Get to Know the Cosmic Pop and Kurdish Politics of Robyn’s Protégé, Zhala

The daughter of a Kurdish guerilla fighter is poised to dethrone Sweden's reigning princess of pop with her self-titled debut.

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Mar 22 2015, 3:00pm

Photo by Karen Gardiner

If you caught Robyn on last year's Do It Again co-headlining tour with Röyksopp, you will have already met Zhala, who was the opening act on the stadium dates. On giant stages, she took her place behind a colorful and sequined fabric-draped table and sticker-covered laptop, and liberally sprayed the stage and front row with her plastic bottle filled with rose water. "I do that every time," she tells Noisey. "It puts me in the mood where it's something I recognize and it makes me know my place on stage. I think that the more senses you can reach, the better."

Zhala, who, as a little-known newcomer, could have floundered in the mammoth venues that hosted the laser- and robot-filled Do It Again production, performed a captivating set of shape-shifting tunes—from the Western-style "Slippin' Around," to the Bollywood-influenced "Holy Bubbles," and manic tempo-shifting "Prophet"—that form the basis of her debut self-titled album (out May 25) and marked her out as deserving to carry Robyn's pop queen torch.

Last year, following the release of "Slippin' Around," Robyn made Zhala the very first signing at Konichiwa Records—the label she founded in 2005—saying that, "when Zhala sings, the heavens open and the stars come down to hover over my head and I feel like anything is possible." Besides Robyn, Zhala is still the only artist signed to Konichiwa and the connection seems natural. Like Robyn's best work, Zhala moves seamlessly from trippy avant-garde experimentalism to pop hooks and club bangers—in fact, the sublime pop of "Prince in the Jungle" and uplifting ballad "Right Way's Wrong" would not have sounded out of place on Robyn's Body Talk EPs. While the two have yet to collaborate on record, they teamed up at last year's Swedish Grammis for a magnificent "Smells Like Teen Spirit"-inspired performance of "Prophet."

Drawing from her Middle Eastern background and love of Stockholm's underground dance clubs, Zhala describes her style of music as "Cosmic Pop," and the influences on Zhala are many. "I've always been interested in finding new stuff," she says. "I grew up with a lot of Middle Eastern music and music from so many different cultures. I used to watch a lot of Bollywood movies when I was a kid, then, in my late teens, I started to listen to a lot of electronic and dance."

"Aerobic Lambada," released last month, is a hypnotic, cascading synth-driven slice of rave euphoria underlined with a throbbing bass that defies you to stay still.

Upon its release, she described the song as "the itchy feeling you get in your butt when you have to adjust to different social contexts but you can't." She explains further: "It's about being frustrated. When you are really stressed, you're, like, in a hurry. You want everything to move really fast. You try to hurry but everything is in slow motion."

"Aerobic Lambada" came with a suitably fantastical video that cuts scenes of Zhala hanging out and getting temporary tattoos with her real-life friends with footage of her wandering, as if in a fairytale, through a Swedish forest wearing a jacket by This is Sweden. The jacket was a deliberate choice. This is Sweden, which was started by two siblings who came to Sweden as child refugees, have created a multi-dimensional project, a book, clothing collections, and photography that seeks to challenge notions of Swedish identity. "I can relate to their perspective of Sweden," Zhala says. "It was great to collaborate on something because we were thinking about the same things."

Born in Sweden to Kurdish parents, identity is something that Zhala is interested in exploring. At the Robyn/Röyksopp show in New York she performed in front of a Kurdish flag, so I asked her if it was important to her to draw attention to that part of her identity. "Actually, it feels like I am investigating that part," she says. "I think that flags and nationality are very interesting. My mother and father were both very political; my mother was in the defense guerilla and was a peshmerga so I grew up in a really political home with family that is very nationalistic. I have a completely different view of politics in a way, but I understand that when you grow up Kurdish, you are born with having to talk about Kurdistan and defend it and fight for it. It's like a survival instinct.

"I'm just curious about that side of me because I play with the flag and think that people's reactions to that are very interesting. And I also play with Swedish flags and that reaction is also really funny because in Sweden it's still a bit like … people have seen me as Kurdish my whole life, but I was born in Sweden. Obviously I'm Swedish but I am also Kurdish in some ways and I like to play with that identity because I don't mind it—it's stuff that I've grown up thinking about because I was forced to because I wasn't blonde and blue eyed, I had to always be aware. Over the last few years, in Sweden, people can see me as a Swedish person: a Swedish person looks like me nowadays, but it's still a new thing for me. It never stops being interesting for me, so the flags are something that I investigate and play around with because when I perform I create a room with references from my life. And people react very differently to it. Flags are very powerful. It's funny."

Photo by Märta Thisner

With a father and brother currently in Iraqi Kurdistan, Zhala says her family "is really [politically] involved all the time. They take every chance they have; they are so political in their bones." She remembers a recent interview with Elle Sweden when she met the journalist at a demonstration for Kobani. "My mother was there and so were her Kurdish friends and they saw I was with a journalist. The interview was supposed to just be about me but they take every chance they get so they were coming up to us like total activists. They need to change everything and they are going to fight to the death to do it and I think that is so powerful."

Zhala was recorded in Malmö in the studio of Mattias Oldén, her sole collaborator. Zhala says it was an "intense and very personal" experience. "We did everything together. When you create something with another person you kind of have to let go. It's kind of like therapy: you go so deep with a person that you don't know that well at the beginning. Now he's one of the closest people I have in my life."

Zhala will be having an album release party in Sweden and is also working on sound installations for the Momentum Biennial in Norway. While she doesn't yet have festival dates lined up for the summer, she is hoping to be booked soon. We hope so too, Zhala.

'Zhala' will be released on Konichiwa Records on May 25.