Indie Singer-Songwriter ZOLA Makes Her Stunning Debut
ZOLA is the voice you didn’t know you were waiting for. Based in San Francisco, 22 year old Zola Johnson first graced the sonic landscape with her debut single “Too Fast Too Soon” back in 2016, garnering her hundreds of thousands of streams on Spotify, over half a million plays on SoundCloud, and the attention of mesmerized listeners all over the world.
Unlike other artists, ZOLA hasn’t exactly been teasing out her tunes. Over the last few years, she’s kept it relatively low-key, working hard in the shadows to write new songs and perfect the process. She’s worth the wait. Just a few days ago, ZOLA officially released her debut EP, Everything I Know, a dreamy, jazzy collection featuring six tracks. When we asked Zola about it, she told us that “Everything I Know is the embodiment, from start to finish, of my four years in college. The songs are organized in a chronological timeline so they flow like a novel or a short story. I wanted this EP to be a little snippet of my life; almost as if every song was an image perceived through a looking glass."
A reflection of her college experience — the things she learned, the things she shared, the love, the hurt, the everything — the EP is a quick taste of an influential time in Zola’s life, but made malleable enough to stretch to each listener’s own experience. Maybe we can’t all relate to her silky vocals and expert multi-instrumental production, but we can definitely relate to what she’s singing about.
Everything I Know opens with “Tamper,” a marvelously dizzying soundscape featuring ZOLA’s breathy vocals looped over a bed of swirling synth buzzes. Dark and dreamy, it’s a spellbinding hybrid of Lorde and Hayden Calnin. Following that eerie opener is “Paint,” experimenting once again with the reverb of vocals before ZOLA kicks in with the beautifully articulated first verse. The arrangement here is fairly minimalist, but expands to accommodate a jazzy interlude of piano trills and percussive shimmers.
On “Blood (Sugar),” everything ZOLA is capable of is at its best. Her voice oscillates between a sultry drawl and a dark croon, offering an impassioned delivery above an insistent drum beat and acoustic strum metamorphosing into an otherworldly, almost cruel electronic base. Thick slaps of percussion hit over and over again, the plink of keys drone in the background, and suddenly the track has a heartbeat. The marrying of these disjointed elements results in a beguiling effort from an artist who continues to surprise on every track. “Undermine” is next, a quick cut gone in under two minutes, stripped-down and lo-fi in its fuzzy vocal quality as ZOLA delivers her most emotive performance — so raw that it doesn’t feel right to even hear it, like we’ve just stumbled on her diary and closed it after a single page.
The end of Everything I Know offers a spot to “Too Fast Too Soon,” the debut that proved ZOLA to be a new force on the indie scene. The jazzy hop of the piano, coupled with her sweet vocals, call to mind some major Sara Bareilles influence, but it’s got an edge to it, courtesy of ZOLA’s clever wordplay and R&B-tinged arrangement. The EP ends nearly 20 minutes later with “Blue,” a bittersweet reflection on learning from lost love. The arrangement slinks along with the thump of percussion and warm blooms of piano, all while ZOLA calmly delivers line after heartbreaking line, like when she sings with an audible ache, “I thought I’d be used to not having you.” Later, the arrangement erupts into a searing explosion of organ wails and bursts of percussion, an emotional conclusion spliced by yet another surprising end.
In just six songs, ZOLA leads listeners through her life, gently sharing with us the moments that changed her. It’s a beautiful gift, really, to step inside the soul of another — made all the more lovely by her velvet vocals and thoughtful imaginings of how music should be both heard and seen.