Coffee With Zhala: Scandinavia’s Next Pop Export

Authenticity is a rare find in our world today, a world that shrinks everyday as we connect more than ever before, we compare and contrast cultural entities and seek out walls of influences or inspiration. Few artists have found their own niche of genuine identity and musical output. Zhala Rifat, a new artist from Sweden, offers a look into her own world, untarnished by label pressure and Western conventions. Zhala is herself, uncontrived and unafraid of the criticism of race, image or pop music.

It’s currently all coming together for the Kurdish-Swedish artist; Zhala is on the verge of finding her audience, and finding acclaim. After the self- release of her debut song ‘Slippin’ Around’, interest arose for the entertainer and the ethereal rave music that was being created. The song made it’s way to Swedish pop royalty, Konichiwa Records CEO, Robyn. Since signing with Robyn’s label, Zhala has released her debut self-titled album, performed on the Swedish Grammis, begun to tour festivals and receive critical acclaim, including strong reviews from Pitchfork and the Guardian.

I sat down for coffee with Zhala the day after her London debut. Her performance the night before was an appropriate welcome for the artist. Shuffling down a flight of stairs in an east end gallery, down to the dark basement, full of creative and curious Londoners awaiting Zhala and Robyn (who would DJ after Zhala and perform new tune ‘Love is Free’). The night was clearly designed for the newcomer, awaiting in the dark was colourful lighting and a stage cluttered with neon props, flags and wonderment. Although relatively new to performing, Zhala worked the stage like a pro, drawing the crowd towards her, strutting, dancing, singing and expressing every note and beat with everything she had to offer. A performance that proved she had potential to be a festival highlight in the future.

This seemed like a good point of interest to begin our chat over coffee the next day. “It’s actually something that’s been growing the last 2 years,” she responds on the topic of her audience relationship. “It started in Sweden, in Scandanvia. Now almost everywhere I’ve been starting to build my own audience and people who connect with what I do.” Elaborating on the topic Zhala continues, “when you see an artist on stage you almost want to hear or see yourself and I just go up there and give them me. I want to be honest and transparent. I think some people like it and some people don’t, you connect or you don’t. Two years ago, when I started, people couldn’t mirror themselves with me in Sweden, they were scared and questioned themselves. It’s developed and I now have this really great audience who are loving, cool and open people. The response I get now is ‘you do you’”.

I ask whether she envisions her performances while in the studio as she sips on her coffee, recovering from the night’s events. “When I sing the songs [in the studio] I do imagine myself performing. That process of getting it out, putting it on stage, it’s been constantly developing.” The singer tries to paint me a picture of what she’s trying to achieve, “I’m singing in a room, the room is like my childhood living room where I used to perform for my parents.” Looking back at the stage from the previous evening, this all makes perfect sense. “Now that’s what we create [on stage] a room full of our stuff,” she laughs.

Zhala’s performance introduced many to  Tony Karlson; Zhala’s creative right hand man, holding lights, dancing, stripping and keeping the energy high. “We work as a collective, working and hanging out, he does his own art as well. He’s my best friend.” She explains that originally she performed alone, but couldn’t fulfill her goals for the stage without help. “He also directed my video for ‘Holy Bubbles’”, which portrays Zhala as a low budget Kim Kardahian whom, according to the video statement is an “Anastacia-inspired personality in a post-apocalyptic environment where mankind’s actions continue to tremble the power of the earth.” Zhala promises Tony will continue to be a staple in her shows, “We do more and more together and it’s become a really nice energy.”

Another key person in Zhala’s rise is, of course, Robyn. The veteran Swedish popstar, Robyn has developed a devoted fan base and releases music in unconventional methods, through EPs and collaborations on her own Konichiwa label. Zhala is the only artist, besides Robyn, now signed to Konichiwa Records. “I love her!” announces Zhala. “She’s one of my favourite people. She’s really good at [when] I’ve asked for advice going into something new. I feel like [our relationship] works naturally, we connect emotionally, we just talk about life!” When I mention the unconventional ways Robyn has put out pop music compared to standard labels Zhala responds, “she has a way of doing things I get to take from. She’s built up a road of releasing this pop music that reaches out. I’m privileged. I can be go in there and do her thing, but I am a different person an I steer off the road and then come back to it. I do feel I can ask her for advice but our relationship is a good friendship. We can work together cause of the friendship and we both happen to do the same thing. I don’t see a point in working with people I don’t like. I’d rather make my music at home and work somewhere else. I could do something different.” A friendship built on creative expression is the core to Robyn and Zhala’s partnership, a refreshing take in an industry where label heads typically only look at the figures and charts.

