Zenizen's Opal Hoyt Found Her Voice Somewhere Between Alaska and Melbourne
The Brooklyn-based artist, whose new EP is a neo-soul marvel, explains her inspiration and the difficulties that come being branded "unique."
All photos by Shelly Simon
Opal Hoyt was born in Alaska and raised between Vermont, Washington DC, Jamaica, and Brooklyn, where she stayed, attended Columbia, and played in the rock bands Napoleon and Piers. But her debut EP as the leader of Zenizen was inspired by time spent on the other side of the world. Australia, released at the end of 2017 on Don Giovanni, brings neo-soul together with almost prog-like percussion, soulful vocals, and indie rock impulses into something truly impressive, all held together by Hoyt's wide-ranging voice.
It was written and recorded Melbourne, where Hoyt went on two occasions to find inspiration by being alone in new surroundings. She spent time immersed in the local music scene—the prolific Hiatus Kaiyote among them—but wrote in places where she felt like a "stranger," something she says was "exactly what needed to happen in order for this EP to be born."
Hoyt's internationalism and her brilliant onstage performances—she dons a dazzling black keytar during live shows and a head-mic more commonly seen in a jazzercise class—has seen her set apart as a unique talent. But that has its drawbacks in the industry, too. She spoke with us about tokenization, inspiration, and the challenges in finding her own voice.
Noisey: Tell us about the tokenization you feel when it comes to your music, your art and your existence in the industry.
Opal Hoyt: It’s like carrying the weight of being different, but for what and for who? Everyone's looking for an angle or a thing and when you're the thing, it's uncomfortable. Other people putting your value on you just at face-glance, it’s wack. I wanted to create a project where I’m in control of a lot of elements but bring in badass musicians to take the helm and make this their own too.
Why did you decide to move to Brooklyn after growing up in the country?
I loved music and I had friends who had moved to the city. I began to connect with the music community in Brooklyn to create the change within my music career that needed to happen. A few years ago I was booking a lot of shows at venues like Baby's All Right and Deeper Space. Naturally I ended up meeting many talented DJs, performers, and just dope people. It was only due time until we would mash up and make something. I played keys and back vocals in an indie-rock band in Brooklyn from 2013 until I returned from Australia the second time (in 2016). I was eager to expand, past the expected sounds of an “indie” rock band. There were solid attempts made within those years to branch out, yet the product felt basic.
What creative connections and musical mergings have really brought your game to the next level?
These collaborations with Suzi Analogue and Black Spade would really prove fruitful to both parties. I tracked vocals on songs for Suzi as well as Black Spade. Then the mutual excitement rang true to when we began the conversations of remixing songs from the first release of Australia. You can’t press a vinyl with three songs, so I had to get creative. I hit up these collaborators because we’ve done great work together and I trusted each of these four different artists with my songs.
What pushed you to go to Australia?
A friend and I were working on this electric soul thing, then it began to remind me too much of Aluna George. I didn’t want to be just another black girl with a white guy producer. It didn’t feel like it was mine or unique. I was falling into a pocket of producing songs that was easy to do. It worked, hence a lot of other people sound like that and make it big. I didn’t want to make it like that. It sounded too easy and I couldn’t settle on that.
Would you say that feeling, that lack of uniqueness, had came up before?
As a kid. There are boxes of tapes—somewhere—of me doing karaoke with the headphone mic, like I use now. I could hear my voice and—not that I was off key—I just felt my voice wasn’t as convincing. Like I was a ghost singing someone else’s songs. As I got older, I was able to blend in. Singing in chorus with a good voice, I could get by like that. But it felt inauthentic and inadequate to the level I wanted to bring myself to.
So how did you push yourself to this level? How did you find your own voice?
I had to undergo a lot of creative and musical experiences with other people. For sure spending time with musicians such as Hiatus Kaiyote in Melbourne was crucial for my development. Truly I was just spending time with people that made music. It just so happened this incredibly diverse body of humans made music people loved and wanted their presence in their cities. Seeing a group operate with so little bullshit and so much uniqueness was crazy inspirational. I was like alright good I’m here for only a few months, time to get this shit done.
Well how did you manage to get all of that done? Melbourne sounds like it could just as easily be a distraction.
I isolated myself on the beach, in pubs, in places where I was a stranger. This was exactly what needed to happen in order for this EP to be born. I took this time to inhabit my own mind—hence where the name Zenizen came from. It’s a portmanteau of "zen" and "denizen" meaning it’s the inhabitance of your own mental processes. Finding the zen I needed literally on the other side and under belly of the world, I was able to feel empowered to understand these emotions.
With your time constraints and the idea of commitment, it's impressive that you were able to make the EP what it is.
Absolutely! The tracks traveled from my writing notebook to the mate’s recording studio in Melbourne. Then back to Brooklyn where the birth of the full band happened in mid-2016. That winter we spent touring and playing, a lot. This led to a night at Shea Stadium where I first met my manager, KC of NuBlack and a fellow female artist by name of SAMMUS (also on Don Giovanni Records). There’s a huge community that comes together in odd ways, if you allow it. When you ask for and let other people’s opinions into your mix, it can be a really beautiful thing. Having a manager who feels like family to me makes me want to keep going. Having a label who lets me doing my thing makes me want to keep going. Having a band who is badass and accountable for their actions and art makes me want to keep going. Why would I do this otherwise?
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