Z Star Interview

Slow Train Soul's Lady Z- aka Z Star- or simply Z- is a singer songwriter with a haunting voice, pulling influences from all over the past century into today. She's about to release her first solo record- with a band- and is still earning attention for her Slow Train work with prolific Danish hot shot producer Morten Varano. It took some calls to some publicists in New York City to track her down, and, after a few weeks of effort, we were able to have a conversation on the phone, 11pm London time and 3pm in San Francisco at Better Propaganda world headquarters. Her mood alternated between playful and serious during our talk; it's very clear that she loves playing, writing, recording and performing music and expects to do so well into old age. Our phone conversation started with her busting out an amazing acapella jazz scat vocal riff; apologies for not providing an audio excerpt for sampling.

Better Propaganda Editor Terbo Ted talks to Slow Train Soul's Lady Z.

Better Propaganda: Whenever we do an interview, we like to have the artist basically describe themself in their own words. So, how would you describe Z and what you do to other people?

Z Star: Um, well, how would I describe myself? I'm a poet. Gosh, that's a good one, you know what, I've never been asked that.

BP: Really?

Z: Yeah- of all the questions- I've never been asked that. So let me think. Yeah, I'm a singer/songwriter, poet, guitarist. I love to- my passion is to- mix different genres of music- essentially blues, soul, jazz, rock, funk, you know- anything that I like, that I can put my mental music works to and sort of create something, I like to do that. That's my main thing, I like to sort of be like a music alchemist that way: mix things together and come out with new things. And that's kinda how I would describe myself.

BP: Right now you've been working with this Slow Train Soul project, and it's pretty much exactly like you're saying: you've got a very super modern edge to that project, and then your singing has this haunting jazzy/blues thing that goes back decades, before our generation even.

Z: Yeah.

BP: What are your big inspirations in that?

Z: Well, you know, I see myself as a blues singer, you know. I see an old blues woman, that's the thing that I always... whenever I pick up the guitar, the first thing I play is the blues. It's just the jazz and the soul has just come from... what is it about blues, jazz and soul? It's just something really for me really tribal, really deep. For me it's like waaaayyyyy back into subconsciousness, genetic, whatever, it's just there. Yeah, it's one of those things, you know.

BP: That one album really stands out, you know, you're doing this sound that takes you out of the 'sound of the week' sort of thing. You know, it makes you pretty significant. We actually picked you guys as our song of the week a couple of weeks ago, and sent it out on our website, and you guys were in our top ten for awhile, people are digging it.

Z: Wow, that's cool, that's wicked, I heard about that, that's great.

BP: What does it feel like to have all this attention? You've got publicists in New York calling people for you, and you're getting a lot of press right now, what's that like?

Z: Um, you know, it's cool, I mean, I... I'm kind of a little bit removed from it. I don't really kind of... uh, it hasn't really sunk in.

BP: You're still just a normal old person walking around London doing your thing?

Z: Yeah. But you know something, there's a lot of things going on, and I just have a feeling that I will always be like this, because I'm sort of in my own little space. It's kind of my grounding thing. It's just 'hey, you know, whatever' you know, I could go somewhere and hear my record and I'd be like 'wow, that's great, that's cool.' But for me, it's about making music: just coming up with a great guitar riff, or a great idea for a song and all that. I think that all the attention- in a way- is something that I think 'great, people really dig the music, and they really appreciate it and they can feel or see or whatever,' affected someone in a great way, you know. But I kind of think that one just has to keep on making music and not be affected, because attention goes up and down.

BP: Right.

Z: But your fans, the people who really love what you do, will always be there, you know what I mean?

BP: Uh-huh. I want to talk about Slow Train Soul again. Is this just a one-off project for you, do you have future plans for this, or is this a one time thing?

Z: Yeah! Well, you know, I've got some ideas for the next record, and I'm hoping to do another record. Morten is working on his solo album- which I heard some tracks from, they're sounding really great. At the moment I'm just launching my solo album as well. We speak regularly, every week and stuff and we're like YEAH, you know, we've got to get together and do this. Hopefully we'll have another three weeks together and do another album.

