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A Chat With: Zuli

As a songwriter and creator, Zuli has never shied away from exploring different genres and styles with his music. His multi-faceted debut album On Human Freakout Mountain gave listeners glimpses of rock, pop, psych and folk textures back in 2017. Now, Zuli has returned this year with his first bit of music since his debut record, giving fans another taste of something new. Released June 21st, Zuli’s latest single “ur mistaken” contains the same rock and pop undertones of his older material, but it also twists in sprinkles of soul and R&B.

Drawing influence from some of his favorite music released by other artists during the past two years, Zuli was able to tap into a different side of his creativity and refresh his sound without straying too far from his roots. While there’s still plenty more to come as far as new material goes, I recently caught up with Zuli the week that “ur mistaken” dropped to talk about his current artistic inspiration, the growth in his writing process, and what he hopes to deliver with his live performances.  Tune into our chat with Zuli below!

Photos by Kimberly Young Sun

Photos by Kimberly Young Sun

What was your first musical memory?

There’s a lot! My mom is a singer, and when I was growing up she was always singing and playing gigs. I was always going with my dad. She’s a country singer. So that’s probably my first memory of music, just hearing her sing Dolly Parton and things like that. In terms of me being affected by any kind of music, I guess some of my earlier memories was I was a huge Stray Cats fan when I was a little kid. I really loved like Brian Setzer, I wanted to be Brian Setzer when I was a little kid. I also feel like when I heard “Tommy” by The Who for the first time I wanted to pick up a guitar and just start writing songs and doing my own thing. Those are the memories that come to mind firsthand. I grew up in a musical house though so it’s always been a big part of shaping who I am.

That’s awesome you have that connection with your family going way back! So now you have your new single out, which is your first release since 2017. How does it feel to have “ur mistaken” finally shared with the world?

It feels great, honestly. I was lucky enough...I don’t know if lucky is the right word, but I was testing out the song with some shows to see people’s reactions and people have been really positive about it. After it came out, the love and the output from people has been really inspiring. It’s just great to be back and have it out and I’m excited to keep the ball rolling. I’m glad people are feeling a new direction and this whole new chapter. 

Yeah it seems like a lot of good responses on social media so far! Lots of people were sharing on release day. Then as you mentioned, it definitely pulls in a new soulful sound and new approach compared to some of your older material. What was your process with “ur mistaken” and creating this song versus some of your earlier material?

I think that at its core, it shares some resemblances of the older material and that I still always try to do my best to write a song with the intention of one instrument and a vocal, and making it feel good at its core. Then once you put the production on top of it, you’ll only make the song better. I think that when this song came about, and when I was digging deeper and going in this new direction to express myself and create, it kind of just came from a place of a little bit of melancholy and feeling down about where I was in my relationship with everyone. It just kind of felt like a more longing type of approach. My voice didn’t feel the same. I just wasn’t expressing myself in the same kind of way. With On Human Freakout Mountain, as a record, it was my first experience recording and releasing a full length album. When I was finished with that I learned so much and I had all these new experiences that came along with it but also was tending to all of these experiences that led up to that point, and once I reflected on where I was going and where I’ve been, it just kind of felt like there’s certain aspects that I’m gonna take and I’m gonna expand upon and keep in my toolbox. But there’s this whole other side of me I feel like that hasn’t really seen the light yet. It wasn’t even an intentional thing but this new idea and new direction felt so right and like the best method for me to continue expressing myself.

Nice, it sounds like it’s an accumulation of everything you learned when approaching the new music. So between the time of your debut album coming out and now releasing this new single, what would you say is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about yourself, either personally or as a musician? Anything you tried to apply from those experiences you had?

I think as a musician and as an artist, my main focus and a big part of what I do is going with your intuition and feeling. I think feeling goes a lot deeper than thought. However, I do feel that was such a big crux for me in a lot of ways, just the music feeling right to me and how it kind of came out. I think when I was approaching this stuff, I was coming from more of an introspective space where I was really reflecting on everything, and I feel like right now with my creating, I’m trying to find a balance of keeping my heart and my brain in the song. And letting the thought process behind the song help shape not only the narrative, but the direction and some aspects of the aesthetic, but then also not forgetting that at the end of the day, my intuition of how the song feels and how I feel about the structure...Say I want to write a song about this, but then I’m working on a melody, a string of words comes out that not only resonates with me but feels good, I shouldn't deny that because my intention was different. I feel like that was my biggest difference or growing moment between the two, was just learning ok like, I can take this part of me but I also want to be more concise with what I’m saying.

