Zaia has been building for years, and whilst he’s recently seen a placement on the ‘Insecure’ soundtrack “bear fruit,” he tells Miki Hellerbach that whilst his sound is ever-changing, his ATL roots run deep.
“On her toes cuz she knows I leveled up.”
– Zaia, “On God” (2020)
Zaia’s home is Atlanta, where a specific modern musical style has been crafted. Luckily, he is only defined by his intention to make the music he feels in the moment. Zaia then combines that with the need to connect to others who feel like outliers, and together these elements have blossomed into his own unique sound, putting him completely in his own lane. Zaia’s track “Waste My Time,” from his Reset EP, was just featured on the current season of Insecure on HBO. This was how I, and many new fans, were introduced to his music. More research into him revealed a full EP of great songs waiting for us. The tracks “On The Run” and “Blue,” again from Reset EP, showed his potential with their numbers on streaming services. They blended R&B vocals with funk-led bass lines and drums, creating a defining pocket and bounce that cuts through the noise.
As Zaia’s continued kismet timing would have it, as he gained this Insecure influx of new fans he was prepping the release of his next project, Very Alone. This new album shifts slightly adding more hip hop elements yet these only enhance the already different pocket Zaia occupies.
I always put together your heartbeat with the beat of the drums. Something faster and brighter is gonna make you move. Something slower is gonna make you sit down, listen, and chill.”
Zaia is fueled by his family and day one friends, who’ve helped shape his perspective and demeanor. He is heavily motivated to elevate his music career to improve their well-being. Zaia knows where he comes from, but more importantly where his strengths lie, and that’s all he needs to create and expand. We spoke for over an hour the day after the release of Very Alone, and discussed everything from drum patterns and Batman to friendship and grief. Zaia is as organic in his lifestyle as he is in his music making, and like his album title, Zaia is Very Alone in the space his sound occupies.
Read the full interview slightly edited for content and clarity below.
M: Hey man. How is everything?
Z: Man I’m chillin. Takin everything a day at a time. Chillin at the house playin’ video games. Call of Duty and shit.
And also releasing an album…
Oh yeah and also that. You know, on the side (both laugh). Yeah…but I’ve been working on this project for like a year and some change. For it to finally be the day after it comes out is still surreal to me. That people are listening to it, and that it’s getting the reception it is. I can tell it’s love.
I want to talk about your sound. On Reset EP there was more of an R&B core with pop elements, though plenty of experimentation. Was the stronger hip-hop emphasis on Very Alone conscious, or just what you were feeling?
Kind of a mix. I was aware that there wasn’t a lot of hip-hop tracks on the last project. I don’t like to label the music because as soon as I do, it puts me in a box. But as soon as people started sayin’ “R&B artist” I was like that’s not it. It was kind of a conscious decision. At the same time I’m a fan of hip-hop, I’m a fan of the culture. I wanted to show people I’m not just a one trick pony. I’m not just an R&B, or indie, or pop artist. I want people to just enjoy the music. Not because it’s a certain kind of music. I create whatever the production is telling me to do. I just follow that wind.
You work with a core group of producers including J. Hill, who’s worked with some huge artists. How do you guys create songs and develop your sound?
It’s really a thing of collaboration in the studio. I could not have done the production side of this project without them doing most of the work. They’re definitely the brains behind the sound. They just understand my energy so well. It all just comes to fruition. We come in. Have nothin. Start on some drums or synths maybe. And just feel it out that way.
Where does the songwriting process start for you?
I think it starts with an emotion. What the beat makes you feel. You can hear an uptempo beat and it sounds like sunshine. Then you could write some sad words to it, but it’s always gonna sound happy. I always put together your heartbeat with the beat of the drums. Something faster and brighter is gonna make you move. Something slower is gonna make you sit down, listen, and chill.
My favorite song from your Reset EP from 2019 is “On The Run.” Why is that “Bonnie & Clyde on the run with a lover thing” in the lyrics still so appealing to this day?
Because that’s what everybody is trying to find. Somebody you can take on the world with. Nobody wants to be alone. Everybody wants to feel like they have that somebody, and they can succeed or fail together. As humans we look for that connection.
I think that tempo…not to get all “sciencey” on you, but I think it’s just closer to the pace that I actually speak in the normal world. It’s probably a lot easier to hop on that. It’s not like I’m in the studio like “THIS IS THE PACE,” it’s more of a natural thing and that’s reflected in the music.
Well, we speak on some level how we think.
Okay, super specific question. That guitar on “Demons” – whose idea was it to add that?
That was me. That’s kind of a crazy story. It comes from my childhood. There’s these chords that’s played in the animated Batman that’s called The Batman. It was on Cartoon Network when I was a kid. I fucked with those shits so heavy. And I was like you know what would be crazy? If we add these guitar riffs. And I looked it up and showed the crew. And that was my homie Eric Ramey (on guitar), who also produces. I love that specific thing so much because it connects with something I admire. And if I never woulda watched Batman all those years ago bruh…I fuckin never woulda put that in there.
Let’s stick with “Demons” and a few others. There’s more religious connotation on this album with “Demons,” “On God”, and “Wingz.” Are you religious?
I really don’t know. I know that I believe in God. But I’m not sure that I believe in the Gods that people are teachin’. I wouldn’t say that I’m specifically religious. My parents were Baptist and I was definitely raised in that environment. In that, it didn’t seem like a lotta room for questioning things. Which is what I do a lot. I’d just feel like I would be penalized for it. So I guess I fell out of the standard version of religion. But I still maintained some of those ideals from being in that environment.
