Recent years have seen a strong shift to 1980s-inspired pop melodies with the rising popularity of synthwave, seeing tracks like "Blinding Lights" top the charts. While this trend does not seem to be losing momentum anytime soon, only a few select up and coming acts who are able to stand out above the rest. From the first listen of "What Ur Lookin' For," there is clearly something both catchy and captivating about Los Angeles-based pop vocalist TZAR.
Originally from Moscow, Russia, TZAR spent numerous years living around the Bay Area before relocating to Los Angeles in 2016. Forming a name for herself performing with acts in Los Angeles' underground beat scene as well as a featured vocalist from renowned electronic acts such as KSHMR, multi-platinum producer Djemba Djemba (producer for Kehlani, Sia, and Madonna) discovered her before then signing on to executive produce her debut EP. The EP is currently scheduled for early 2021 on Caroline Worldwide/SET Records.
TZAR recently released "What Ur Lookin' For," her first featured single off of her forthcoming debut EP release. The buoyant and nostalgic leaning track powerfully showcases her vocal prowess while seemingly drawing its influences from staple 1980s artists such as Whitney Houston and Prince. Basked in shimmery glittery, "What Ur Lookin' For" carries an emotional arc drenched in feelings of tremendous hope and joy.
Read this interview to get to know one of the music industry's hottest rising pop singers as she discusses being a woman in a male dominated industry, mental health, influences, Red Rocks, and more.
Can you please tell me a little bit more about yourself?
I’ve been doing music for my entire life. I’m originally from Moscow and moved with my family to the Bay Area when I was seven. I grew up in the Bay and I started playing classical piano when I was four. I was in a bunch of piano competitions. When I felt like I needed more of a release, I started to sing. And then it just naturally fell together. Five years ago I moved to LA. After five years in LA and working with my manager, I’m finally coming out with new music.
What was it like for you to go from Moscow to the Bay Area and grow up in that culture?
It was definitely a lot. It was an intense and informative journey. My mom and I moved here. I didn’t speak any English. I had to show up at school and absorb as much as I could. I learned English just by being in school so once that initial shock wore off I started seeing the culture of the Bay and how lucky I was.
The Bay is such an incredible melting pot of culture. I’m so grateful that I landed in the Bay Area because it’s so crucial to everything I’m doing now. The fact that I’m Russian is always there and it's my roots but growing up in the Bay there were so many kinds of music and art around me. It always creeps out of my music. The journey was an interesting one but I wouldn’t change it for the world because it makes everything I’m doing that much more me.
Why did you decided to go by TZAR?
For a while I was trying to tap into my identity and who I was as a person in my life and what my music was about. To me TZAR is a reference to my Russian heritage. A Tzar specifically is a symbol for male royalty, essentially the emperor. That name kept standing out to me.
I love how the name visually looks with the letters but further than that what really captivates me is that it’s a male emperor and that I’m a woman. I wanted to claim that name and challenge it because I’m a woman in a business that’s heavily infiltrated by men.
TZAR created a new space where I could really dive into my identity and my place in the world, not only as a human being but also as an artist. I’m part of the conversation of equality and equal rights for human beings. I believe not only can I bring an immigrant’s voice to the table but moreover an immigrant woman’s voice to the table. That’s why the name stuck with me.
Can you please tell me a little bit about your songwriting process?
There’s a technical and a very artistic intuitive element to it. When I get in the space I’m writing a record, the words actually come secondary. What I go by is the feeling I’m having in the moment and channel that as much as I can musically first. I’ll be in the studio and it will feel like a sound vomit for twenty minutes and then the words just come to me. It depends on whatever feeling it feels like the record is bringing out.
I remember with this single that I was going through a lot at that time in my life. I’d just gotten out of a very long relationship. It felt like we were pretty much married, and I was going through a divorce. I essentially moved across the state. I was lost and trying to figure out who I was on my own.
