On Spectrum, his first solo EP, Zach Zoya dares to “re-visit the idea that an album should be limited to a single atmosphere.”
And haters beware: the challenge the Montréal – by way of Rouyn-Noranda – singer and rapper has set for himself isn’t presumptuous. It’s actuallyhonest and, dare we say, humble.
“I wanted to establish that people need to know me as someone who does many different things,” he says. “As someone who’s just as comfortable doing rap as I am doing sentimental R&B. I don’t want to have to convince everyone again on another album. I want to avoid a rift from happening.”
With versatility as his “primary musical value,” the 22-year-old artist is staying true to his family’s musical background, rooted in both North America and South Africa (his father’s country of origin).
“My big sisters listened to Beyoncé, Drake, and a bit of ‘90s R&B like Usher,” says Zoya. “I think his very rhythmic way of singing perfectly in sync with the drums had a big influence on me. My parents listened to Elvis and African music. On a subconscious level, I think the super-rich and textured African harmonies have also influenced me.”
Zoya makes no bones about one thing: Québec music has very little place in his own work. Having grown up for the better part of his life without a computer or TV, the young man had very limited contact with Francophone music, which is why he chose English as his mode of expression, even though he was raised in French.
“All I had was the radio, so every now and then I’d hear Marc Dupré or Marie-Mai… Shout out to them, but it wasn’t really my vibe,” he says politely. “At a time when everyone was watching the WordUp! Battles, I was discovering Kendrick Lamar’s Section.80. I knew the lyrics by heart, and my friends and I would sing them out loud just for fun. Then, around the age of 15, I started doing that at parties, and the way people reacted really gave me confidence. That’s when I said to myself: ‘I’m doing this for real!’”
The next year, Zoya arrived on the North Shore of Montréal to complete his high school diploma, and it turned out his best friend had a contact in his family for a sound engineer and a studio. The result was his first mixtape – that Steve Jolin heard on Souncloud in 2017. The head of Disques 7 ième Ciel, a hip-hop label based in Rouyn-Noranda, saw in that a natural and almost pre-destined alliance. Luckily for both of them, so did Zoya.
Alongside the Laval-based producer High Klassified, the up-and-coming artist launched Misstape, his first official release on 7ième Ciel, in 2018. Several high-profile international labels liked what they were hearing, notably Universal Music Canada, and the label’s most famous A&R rep, Toronto rapper Kardinal Offishall. “We sent demos to a lot of labels and it’s Kardi who was the most enthusiastic,” says Zoya. “Everything happened really organically with him.”
These demos are part of a library of 200 songs created over a period of three years, alongside the Parisian producer Bougo – Zoya’s “go-to guy” – and a few other talented composers, like Ruffsound, NeoMaestro, Gary Wide, and the aforementioned High Klassified. With only six songs, Spectrum was born of a careful listening and sorting process.
“Instead of trying to compile a bunch of similar beats, I chose instead to go with a vocal common thread,” says Zoya. “Sure, there are different vibes, but it couldn’t sound like it was two different guys, one who sings and one who raps. It needed to sound like it’s a single guy with different emotions.”
The opener, “Le Cap,” sets the table over a vigorous trap track, the perfect playground for Zoya’s percussive flow. It’s a convincing show of strength, the only equal of which is the epic, heavy closer, “Slurpee,” a hard-hitting first single that was released last summer, accompanied by a remarkably off-the-wall video.
Between those two poles, the artist stays closer to his emotions, as on “Pillz,”, his favourite song on the EP. “I used specific moments from my break-ups of the last five years and gathered them in one song,” says Zoya. “I wanted to create a narrative that truly demonstrates my vulnerability.”
Whereas he proclaims his independence on “In Da Way,” where he slays all the superficial friendships that have littered his musical journey, on “Stick by You,” Zoya delivers an amorous “statement of intent.” “I was in a pretty closed state of mind about two or three years ago,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t able to get involved or invested in a romantic relationship because music was my priority. Things change, though, and that song is me promising to my lover that I will try anything for her. ‘This is gonna be fucked up, I can’t predict the future, but I’ll give you the best of who I am.’”
Elsewhere, on “Patience,” the singing rapper reflects on his relationship with happiness, with surprising philosophical insight. “Every time I think of joy, I lose a little,” he confesses on the song. “I rarely have a good feeling when I experience a good moment,” he says. “It’s like, as soon as I realize it’s a good moment, I start enumerating everything that’s wrong about it.”
Even though Zoya is aiming for an international career, he’s careful to avoid chasing instant happiness or success. To him, the road to glory or, as he puts it, “maximum fulfillment,” is more important than the end itself. “I was always looking forward to the plane ride when I’d visit my family in South Africa,” he explains. “Once there, the excitement subsided, and my destination became my new normal.
“I want my career to be that exciting ride before I get somewhere, no matter where that is.”