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Parting ways with a major record label, Zuzu’s independent spirit remains unabated. Ahead of the release of Queensway Tunnel, Megan Walder catches up with the Scouse pop ambassador as she emerges from the other side.
The last time we saw eye to eye, the Virgin Records contract was tucked neatly under her belt and she was whizzing off to support Tom Grennan on a sold-out tour. “The wider world will know about her very soon,” we penned back in 2018 following that label deal and, far from tempting fate, we had every reason to forecast ZUZU’s upward trajectory which manifested recently in her opening the city’s pilot test event at Sefton Park. But as we reunite in a locked and eerily empty Phase One, the red-lipped powerhouse that sits opposite holds a strength to her posture that just wasn’t present three years ago.
For Zuzu Stranack, the whirlwind of pandemic life hasn’t just been stressful, it’s been transitory, emerging at the other side with an album that encapsulates the awkward liminality of your twenties. Tumultuous and trying, it’s a period of your life that many view through restorative, rose-tinted spectacles. Parts of it are exciting and liberating – an assessment which Zuzu’s work with Adventure Time and The Sims so clearly demonstrates – but very often this era can, and does, fall short of being the zenith of youth.
So far, her career has been mired somewhat by a debilitating sickness very few were privy to, but now she chooses to share her journey for those who, like her, feel desperately isolated in their battles. “I have this thing called cyclical vomiting syndrome,” she explains. “I basically just had to fake [being well].” Locking Zuzu backstage before and after sets, the chronic illness was paralysing at times, and it was often her band’s sharp thinking that ensured her secret remained just that. But with a determination to be perfect, Zuzu frequently saw her own experiences as limitations on her creativity.
Because even in 2021 – with ableist mindsets rife in an industry that demands artists be at the top of their game and nothing less – musicians continue to face barriers getting booked.
Now, in a year that has seen no sickness, Zuzu’s improvements have seen a rekindled fire ablaze within her. Revisiting a period of her life that she should have enjoyed, she is instead faced with the reality that, at times, the most important thing was to hide her situation, when all she deserved to do was enjoy the success that came with her hard work.
“I’m not sick anymore,” she shrugs, “and I wouldn’t go back to that for all the money and success in the world.” But she does want to ensure that those who are still battling, whether in the industry or in the audience, are aware that perfection is merely a tempting mirage; that the people up on stage are as mortal as those beneath it.
Perhaps without conscious thought, we revisit the topic in a different discussion about misplacing your true sense of self. “You see creatives do that a lot,” she continues. “They put their vision on the backburner for fame or success, but they lose what it is that makes them tick.” And while her vision has not faltered, maybe the underlying stress of her predicament has been holding her back; in Queensway Tunnel, we have arguably Zuzu’s greatest opus yet.
Why the name? I ask with a laugh, finding humour in the fact that this most ordinary of tunnels I once used every day is the title for something I deem much greater. “That’s a good question. I’m a fucking weirdo. I just love it; there’s a magic in it for me.” Driving through the tunnel every day has sparked inspiration where others see mundanity. Hastily relying on voice notes to record bouts of creativity during each underground journey, the majority of the tracks on the album began life named after the subterranean passage itself.
But it’s more than that. It’s about entering something and embarking on a journey. It’s the ups and downs of life and, despite it all, “coming out the other end alright.” For someone who was born in Liverpool and now resides on the Wirral, it’s about going from past to present in more ways than one.
The biographical tracks span years, with some being written when Zuzu was only 18 – some just months before the album went to master – but it’s an essential balance for an album that observes such a long and winding road.
And for an album named after the tunnel, it was only appropriate that Zuzu made a pilgrimage into its depths herself. Thanks to interesting connections, numerous emails, a lot of begging and an uncanny pre-planned closure, the stars aligned. “We got to do a whole video in the tunnel,” she beams. “It was just badass.” For some, gaining access to a sooty tunnel is hardly the sort of VIP entry that pricks the ears. For the self-confessed nerd, however, it was a dream come true. Seeing the engineering marvel up close and personal was the equivalent of meeting royalty.
But with her own following simply regarded as Planet Z, the star dismisses the traditional hierarchies that so often divide artists and their following. “I don’t like that kind of barrier between people. They’re a motherfreaking human being allowing you to eat. I just feel like I have more respect for them than that. Like, I’ll snuggle anyone.” So much so that, when it came to naming her newly formed record label, the group that was formed to uplift Zuzu was the perfect namesake for a platform that will continue to do the same.
