First Published September 2020
A BEAUTIFUL MAGIC
Australian singer/songwriter ZOEE is exactly the kind of person I’ve always admired, and always will. She’s a dreamer. Or, to be more specific about it, she’s the kind of dreamer who sets out to make manifest their dream. Oftentimes, dreamers like Zoee have souls wise beyond their years. And they’re fueled and driven on by what – in the beginning at least – is for the most part only their natural talent, backed up by deep wells of sheer will-power, faith, determination, and perseverance. But to dream, you see, as Zoee knows and her story proves, is only one element of what’s needed to create, to forge, to build a life that resembles a beautiful kind of magic.
The other element, the one that tends to scare off most people, is the doing part. For dreams are elusive creatures, they won’t simply come to you, nor bend to your will. Their endless whispers will make you aware of their existence alright, but if you think any dream that’s worthy of keeping you awake at night, filled by an unquenchable longing, will fall easily into your hands…prepare for a lifetime of torment. Somewhat ironically, the doing, the pursuing of a dream can also mean a journey marked by milestones that are equally tormenting. So many ‘nearly’ moments. So many ‘almost’ there moments…
But, to a certain kind of dreamer, those moments along the way are themselves crucial to the very art of creation, and the creation of art. To this kind of dreamer, dreamers like Zoee, the doing and pursuing are not simply acts of chasing the dream, they ARE in themselves, in each song written, in each show performed, and in a thousand more such moments, ALL PART of the dream. When you carry that belief in your heart, your heart will carry you through a thousand moments that no-one else will ever know of, and some that those who do not dream could never conceive of. Like moving halfway around the world for your art. Something which Zoee and her family actually did when they moved from Australia to the U.K.
Well I had the pleasure of spending a little time in Zoee’s company last weekend, and before we got onto how she ended up in Scotland, we got straight down to talking music. She pretty much has two amazing singles out right now, The Song We Sing, and BREAK MY HEART. And it was with the latter that I began our chat. Like some of the greatest country songs, it has a title that goes straight for the pain! Although be assured, it’s much more than just another you-done-me-wrong kinda song. Listening to the track, I got the impression that it’s probably based on a fair degree of personal truth for Zoee, as opposed to merely being a good idea she came up with for a song. But, was I right?
“Yeah, you’re definitely on the money with it. It’s a song from experience. When I write, I like to try and do that with underlying messages. I’ve always thought songs with underlying messages are the most interesting to me, especially songs that are stories. And this song is definitely a story. It’s about a couple, and she realises towards the end of the song, you know what, if you’re going to break my heart, just do it. I don’t care anymore, I’m movin’ on, and that’s it. But beyond that story of it being a heartbreak song, or a love song, it does double as a song about a person coming into society and feeling this absolute wonder for life, and joy, and opportunities. You know, as a young person coming into the world, you think there are so many opportunities and they’re just waiting for you, and you can’t wait to kind of get your teeth into everything. Slowly but surely, you progressively move through life and you realise that one dream after another slowly gets compressed by something else and something else, and you slowly but surely lose those parts of you that you once had. So the song is about not letting society break your heart as well. It’s about remembering who you are. And even if life tries to depress you and compress you, don’t worry about it, let it go. If it’s gonna break your heart, so be it. Keep doin’ what you love! And keep movin’ forward.”
As far as Zoee’s songwriting goes, it originally developed from her love of poetry and of journaling. But how much of what she writes now comes from her own life experiences, I wondered? And how much comes from observing the world and always being on the lookout for something that could be a great song idea? The latter, of course, being something which is also a craft in itself, too.
