Lolo Zouaï is in a league of her own. The 24-year-old songstress has sweet and melodic R&B vocals reminiscent of artists like Kehlani while her Tove Lo-esque electro beats —produced by Lolo and frequent collaborator Stelios Phili— make for catchy and atmospheric hits. Born in Paris, raised in San Francisco and residing in New York, the rich layers in Lolo’s music are a mirror of her reality.
She seamlessly weaves sounds inspired by her French and Algerian heritage into her music with Arabic vocal riffs laced throughout her debut album High Highs to Low Lows and lyrics like “hit ‘em with the bilingual. Je sais que je m’en vais” on infectious single Moi. A particular album highlight is Desert Rose, a track where Lolo explores the conflict that comes with multiple cultural identities opening with “Inshallah, that’s what you say. You think I lost my faith.”
Lolo masterfully infuses depth and poeticism into her Hip-Hop and Pop-inspired style, often pairing her frank and conversational lyrics with moody VHS visuals. She rarely shies from darkness or vulnerability making her body of work a harmonious narration of her life. As I sit down with Lolo at a Kensington cafe, she is every bit as intriguing as the melancholic star we see in her music videos. She’s soft-spoken, friendly and thoughtful with her words. She’s equally badass with a veil of mystery, wearing chunky black boots with white socks that read “mother” and “fucker” on each one. Although new to the scene, Lolo has a distinct sense of self and has curated a signature mood that makes her unique to any other artist out right now.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
In San Francisco, in the sunset district by the beach — which is why I called my last [EP] Ocean Beach, because that’s where I used to go to write music. I feel really lucky growing up there because it was so diverse culturally. I was able to see every culture at a very young age so life doesn’t shock me.
Did you find San Francisco was a good place to cultivate creativity?
Yeah, absolutely. I find that a lot of my sense of creativity is from that city and a lot of my friends are artists, make clothing, make paintings, make music. We were raised to think that creativity was part of life and something to embrace.
Were your parents like that too? Did you grow up in a creative household?
Nobody was really an artist like that. My mum put my sister and I in piano lessons at a young age. She understood the importance of music. I started writing poetry when I was really young [and] she still has the poems because she thought they were so deep for somebody so young. And now when I read them, they are. It’s like, holy shit, I had a really dark romantic mind at a young age.
What music did you grow up on?
I was listening to mostly what I would hear on the radio and what was fed to me. Britney Spears, JoJo, Christina Aguilera, Mariah and Céline Dion — the divas. Some French music because my mum is French. My dad is from Algeria so he would play some traditional Arabic music. Then I started being more independent at 16 and started listening to Too $hort and E40.
Does what you grew up on influence what you make now?
For sure. Pop-R&B is how I taught myself to sing. Lyrically, I write from inside and then I try to incorporate Arabic and French melodies into my music because that’s who I am as a person. I speak French and I have all these cultures so to make my music really feel like me that’s how I do it.
How did you go from loving music to making music?
I would always write songs in the shower. Then I had a fake girl group with these two friends. I was taking it very seriously. I was definitely the Beyoncé. No offence to the others, they were great! Then in high school, I picked up a guitar and my friend helped me learn. Then I started writing on the guitar and I had a piano at home so after school I would be home alone on my piano learning YouTube tutorials. After high school, I bought a laptop, a mic and Logic. I started to learn how to produce.
When did you go from making music alone at home to getting the confidence to share it online?
My first semester in college when I was 18 I posted some acoustic songs on Soundcloud and this Australian band Angus & Julia Stone reached out. They called me and were like “we were listening to your music at the dinner table.” I was like what! I was nowhere near ready to be a musician for my career but that gave me some sort of validation. After the one semester of college, I was like I don’t want to make acoustic music. I want to find a producer and do Hip-Hop, R&B, Trap-y Pop shit. So I moved to New York with my mum. I lived with her for like four years. Lolo is my nickname but when I moved to New York I became Lolo Zouaï. I know that sounds weird because my name is Laureen and I was like I need to find my artist name and stick with it. That’s when I started seeking producers.
Do you prefer New York over San Francisco?
Yeah. In San Francisco, most people that make music move to L.A. I didn’t want to move to L.A. That wasn’t really the vibe. You know the expression “if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere?” I was like “well, I’m up for the challenge. Let’s fucking do it.” I think it really taught me how to hustle. It’s not for everybody because it’s really hard. You have to be this really motivated, hardworking person because New York is tough. It’s not like L.A. where you’re in the sunshine and it’s easy to go get a cup of coffee. It’s more like you’ve really got to want it. I learned that mentality in New York.
And when did you start getting recognition for your music?
