“Nature is my primary muse and without it, I lose both my will and my reason to live and work” – In conversation with Zanias
The Australian-born producer, singer, performer, DJ, and visual artist Zanias is releasing her sophomore album ‘Unearthed’ in September. Raised in Southeast Asia, she first became involved in music while studying archaeology in London, as half of the duo Linea Aspera with Ryan Ambridge. She has been based in Berlin since 2013, where she collaborated with Sid Lamar under the name Keluar and co-founded the Fleisch Collective, which eventually became the platform now known as Fleisch Records.
‘Unearthed’ is the aggregation of various genres ranging from pop to techno, as well as Zanias’ love letter to nature. KALTBLUT caught up with the multidisciplinary artist ahead of the album release. Read the q&a below.
KALTBLUT: Hey Zoè, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview! How are you? Are you enjoying Berlin coming back to life after lockdown?
Zanias: I’m good, but I haven’t really been in Berlin for the last few months! I went home to Australia right before things started opening up again since I hadn’t seen my family in over a year and was losing my mind a bit from the long winter lockdown. I needed the ocean and really needed to surf. I’m more into waves than parties these days so Berlin can’t quite meet my needs… I returned to Europe and escaped to Portugal for a while. The Atlantic swells have been making me very happy.
KALTBLUT: I’ve read that you’ve studied archaeology in London and I think that’s incredibly cool. When did you decide to pursue music as a career?
Zanias: It was something I always wanted to do really but pursuing it wasn’t a simple decision that I ever consciously made. I enjoyed singing before I could even talk properly – it was where I found peace within a body that was primed for anxiety. I’ve also always been interested in so many other things, particularly the study of who we are and where we came from, and how we fit into this strange, unknowable universe.
My mother is a tropical biologist, so I grew up surrounded by science and nature. At various times I’ve been into marine biology, primatology, ancient history, medicine, psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and even a brief stint of astrophysics. Archaeology just happened to be the one field I managed to finish a degree in! Music was always there but it felt like a massive risk that couldn’t possibly ever work out, and strangely also like something that was a little frivolous – like I’d somehow be ‘wasting my intellect’ to pursue it. Despite being completely saturated with music, our society really has trained us to devalue it, and that’s a bias I think many musicians have to overcome. So aside from recording a few hilariously bad songs as a teenager and posting them on Myspace, I mainly kept the dream under wraps during my formative years and assumed I’d become an academic someday in one of my other, more sensible interests.
Despite being completely saturated with music, our society really has trained us to devalue it, and that’s a bias I think many musicians have to overcome
When Linea Aspera first started I was 22 years old and didn’t imagine it would be anything more than a hobby, but the therapeutic joy I felt in creating that first album was hard to replicate anywhere else. After battling depression for nearly a decade, I finally found something non-pharmaceutical that provided relief and a sense of control over the vortex of emotions that held me in their sway. Over time, I noticed that constantly deep-diving into how I was feeling through writing songs was helping me understand not only my own state of mind, but the minds of others too. Music has become a personal form of therapy as well as a method of pursuing knowledge. I guess that’s why after nine years I still haven’t returned to academia, despite making plenty of plans to do so along the way. My personal needs are being met.
I was also always taught to be guided by how positively I can contribute to other lives through my work, and over the last few years, it’s become clear to me that this is the ideal way for me to do that. I don’t consider myself a creator as much as a conduit, channelling universal human feelings into a form of communication that allows them to be accurately and efficiently shared, and when feelings are shared we simply feel less alone. It is my firm belief that no one should ever feel alone because we’re all in this unfathomable existence together. When people tell me my music has helped them through difficult times, even thwarted thoughts of suicide – that’s when I feel the strongest sense of duty to keep doing what I’m doing. Nothing feels more important than alleviating suffering.
KALTBLUT: You were born in Australia, grew up in South East Asia, studied in London and now live in Berlin. How did those places influence your sound?