“I would say around ninety-eight per-cent of my songs are from personal experience! [laughs]. Only ninety-eight, that’s not very much, is it? [laughs]. There’s something about writing from a place that you understand, I think. I grew up on music that was from the era of the seventies and the eighties, and the sixties and fifties right through. It was kind of like a pretty vast array of people like Kris Kristofferson and Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard, and all these great storytellers and artists who told stories from their own perspective. And they weren’t shy about telling a story from their life. I mean, look at Coat of Many Colours [Dolly Parton], it wasn’t a story of something that she saw on a tv show, or something that she could relate with, it was a story of her own heritage and upbringing. I think there’s some beautiful magic in that that you can’t get from [telling] someone else’s story. I think people resonate with that more on a deep level when they can see that it’s coming from a place of honesty. It’s not always easy, you will run out of ideas sometimes when it comes to writing, but when it gets to that point I put the pen down and I go and do something else. If you force yourself to write, you’ll just write anything. It’s almost like a mantra, you know, you’ve got to find ‘that place’ of happiness, and if you’re not in it, you can’t really force it. It’s like trying to have fun. You can’t really force yourself to just have fun when you don’t feel like having fun! You’ve got to time the moments right and capture it when it’s there. It’s a pretty great thing when you’re able to share that with people, and it definitely makes a difference. I’ve put out, and I’ve played songs before where I’ve tried that, forcing yourself to write something or you’re out of ideas, so you just pick a topic and you write about that. You play that versus a song that comes from the heart, something that hits home for you, and the reaction from the audience is phenomenal. It’s a complete contrast. So yeah, I always try and write from a personal perspective, if I can.”
Zoee and her band are the epitome of road-warriors when it comes to taking their music anywhere and everywhere they can. As well as the U.K. and the United States, Chile, and even to our own fair shores. Zoee’s travels have also seen her and her family share a stage with the Boyzlife duo of ex-Westlifer Bryan McFadden and Boyzone’s Keith Duffy. And as it turned out, her trip to Ireland brought her closer to all of us here in the midlands than I could ever have imagined when I asked her to tell me about her time here…!
“Yes! So, Bryan McFadden was doing some stuff on a festival with me, we did this headline festival tour with Foodies Festival in the U.K. It was all in aid of musicians against homelessness. I pretty much did the whole run of that last year, ma and my band. So we all got to hang out and do a whole bunch of things together. Scouting For Girls was also there as well, and they were just the nicest guys too. This is the thing about the U.K. music scene, is that there’s so much love, and especially when it comes to festivals. Man…that’s just…[deep sigh]…I miss those so much! [laughs].”
Zoee continued, “Ireland, we didn’t get too long in Ireland actually, we were only there for a couple of weeks, which was really sad. It was my first trip to Ireland. And obviously, I was focused on being more of a tourist [laughs], than I was on being a musician! [laughs]. We went and saw Dublin, and we went to Galway and Galway bay, my family have links back to Galway and to Dublin. Actually, one of my great-great grand-uncles was a Mayor of Dublin back in the day somewhere. So we went through there, had a look around, got to meet some of the locals, and played a couple of shows. It was only a couple of little shows, though, we didn’t really plan for doing much there as far as music went. We were more or less just reconnecting with the heritage and finding old family members and stuff like that. So that was pretty wonderful. Also, while I was there in Ireland, we did go to this place in…the town was called ‘At-Lun’, I think I pronounced that right?”
Athlone, you say, Zoee?! I point out that it’s a town pretty much just out the road from where I am here in Tullamore, in the Irish midlands…
“You’re kidding!!! So you’d probably know Sean’s Bar then, in Athlone?”
The oldest bar in the world!
“I couldn’t believe that when I got there! [laughs]. I was like, ohhhh, THIS is crazy! [laughs]. We went in and we went and met Timmy, who was the manager of the bar, and he showed us around. He showed us the Guinness World Book of Records certificate that’s, you know, the proof of this place being the world’s oldest bar, it was crazy! And he showed us remnants of the wall where there’s horse-hair and clay and stuff that they used to make the original walls, and it’s still filled with stray and stuff where it used to drain through to the lock behind it. It was really insane! And Timmy is the nicest guy. And I also host a TV show called Nashville Meets World. That happened when I was in Nashville, I got asked to do that. I was just doing an interview and the host afterwards, he said to me, ‘You’re really, really good on camera. I’ve been looking for a U.K. host for ages, and I’ve never found anybody to fit the bill. I wonder if you’d be up for it?’ I said, are you serious? And he said, yeah! So next thing I know, I’m the host of a TV show! When I got back to the U.K., and then was in Ireland, I ended up saying to Timmy could I interview him and talk about the bar and stuff. So we ended up talking and chatting, and before we finished the conversation, the whole bar had turned around and stopped their drinking and talking, and they were just listening to our conversation and were like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know any of that about here, and I’ve lived here for ten years!’ [laughs]. It was really, really special. And then, at the end of it, as we had got talking Timmy found out that I was a musician as well, and not just a TV host, so he was like, ‘Well you’ve got to play, you’ve got to play!’ And I was saying how we didn’t have anything planned and we had all the gear packed, but he was just like, ‘Well get it in here!’ [laughs]. So next thing we knew, we were playing a concert in Sean’s Bar as well! And we had the most incredible time! It was so unplanned, and so unexpected, but the whole bar just got right involved. Like, the entire pub was filled, there wasn’t space to walk. It was insane. Everybody was singing and dancing, and having the best time. And the wonderful part of it was that I’d never met anybody there, and they’d never met me before, they’d never heard my music before, but there was just this instant connection. It was so unforgettable. And it’s such an iconic place as well. That was probably my favourite part of Ireland. I’m really glad that it’s really close to you!”
