When we heard Zhala‘s self-titled debut album, we were left stumped and bewildered. In an environment road-blocked by safety, how did such eccentric, uncompromising cosmic pop ever manage to see the light of day? It’s a question that’s answered immediately upon looking at her record label, given she’s the first signing to Robyn‘s Konichiwa Records. Clearly she’s been drawn to one of her kindred.
But there’s more to Zhala than just being the shiny new toy of a pop superstar, which is something we discovered when we spoke to her at length around the time of her first London show. Considering all the bold videos and performances, it’s surprising to see how slight she is in real life, tussling with hair after a rather stark, loud, and shocking gig at the Red Gallery.
The first thing we notice about the performance is the staging: kitschy drapes, peace signs, hippie throwbacks, garish LEDs. It’s hard not to wonder about the concept behind it. “It’s kind of a mix of a lot of different references during my life,” Zhala explains. “It symbolises a perspective and a world I come from. When I was making the music, I imagined doing it in my living room. I was singing with a fake microphone and pretending to perform. The whole feeling of being really honest when you’re a kid, really transparent. Showing what you really feel and giving it your all. So it comes from that – creating this room, that’s what I imagined. This living room or childhood room with all these references and flags.”
Suddenly it all makes sense – the bombastic performance, the larger-than-life stage presence. There seems to be an element of missed childhood for Zhala, a wide-eyed innocence that was perhaps cut short. This could be something to do with her being the daughter of the marginalised Kurdish community of Sweden, a fact she alludes to regularly in her discussion of music.
“There’s a lot of Swedish people like me that haven’t made it internationally,” Zhala explains through somewhat nervous laughter. “That’s also a political thing, but it’s changing now! I want to be transparent in who I am, I don’t want to adjust or follow any social codes – even though I’m aware of it and I’ve done that all my life to be able to get around in Sweden, coming from my background. Now I can do what the fuck I want, and that’s a privilege and I’m happy about that. I’m not gonna make pop music and polish it into this nice, easy way for people to adjust to. That’s not my thing.”
There’s obviously a tone of the underdog here, the outsider. Is that how she feels in both life and music? “Maybe in Swedish society or the Western world, but not in the pop industry. It is difficult for people to understand you when you and try and do something different. But I have people around me who do that now – the journey there wasn’t really easy.”
“I also grew up in a Muslim home and I’m queer, so it becomes a thing you start to question”
As Zhala starts detailing her journey, elements of it become more and more familiar. We wonder whether she too ever felt impeded or told that she couldn’t be a certain way. “It was more like the whole society and the whole world around me, it was daily life and Sweden telling me that. ‘Be less like this, adjust more, change your name’ – that has been going on since I was a kid. That’s been going on for everyone who from my background who had the same story. It’s not specifically the industry itself, it’s more the society.”
In an instant, Zhala’s struggle becomes clear. A casualty of the cross-cultural, she seems to have spent a lifetime fighting for merely the right to just be herself. It’s a sentiment resonates closely with us, we tell her, given our similar struggles as outsiders in a Muslim diaspora. Is she aware of that inspirational side of her profile? Does Zhala stand for liberation?
“Yeah, in a way. It’s a really difficult thing to stand for. I also grew up in a Muslim home and I’m queer, so it becomes a thing you start to question. And you don’t want to oppress yourself. That’s why I have the part where I speak, I just shout: ‘I try to create a space where I can dress like Kim Kardashian and she can dress like me’. And then I say: why are you not trying to be Jesus? Basically, what I mean is: yeah, I stand for liberation and freedom and there are other people that think “why does she think she’s Jesus?”. When you’re trying the spread love or freedom, it becomes this thing of “why?”, so I’m like “well why aren’t you trying to be Jesus?” Don’t fucking stop me, why aren’t you fucking trying?”
There seems like no greater summary of this ethos than on the album’s standout track, Holy Bubbles. Channeling her Middle Eastern influences, it turns out to be an anthem for her life and a standard-bearing jam for freedom. “It’s about this fear of dreaming big, but doing it and not apologising for it. It’s about passion. Passion for wanting stuff and thinking big or dreaming big.”
Of course, on the London stage, it’s hard to refute the magnitude of Zhala’s dreams. Her right-hand man Tony sprays the audience with rose water to set the mood before she appears. As the show progresses, he shadows her and often her movements in a display of performance art. As Zhala performs, Tony strips to stockings and a negligee, before going the full Monty for the final act as Zhala grinds and twerks and expounds a fuckload of sexual energy.
It might be uncomfortable at times, but Zhala doesn’t mind this. In fact, her manipulation of these ideas is very much conscious. “We question things, we try out things – with sexuality, with the way we dress or express ourselves. All of that is something we play with. It’s something we work with and talk about and discuss.”
“It’s about not limiting myself, when it comes to gender, when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to clothes, when it comes to body parts”
It’s also something that comes out in the track Aerobic Lambada, a dextrous and playful trance on the album that once again toys with being sexual (“Don’t force me when I’m not excited” is just one line from it). Zhala explains: “It’s about complete freedom. That’s the simple way to put it. It’s about not limiting myself, when it comes to gender, when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to clothes, when it comes to body parts, when it comes to cheap things, expensive things. Nothing. I’m not going to limit myself. I think my sexuality and all of those things come out that way. I explore it as well, I explore my freedom. I wanna free myself.”
Surely that’s at odds with her family background, though? Are they supportive of her art, given how removed it is from what is deemed ‘acceptable’ Islamic culture? “It’s very mixed. Now my family is really supportive. But then I don’t have any contact with my father – it’s complicated. Not everything is going to be normal to them. My sister and brother understand me, it’s very mixed. My mum is a really loving and person; they’re learning and developing all the time.”
The more Zhala talks, the more her place at Konichiwa Records makes sense. Being signed to Robyn’s label – a notorious pop outsider herself – surely must feel like a home for the first time? “For sure. I feel like I found the right spot for me. Ever since I started working with her and my management, I feel so lucky.”
So we must be see a collaboration soon, we tease. “That’s something that happens naturally or it doesn’t,” she says coyly. “I wouldn’t say no at all – that could totally happen. We really like hanging out and it’s maybe a matter of time. I think we would both like that – we both like jamming together!”
And, of course, given the underground souk vibe of the evening and our own love for all things Bollywood, we have to trade recommendations. “I love anything with Kajol and Shahrukh Khan, like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai! That was a big part of my world.” She seems grateful for the exchange. “When people usually hear an artist from Sweden, they usually don’t get those references.”
Our time with Zhala is up, but we only feel like we’ve scratched the surface of a story that needs to be told, either through conversations like these or through her music. The word ‘freedom’ resonates the most and lingers the longest, and when Zhala is doing her crazy little thing on stage, jumping around like a jackrabbit, it’s hard not to root for her even more. This is the look and sound of a woman being able to do whatever the fuck she wants for quite possibly the first time, so it serves to reason that being in her orbit leaves you with a a similar sense of carefree euphoria.
Zhala by Zhala can be ordered here.