Zāna has confidence, a Filipino movie star in her music video, and belly dancing moves: she’s got it all going on. I talked with the New York-based pop star on collaborating with Grammy award-winning producers, her favorite New York venues, and tackling your fears head-on.
When did you start making music and what inspired that?
I started playing the drum set at 8 years old. From there, my love for music only grew. At about 16 years old I finished my first song ever, titled “Those Days”, which I released in March of 2017. I had started singing around 15, as well as learning guitar and teaching myself how to play piano. I also had always been into poetry. So, one day I just put some chords together and sang my poems over the chords. It was almost like an accident. I didn’t know I was going to end up enjoying it so much. From there, I started writing songs all the time. I bought a bunch of books on songwriting and dove in.
How did you learn to bellydance?
Honestly, I have never taken a class for bellydancing. I’m half Lebanese and Lebanese people in general all pretty much bellydance. But, they just call it ‘dancing’. Since we listened to a lot of Arabic music around the house I eventually picked it up. I started when I was very very young (there is a video of me bellydancing a little bit on our dining room table at the age of 2). My parents used to take me to this Lebanese restaurant called Byblos on Lombard Street in San Francisco. They had bellydancers and I would jump on the table and bellydance with them. I was a very spunky kid. From there I just kept doing it. Later on, my cousins moved from Saudi Arabia to America and they stayed with us for a while. We then started to do these big bellydancing performances in our school’s Variety show. My mom would make our wardrobes and both their mom and my mom would help us choreograph. We were definitely fun to watch.
You collaborated with Grammy award-winning producers, Tim Mitchell and George Noriega for “Into My Bed,” how did that come about?
I first met Tim and George when I was 16. They produced a few of my original songs at the time, one of them being Those Days, which I released in March of 2017. “Into My Bed” was a co-write with Tim and George and the process was kind of hilarious. I was only 18 at the time, so we were trying to find a way to make the song “sexy” but also keep it young, fun and innocent. It all started with my mom telling me to get out of my head when I was overthinking one of the lyrics I was writing, and then Tim said and into my bed. George then finished it off with I’ll make him dance into her bed. We are still in contact here and there up until today.
Did you work with them for your other tracks as well?
Tim, George and I also cowrote “Deeper”, my second release in 2015. It was during the same time that we wrote “Into My Bed”. It kind of played off of “Into My Bed” in a way and it was also very funny to write. Again, I was only 18, so we were trying to keep it young, fun and innocent while still having a sexy aspect to it. For “Call Ya”, my friend Big Len produced it and it was a way different experience because by this time, I had had some more studio experience, so even though I wanted him to do his thing with the song, I was also very picky and opinionated. I also bothered him every day for a while until he finally caved and agreed to add the trumpet part, LOL.
My parents used to take me to this Lebanese restaurant called Byblos on Lombard Street in San Francisco. They had bellydancers and I would jump on the table and bellydance with them.
What’s your approach to songwriting?
It changes all the time. Sometimes I just feel it. I get antsy about it. I have a feeling like I have to write a song right now or I’m going to explode. Then I end up writing an entire song in 30 minutes. Other times I feel very emotional or down and I don’t understand why so I pick up my guitar and sit for hours plucking different chords until I connect with something. At that point, the outside world just falls away and takes my worries away with it. My mind wanders and I become extremely vulnerable and honest with myself. It’ll just rush out of me. Most of the time I won’t even know what my song is going to be about until I’m halfway through it. The first verse and the chorus are always the easiest. The second verse and the bridge are when I have to start really thinking and noticing what rhyme schemes and melodic patterns I used in the first section.
How did attending Berklee help you grow as a musician?
When I first entered Berklee, there was a lot that I didn’t know. I definitely didn’t know how to read or write music. I did know how to read rhythms but everything else I learned by ear. Berklee gave me the tools and the groundwork that I needed to grow as a singer, a songwriter and as a musician overall. It was like the bridge I needed to get from where I stood before as an aspiring musician to where I stand now as an artist.
What inspired the move to NYC?