Is the Nashville Meets World show something that Zoee is still involved with?
“I am still involved with it, but the show is going through some changes at the moment, obviously with the lockdown and stuff it’s been really difficult to try and get out to interview people, and to build content. There’s been a lot of ‘live’-streaming happening on there at the moment, artists have been coming on and doing concerts, stuff like that. So in 2021 there’s going to be a few changes with that, from what I understand, and that’s also going to come back better and stronger then.”
Jumping back to the subject of Zoee’s songwriting and in particular, Break My Heart. One thing that’s quite noticeable if you’re really paying attention as you listen, is that Zoee is singing in her natural Australian accent, something she made a conscious effort to do with this song. That being so, I wondered if that meant that before this she had been making the same effort to not sing in her own accent? And if that was the case, what had made her change her approach now?
“Honestly, I used to sing in my Australian accent when I was in Australia quite a lot. We have a lot of artists back in Australia from Kasey Chambers to Slim Dusty, a lot of those artists sing in an Australian accent. And for me, it’s always felt like a very warm, kinda bluesy, kinda folky, kinda feeling. Feels gaelic, too. When I hear gaelic music, or the Irish accent in a song, it sort of feels the same way as when I hear someone singing in Australian. So I did that for a long time when I was in Australia. But obviously getting into the more country stuff, you don’t really hear that happening so much on the Nashville scene. So I adapted the regular American accent for most of it when I moved to the U.K, primarily because I was still getting started and developing my sound and my image. But with ‘Break My Heart’, I wrote that just mucking around with the guitar one day and thinking, hmmm, I wonder if I could do a song with my own accent? That’d be kinda fun, wouldn’t it! [laughs]. So I just started writing these lyrics, which turned out to be the intro for the song, just humming them and thinking, yeah, that could work, then I start singing them a little more in Australian and I’m thinking, that’s actually kinda cool! I like it! So I wrote the whole song like that. And next thing I know, it became so adapted to that I couldn’t change it. Because the syllables and everything changes. So I literally can’t sing that song now in any other accent, it’s really odd! And I’ve never had anything like that happen with any other song before. So Break My Heart was the first song that I recorded with my native accent, and the reaction has been fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. People have been super welcoming of it, and I didn’t expect that to be the case, because I do live in Scotland! I’ve been based here for a while now, so to have that reaction has been really positive. And really sort of…aaaw! [laughs].”
So will this mark a change in how Zoee writes from here on out?
“I think it will depend on the song a little bit, actually. It depends on the mood of the song. Australian accents can be very, very folksy. It was a very interesting contrast to bring that element to Break My Heart, because it is quite a fun song, and it’s quite upbeat as well, surprisingly. So that was more of an experiment to see if that would even work when I was writing it. But then lo and behold, I’ve kinda handcuffed myself because now I can’t sing it any other way! [laughs]. I’ve got a couple of songs that I’ve done recently, and I’ve done them in Australian accents, but yeah, it just depends on the vibe that I want the song to be, and wanting that feeling to come across. Since I’ve been in lockdown I’ve been writing tons, so I’ve got a few new ones that have got the accent in it, and a very others that definitely haven’t. They’re very upbeat and very festival…I’m missing festivals sooo much! [laughs].”
~ ZOEE’s new singles, BREAK MY HEART and THE SONG WE SING, are both out now and available on all platforms, as well as to request from radio.