On the cover of Zaia’s new EP, Reset, the Atlanta rapper/singer squats under fluorescent lightbulbs in a nearly empty warehouse. The frame is mostly open space, and fits perfectly with his theme for the album: “This project was basically written as going through the five stages of grief” after ending a long relationship, he told me. Alone and distant, with chairs available for anyone willing to join him, it’s the artist center stage for the process. Emotions, memories, and energy fill the space in the warehouse and Zaia stares towards the camera knowingly, seeing and dealing with all that’s invisible to the outside observer.
Mental health is on the frontlines of this project, as made clear from the start. “I don’t need counseling / I just need ounces” Zaia states in the EP’s opening lines, tracking the Denial stage of grief perfectly as he denounces the need for help while admitting feelings of numbness and isolation. After the opener, Zaia shifts gears into back-to-back high energy tracks offering more danceable listens than he has before while differing styles between the two. The spacey synths and buzzing guitar of “Blue” give way to funky, N*E*R*D-esque bass riffs and shouts on “Waste My Time” without seeming entirely removed from one another.
Soon Zaia returns to a familiar tempo, and his talent for catchy melodies and working a rhythm well are on full display in the swinging and spacious “On the Run”, sliding between seemingly exasperated highs and heartfelt lows as he pleads for a last-ditch effort to reignite a dwindling love. On the final track “Grace”, the process, and the artist, is cooled, if not yet entirely settled into the new future. “Feeling right”, Zaia describes it repeatedly over jazzy keys and a chugging beat. Along the way, there are releases of sadness and anger, past issues snuck back into the fray (“Where we gonna go?/ You never cared” from On The Run is a particularly deft example), and a collection of sounds that present them with intention.
If anything lacks from this EP, it’s a few additional tracks to give Zaia more time in the project’s lively new sounds, for his benefit and our enjoyment. Overall, the EP offers diverse, enjoyable songs, and a witty exploration of not only the impact of heartbreak, but the scars it leaves and how they heal. On the day before Reset dropped, Zaia sat down to talk with MUD about his early work, how he crafted this new project, and how car rides with his mom and getting kicked off the school basketball team ultimately lead him to music, with hints along the way.
So tell me about when you first started making music. What did it sound like?
I started music about 3 years ago in high school, the end of sophomore year/beginning of junior year. At first when I started, I was really big on Chance and I tried to take a lot of the influences from how he used his voice, it was more raw as in I didn’t have full control over my voice and tone. It was more raw, more offbeat, more unorthodox, just more harsh. I guess that’s me just judging myself from the new things I’m trying to create.
I think it can be good to look back on past work and recognize growth. In what ways do you feel your sound has developed since your early work?
Now it’s a lot more, not tame but more thought through. In my older music, I was trying to make it sound as “cool” as possible to me, in some ways imitating somebody else, but started to find what I like in my voice. I found out you know sometimes you carry a note, sometimes you don’t carry a note, sometimes you use a different tone or texture with the music. There’s a lot more being thought of now when I’m making the music. Besides that, really I guess it’s experience. Being in different places in your life.
You’re often praised for being “genre-bending” and incorporate different styles into your work. What were some artists you draw from and how did they enter your life?
Most of the music I listen to now has been music people have put me on. I listen to a lot of Kid Cudi, who my friends put me onto back then, Childish Gambino, Outkast, Goodie Mobb. Like I said, I wasn’t even into music like 4 years ago, I didn’t care nothing about it before then. But c
When I first got into high school, I didn’t have any friends until I met some other kids who were new to the school and also didn’t really have anybody. They were really into music and I had just been kicked off the basketball team for fighting. Being around these cats who were doing music like 24/7 and that’s all they talked about, you take in from your surrounding and I just soaked it up like a sponge. I wanted to have that same passion for the music and luckily it was the right thing to pursue.
Then I stopped listening to people after I started doing music. Like there was a time when I was doing a deep dive into music, and then when I started releasing music and getting better I stopped listening to other music and just started listening to my own. Now I just listen to what people release, or to make me feel nostalgic about the past I’ll listen to something I used to fuck with.
“Being around these cats who were doing music like 24/7 and that’s all they talked about, you take in from your surrounding and I just soaked it up like a sponge. I wanted to have that same passion for the music and luckily it was the right thing to pursue.”
You were saying experiences have influenced your growth personally and musically. You’re about to release your EP tomorrow, so what would you say are some themes or life events that informed this project?
Sonically, I wanted to show people I can’t really be boxed in, or at least I don’t want to be. I want to make whatever I want to. I want people to know I can do, or you can do whatever you want to do.