BP: I'd like to talk about how you made this album. How much time did you spend on it, and what kind of songwriting process did you go on? Did you jam in the studio, or did you bring in finished songs on the guitar... how did you do that?

Z: Yeah, well, you know, all in all, it was over a six month period, because we recorded at Morten's studio in Denmark. I live in London. Literally it was about three weeks of studio time that we used. I would come over for the weekend. Sometimes it would start from like uh... I would sing the groove, you know. Like, for instance, I tell ya, "In The Black of Night," this is how it happened: I came to Morten and I said 'Morten, I've got this groove man, and I want to try and mix the two things together, like a hip-hop groove (human beatbox of beat), you know, and I want to put a jazz ride underneath it (human beatbox of ride cymbal pattern)' so you get the two crosses. Then, so he kind of put that together, because I don't really program. So he's like 'yeah, okay, lets find these samples and put this together' and stuff. And he's like 'listen man, this bassline...' That's how it happens. Sometimes we just come up with things like that.

We're in the studio drinking LOTS of brandy (laughter) ...yeah man, you know. Oh god, actually brandy or anything we can get our hands on. We're just there, jamming. I will sing stuff to him, he will program it up, we would mix things together. We really work on the stuff together, he's really really great that way. Some tracks, for instance, like "Inna City Woman" is an acoustic song of mine, which we just you know... 'I'm not actually playing it or doing it right now at the moment' so we pulled it into the Slow Train sort of thing, and just put the beats behind it and made it into a track. So there's kind of two ways to do it.

BP: That's funny that you mention brandy, because that's sort of a sophisticated drink for, you know, young musicians, or whatever. I just did a story on Danger Mouse, and they're all about drinking 40s, I mean, there is something sophisticated about your sound, does that go all the way down to your aesthetic tastes and all that?

Z: (laughter) Yeah, well I guess so eh? I never thought about it that way, but I guess so. I'm really influenced by film soundscapes I have to call it, and Morten as well. If you've heard any of the stuff he was doing before with Puddu Varano or mainly Los Chiccharrons, it's really filmic beats, soul/jazz rhythms, afro rhythms mixed with 60s filmic soundscape kind of stuff. Yeah, we both love jazz. Jazz, I would always say, jazz is quite sophisticated.

BP: Have you guys licensed any songs out for movies from this album?

Z: Yeah, I think "Twisted Cupid" was licensed through Playground. I don't know what the movie was called, some Finnish movie or something like that. I don't know what's happening with that.

BP: Did you like Shirley Bassey's work with The Propellerheads?

Z: Yeah, of course.

BP: That comes out in your work a little bit.

Z: I heard she was drinking a case of champagne a DAY!

BP: Ow! (laughter)

Z: And we had to live up to that man. (laughter) That's cool.

BP: Hey, I was reading somewhere that you'd sung on a bunch of 12"s, is that true, you've done a bunch of dance music recordings?

Z: Myself? You mean remixes?

BP: Before Slow Train Soul, you'd worked as a vocalist on a bunch of different dance music projects, just one-off singles?

Z: I did some stuff with this guy Max Sedgley, who's on Irma Records. What else... just some bits and pieces really.

BP: Was it like house music or drum and bass?

Z: Yeah yeah yeah, it's kind of like breaks. I would say more like big beat breaks kinda stuff. I wrote a song actually, it was one of my acoustic songs that I put onto Max's track. I think that was on CSI, is that like an NBC network program or something? One of those programs it was on, they use a track of mine called "Slowly," so that was really cool.

BP: So you're working on an acoustic album this year, they called it acoustika, is what they're calling this?

Z: Acoustika?

BP: Can you tell me about that?

