school feeling but still new and fresh and cool’.
Keen to draw out the soulfulness in her writing, Zola has found herself naturally gravitating towards the LA scene, renowned for its well established network of RnB and soul producers. Some of Zola’s most cherished studio sessions, the ones that ‘really bring out that RnB, soul side of [her] writing, which [she] loves’ have taken place stateside (pre-Covid), and conveniently, her management (Tap Music) have an office out in LA. Last year, Zola was sent out to LA by her label, tasked with writing several songs whilst she was there. Time was of the essence and pressure was mounting; ‘I had a really bad month’, she tells me, ‘I went for a whole month, I went by myself… I hated it. I had a really really tricky time.’ Her final day, however, just so happened to coincide with a session with Grammy-nominated producer D’Mile, who frequently collaborates with the likes of Ty Dolla $ign, The Carters, Lucky Daye, H.E.R, BJ the Chicago Kid and Anderson .Paak (I could go on).
‘On the last day of that trip, after a month of being in LA, I wrote ‘Nothing to Lose’...I was so lucky to work with D’Mile who is just an incredible producer. He literally did the whole song in like 40 minutes…. It’s just one of those things that just came together perfectly. It was such a nice way to end what had been quite a bad trip - it definitely wasn’t a wasted month!’ On what makes D’Mile so good at what he does, Zola tells me: ‘Well, to start he can just play every instrument to such a high standard. The thing that I always find amazing with producers - which is why I could never be a producer! - is just like the really good ones, they just know exactly what the song needs. Instead of being like let’s put the bass in, let’s put the guitar in, let’s put the keys in… they just know exactly what needs to go where and how much of it and it’s not too much and it’s not too little. It could just be a little flavour of something and it just does so much. I just find it astonishing how producers have such good ears and he’s just the perfect example of that.’ Beyond composing her most successful single to date, the session also kickstarted a professional relationship between the pair, making sure to collaborate whenever Zola is in town.
Zola was also offered real taste of the glitz and glam of LA living when she found herself in LA during last year’s Grammy Season. Although presenting some unexpected obstacles in the form of last minute, post-Grammy party cancellations (‘People cancel on you last minute a lot. Especially me, I’m at the bottom of the food chain right now!’), she didn’t mind too much. On the plus side, she managed to worm her way into some A-List events, not least of which Lana Del Rey’s Grammy party, thrown by their shared label, Tap, to celebrate Lana’s nomination. Here, she found herself in the midst of some of her idols: Kaytranada, Anderson .Paak, James Blake.
Just a few days later, she (quite literally) stumbled into a Grammy’s label party hosted by none other than Beyonce and Jay-Z. Zola recounts the story in a state of utter disbelief: ‘I tripped out of the car onto the track in front of the three Jonas Brothers. It was so embarrassing. Walked in, and honestly, I’ve never seen so many people that I know that are famous in one space. Everyone and anyone you can think of - Leon Bridges, Rihanna, James Blake, Daniel Casear, Beyonce, Jay-Z, literally everyone - Snoh Aalegra! - just everyone. I was just like ‘What am I doing here?! This is wild’. The fangirl moments kept coming in full force with Keep Cool, the label run by D’Mile, throwing a party-turned-starstudded-jam, featuring impromptu performances by BJ the Chicago Kid, UMI and JoJo amongst others. When working together the following day, nursing a hangover, D’Mile told her that if he’d known she was there he would have invited her on stage to perform ‘Nothing to Lose’. ‘I think I would have actually melted through the ground… I couldn’t have done that, I would have just lost my shit!’
In spite of these star-studded encounters, Zola admits that networking is not something that comes entirely naturally - ‘I’m quite shy when I meet new people’, she tells me, although I’m somewhat surprised to hear this, given the openness and charm I’ve been struck by throughout our conversation. For all its dreamlike surrealness, being in LA during Grammy season proved to be a humbling experience: ‘It was so weird but so humbling to realise all these people are just normal human beings who just make music.’ Perhaps more importantly, however, Zola left LA feeling deeply inspired following her experiences rubbing shoulders with the stars, albeit semi-accidentally.
As has been the case for everyone, however, any plans in the pipeline for 2020 were dashed suddenly by the pandemic. For Zola, this has put a string of festival dates, including Boardmasters and Radio 1’s Big Weekend, and a prime slot supporting Dermot Kennedy on his upcoming tour on hold. The global gig hiatus does, however, come with some glass-half-full advantages, with the past year having seen Kennedy’s career skyrocket into the realm of global success, getting nominated for a BRIT Award along the way. On a more personal level, this time has changed Zola’s relationship with performing live. ‘I’ve always found the live side of everything really daunting’, she tells me. ‘I get so nervous - unbearably nervous that it makes the whole experience not very fun. But actually, since I’ve not been doing gigs the past year… I’ve actually really missed it, which I didn’t think I would...I’m feeling a lot more confident in myself and my music now, having had all this time off.’
Whether Kennedy’s rescheduled tour kicks off in April or not, Courtney is gearing up for the release of new music later this year. At the time of our conversation in January, her team was in the process of remotely finishing up her upcoming releases, although it hadn’t been entirely plain sailing. On one of her singles, she tells me: ‘Interestingly, I actually really hated it when I wrote it. Like, hated it. Really hated it. And then, sort of did a full circle and now really love it.’ When asked why this was, she replied ‘I thought it was… maybe a bit Lewis Capaldi?’ (she has no personal vendetta against Capaldi or his music, she clarifies, just that her next single takes a leaf out of his pop-ballad book). Following on from the single release, 2021 will also see the release of a new EP, the writing process for which has been very different from that of Courtney’s last release. ‘Nothing to Lose’ amalgamated a handful of tracks selected from hundreds of songs written over three years, with the focus on, as Zola describes, ‘just getting something out’. Whereas, the upcoming EP has involved a far more cathartic writing process, with a coherent production style and more conceptual design.
Zola explains how to buzzword for the next EP has been ‘organic’, keen to keep her writing as soulful and truthful as possible. The theme of authenticity has underpinned much of our discussion, and I can’t help but feel that this topic seems a very apt one to close on.
Throughout our conversation, I have been struck by Zola’s openness, transparency, and gratitude - so much so that on several occasions, I temporarily forget that I am interviewing an artist. I stepped away from our hour-long conversation feeling invigorated and creatively inspired by Zola. I’ve always been struck by the depth and artistic maturity of Courtney’s writing. It seems that Zola brings a double-whammy of authenticity to the table, both through her craft and through her personality. Underpinning a mature and soulful soundscape, simply put, is a lovely and grounded individual.
I speak for all of us at Keylime when I say that we’re very excited for what’s to come - watch this space.