When a first-class ticket to Los Angeles was offered to Lolo Zouai three years ago, she didn't exactly jump for joy. The French-Algerian singer had seen it all before.
She had travelled to cities such as Atlanta, Miami and New York to hold meetings with excited record label executives, only to return with nothing signed and her expectations unmet. Then the next industry email promising musical stardom would arrive.
"It was not creatively healthy at all. You go into a room and you have to put on your 'star quality' and have a man tell you whether you are a star," Zouai recalls. "I had a moment when I performed in front of a label, it was one of those cold showcases that was awkward and strange, and I kind of choked. I realised that's not how I was going to make my name. I had to work at this on my own."
Songs of love and rejection
The result was Zouai's breakout single in 2017 High Highs to Low Lows. Powered by a hypnotic trap beat, the track traces that cycle of hope and disappointment.
The lyrics paint a picture of someone waiting for the other shoe to drop ("Dreams come and go, I stay"). The listener is also made to feel uneasy; the beat is anxious and stuttering and relief never arrives. It is all rather brilliant and it became an online sensation with more than 15 million streams. The song was recorded and released independently, and its success cemented her decision to do things her own way.
After relocating to New York, Zouai continued her partnership with the song's producer Stelios Phili (who has worked Young Thug and A$AP Ferg) and, in turn, recorded her superb debut album, also called High Highs to Low Lows.
Released in April, the critically acclaimed record is a collection of bruised pop gems with angst that is never far from the surface. There are songs about love, rejection and cultural displacement, all delivered in sultry vocals that move effortlessly from English and French to Arabic.
Despite all the introspection, the album is not a total downer. The hooks are sharp and catchy, while Phili's beats are club-friendly. Zouai has a better description: "these are all bittersweet bangers." She says her songs provide a soundtrack to "dance through the pain". "The album, even the title, is all about contrasts," she says. "You could be in a great mood and then a second later feel horrible because something happened. I am writing songs about seeing the beauty through pain and basically embracing that."
Far from home
Not all of her pain is related to the music industry. Born in France to an Algerian father and French mother, Zouai emigrated to San Francisco with her family as child. She recalls feeling a sense of cultural displacement as a teenager, which was something her father tried to alleviate the best way that he could.
"He moved away from Algeria when he was about 19 and he went to France. So he was already kind of living the western lifestyle by the time we moved to America," she says. "When I was growing up he didn't teach me much about my Algerian culture. He wanted me to go the mosque, and so I went for one summer when I was learning the Quran as a child. But then I grew up and life goes on."
While Zouai visited Algeria for the first time at the age of 14, she was keen to immerse herself in its culture further when she made plans to return two years ago to attend a cousin's wedding. But by then, the more conservative members of her family had learnt of her musical leanings and they made their feelings known. "They didn't want me to be there so I respected their wishes," she says. "I was really hurt by that and it still is hard for me to take."
Zouai dealt with that experience in the album's standout track and emotional centrepiece Desert Rose. Over Phili's skeletal production, the track begins with Zouai cooing in a Middle Eastern scale, before addressing her relatives in a voice barely above a whisper: "Inshallah, that's what you say / You think I lost my faith / You won't speak my name."
The song's power lies in Zouai not hiding her anger. It is not so much a peace offering, but a plea for understanding. "I wrote it in a way that they would understand it," she says. "And that's why I put some Arabic terms in there, so that they could maybe hear it and see that my music isn't bad."
The pop music world is turning east
The song has been a favourite of audiences and critics, which perhaps points to the increasing acceptance of Middle Eastern melodies in mainstream western pop music. While once such melodies were thought to offer an esoteric flavour, Zouai says western pop singers are increasingly looking East for inspiration.
"Shakira has been doing that and Beyonce also has songs, such as Baby Boy and Naughty Girl, which have that Arabic feel. Even Jay-Z had a song that sampled from an Arabic song," she says. "A lot of these songs are favourites of mine and I grew up listening to them. Now I am using them in my music and the difference is that I am not some white girl who is using the culture – I actually come from that background."
With the world becoming increasingly aware of Zouai's musical talents, she says she envisions spending more time on the road. While a show in the UAE is not on the cards yet, Zouai says performing her music in front of an Arab audience will be a career highlight. When that happens, she is guaranteed to receive a great reception.
"That is something I am definitely looking forward to," she says. "I have a close friend who lives in Dubai and it would be one of my dreams to go there and visit and perform."