Z: Oh gosh. This album is what I've been waiting to do like all my life, because that's where I come from, I'm a singer/songwriter, I play acoustic guitar. You know I love Ben Harper, and Meshell Ndegeocello, and Joan Armatrading, ...that's my music, that's what I love. It's funny, because we did the Slow Train Record, and then after that, on some just off chance I get signed, get into the studio and do this record, it's really quite something.

BP: Is it going to be an album where it's mostly focused on you and the guitar, or are you going to have a band of jazz musicians or...?

Z: The album is finished, it's being released in Italy first. I've got a whole band, I've got like, some tracks it's just me and the acoustic guitar. And then it goes up to... I have this one track man, it's called "Black Woman Freak." And it's like, if you would take like early Millie Jackson, mixed with like you know, Blaxploitation, mixed with acoustika, mixed with... man I have this like twelve piece orchestra doing this...

BP: Wow.

Z: I'm telling you man, it's like a trip. It's like Millie Jackson mixed with a bit of Pink Floyd, mixed with... it's just MAD. Yeah, it's great.

BP: Are you going to be playing shows with the band, yeah?

Z: Yeah man, yeah, the thing is, it's going really really really really really well. The video I've got is on MTV, it's on all the time. It's good. It hasn't been released as yet, but it's set to be a really really big big big big smash. And all around, when people hear the record, they're like 'wow, this is like classic' you know. So I'm really really happy you know about it. I think when you hear it, you'll hear the songwriting side of Slow Train. And I think that my acoustic record at points, because it's a acoustic, tends to be rockier, you know, live and rockier as well. It's just great fun, I love it. It's music man.

BP: It sounds like you're set up for a great year, and a long life of some excellent music.

Z: At the end of the day, that's all it's about, music. I see other artists like, for instance, is it Erlend Øyes? He's with Royksopp. You know Royksopp, right?

BP: Nah.

Z: Huh?

BP: Don't get that here, no, haven't heard of it.

Z: Oh shoot, so Royksopp is this dance... they're Danish, Royksopp. And they put out this record, and Erlend Øyes, who is one of their featured vocalists on it, and he also has an acoustic band called The Kings of Convenience, which have done really well. He's one of those artists that I really love, because he does his acoustic stuff, and then he goes and then he goes and he DJs, and then he does vocals on Royksopp, really really cool. I think that's the way. I think a few years ago, artists couldn't really do that. It's kind of like you would get the kind of thing, 'what do you want to do, do you want to sing on a dance record or do you want to sing your acoustic music?' You had to be like this one thing.

BP: There seems to be a phase now, especially on our music site, of all these bands that are so crossover crazy, we can't even really put them in a category you know. They're part 80s electronic, and they're part rock, and they're part this, and part that, it seems to be going on right now.

Z: Yeah. I think in the same way where we live in a world where we have so much choice, you know the color gray, there's some many different levels of the color gray, and that has to be celebrated, you just can't be a black and white person anymore, you can't do that. If you were, you wouldn't see the beauty of everything else, you'd be missing out. And I think that with musicians, for me, I've always believed it's like a trio: you have the fans, you have the musicians, and you have- I hate to say, but- the machine. The three things kind of need each other, really. And it's kind of like the most important thing are the fans. So, essentially, if you make the music, and you've got the fans, and the fans love what you do, whatever you do, the machine wants to be there anyway, because the machine is only about making money. So all that matters is about the people; if the people dig your music, then that's all you need. You see, so you can do whatever you want to do. It's crime when the machine starts to dictate to musicians what they have to do to get to the fans. That's what happens sometimes- well, all the time in pop. Okay, you have to be like this, this, this, this, this. And they kind of push that on the fans, and people are just, 'okay, well, whatever.' And then you get an artist that does what they want to do, you know, without any kind of machine crap, and most of the time, when artists just do what they want to do, it's HONEST, and that kind of music is what matters. And that's the kind of music that people really go crazy about. And I think that Norah Jones is an example of that.

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Slow Train Soul
song:In The Black Of Night
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