Today we are so very pleased to announce that we have partnered with New York's Zenizen, an incredibly talented and multifaceted songwriter, producer, musician, and collaborator. I had the chance to catch up with Opal Hoyt, the voice behind the music, to put together this introduction to Zenizen, the latest addition to our ever-expanding and always exciting roster. This is an excerpt of a recent phone conversation, here for your enjoyment. You can hear the brand new single from Zenizen, "I Would (...but you want me down)" on all platforms, and available for purchase on bandcamp. Thank you for reading, please enjoy <3
Mack: I’ve got a list here of topics that you provided, that are each relevant and that you want to discuss in relation to your work, so let’s start with the concepts of spite and potential in relation to the song “I Would…”
Opal: There are some people that just make hits and put them on the internet and that’s your thing. But being in New York, and how I ended up playing music, it’s very people-based and community-based, and I think there is this persistent zeitgeist of under and overrated all the time, so trying not to make music because I have any assessment of my music per se has been my way of avoiding that whole concept. To me the most pointless conversation is anyone saying “I’m underrated, I’m overrated, etc.” We all know the industry does not care. I think there’s this spite that makes it more possible for you to do whatever you want, because I think it’s easy to say “I’m doing whatever I want” but there’s so much stuff that’s just around, and biases that are just around, and I think that it actually takes a lot of work to be something that isn’t influenced by those things. I think spite gives me enough energy to actively push that aside. I think it’s a good motivator. You need active motivation to make something that isn’t influenced by wanting to Make It, or thinking you’re underrated, or you deserve more recognition. Secretly buying into whatever the latest trend is that’s getting a lot of press. It’s not that I don’t do that all the time, I have a bunch of demos and beat tapes, I think it’s fun to tap into trends, but I think there just aren’t enough people really tapping into that spite, that energy.
Mack: Just out of curiosity, what’s your sign?
Opal: I’m a Leo.
Mack: Who are some of the people you’ve gravitated towards in your scene who are like-minded in this way?
Opal: I don’t know if there was anyone musically that I really wanted to make it in this industry with, but friends-wise - Honduras, who is now called Namesake, we’re really good friends, and that was more “we’re out on the town, on the scene together”, then I started making more of my own music. Definitely Nelson Bandela, who we call Marvis Jr. was a big one, Nappy Nina, who is the feature on the “I Would…” track. There are people, like Ben who plays guitar in my band now, he also had a few projects out that were really really good. That kind of formed the core, people I always felt like I could make stuff with or play shows with, or if they asked me to put some vocals on something, I would automatically do it, no question, don’t care what it’s for. That super small team. Sammus I met from playing shows, we got super close, we had the same manager for a while, Nnamdï I met on tour, that was amazing, we ended up playing together and meeting up in the city, there are a bunch of people who I met just from being in music that I really get along with, but Nelson, Nina, Benamin, and some others, we’re constantly in touch.
Mack: So how did you and Nappy Nina meet, and how did this collaboration come to be?
Opal: We’ve played shows together…. Sorry my cat is getting her bell….. I have a birthday show every year, and when I moved up here some friends of mine moved into an apartment unit in my house, we all hang out up here and chill and do whatever. Finishing recording I was changing things up until the last minute, and she said “oh we should record something” and I said “actually…. Do you want to get on this one track?” So Nina sat in my driveway and listened to the track a bunch of times, went back to the city, and sent me a verse.
Mack: I love when people collaborate in such a casual way.
Opal: I’ve been on some formal requests, but I think that this is the only way I want to collaborate. Who’s around? Who wants to fuck around? I had never worked with Jonathan before, and got in touch with him about recording, so that was more session-y, but I think it’s worth being informal as long as the give and take is the same.
Mack: As someone who was raised in multiple places, and as someone who lives and works in multiple places, how does working with your network and the people you’re around change as you move from place to place?
Opal: I have family in a lot of places, and things to do in a lot of places, but music-wise New York is basically home base. People move around, we’re all pretty free-wheeling, I went out to Vegas while Nelson was living there. I was in Australia for a while, that’s an outpost for me, another base station. If something is going on wherever I am, sure, but New York is home base, and Australia has become de facto secondary home base. If I’m in London traveling it’s “if it happens it happens”.
Mack: How did Australia end up as your second home?