Lyrically, it was written from the concept of me thinking that death and losing somebody in a relationship feel so similar. Like when you fall madly in love with somebody, and then when you lose them, the similarities between you grieving are basically the same. The project written based off my relationship with an ex who I had been with for about three years, which is my longest relationship. I was like oh, this is “her”, and then after three years you break up and you know, you grieve.
This project was basically written as me going through the five stages of grief. With each song, I try to make them fit each stage of grief to tell the story of me moving on after that relationship.
Music can definitely create different types of moods and when going through an emotional process, there are phases so it’s interesting to have one project try to speak to those different types of emotion.
Thanks, I appreciate that.
“First things first is sound. Sound gives you a feeling and feelings evoke memories of things, or vice versa.”
How do you go about crafting a song? Is it melody, lyrics or sound first? Are there any specific things you need in your environment?
First things first is sound. Sound gives you a feeling and feelings evoke memories of things, or vice versa. Then it’s the energy. I can’t be in a studio space where everyone is distracted or on their phone. Especially with my team because they’re so involved and we’re so close that everyone gets into it. If you’re working on something then of course, that’s cool but I like the energy once we’re all in the groove of it.
After that it’s the lyrics, and honestly it can take me forever to write *laughs* like, four or five hours to write a verse or two. That’s because I never know what I want to say and it’s so important to me. Even the technical things, like bars; I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m an intense lyricist but I do have some bars and I want them to be on point.
I also like coming back to songs as well. I like working on something, putting it to the side, working on something else, then coming back to it and listening a thousand times. Throwing out ideas like “this would be fire to add” and just having fun in the studio making sounds.
What was it like growing up in Atlanta? Are there any special places or things that you want to shout out from your youth?
I had both my parents, my dad traveled a lot for work in the entertainment industry. He was a cameraman so he flew back and forth to places for contracts. I won’t say we had everything, but I didn’t want for things so I can’t say we didn’t have it good. We moved around a lot, county to county, school to school, switching schools like every couple of years so it made it hard to make friends. Talking to girls was like crazy, outer space to me because I ain’t really had nobody to show me things like that. It was always me and my mom, and it was cool.
On my Dad’s side, he got married when I was like 8 or 9 and my step-brothers and sisters, they did music and I looked up to them so much. I think that’s one of the things / one of the reasons why I’m here, like one of the signs from the Universe that said “this is what you’re supposed to be doing”. That was actually when I first started writing music, like I wrote some trash ass songs when i was like 9 *laughs* I think they might still be on our old computer. But I stopped, like Lil Wayne and them were hot at the time and I was like “I can’t rap like them, I’ll ever be able to rap like them” and started playing basketball.
Then when I was 12-13, my brother committed suicide and I was just torn up. Basketball stopped being fun, it started being something I had to do because like I’m not good at school. And think about this: I’m thinking about this at like 12-13 years old. That’s young to be overthinking some shit like that. But like, I think that subconsciously made me want to do music because he did music and he was one of my biggest inspirations. He was really that other father figure that was like teach you how to fight, how to talk to girls, all of that stuff. When I lost him I was devastated, and then when I got kicked out of school a few years later it brought me back to music.
It’s crazy how you can be in close proximity to something and yet certain things have to align to bring you to where you need to be. On a personal note, I’m sorry to hear that and also lost a close friend of mine to suicide who was like my big brother when he was 15 and I was about 11 or 12 so I can definitely understand.
I’m sorry to hear that man. It’s so hard when you look up to someone; like anyone can commit suicide and it’s a terrible tragedy, but when it’s that close and you look up to them and they’re gone just like that, especially at such a young age… it’s traumatic bro.
I understand, and I appreciate you sharing that.
So since MUD has focus on the South, I want to end by asking how the South has influenced your work and if there is anyone you think we should be watching for?
If anybody, it would be Outkast and T.I. who influenced me the most musically. T.I. always was just like super big since I was a little kid. Since I wasn’t really big into music growing up I have a mix from across places; I liked Musiq Soulchild and Lupe Fiasco a lot when I was younger. But now that I’m opening myself up to more music, I feel like in the future there could be a lot more influence coming from people I’ve missed out on, from the South and otherwise.
As far as people to put on, definitely Elley Duhe. She’s my labelmate and she’s fire as hell, her voice is like crazy. Also shout out my whole team, anybody who supports me. Shout to anybody who listens to the music. It’s crazy to me because honestly, I had like little-to-no self-confidence before music and I feel like If I can do this through people supporting me then everyone can do what they want to do. So shout out to them, I support y’all.