Zoe Wees Takes Control of Her Narrative
Self-professed shy girl Zoe Wees is quite the vocal lyricist. Unashamed and forthright with her feelings, she powers her microphone to delve into deeper issues as depression, self-esteem, and debilitating anxiety; the latter of which she’s previously battled during her childhood bouts with rolandic epilepsy. While such struggles have cultivated an inner survivor streak, they’ve also linked—somewhat inextricably— the authenticity of her artistry with the maelstrom of her emotions; emotions so hidden and complex the only portal to their access is through the poetry that she transforms to song lyrics.
Control, the debut smash single that documents her struggle with the inner scars of epilepsy, showcases soulful vocals aching with sentiment, only to be emboldened by the unapologetic vulnerability of her lyrics. Reflectively self-embracing and of the same emotional ilk as Control is her second single Girls Like Us, a throaty melody that scintillates the kind of heart-on-its-sleeve conviction that was characteristic of 90’s R&B grooves and early 2000’s girl power anthems. Interestingly, when asked of her music inspirations, Zoe gushes with excitement and swiftly acknowledges Jessie J for the unrelenting authenticity that she renders in each song.
Equally as impressive as her vocal and songwriting prowess is the magnitude of her stride— at the tender age of 18, Zoe’s managed to pen, record and release assertive anthems of unabashed self-acceptance that are being championed by industry contemporaries and chanted by her peers. Rising above the struggles of her past, Wees has soared to unforeseen heights at the top of the pop charts and sealed her position among the more uncompromising voices of her generation. Much to her own delight— and fashionistas around the world— she gets to do it all in the most artfully curated threads, serving stylized looks that are as memorable as her songs’ riffs.
As she prepares for the May 21st release of her debut EP, Golden Wings, the Hamburg-based platinum selling star talks with 1883 about her love of fashion, journey to self-love, and appreciation of American-accented English.
Zoe, I was so excited when I found out that I’d be interviewing you! Ella Henderson first introduced me to your music— through the song Girls Like Us— when I interviewed her a few months ago.
Oh! She wrote me. She asked me if we could do a writing session together, and I said “Of course! When the time comes, let’s do it!”. She’s amazing.
And so are you. When I first heard Girls Like Us and watched the video, I was blown away by the heart-on-the-sleeve honesty within the lyrics and video narrative. Everything from your voice, to how your breath into the lyrics. That kind of in-your-face honesty hasn’t been pervasive in R&B pop since the 90’s.
Really? Thank you for saying that.
It’s true. I told your publicist, I gotta talk to this girl about her sound, her style— and those Ivy Park puffers that you wear! Visually— like your style— and even the down-to-earthiness your aura…you remind me of Mary J. Blige c. 1995 during the My Life album era. Are you familiar with that album?
Not really. But I gotta write that down and listen to it.
It was the blueprint for hip hop/r&b vocalists. And seeing the singularity of your style, and how you sing and write reminds me of that era. So who are your inspirations?
Like when it comes to style, or music?
Let’s talk both.
Alright, let’s do that. For music, it’s definitely like when I’m listening to a Jessie J song— I always talk about Jessie J— but like she’s so honest in her songs too. She’s authentic in her songs. So when it comes to music she’s definitely an inspiration to me. But when it comes to style…when I see something, and when I like it, I just wear it. I don’t have an “inspiration” for that— I mean of course when I see something that Billie Eilish or someone else might wear [and I like it], I’m like “I want to have that too”. But it’s not like she’s my inspiration. It’s just that I wear what I like. It’s like when you see some stuff, and you know that you’re going to feel well in it, you just want to have it.
Have you always been into fashion? When I see your style and the different looks…you’re a bonafide fashion girl.
Thank you! Thank you so much. I mean, fashion is so important to me. You can express yourself with music of course, but then with your style, too. And both together is just so perfect because you can do everything— you just have to like what you wear and feel comfortable in it and no one can judge you for what you’re wearing. You can express yourself with clothes…I love fashion. If I weren’t a singer, I would definitely be a stylist.
I would love to. That would be sick!…But maybe I could do this both together…I don’t know.
You can— you would be the perfect canvas! My favorite is when you do the bucket hat look— nod to the 90s— or the hairstyle with the two fuchsia/neon braids.