We did a writing camp for an upcoming project. I remember hearing that piano synth riff with Kid Froopy, and he played this little riff. I did that music vomit thing. I’d actually just met someone who for the first time since the breakup reignited this moment for me where it is possible to love again. Before that I’d felt like my life was pretty much over. I’m sure anyone going through any loss or breakup in their life can relate to that. I felt like love was possible again and that chord progression reignited that type of hope in me. The words just started coming out since I’d met this person who reignited that hopeful feeling in me. I literally just wrote about that situation. It was almost like an unconscious thing.
When I wrote my first single, I felt like I know who I was and I could just define myself without relying on anyone else. That became my proclamation to who I was as a person and my music.
What currently inspires you?
It’s always gone in waves for me. Djemba Djemba and I became very close through this project. Before we even wrote this single we were going through a similar thing in our lives. He unknowingly got me out of a very deep depression. I remember that was a very defining moment for me. For the first time in my life I felt genuinely joyous and I feel like a life out of depression was possible.
Right now because we’re all home, we’re hyper aware. I do feel like there is a shift that is happening in our society. People are becoming awakened and are willing to have difficult conversations about social structure and inequalities of all kind. I feel like people are actually listening right now – that’s what gives me hope.
I also teach classical piano to kids and I feel like that brings me hope in all honesty. Seeing how the younger generations are. I become friends with these kids, and they talk to me about everything – I become a mentor for them. They bring me hope because of the way they talk. I don’t remember me and my peers talking the way they do when we were their age. They’re generally much kinder and more empathetic than I remember I was at that age. That gives me hope too because not only is that happening but it’s also happening at a time like this. When we say the children are our future, it’s actually true. There’s a consciousness shift that’s happening right now.
Who are your greatest musical influences?
Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and so many others just because of my musical upbringing. What really influenced me with this record and the one that’s about to come out is 80s pop music like Whitney Houston, Prince, Chaka Khan, and Kate Bush. You can really hear the vocal talent there. It’s not just a song that’s whispered at you or auto-tuned to the gods. I grew up listening to Toni Braxton and Brandy and Monica. I miss that stuff. I miss hearing real singers in pop. When Sia came out she was just wow to me. There’s absolutely undeniable vocal talent there. In the 80s that was just what it was. That was what was out.
Being that I’m a fan of so many genres and grew up listening to everything from Master P to System of a Down, I personally chose the 1980s pop route because it’s bitter sweet nostalgia filled with hope. That’s what I feel when I listen to Prince or Whitney Houston’s music.
What was the experience like working with Djemba Djemba on "What Ur Lookin' For" and your upcoming EP?
Working with Djemba was one of the best experiences of my life. I mean this in a spiritual not religious sense but watching him work I was like God exists. He was obviously brought onto the Earth to make records.
He has this innate ability to make me feel incredibly safe. Djemba was the first person I experienced who had an incredible amount of success in the industry and really took the time to ask me how does this feel and what do you think. Djemba was a beacon for me in many ways. He was a dream to work with and I would do it 100 times over. He’s a talent and a great human being. He’s created an example for me about how I’d like to see a male dynamic function in the industry.
What is it like to have lived so much life and finally be releasing your first solo record?
I’m in disbelief. This whole week has been a whirlwind. It’s been overwhelming, exciting, and scary. I feel all the feels that are possible to feel. At the end of the day, I’m just grateful because I’m able to do this and that I’m here to tell the experience of my own narrative. I’m super grateful that I got to meet such great incredible people along the way who helped me bring this to life. It takes a village. I’m so thankful that so many people have taken the time and put in the work to get me to this point.
What was the experience like performing with Zeds Dead at Red Rocks?
We bought tickets and flew out to Colorado not knowing if I was performing. I was cool with just being at the show. We were going back and forth with their management. The day of my manager was like “she’s here.” Their management asked if I wanted to do a song and we said yes.
I was literally rehashing the words backstage day of. Then there was a storm, and they were about to evacuate everyone but then it passed. It was crazy. I remember just being on stage for what felt like half a second. The amount of energy that place holds… I was geeking out when I was about to be on this stage that Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, and The Beatles played on. Long story short, it was amazing.
Any positive takeaways from 2020?
The silence has provided time to listen. Things are finally shifting because people are listening because we have so much silence.
Listen to "What Ur Lookin' For" below.