Because it was this collective that saw her get through lockdown, who gave her purpose when live music stalled, and when the industry faced a reckoning. The pandemic saw her put pen to paper to reach out to others. “I wrote to a lot of people, just trying to stay connected with them and stay happy,” she reflects. “They really helped me out of a hard place.” Because, while building a fanbase is necessary, Zuzu considers, there are many who “overlook how important it is to appreciate those that are there”.
In fact, there never was a moment of doubt when it came to her fans. What was called into question, however, was the control she held over her own work. Leaving behind her past as a signed artist, she’s reclaiming control. Being able to choose who to collaborate with, what to release and what information to divulge, it’s all in her hands now. And if things go wrong? “I have no one else to blame,” she laughs. “I definitely can’t say anyone’s made me do it.” But it’s worth it, she reassures, “because at the end of the day when you boil it all down, all you have is what you make. And like, if you’re not happy with what you’re making, it’s hard to be happy with anything else.”
With help from label services and a steady collective of people who have surrounded her from the very beginning, Zuzu’s upcoming release appears non-toxic, empowering and altogether more wholesome than many of the stressed-out creatives we interact with daily. Free from the demands of superiors on matters that are of her own creation, Zuzu credits the pandemic for providing a minute to reassess what actually matters, and time to adjust her mindset to focus on the positive. Perhaps that’s what I notice in her posture: a lightness, a relaxed determination – one that accepts the fragility of self-belief. By viewing insecurity as the human experience it is, she’s removed the power it holds.
It’s the undercurrent of this that saw her connect with Tracey Emin’s My Bed years earlier, and a piece she modelled the bittersweet My Old Life video on. Utilising mementos from her past, Zuzu surrounds her own bed with Adventure Time memorabilia, letters from followers and outfits from old music videos, creating a powerful piece of art on more levels than one. With the track – itself a noughties whirlwind with Hilary Duff inflections – Zuzu recalls a painful time in her life. “I didn’t want to exist anymore, didn’t want to face the world. It was really fucking hard.” So, it’s no surprise that the cathartic reflection of this time, accompanied by an ode to a piece of art that “says everything about someone without even saying anything at all”, resulted in an unexpected outpouring of tears and emotion. “I cried my eyes out,” she admits, clearly still as surprised today as when it first occurred.
But there’s power in emotion, as this single demonstrates, making it the perfect first release from an album that tracks the growth and progression in an artist, who, in coming to terms with the humanity of her emotions, has found power in her voice.
It’s therefore amusing that her favourite track from the album at the moment, The Van is Evil, is arguably the weirdest track she’s ever written. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a song like it and I don’t think I ever will again,” she explains when pushed for why it holds such an important position at present. Covering the climate crisis from a more personable, tongue-in-cheek approach, Zuzu addresses the hypocrisy and unproductive nature of attempting to be an engaging member of society while juggling the reality of your impact on the environment. A climate warrior she is not, however, signposting me to Greta Thunberg’s work when prompted to elaborate on the ongoing environmental disasters around the world.
For Zuzu, such politically charged lyricism is a way to observe the world as it is, working through modern stresses in a way she sees fit. But she doesn’t do it alone. Collaborating with Kieran Shudall (Circa Waves), Zee Davine (Tokky Horror) and Kurran Karbal (Munkey Junkey), Queensway Tunnel is a family effort. “While the songs are always mine, I give people credit for stuff they deserve. If you change a chord, you wrote on the song.” Whether it’s “tiny elements that make it pop”, or an emo scream in the title track, they’ve been given their rightful place as collaborators. Even her cats, John, Paul and Edgar, are featured, purring contently at the start of Bevy Head and Where’d You Go.
As we sit in Phase One, recalling the multitude of times Zuzu has stepped foot onstage and performed to sold out crowds, she whispers, “I love this place.” It’s a place of unity and those shared experiences that has seen it robbed of its ability to put on live shows due to noise complaints from neighbours. Zuzu didn’t know, and as messenger my tidings don’t sit well.
With eyes moving towards the ceiling, she screams, “Stop buying apartments here then – just fuck off!”
As we pack up, awkwardly walking the same way out of the building, she tells me of the endless itinerary of her day-to-day life – the big moments coming up. I’m left with the knowledge that it’s not only Zuzu’s music that is being propelled into success, but her whole life. After what she’s had to endure, it’s about time things come up smelling of roses.
Queensway Tunnel is available via Planet Z Records on 12th November.