Photo: FIFOU

As she barges into the FrancoFolies de Montréal press room on a Saturday afternoon, Zaho seems out of breath. Her schedule – co-ordinated by Warner Music, her label – seems to be planned down to the second, in an attempt to take maximum advantage of a small-scale foreign tour.

Zaho has been living in Montréal for the past two decades, yet her local shows and media conferences are so rare that she risks being forgotten. In fact, her last Montreal concert goes back to 2013, again as part of the FrancoFolies festival. “In Québec, unlike in France, I’m not enough known yet to go on tour,” she says, without a trace of bitterness. “I think it’s only a matter of media exposure: once they decide to play me, more people will be able to appreciate my music. Shining elsewhere is fine, but nothing compares to being recognized by your own people. I’m getting that in Algeria, and now, I’m starting to get it here in Québec, too.”

In short, it’s “the world upside down,” to use the expression making up the title of her third album, Le monde à l’envers, released in February 2017. A world away from the traditional path of the pre-fabricated pop singer, the 37-year-old artist has worked very hard to get where she is today.

Born in Bab Ezzouar, a suburb of the city of Algiers, Zehera Darabid fled her country during Algeria’s black decade, and settled in Canada with her family. After studying computer science at university, she discovered her passion for music, and ended up meeting the composer and producer Phil Greiss, with whom she developed a musical collaboration that has lasted to this day. Though iron-willed, the young singer has suffered major setbacks. “Record companies told me that my voice was too deep, and that you couldn’t tell whether it belonged to a woman or to a man,” Zaho recalls. “I’ve ignored those kind of comments for a long time.”

Passionately interested in the broad local urban music scene, she took refuge in France, where she met famous rappers like La Fouine, Soprano and Sefyu, all featured on her first mixtape, released in 2007. After being noticed by EMI, she found considerable success with her first album, Dima, which sold 150,000 copies and helped her gain entry into most of the world’s French-language markets.

Nine years after that phenomenal breakthrough, Zaho today re-affirms her desire to do it her way. On her third release, she “breaks [her] chains,” follows her dreams and claims a modicum of freedom in an invasive society, where people tend to talk without saying anything (“Laissez-les kouma”, with the highly popular French rapper MHD) and to make a spectacle of their love lives (“Selfie”).

Le monde à l’envers is my way of saying that diversity is a strength, and that it’s OK not to fit into the mold. I’m living proof.”

While optimistic messages and a tropical pop coating make her new album more luminous than her previous Contagieuse (2012), it also contains more intimate sections. This is particularly true of the emotional “Come tous les soirs.” As Zaho explains, “This song is based on an event in my life on which I didn’t have the courage to put words at the time. It tells the story of lovers who let routine destroy their relationship bit by bit. The song is a projection of what would have happened if I’d been able to take charge before everything turned into drama.”

A lyrically sincere and creatively versatile singer-songwriter, Zaho recently collaborated with a number of renowned artists, such as Chimène Badi, Christophe Willem and, above all, Céline Dion, who included three Zaho songs on Encore un soir, her latest album. “I had heard that Céline was working on a new album and was looking for songs that could showcase her voice,” says Zaho. “I decided to give it a try, even though many people tried to discourage me by telling me that my song didn’t have a chance to reach her ears,” she recalls, referring to “Ma Faille.” “I first asked myself what could move a great international star like her. Instead of writing about what she does have, I chose to write about what she doesn’t have. That is, her weaknesses, her fears, her concern for her family, and her children’s welfare. A month later, I got a call from Las Vegas: Céline was at the other end of the line, moved to tears.”

Such rich writing experiences now allow Zaho to take some distance from her own songwriting. “I’m someone who’s afraid of conforming, of becoming a caricature of herself,” she says, “so I have this need to get out of myself and write for other artists. It’s like a painter who’s standing too close to his canvas: if he doesn’t stand back often enough, he won’t create a good picture.”