Zanias: I spent my teenage years attending an international school in Malaysia with no subcultural representation whatsoever, so it’s kind of a miracle that I ever discovered underground music, and it certainly couldn’t have happened without the internet. I was the only person I knew with an interest in darker, more obscure genres and this meant that from the very beginning of my musical life, I was pretty much alone. I had to figure things out without a band or a scene to guide me, so independence became my natural environment. At the time it fucking sucked and it depressed me to no end, but looking back, I think it really helped prepare me for uncompromisingly doing my own thing. I’ve never fit in anywhere and that’s just fine, I’m used to it. Also thanks to my mother’s profession I experienced a lot of rainforests and tropical islands. There’s an ‘exotic’ streak in my sonic and visual aesthetic that probably emerged from this. A preference for the organic, primal and mysterious.
London was where I fell into electronic music and started using synthesisers, so its influence is pretty clear. The scene that Linea Aspera emerged from was very specific to that place and time, and I’m very grateful that my path led me there. I wouldn’t have even got started if I hadn’t met Ryan Ambridge.
In Berlin, I found a very entertaining and supportive group of creative friends, and we all got very into electronic body music for a while – it’s where I really learned how to DJ and felt consumed by the fleeting and unsustainable magic of endurance-driven nightlife: ego death on the dancefloor turning three notes on a synthesiser into a religious experience. But founding Fleisch and running the events was an irreversible foray into dance music that will probably hold part of my work in some kind of groove for quite some time. My Berlin days might be over soon, but I’m very glad they happened.
KALTBLUT: You’re about to release your sophomore album ‘Unearthed’ in September. What can you tell me about the album and its sound?
Zanias: I made it during the first lockdown of 2020, while I was navigating life on my own after a very traumatic couple of years in the company of the wrong people. I was unable to return to Australia because of the border closure and felt totally disconnected from everyone in Berlin except my dog Renly. The depression was one of the deepest I’ve experienced, but I’d written a note to myself: “when you can’t stop crying, just open Ableton”. So it’s ten tracks of my personal therapy, produced in a style that felt like the right balance between my more underground interests and the pop music I was cheering myself up with. The vocals are mainly based on the first melodies and words to emerge from my mind, like messages directly from the subconscious.
I’m really happy with how it turned out because it’s the result of me finally having the time and energy to bring my vision to life, and was also made entirely separately from the influence of nightlife or a ‘scene’. No expectation, no pretension, just pure authentic expression.
KALTBLUT: Which track was your favourite to produce?
‘Untamed’ was an interesting one because it started out as an atmospheric mumble born from a sample of a violin. I found almost nothing inspiring from the violin sounds I’d recorded, but gave some vocal melodies a go over the top. They didn’t seem to be leading anywhere so I was ready to close the Ableton project and never return to it, then somehow a bass-line meandered into the end of the violin part and a catchy melody fell right on top of it. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but the final part came together in about 30 minutes. Now it’s one of my favourite songs on the album. A nice lesson in not giving up.
KALTBLUT: You’ve used several field recordings from nature in the album. How would you describe the relationship and connection between your music and nature?
Zanias: Inextricable. Nature is my primary muse and without it I lose both my will and my reason to live and work. I often have the initial sparks of song ideas drifting into my mind while I’m out in the waves, with my default mode network securely offline.
I sample nature to honour it, and to remind myself of the places I love. My favourite sample on this particular record comes from an Eastern Whipbird, which I recorded in the forest where my parents live in Australia. It’s in the intro of ‘Unraveled’, and the place I recorded it is also where I eventually filmed the music video. The very same sound ended up in the raw audio of the footage because the birds are constantly calling there. It was the place I was pining for the most while writing the album, so it meant a lot for the sound and image to be conveyed together like that. Like sharing an extra layer of my experience with the audience.
KALTBLUT: How would you describe your sound?
Zanias: Authentic and vulnerable, but with a level of strength and timelessness. Something like ethereal iron.
Pre-order Zanias’ EP ‘Unearthed’ here. Cover photo by Sergey Skip