I started getting recognition when I put out my first song So Real on Soundcloud. Migos re-posted it, which was weird and awesome. That happened two years ago. Then I put out High Highs to Low Lows on Spotify and [they] playlisted me and that’s when everything went a little crazy. It went viral on Spotify and then all the labels started reaching out. I would tell everybody thanks for your interest. I’m not looking to sign at the moment. I needed to work on my craft so I spent a year and a half working on my album.
Do you think the internet is beneficial to new artists?
Absolutely. It’s good and bad because now anybody can put their music up so there’s so much noise. It’s like how do you stand out? The way I stand out is by putting myself into music and then it can’t be anyone else. Nobody else could sing my songs because they’re personal experiences.
Do you base your songs on real life?
Yeah. I can’t write a story. That’s not what I enjoy and that’s not why I write music. It’s more for therapy. Usually, I’m inspired when I’m sad or really angry. If someone does me wrong, I’ll write a song.
How does your usual songwriting process go?
I only work with Stelios Phili. He’s the only guy I worked with on the album. He and I are like musical soul mates. We start everything together. We met through my manager Doug. He’s from New Jersey and he’s Cypriot. He also has this cultural understanding of music. So we have the same ideas and he’s very tasteful. His job is making music for commercials so he can make any genre. You’ll hear on the album it’s not just one vibe. Everybody’s always like “who did this one?” Well, it’s the same guy on the whole thing. He just gets it. We created the sound together.
How would you describe your sound to first-time listeners?
I would say it’s melancholy R&B Pop with Hip-Hop influence, French, Arabic, American, moody… Everything on the album is cohesive. There are some really sexy fun songs and then there are some dark vulnerable songs. There are highs and lows. It’s pretty much a story of my life up to here. It’s vulnerable but also very confident. Pretty badass and feminist. The majority of it is about the struggles I’ve had in the last two years.
Festival season is upon us. Do you enjoy playing live?
I used to have very bad stage fright so I enjoy it now because they’re coming to see the songs so it’s really special. I have to admit it still scares the shit out of me sometimes but in a good way. Paris is always really crazy because it’s one of my biggest markets. Half of my family is French so they show up. It’s really special to see all my family in the front crying. New York is also special, London was great. Every show is special. You wouldn’t expect that you’d go to Amsterdam and the audience feels like your family but that’s how it is.
How does your family feel about all this?
They’re excited. They’re all really supportive. It’s not like it’s a new hobby, I’ve been into it for a really long time. I tried doing a bunch of different things and now that it’s working they’re like “woohoo!” My mum is like “I’m waiting to retire.” I’m like “I got you,” a few more years.
What were you doing before music became full time?
I was working in restaurants for four years. I’ve worked at like six different restaurants. I worked at a burger restaurant, I’ve made sushi, milkshakes, hostessing. I definitely know the struggle.
What’s a song from your album you’re most excited for people to hear or is most personal to you?
There’s this song called Here to Stay. I wrote it on the guitar a few months ago. I recorded it on voice notes and my cat doesn’t like the guitar so you can just hear him on the voice note crying. Maybe he was singing along? That song is really special.
Any artists you’re listening to right now who you admire?
There are a few new artists I think are really challenging the game: Rosalía and Billie Eilish. They’re making music that is their style and they’re not caring about rules. That’s how I feel about my music. I really fuck with them because they’re changing Pop in a way that I want to do the same thing. Hopefully collaboration soon!
Who else is your dream collaborator?
I’ve always said I want to work with The Weeknd. I think we would make something amazing. It’s not really about the name it’s just really about connecting.
What vibe do you want people to feel after listening to your album?
I want them to feel confident and badass. Especially for girls. I want wigs to be flown to Mars. All of it.
Any words of advice to female creatives who are trying to forge their path like you are?
Don’t doubt yourself. If you believe in it as long as it’s authentic to you, do it. The realer it is, the more people will connect to it. It’s really just about putting yourself out there because you never really know what’s going to come out of it. Don’t be afraid because it’s worse to regret not doing than to just do it. Vulnerability is a beautiful thing. I’m not afraid of my emotions so I’ve gotten people who have told me I’ve changed their life or that I’ve helped them so if that can happen then it’s worth it, right?
Lastly, what legacy do you want to leave with your music?
That I was challenging the norm. That I was going against what was popular. I’m not trying to fit in. I’m trying to stand out. Hopefully that I inspired people, helped people and made some fucking hits. The fact I am doing that, I feel lucky and I feel responsible now.
Check out Lolo Zouaï’s debut album ‘High Highs to Lows Lows’ now.
This Schön! online exclusive has been produced by
photography. Matthew Priestley @ Sibling Artists
fashion. Anthony Pedraza
talent. Lolo Zouaï
fashion assistant. Julian Mobley
hair. Takuya Yamaguchi for R+Co
make up. Jessah Amarante
words. Shama Nasinde