Zarif: Z is for Soul
Hailed as one of British soul’s big new hopes for 2009 - and even described in some quarters as “Winehouse with Madonna’s pop flair”! - North London singer-songwriter Zarif enjoys a breezy introductory chat with ‘B&S’ at Sony Music’s Central London HQ.
The product of a Scottish father and Iranian-Jewish mother, 23-year-old Zarif first made her name on London’s underground soul scene. Spotted by world-renowned British DJ/producer duo The Nextmen, she straightaway became a prominent featured vocalist on their critically-acclaimed 2007 album ‘This Was Supposed To Be The Future’. Which in turn led to performances with said twosome at countless summer festivals like Glastonbury and Global Gathering.
Having since also recorded with Groove Armada and The Rakes - as well a supporting UK R&B don Taio Cruz on his UK tour - her highly-individual brand of quirky, retro-tinged soul is now showcased in the edgy, feel-good grooves of her self-penned debut single ‘Let Me Back’. Which - with its nod back to early Jackson 5 and Seventies rare groove classics - precedes the forthcoming summer release of Zarif’s as-yet-untitled debut album. Whose producers include
“I’d say my album is very eclectic”, promises a friendly and bubbly Zarif: “Because, while it all comes from a soul basis initially, at the end of the day I also love big choruses and feel-good pop songs. And, while I’m very influenced by a lot of old music like Stevie Wonder, I’m also really into new kinds of recording techniques. So I think I’ve kind of meshed the two together - there’s a lot of live instrumentation alongside elements of electro. Which I like to think makes my record different, in that it’s quite retro and futuristic at the same time. You know, while I love artists like Amy Winehouse and Duffy - I think it’s really great how they’ve brought soul back into the forefront - I also think that, while they very much represent music of a specific era, my record kinda takes that and makes it more modern.”
Growing up in Harrow, by the age of 10 Zarif was already sufficiently obsessed with contemporary music to be meticulously taping ‘Top Of The Pops’ every week, writing down the lyrics and learning all the songs off-by-heart. Nevertheless, it was after moving to a school closer to central London that her tastes became more discerning: “Yeah, if you’re a teenager into your music, London is a great place to be growing up in”, she asserts: “Because firstly, it’s easy to sneak into clubs at a younger age. And secondly, you’ve got so many niches and types of music that you can SEE! So, from my early teens on, I was going to like hip hop clubs, funk clubs, indie clubs… You know, just really seeking out - and finding - good underground music.”
“But, while I’d always been writing songs from a very young age, it was only when I left school that I first started getting into bands and jamming with as many people as I could”, she recalls with a smile: “And basically I took to it like a duck to water! Because I suddenly now realised that me writing in my bedroom actually could translate to something that involved being onstage and having a band! So yeah, I just got completely absorbed in it all! I started gigging, started doing open mic nights, getting my band together... And I guess it all just went from there really!”
Indeed, within a short time, Zarif had become a regular on London’s soul singer/ songwriter open-mic circuit. One of the capital’s best-kept secrets and held at a series of venues across the city, said scene enables budding new songwriters to test out their new material in front of their peers, while simultaneously allowing them to develop their onstage performing skills: “It’s just really fun”, she enthuses genuinely: “You know, it’s not like gigs where you pay for a ticket to see someone and they’re 1,000-times rehearsed! Instead, with the open mic circuit you get the SPONTANEITY! You just turn up, see what’s going on, who’s singing… And for me it was really inspiring in terms of my songwriting, ’cause you’re always hearing someone new trying out different stuff. You just see so many people coming up with original ideas and jamming with different musicians… And the audiences are always really receptive, `cause the sole reason they’ve gone to the gig that night is to see the MUSIC!”
“The only down side of it is that it does get a bit overlooked”, she adds thoughtfully: “I mean, there’s so many great singers I’ve met there who write really, really good music - people I could see doing really well, and whose record I’d definitely go and buy tomorrow if they had anything out. So in that way it is a bit sad that the scene is not as much in the forefront as it could be. There’s still a lot of people who don’t actually know about it.”
Nevertheless, it was during one of her open mic shows that Zarif herself was “discovered” by aforementioned North London DJ/producers The Nextmen: “Yeah, they came to see me at a gig and just thought ‘OK, we’ll try some stuff with her’”, she explains: “At that point they’d mainly just produced hip hop stuff with rappers. So, because they’d decided that for their next album (2007’s ‘This Was Supposed To Be The Future’) they now wanted to also start working with singers, once they saw me they were like ‘Oh, we’ll see what happens’. So they sent me a beat, I went round to the studio... And within like 10 minutes we’d written the chorus for ‘Something Got You’, which was the song that became that album’s first single! So, you know, we instantly clicked - and I just had so much fun writing with them!”
“I mean, they used to have this hilarious studio that was like this massive warehouse on top of Caledonian Road tube station. So every half-hour you’d be almost deafened by a really loud train!”, she laughs: “Plus there were no lights, no heating... So in winter we’d be absolutely SHIVERING at like two in the morning getting down the last bit of a song! Then in the summer we’d be having to take all our clothes off to just even THINK straight!”
“But, as I say, it was great fun”, she concludes with a smile; “We experimented with loads of different beats. And I actually think their approach is quite similar to mine. In that, though they use a lot of samples and loops, they also play a lot of live instrumentation on top of it. Plus, because they were going in this new direction, they were like ‘We’re gonna try ANYTHING!’… And I really feel that in itself actually helped me develop my OWN songwriting too. Plus it was the profile I got from my work with The Nextmen that helped me get my own record-deal with Sony. So I look back on it as a very positive relationship all round.”
The single 'Let Me Back' is out now. Single ‘California’ follows June 29, both through RCA Label Group
Words PETE LEWIS