My parents first met in New York and then later they moved together to California and had me and my sister. Growing up I always heard my mom talk about how amazing living in New York was. When I was about 10 years old, we visited my grandparents in New York. I saw snow and I made a snowman. I had to wear a hat, scarf and gloves. I was like, this is insane!I love it. Then, when I was 16 I went on a high school trip for performing arts students. I had to completely step out of my comfort zone since I didn’t know anyone on that trip. It was so much fun. We watched different Broadway shows and went to art museums. We were staying in Times Square and some of the other students and I snuck out after curfew and got hot dogs from one of the stands. After that, I was like, I could definitely live in New York. Not needing a car is amazing too since I don’t drive. To finish off the story, a few years ago my sister got into Pace University and my parents decided to follow since they always wanted to go back to live in New York anyway. So, after Berklee I moved to New York and I love it.
How did you break into the performance scene in NYC?
When I first moved to New York, I jumped straight in. I went online and applied to perform at every music venue that I possibly could. A bunch of them got back to me and then I quickly pulled together a band by posting on different Berklee Facebook pages requesting musicians who are in NYC. My first performance was at Freddy’s Bar in Brooklyn and it surprisingly went really well. From there I just kept applying and setting up gigs all over the city. I started getting invited back to places and invited to play at other venues where I had never performed before. We were staying in Times Square and some of the other students and I snuck out after curfew and got hot dogs from one of the stands. After that, I was like, I could definitely live in New York.
What are some of your favorite NYC music venues and favorite spots to chill at in general?
As for music venues, I really enjoy most of the places where I perform. Pocion Lounge in Washington Heights, Shrine World Music Venue and Off the Grid Pub & Grub, both in Harlem, Gussy’s in Queens, Freddy’s in Brooklyn is a very cool spot as well. The Roxy Hotel is beautiful. The whole vibe there is incredible. I recently went to a show at Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side and that was also very fun. In general, I really enjoy just walking around when it’s nice weather. Especially in the Battery Park area, but I love food so much. So, in the winter especially, Iâ€™m usually at different restaurants stuffing my face.
There are cool club remixes for many of your songs. How did those come about?
It was a friend of a friend. RedSoul is a DJ and he heard my songs and really enjoyed them. He immediately began getting ideas on how he could remix them with a house music flavor. He reached out to get my accapella vocal tracks and then we went from there.
You exude such confidence when you perform! What are your tips?
Although I am a very confident person in my private/daily life, it didn’t always translate like that on stage. I used to have the worst stage fright ever. It still comes back to haunt me every now and then, but honestly, it just took a lot of practice and willpower. I kept pushing myself to face my fears and going on stage despite the fact that my mind would go blank and my legs would shake so much that it would feel like they could barely hold me up. I also don’t use any form of “liquid courage” and/or substances to help myself get up there. I’ve always made it a point to feel every second of the show even if I’m panicking on the inside because that is how you overcome your fears, by facing them head-on. In the end, practicing and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone always pays off.
How do you go about creating your music videos? They’re so cool!
My first two music videos for “Into My Bed” and “Deeper” I worked with some amazing people that put the concepts, hair, makeup and wardrobe together. It was my first experience doing anything like that and it was so much work and I was so nervous, but in the end, it was a lot of much fun. I loved every second of it. For “Call Ya”, I worked with CBR Media. I came up with the concept and the idea of shooting it in my bedroom. We shot it all in one day and then I went to their studio in Jersey and pieced it together with them. It’s funny how I’m on a bed at some point in each music video that I’ve done. I might have to keep that trend going now.
Related: how did you score having Xian Lim in the video for “Deeper”?
One of the guys who worked on the music videos for “Into My Bed” and “Deeper” is Filipino and has connections in that industry so he set the whole thing up. Xian Lim was also trying to break into the US scene, so once he got in contact with Xian Lim it just fell into place from there. We got along great. He is a super nice guy and I really enjoyed working with him. I’ve always made it a point to feel every second of the show even if Iâ€™m panicking on the inside because that is how you overcome your fears, by facing them head-on. In the end, practicing and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone always pays off.
What does feminism mean to you and why is it important?
Feminism is about equality. I feel like a lot of people don’t understand that because they think of it as an extreme, “if you’re a feminist you must hate men.” But, that is not the case at all. Feminism is extremely important because women deserve equal rights to men. We work just as hard, if not harder in some cases, we play a huge role in humanity, and we’re all human beings with similar problems, emotions, and goals. There’s no valid reason for us not to have the same rights.
Zana is currently touring on the East Coast! Check out her website find out where.
Also published on Medium.