The music Zhala does make is hard to describe, it’s a blend of genres and sounds, big vocals and odd textures. Repeatedly in interviews she’s described her music as ‘cosmic pop’, an appropriate term for the ethereal sounds that can be both touching and deeply aggressive. Listening to Zhala’s album, I can’t help but think of the saying, “bass is for the body, melody is for the mind”. A mixture of classic Swedish melody with aggressive electronic music and some unexpected twists in the road. According to Zhala, ‘the album is a world of pop influences. I thought about classic pop albums, like a Whitney Houston [album], you have a ballad, a fast song, it’s a mix up. Now a-days you usually have a sound, it’s developed into genres in different ways. For me, it’s always been a dream to do the pop album. It has been circling around me for years now, it’s become conceptual, I can see it from both the inside and the outside, expressing [both] myself and this [pop] concept.” The conversation of pop is always one of intrigue with artists and Zhala is no different. She states that “in pop music you want to show different sides to yourself, different emotions, different ideas…I love pop, it’s so wide, it can be anything. Which is why I [ label myself ] pop. Pop to me is everything from Tame Impala to electronic.” The album Zhala, the artist says, is ‘cosmic pop, full of influences but you can here it’s me, from me, coming from my soul.”

[column]What Zhala’s Listening to…[tabs][tab title= Shine][/tab] [tab title= FarsiFarce][/tab] [tab title= “BBHMM”][/tab][/tabs][/column]After discussing Robyn and the endless possibilities of pop music, it seemed appropriate to figure out what it is about Sweden that raises talented artists such Zhala, Robyn, Lyyki Li, Max Martin, Abba, and so many more. Politics are immediately considered by the young popstar. “It’s a socialist country,” she starts off. “They put money in culture and invested a lot. It’s made a big effect. There’s also a history of melodic music from Sweden. It’s a place where you have melodies inside you because of all the darkness.” Zhala continued later to mention that Canada is similar in regards to both darkness and supporting the arts over the years. Discussing a number of Toronto and Montreal acts to support her claim. “My friends and I were talking about British music and the scene here. It’s all competition with America, or to be the best, even in the underground scenes. Sweden is rounder. It’s not competition, there’s not hate on it, so it becomes untouchable. It’s funny because that’s simple a mindset and you choose to think like that. The Swedish are privileged to have grown up being exotic and this idea of good music from Sweden. No one compares us to London or America, we’re too small, it’s just exotic.” Zhala was able to develop her sound in an environment more about supporting each other and the arts as a whole. While her music found support and praise, it was a journey for a woman who had racial struggles for most of her life that music relieved.

One point of interest thus far with Zhala’s rise is her race and use of nationality within her performances. In a previous interview, the artist stated she ‘dresses crazy on stage to take pressure off of my nationality’. As her notoriety continues to rise and her audience grows, I asked whether she still feels the same way about her nationality. The Kurdish and Swedish flags both are staples of her performances. “I had a fight with a racist 3 weeks ago in Sweden” she mentions instantly. “I am privileged now. People know me, I can do whatever the fuck I want. I don’t compromise or have to adjust to any social rules… I’m not trying to be rude but I just don’t need to adjust to social codes or class, I can simply be me.” Zhala pauses to think about the question, searching for the right words. “That’s been a journey. It wasn’t like that for me growing up. Ive had to adjust and ask questions and I think that’s why my expression is what it is now.” Continuing on this topic that’s shaped her, “It’s a radical [expression] because I came from where I came from. I meet racist people all the time. Of course we all have ideas and say stupid things,“ Zhala pauses. “But there are rooms and places where people don’t know who I am and there I am just a nationality. I don’t adjust to those rooms anymore but they are still there.”

The radical expression Zhala utilizes found a place at the Swedish Grammis. At the 2014 award show Zhala made her television debut alongside Robyn to perform “Prophet”. The theme of the show was classic music videos, Zhala chose the infamous “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, bringing the classic Nirvana visuals a twist with a rave anthem full of synths and dark foreboding lighting. We finished our interview discussing the performance that brought much attention to the new artist. “I choreographed and produced [the performance] with my friends. They, [the Grammis producers], were like, ‘we have this ballet school and pretty girls to be cheerleaders…’” She laughs and lowers her eyebrows, “But these people have nothing to do with me or my expression. I’m sure they are amazing, talented girls, just love, but that has nothing to do with me. The artistic freedom, I managed to get that through [in the performance]. It was about creating a world I see in Sweden, a world I’m apart of. I don’t think entertainment only has to be happy. I mean we were happy that day… but you can question happiness in entertainment. The whole ‘Las Vegas’ thing can be great,” waving her hands in the air, mocking the exciting style. “I have other things going on though, I need to express that and put out those contexts.”

Zhala continues the list of fiercely artistic and unique artists that emerge from Scandinavia. Balancing pop melodies, both ethereal and aggressive electronic, but most importantly, a sense of authenticity and expression often not realized in such a precise manor. An artist, through and through, connecting with her audience one gig at a time and discovering her role in a very weird industry. Zhala’s ‘radical expression’ is what draws the audience to her, and what connects the listener with her music. It’s not the ‘radical’ that is so powerful as much as her naked and truthful ‘expression’.