I was in London, and I was writing a song, and for some reason, I had so many cool things on— like even the bucket hat— and the song I wrote sounds like the 90s songs…because it’s definitely a vibe.
I was going to ask you what inspires you when you write your music. And it sounds like…
Are you serious? What you’re wearing can even affect how you write?
Definitely, even the color. Once I wore the same outfit at two different sessions, and then I realized that the songs came out exactly the same. Exactly the same, but a bit different. And when I have something different on, it’s another song. So I definitely think the clothing has a part.
You are definitely a stylist at heart. Another thing I noticed is that you do a lot of covers of other artists tunes.
It’s cool because I get to try out new things [with the song] and figure what I may also want to do, or not. So it’s cool to cover songs and be able to…cover it.
A personal dream come true would be if you covered some of the tracks on Mary J. Blige’s My Life album. Because while listening to your previously released singles and covers and watching the music videos, you had a few looks that reminded me so much of 90’s Mary J., and I’d love to witness where you would take her previous sound within a Zoe Wees context.
I’ll definitely have a listen to her [My Life] album after the interview. I’m gonna listen, and maybe…
Fingers crossed…Can we talk about Control? I read that the lyrics were inspired by your own dealings with— and overcoming of— anxiety. Would you say that you took control of anxiety, or that you gave up the need to control it?
I had epilepsy, and it’s like the meaning is so different for me now…The song is about epilepsy, and every time when I had seizures, I didn’t want to loose control. Every anxiety that I had in my life, I didn’t want to loose control— it’s like mental health problems. You can’t change it— you’ve got to take it and deal with it somehow. But the meaning changed for me after Control came out. First it was like I needed to write it [my feelings] down and release it to get over it. And now that I see how many people that I helped with the song, the meaning completely changed for me…it’s not about epilepsy and the dark place anymore. I came out of it, and I helped other people— and helped myself with it.
As far as managing the epilepsy, would you say that you’ve relinquished the fear of losing control? Or are you at peace with the control that you have?
I’ve always felt like everything happens for a reason. And I feel like if I have anxieties, I can handle it now. I can say, “Okay, I’m losing control right now, but it’s going to be better in ten minutes, or one hour, etc.”. Like, I know it’s going to be better at some point.
Is it true that you write your lyrics in English?
Which is your first language?
It’s German. But I feel like I don’t belong here [in Germany]…When I was a little kid, I always wrote English songs because it’s like I never felt something emotionally when I heard German songs.
Interesting— you feel that you don’t belong there. Where would you place yourself—if you could place yourself anywhere and feel that you belonged there?
I feel like…London, definitely. I was in London, a lot. And I love it there. I feel like I’m home there. But we’ll see what happens. And of course, I’ve never been in New York, but I can imagine that I’m gonna fit in there very good…But, we’ll see.
An artist once told me that every soul has a language. And since you write in English primarily— even though German is your native tongue— I wondered what you would count as your soul’s language…
I’d definitely say English.
British English, or American English?
American English! [Laughter]. I’m the worst— Rick [her publicist] knows. When I was in London and he would talk to me, I was like, “What’d you say?”. [Laughter]. It sounds so interesting, and I wish I could talk like that, because it sounds so good…Sometimes it’s just too good to understand it. [Laughter].
I hear you. My soul’s language is English, too— British accented, though.
Yeah. I’m a native New Yorker, but I love London and England so much. You’d totally fit into New York though. Perhaps even more than London.
Yeah— you’ve got total New York girl vibes. Maybe you could celebrate your birthday here— I read you have a birthday coming up on May 13th. Any plans?
You’ll probably think I’m weird, but I hate birthdays, and I never celebrate anything except Christmas. I’m not a birthday person. Every time when someone writes me on my birthday, my phone is just like on flight mode. I’d rather work or something on my birthday, as opposed to celebrating it.
Are you shy?
Kind of, sometimes…
Something tells me surprise parties aren’t your thing? [Laughter].
No…Maybe when I’m in New York, we’ll do something different. [Laughter].
Something to look forward to…We’ve been in lockdown for one year now. And your first single was released in 2020.
March of 2020.
The very beginning of the “new normal”. How would you say that lockdown has impacted the evolution, or expression of your songwriting and sound within this past year?
