Unapologetic singer-songwriter Zola Simone, 20, is dedicated to her passion of storytelling while staying true to her identity, navigating the world and its challenges through the lens of music. Read more to learn about Simone, who identifies as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, and what Pride means to her not only this month, but every day.
Zola Simone would describe her music as a “consistently inconsistent, diverse and versatile” blend of indie pop and R&B – “Queer pop with an edge to it,” she says. Her honest lyrics reflect her vulnerability, as well as individuality, while still touching the hearts of many with their relatability. Since releasing her first single “Real to You” at thirteen years old, Simone has released ten singles, two EPs, and one album titled Now You See Me, which has surpassed well over one million streams. That album opens with her song “Easy”, which was featured in the series finale of the acclaimed Netflix original series, Atypical. “Easy” won Song of the Year at the 2021 Boston Music Awards, where Simone, nominated in four categories including Pop Artist of the Year and Album of the Year, also took home the prize for New Artist of the Year.
She hails from Boston, MA, and works with renowned collaborators to continuously evolve her refreshing sound. Her latest release is an EP titled Flower that “pays homage to the cycle of love and its different stages, and highlights her growth as an artist and as a person,” home to singles “Unsaid” and “What It Feels Like”, which she wrote as a queer anthem. “I wrote it about one of my past relationships, and I wanted to magnify and really articulate the emotions of what it feels like to be in love, but in very niche and specific ways using a lot of vivid imagery and metaphors,” she explains. “Because at the end of the day, I am a poet.”
Simone grew up with two supportive moms who “have been there every step of the way,” whether it be throughout her journeys of self-discovery or professional career. She cites growing up with their contrasting music tastes as to why her own music is so nonuniform. “I started singing around age four,” she says. “Pretty much as soon as I could talk, I was singing. And then I started reading music probably in the second or third grade, right after we learned about poetry and we were writing poetry in school. I was like, ‘Oh, I’m good at this’ … It was a way to express myself, and I’ve really been doing it ever since.”
The talented artist continues to use music as a way to express her truest self. She describes common themes found throughout her songwriting. “Definitely identity is one of my biggest ones, and then relationships – whether that be romantic, or friendships, or even parental relationships/family relationships,” Simone says. “I read a lot about identity because it’s been very prevalent in my life, just who I am – I figured out who I was at a very young age.”
She describes how she felt like “an outsider” when she was young, something many LGBTQ+ people face, and how people made her feel like she was “too much” because of her proud identity. Simone wrote her first song “Real to You” at 12 years old, “And it’s about how my whole life people have misgendered me and bullied me for the way that I expressed my gender,” she explains. “It’s like saying, ‘Am I not valid in my identity? Am I not visible?’,and then I think that theme is ingrained in a lot of my songs – that theme of identity and not being seen.”
Her first/only album Now You See Me is also a continuation of that idea. “I think I’m most proud of that project, just because I think it’s a combination of all my life experiences, and of my musical experiences as well,” she says.
Her songwriting process is “kind of all over the place,” she says. “It’s very hard for me to be prompted to create things. I like to call them ‘little miracles’, because you just get struck with this really invigorating feeling where you’re like, ‘I’m going to want to do something,’ and it’s just a feeling of inspiration and need to take action,” she explains. “So I definitely work that way. I usually start with lyrics; I just type them in my phone. And then the melodies come next, and then instrumentation, but sometimes I’ll start and I’ll just make my own beats and logic and then I’ll sing to that.”
She says she usually never starts with a melody and then comes up with the lyrics. “Because I feel like melodies are very dependent on the rhythm of the song, and that’s really determined by what the lyrics are and how many syllables there are. I try not to make it too mathematic – I don’t think about it like that.”
She is currently living in New York and an undergraduate student at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, balancing academia with her growing career. “I’m not a very academic-oriented person,” she says. “School is never really built for neurodivergent people, and it can be hard because you feel like you have to fit the mold … But I think I’m learning a lot of life lessons and how to be an adult.”
Simone’s curriculum is very rigorous, she explains, “But I want to learn how to do a lot of things myself … And as important as collaboration is, I think being self-sufficient is super important, not only because it cuts costs, but because I want to embody that versatility.”
