"You give me something to believe in / When all the glamor is deceiving..."

Most pop songs struggle to contain one idea, but singer and producer Lolo Zouaï’s music is so hypnotic and rich in meaning that fans often find a whole universe within her tracks beyond the intended topics.

“I don’t like to explain my songs. I don’t always mind talking about them, but sometimes I feel like explaining a song ruins it,” she says. “Because I don’t want someone to have that song and think about it with their boyfriend, but then they find out it’s about my dad and they’re like, ‘How can I listen to this?’”

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Zouaï’s had to discuss things like this more and more of late, as the songs from her critically acclaimed debut album ‘High Highs To Low Lows’, have spread to more fans. Released in April, the record is a years-in-the-making feat that positions her as a unique talent combining star-level charisma, contemporary R&B-influenced production, and melodies shaped by her Middle Eastern heritage. She first broke out in 2017 for her album’s title track, following it up with infectious songs like ‘Ride’ and the woozy ballad ‘Desert Rose’.

Born in the States, Zouaï has a French mother and Algerian father. She says that she’s had an issue of being referred to as a French-Algerian instead of American, and is wary of how she’s labeled by an industry still getting used to a more diverse and international pop landscape.

“I don’t want people to think I’m a French artist trying to be American, because I find that pretty corny when someone pretends to speak English if they’re not fluent,” she explains. “I feel like this phase where I’m struggling with it in the public is something that maybe I have to go through for it to be easier for others or myself in the future.”

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After building a following, Zouaï, who grew up making “very lo-fi and moody” songs in her San Francisco bedroom, struggled to balance her DIY origins with her newfound access to professional studios. She says her first few songs in that environment were a little “generic”. She found her calling card sound with ‘Desert Rose’, a searing slow-burner about the friction between her Algerian heritage and American upbringing. The singer says that she “didn’t know [she] was going to put French in [her] music” until writing that record, and it’s one that her listeners feel deeply.

“I’m getting a lot of African and Arab fans - young women, specifically - who are telling me that they’ve never heard a song that pointed to their struggles as an American Muslim, or something like that,” she says. “Growing up, I always felt really disconnected from my Algerian culture because I wasn’t raised around it. The song was an homage to that, and it brought me back and showed me that what I had been feeling, a lot of other people feel, too.”

Zouaï’s deluxe edition of ‘High Highs To Low Lows’ came out in December, and she sees the expanded version as “closing the chapter” on the LP. It includes the sleek, dusky ‘Money Diamonds Roses’, a song about how her life has changed in the last year. Fittingly, it had the working title of ‘What Would Jeremih Do?’ since it’s a perfect instrumental for the singer.

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The album also includes a remix of ‘Chevy Impala’ featuring E-40, who, alongside Too $hort, was a formative artist for Zouaï. Growing up in San Francisco, she developed an early passion for hyphy music, a kinetic rap subgenre that is the polar opposite of Zouaï’s calm, collected vocal cadence.

“In high school, I went to their shows, to meet them, to get my CDs signed. I would blast their albums in my car,” she says. “Even if someone might be like, ‘Wait, why does she have E-40 on her album?’ It doesn’t matter, because to me, I’ve checked something off my dream list. My 15-year-old self is proud as fuck.” Zouaï also stays true to her origins by continuing to rely on her ingenuity and versatile skill set, even though she now has access to a whole creative machine around her.

“I still feel like I have no resources, that’s how I think. I still don’t rely on anybody,” she explains. “If I need something, I’ll be like, ‘Oh wait, I have a full label that I can ask,’ but I don’t act like I do.”

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‘High Highs To Low Lows’ is in the rearview as Zouaï focuses on finding her “truest, rawest form” to work on new material. But she says that the phrase she’s carried with her for the last few years will always have meaning.

“I think the beauty of that line for me is that it’s always going to be relevant to my life. It is about external things, but it’s more about my mental state,” she asserts. “I have days where I don’t believe in myself and then I have days where I’m like, ‘Holy shit. I’m so underrated. I’m that bitch and they don’t know yet.’ There’s two sides to my confidence and how I feel about my career, the music industry, and everything in between.”

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Words: Grant Rindner
Photography: Teddy Fitzhugh

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