I feel like the more you do it [songwriting], the better you get, and I feel like especially in this pandemic…I wrote Control a year before it came out— 2 years ago. And I feel like since that— and that was actually the first songwriting session in my life— my co-song writers have also helped me to get better…In this pandemic, I feel like we were all sad, and I feel like it’s not just how I dress myself when I go to the studio— it’s like when you’re sad, you want to go out, and meet some friends, but you can’t so you’re all by yourself. And I feel like the more sad I am, the better songs that come out. For me, this lockdown was okay because I wrote so many songs, and I had so many inspirations.
Did you do face-to-face sessions, or did you have to do Zoom songwriting sessions with your team?
I had to do some over zoom, but I don’t like that because you don’t feel the emotions, and when it’s [the session] is over, you’re happy that it’s over, even though you love that person that you’re writing with. But yeah, I did a couple of face-to-face songwriting sessions, but not too many.
And you have a new record out in a few weeks?
It’s the EP!..May 21st! It’s so sick! It’s gonna be so fire! So cool.
What can we expect from you in this album?
Every song is so special to me in so many ways. I hope that I can help people with this type of music. It shows another side of me, and everything is emotional and there’s one song called Hold Me Like You Used To— it’s so sad, and I don’t want to make anyone cry, but I hope to help someone with this song. It’s about my great grandmother. She passed away…but it’s like at the end of the day this person is still with you— the body leaves the world, but the soul is still here…I don’t if anyone ever struggled with this, but you know like when you sit with the person who passed away and you sit in a room, and you feel that you’re not alone, and the person leaves the world, and you still feel that you’re not alone because the soul is still with you, you know? And I felt like I had to write a song about it because losing someone you really love is so sad.
Your lyrics have a raw vulnerability to them that turns vulnerability into a position of strength through your openness and unguardedness in showing it. Have you always been comfortable demonstrating emotional honesty?
I always talked about my struggles…and everything I’ve been through, and I feel like with this, this is what makes me stronger…Everything I’ve been through is the reason why I’m still here. And I’m stronger now, and comfortable to talk about my struggles in my song, but I can’t talk about that with someone…In my songs, when I sit there and write lyrics down, no one is going to judge me for telling my story; also, in the studio no one is going to judge you. So I was always comfortable in the studio and at home to write it down and release it and tell everyone. But I have to release the song first to talk about it. So that’s something very important to me.
So would you say that it was your art that created that safe space for you to express your vulnerability?
You know, when you just said that, it made me think of the riff in Girls Like Us, where you mention the girls not even trusting those closest to them— who love them— with their vulnerabilities or insecurities. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s interesting how you have such freedom to express yourself in songs, much more so than directly one-on-one/person-to-person.
I really have to write the song first, and then maybe I can talk about what I wrote about, or what I struggle with right now, even if it’s with my mom. I really have to show her the song, and then she hears it, and then I can talk about it…Music has helped me. Without music, I wouldn’t be alone anymore. Trust me on that. I would freak out.
Was your mom, or even other family members surprised by your lyrics— perhaps by things that they hadn’t yet heard you express verbally to them before?
Definitely, yes, because I never talk about my problems. Never did that with my mom, and with my family and friends. And they were all surprised when I wrote all the stuff down and showed them the songs. So like Hold Me Like You Used To—which is going to be on Golden Wings, the EP that’s coming out— I never talked about how I felt when my great grandma passed away. And my family heard the song and was like “Zoe, did you really feel like this? Why didn’t you tell us?”. Everyone was surprised because it’s something that I don’t really talk about…I write it down.
Very much a Taurus trait. [Laughter].
I guess. [Laughter].
What is the imprint that you hope to leave with your music?
The way that I talk within my songs is the way that I would talk with my best friend. So it’s completely honest and I really want to be like a best friend to the person listening to my song…I really want to show everyone that…I know it’s super easy to feel alone in this world, and I want to make everyone feel less lonely. And I want to show everyone with my songs that you’re worth the fight and worth the life. So it’s like you’re never alone, even though it feels like that. There’s always something that will get you out of the situation, you’ve just got to wait…I always pray, and it’s so important to me because then I feel safe and I feel like I’m worth everything…Pray and keep waiting, because the better days are going to come soon.
Zoe’s debut EP ‘Golden Wings’ is out now, follow her via @zoe.wees
Interview Constance Victory
Photography Nick Adler