Was there anything you were wrestling with in the past year faith-wise when you were recording?
I think I’m always going through some type of internal conflict when it comes to that. What I’ve been taught is if you don’t believe in God you go to hell. And I still believe in hell. It’s hard to be like I don’t know if I believe, but have that inkling like I might be wrong and I might go to hell. I think I’m always subconsciously wrestling with that. Somehow that will always come out in the music.
Let’s shift slightly. Recently you got an Insecure plug. How did that connect happen, and what’s the effect of that been?
The connection came from my manager just sending shit around to people that he knew. I’ve seen a lot of love. I saw my Spotify and Shazam numbers go up crazy after that. I can see it bearing fruit. It was definitely a crazy experience being on a show you know so many people watch. I always say four years ago I was gettin zero plays. So everything is a blessing.
Word. With growing success have you been able to keep the same community in Atlanta you started with?
Definitely man. It’s fuckin hard for me to make friends. I’m not good at meeting new people. The friends I do have I definitely make it a thing to see them. I feel like if you stick with people through high school and after high school and they’re still your friends, then those are your friends. There’s a lot of things that I’ve done with Zay and Kai and Nick right beside me. Those relationships will never die. You can meet new people, but in this industry if they’re moving, they’re moving. So I try to make sure the people I hang around know how much they mean to me. And that they’re part of the reason I’m doing this. Those relationships will never fade.
That’s great. That’s hard for a lot of people to maintain.
I saw this Lil Dicky episode where he told his girl she couldn’t go to this Justin Bieber party, and told his crew they couldn’t go there because they didn’t get invited and whatnot. And then he went there and felt lonely because everybody was there with people that they knew. And he longed for the people he has fun with to be there. And that happens a lot in this industry. People thinkin’ other people aren’t fit to be there because maybe they didn’t get invited, and they don’t want somebody to look at them, or their people, and judge them. I think that has to do with ego. And I try to keep my ego down.
What’s your ideal setting and existence?
I just wanna be around my family in a big house. Just wanna see everybody smile and see everybody having a good time. And be able to go do the things that they wanna do in they life. I just wanna be able to provide for my people in the same way they’ve provided for me. Being able to see my people happy is my ideal place to be in life.
That’s what’s up. Let’s go back to the music. Your song “Jumo” deals with the push and pull of relationship toxicity. Why is it so addictive?
Some people live off drama. Run towards it instead of running away. Most people, when they get into a comfortable situation, they won’t leave because of that comfortability. Those are two big factors in being stagnant in a relationship you know is toxic.
True, also where did the whispering idea come from on “Very Alone” the title track? What does it represent? Also can you finish the phrase you start when you whisper? “Don’t let nobody…” what?
So originally when coming up with the song I just started whispering when I was coming up with the words. And they were all like “that sounds fire.” And I said, “don’t let nobody change you.” And that’s what it was supposed to be. But we didn’t fuck with the way I executed the “change you.” It was a group decision to cut it. And then I wanted to execute it with a girl singing it, but I don’t know now if that really would’ve been best for the track. But yeah, it was supposed to be like, don’t let nobody change you, meaning through all the bullshit. Don’t let that change who you are inside. Those moments are like sprinkles on donuts man, you need em.
I wanna talk about ”Wingz,” which is my favorite song on Very Alone. “I’ll keep my head, my wingz are clipped from my back / I needed that, I’ll build them up and start fresh.” What’s the metaphor in that bar?
When you’re on the ground level the only place you can go is up. I’m not flyin no more and everything is bad, but I needed that as a reminder that nothing is permanent, and you gotta work for whatever you want. So I needed the push that being in that position gives you.
Is there a specific moment that influenced the lyric?
I wrote that song around the time my grandfather passed. I was at a low point. A really bad one. It showed me this life is temporary. My parents are gonna disappear. I need to do this right now. I might not get another chance. I don’t have time to lolligag. A lot of time people tell me I move too fast and don’t take the time to enjoy the things I’m receiving, but I don’t have time to do that. I have to get what I need now. So I can be alright and my family can be alright. I think that was really big for me, that situation. That’s reflected in the sound.
What did your grandfather represent to you in your life?
He was just there. We went fishing. We didn’t have like the best relationship, but it was one of a kind. Things he said might’ve been funny or might’ve been fucked up, but he was my grandad and it was lessons in all of it. He was a big player in me growing up to be the person that I am, and thinking the way I think, and talking the way I talk. He was never a man to hold his tongue. It was a really big loss for me.
Of the biggest people in our lives are the people who teach us how to communicate.
Facts. Because they make you the person that you are. The friends and the family you have beside you, they are a reflection of you, and you are a reflection of them.
So I saw you tweet earlier today about writers dying broke, then being memorialized later. What sparked the thought?
Not gonna lie. A lot of people put music out and in my eyes don’t deserve the top spot. But it was more of a tweet to myself, like some artists die broke and does that matter to you? And if it does, do you really have a passion for it? Ultimately, I just want my music to touch people. People could connect today or when you die, but it doesn’t matter. And it was a reminder to anybody else in the same place I was.
Finally, how tough is it knowing it will be a while before you can perform this album on the road?
Man I’m just fucked up period. Tours are all cancelled and people have to wait til like October to get a live show. Cuz that’s really the most important aspect with the music. It gives you a chance to connect with people and see how they react to the music live. It sucks that I can’t perform any of these songs. After this was released, we were supposed to get on some tours and visit some states. But everything happens in its own timing. One day soon I’ll see you at a concert and we will be laughing about the time we are in right now.