By Ural Garrett
Two years ago, Lolo Zouaï reached a turning point in her music career following the release of breakout single “High Highs to Low Lows.” The single, produced by Stelios Phili (a frequent collaborator with A$AP Ferg who’s responsible for the Young Thug/Elton John team-up “High”), served as an introduction to the San Francisco native’s soft vocal abilities that easily transition between English and the French of her Parisian birthplace. “High Highs to Low Lows” also displayed Zouaï’s formidable songwriting abilities as she described her own career peaks and valleys. Between then and now, she’s built a sizable fanbase (dubbed Lo-Riders), released several successful loosies, penned a track for Grammy-winning newcomer H.E.R., toured alongside the likes of Alina Baraz, collaborated with Blood Orange, and continued collaborating with Phili for her recently released debut album, High Highs to Low Lows.
On it, Zouaï transitions between cocky (“Ride” and “Out The Bottle”) and vulnerable (“Desert Rose” and “Beaucoup”) as Phili matches with emotional beats. High Highs to Low Lows comes with the ever-changing ideas of contemporary R&B in a globally-connected generation. For Zouaï, it’s blending her love of knocking Bay Area hip-hop and Aaliyah’s airy vocals — all the while putting her bilingual abilities to good use. According to her, “it’s just a global thing overall because that’s just who I am.”
Speaking with MTV News, the rising Zouaï discusses becoming comfortable singing in both English and French, her songwriting path, what she aspires toward, and more.
MTV News: Can you recall the moment you first linked up with Stelios?
Lolo Zouaï: We connected through my manager Doug, who knew Stelios for a while. We thought he had a great world of sound that was fun. We actually worked together on a song before “High Highs to Low Lows” that never came out. It was really different. Then I went on a trip to France where I had a different perspective on music and life. I later came in with the idea of the sound I wanted. He was really receptive and able to make it come to life so easily. Then, I had the title of the song already, so things happened naturally. We loved the end result and then started working more together.
MTV News: How has that creative relationship between the both of you evolved from those early moments, to now using tracks like (my personal favorites) “Caffeine” and specifically “Beaucoup” that highlight your French singing abilities?
Zouaï: It’s crazy because Stelios helped me write the one in French, too. I guess he told me he took a few years of French in high school and he remembered. When we work together, it’s really 50/50. Even though he’s using the computer, I help produce by directing or come up with ideas. Lyrically, I’ll come up with a concept and he’ll help me write it. He used to interview artists for GQ. Because of that, he has the ability to ask questions and just talk to people. That’s sort of how our songwriting process is together. We just talk about a situation and start writing lyrics. I finally started finalizing things with the ad-libs, and voilà.
MTV News: The cover is pretty clean, by the way. You look mad comfortable. Was there something in particular you wanted to convey there?
Zouaï: Well, I wanted it to reflect how I was when making the album. I think it shows confidence and vulnerability. You can look at the cover in different ways depending on what song you listen to. It literally works with every single song. I wear a lot of NASCAR jackets. It’s actually a Chevy Impala jacket, which is also a track I have on the album before “Caffeine.” Stylistically, I love going to the thrift store or wearing whatever someone gives me for free.
MTV News: You’ve never been shy about your ambition to make your music global. When did you figure out that singing in French could be a really captivating hook to your vocals?
Zouaï: It was really when I started working on High Highs to Low Lows. I didn’t really overthink it at all. I just thought about how I could stand out, still be authentic, and be myself. Then I thought I never heard anyone put in French like that. I’m super American and I speak French but, I speak French like 5 to 10 percent of my whole life. It wasn’t a big part of my language. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to take off the way it did in France, where they really connected with it. But my dad is from Algeria and my mom is from France. It’s just a global thing overall because that’s just who I am.
MTV News: With your global approach, you still have a huge respect for Bay Area hip-hop considering your upbringing in San Francisco.
Zouaï: I just grew up on E-40, Too $hort and Mac Dre. It gave me an appreciation for things that just knock really hard. It got me to make hard beats because, even though I have a soft voice, I love the contrast. I grew up listening to the radio out there like 106.1 KMEL and I was listening to a lot of R&B, too. It pretty much shaped my voice without me knowing it. I mean, everyone grows up with that in the Bay because it was the most popular. When I got obsessed with Too $hort, I would go to all of his shows. I have a bunch of posters signed by him and even met him a bunch.
MTV News: Favorite Too $hort track?
Zouaï: So many. Probably “2 Bitches” and “Gettin’ It.”
MTV News: You’ve worked with Blood Orange on the “Jade” track from your Ocean Beach project. Can you recall any moments during the collaboration?
Zouaï: He is amazing. He works easily and can literally see music. About a year ago, he posted [my song] “Blue” in his Instagram Stories. Someone sent that over to me and I was really excited. Then we started DMing and that’s how we started working together. When I was working on “Jade,” I didn’t have a second verse, so I played it for him. He liked it and I asked if he wanted to hop on it. He wrote, recorded in like an hour, and it sounded great. I don’t work with that many people, so watching him work really opened me up to a different way of working.
MTV News: Your songwriting, too, was well-respected enough to win you a scholarship in 2017 from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Do you remember the process in honing in those skills?
Zouaï: At first, I started writing in high school and it was pretty dark. Those songs were pretty dark and if I go back to those songs I wrote back then, they weren’t that good. You definitely have to start making a bunch of bad songs so you’ll get better. It’s about finding your style. Once I figured out what I wanted to say and my point of view was, it became easier to write songs; there’s a theme. It’s really about knowing what you want to say. The scholarship I won went to individuals they think of as promising songwriters. I even attended the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, where I believe Max Martin won that year. I saw Usher perform and Ed Sheeran, as well. I was seeing how people take years to be recognized like that and it’s something I aspire to be in one day.