She is inspired by people every day, especially queer artists as a queer person. “I’m really listening a lot to Isaac Dunbar. He’s super great … I love MUNA … Apple K, Rina Sawayama, Tracy Chapman, FLETCHER, Kaytranada, Chloe Moriondo, Miley Cyrus, Arlo Parks, The Japanese House … to name a few.” Here is a playlist of music by queer artists that she made recently!
“I’m a huge fan of queer representation in the media, especially film and TV, so my mom told me to watch Atypical and I was not interested, and then she told me that there was a queer character, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot,’ and then I fell in love with Casey,” she says. “I relate a lot to Casey. I’m not I’m not a sibling, but her struggles with anxiety really resonated with me, and that she’d do anything for the people she cares about. Even though I’m not a sibling, I feel that way about my cousins, my moms, and my friends. And the way she cares passionately about her partner. I also think Brigette Lundy-Paine is absolutely amazing.”
She describes the euphoria that was having her song “Easy”, inspired by the characters Izzy and Casey, included in the show. “I can’t even really fathom it. I can’t tell you how many times I have watched that scene,” she says. “I still can’t believe that it’s my voice. And I wrote the song about them, so it’s even more surreal.” She says she is grateful that the show’s leadership took a chance on her and opened her DM.
“Most producers and people who work in the industry that get unsolicited messages wouldn’t even pay attention because they didn’t do it ‘the right way’. And I think the fact that I was a fan really helped,” she says. “I would encourage any up-and-coming artists that you don’t always have to do things the right way. Sometimes everyone around you is going to be telling you not to do something or to do something, and you’re going to have a feeling in your gut, and you’re going to have to go with that because, ultimately, that’s what I do, and it’s worked out pretty well for me most of the time. That’s not to say that I haven’t had failures or disappointments; I’ve had a lot of that. But going with your gut is super important,” she says.
“Pride means to me … It means existing,” Simone states. “I know that’s simple, but I think that the most honest and kind thing you can do for yourself is to be who you are … And I feel like it’s a fundamental human need to express who you are and to be who you are. And especially right now, like a lot of people’s identities, and therefore happiness, is being suppressed and controlled. And really, those people are stripping away fundamental human rights of people,” she says. “Pride means to defy expectations, and it means having joy in everything that you do,” which she describes is different than happiness.
“Pride is everything. It doesn’t necessarily mean confidence; It doesn’t necessarily mean being brave … And if you’re not the most confident at expressing yourself, or even if you’re not allowed to, it doesn’t mean you can’t take part of Pride,” she says. “Pride is just being yourself really. Even if that’s on the inside, and if that’s the safest option for you.”
Simone says you should expect a new album from her either this summer or fall (!), with five singles and accompanying music videos for each. “I think it’s very similar to Now You See Me in the fact that it’s very diverse and versatile, but it’s a lot more mature,” she says about the new project that implements many different sounds and influences. She experiments with a more rock-leaning style in some songs – “There’s also a song that I rap in there.”
She is playing shows this summer that she is currently scheduling while finishing up school. Simone will be headlining a LGBTQ festival presented by RainbowLeaf at The Rockwell Theater in MA on June 29!
Emma Page, a recent Journalism graduate of The George Washington University, possesses a passion for music journalism and storytelling in all its forms. Originally from Baltimore, MD, when she is not writing, she can be found at a local concert or making music of her own.
Flow-bending artist aSanTIS discusses art, culture, and whether sound can solve the world’s problems in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.
My interview with Amy Santis aka aSanTIS began in the most unexpected way. The Maryland-based flow-bending artist and lyrical storyteller came prepared to engage in conversation around questions I had posed – and she also brought one or two of her own thoughtful prompts based on her curiosities around my view of learning.
This practice of taking in her surroundings deeply through observation and inquiry has come naturally to aSanTIS ever since she was a young child. In terms of her early starts in music, she notes that she began as a discerning listener. “Just listening to music from my mom, on the radio, just being a consumer in the world of sound. But I think mainly, my mom has always loved dancing and listening to music, so that was sort of like second nature. We play music at gatherings, we play music in the car, and these songs are sort of like diaries that take us into a specific place.”
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