Yeah that’s a great way to look at it and approach it. Like making sure you still have the heart and soul behind the song and not losing that, but still focusing on your intention. I’d say that’s a good way to work.

I think so! I mean I tried to do that.

I think it came across with this song. So kind of along those lines, what were some albums or maybe other art forms that you consumed during that past couple of years that may have influenced you with the new material?

I kind of narrowed it down in my head because I thought about this a little bit. There’s been a multitude, there wasn’t just one thing that I was like oh man, this is what I have to do now…But I have to say, On Human Freakout Mountain came out, and it was maybe a week to a month after and I had heard Control by SZA for the first time. And yes it has the R&B and the soul, and that kind of flavor to it, but I feel like the thing that resinated with me so much was how deep and personal and unapologetically herself [it was]. It felt so refreshing. And plenty of different singers talk about sex and love and all of these things that are so relevant and relatable to everyone, but something about her take on it and just the way her music made me feel, it was like wow, this is special. This is something that really really made me feel so good. I’m so grateful for all of my experiences and the opportunities I’ve been given, but it just kind of gave me this feeling like wow there’s so much more I could be doing. Just how much I could improve. So that was huge, if I had to give it to one [influence], I’d say that. Then that kind of started the whole train of all this other stuff I started listening to and pulling from when I was creating.

As far as when you play live, I saw you at Schubas in 2017, and even two years later I still remember how intense your energy and stage presence was. Are there any performers that you look to for inspiration and influence in that sense?

Yeah definitely. There’s the classic ones, like you can throw in the David Bowies and Freddie Mercurys. I think at an early age I caught the music bug and saw a lot of performances that just really moved me. I feel like that’s another aspect to this whole artistic side of making music. There’s a lot of current’s hard to think on the spot, but I really love the new Tyler, the Creator album, and I feel like the whole performance element that he’s added to it is really clever and engaging. Fun to watch. I’ll go with one more...Even like BrockHampton. I don’t think that’s a perfect example in terms of who I am, but it’s being able to perform in a high energy type of way that can really grab people but also using elements of the stage space more than just room for a band. Like being able to explore it as a set. Something that really resinates with me and my background, but also being able to shape the world and make it more engaging for the audience.

I see the next show you have announced is at Elsewhere in September. Do you have any plans for a tour later this year, or anything else you can kind of tease?

Nothing definite to tease right away, but the agents are always looking out for me and letting me know some opportunities. For me, right now I’ve been super lucky that people respond to the music so well and love coming to the shows and get really into it, but I’m also still at the moment tweaking some of the songs for the record and getting that all ready. I’m hoping to be on the road as soon as possible, but for now I want to focus on the record. But the summer is still going, there’s still some time before the Elsewhere show. There’s a chance something might come in the fall, but the record is the priority. Once the live shows and tour start happening, it will be well worth the wait though.

Can fans expect some new material at the September show or any other potential upcoming gigs?

Yeah, I think the new show will be debuting a lot of new songs and a whole new structure. As well as some of the classics but with a little bit of a twist to keep everything in the same world. It will be a nice mix of a lot of new stuff as well as some of the songs that helped get me where I am today.

Nice! Then how would you sum up the newer material that we haven’t heard yet in three words, just to keep it vague and not give too much away? You can say more about it if you want, or keep it at three words. 

I guess if I had to say three words to explain the music...introspective, abrasive soul. That’s so like music-based.  I think that another direction is playing with the themes in terms of the songwriting. I think that’s the best because I want the record to speak for itself, and I want to have the whole body fully-formed and realized before I give anything else, but sonically, it will be some sort of avant soul that has a little aggression, but ultimately lies in this smooth world too. 

That’s a great one-sentence tease and should get people intrigued! Anything else you want to share that’s in the works?

Working on the record….there’s gonna be some more music coming out this summer. We’re getting some more visuals ready too. In the meantime, my whole creative collective that I associate with is also releasing new music, so just supporting them and ready to take over in 2020 I guess. To the best of my ability.

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