Opal: For Australia I wrote and recorded everything in Australia, and did some mixing back in New York. I had a friend who worked at a bar/cafe here, she was from Australia, and some of her friends were coming to visit, there are a lot of Australians in New York. I met her friends and ended up hitting it off, we went to Afropunk together and had a great time, and they invited me to Australia, and I said “I’m never going to Australia, that doesn’t make any sense”, but then I ended up leaving my job and they paid me severance so I thought “Well… maybe I will go to Australia, I have time and free money, so I might as well.” So I went and it was great, and I recorded some stuff and ended up in this music scene where everyone was really welcoming in exactly the way that I vibed with for lack of a better word. I got there before my friend was there so a friend of a friend picked me up and we just drove around. It was all very simple, we were friends naturally, we didn’t have to do this introductory period of “okay so what do you do? And what do I do?” There was none of that. It made sense to me, that’s how I like to interact. I just like to get out of New York too, it’s a home away from home, a place to get a bit of perspective.
Mack: Did you pick up any hobbies there? How did your habits change?
Opal: They just go out and do stuff, we were always going to some falls or to a friend’s house in the Outback (laughs) basically, we just did more stuff. We were always going to a market or a daytime party, a lot of waterfall trips. Another big reason why the time in my life really coincided with really being into Australia, seeing that you don’t have to be doing coke and getting absolutely obliterated in a crusty basement in Brooklyn. A big perspective thing, I pretty much had the opposite life in Australia than I did in New York.
Mack: Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself in that period?
Opal: I was like 25 at the time, and I kinda hit a wall on the automated life treadmill. I went to a college that I didn’t really like, I was systematically shedding things that I secretly didn’t want to do since high school. I stopped playing sports, but then I felt bad about it, so I thought I should keep playing sports, and said no you shouldn’t what the hell you don’t even want to. All this stuff that you should be doing, and kinda have to do, but I was having a terrible time. Then I got out of college, and in my mind I was going to just get a bartending job and do whatever, just chill. But it was harder to find a bartending job than a corporate job, just doing what you should be doing. Some of my other music scene-ster friends were also working at Condé Nast at the time, so we would just hang out there. When I went to Australia Condé was actually the job I left, I didn’t do it on purpose. They fired my boss, they ended up paying me severance, but I don’t know if I would have quit that job myself, I still don’t know. But either way it was probably the best thing that happened to me. By the time I went to Australia it was like this is the break, what’s happening? What are you doing? What do you want to do? There are so many options besides being in New York and doing the automatic stuff you think you have to be doing. It gave me space to consider things I hadn’t. Perspective building. I came back to New York and started freelancing, it’s crazy expensive to live in the city and you still have to make it work, but it was definitely a helpful life break.
I have a lot of crazy plans, I never don’t have plans. It was a nice break to not have plans and just fly to Australia, and not know exactly what you’re gonna do, you don’t have to have a plan.
Mack: When you can take time to not know what you’re doing for a little while, that’s really liberating and special.
Opal: Starting to freelance was also super helpful, because then I could work for four months and then just not work for two months, and see what happens next. The pressure is on Gen Z to have a personal brand, but millennials, you have the awareness that the next generation is all about personal branding, but that’s not how we came up. Where you’re working and what you’re doing seeps in to your personal brand nowadays, and that’s yucky, I do not like that. So I’m also glad I feel like I’m keeping that at bay too, where I'm working is not my persona. But I also think music is not my permanent thing. Who knows? I’m just doing what I want when I want to.
Mack: I think that’s a really healthy approach to creating things, feeling inspired and making things when you’re in that place, but not boxing yourself in to be constantly expecting that to come out.
Opal: Exactly, 100%
Mack: Do you feel like there’s a specific social politic that really guides the way you live your life and the way that you create?
Opal: I don’t know about a specific viewpoint, but in my mind I definitely have this consistent “what do you have and why do you have it?” dialogue running in the background. I definitely had a pretty buckwild childhood, so there are plenty of things that I could hitch my wagon to and say “this is me and my story, and this is what we should be advocating for” but I also think there are a ton of other things that I am privileged about. Not to be like “my life wasn’t that bad because other people had it worse” kind of thing, but I think being really clear about nuance is something I try to keep in mind. You don’t know what you’re not doing. There’s also so many good intentions, I grew up with well-meaning white people, you know, they had their own set of ethics and things that they thought were really important, my parents were super hippies, but also the road to hell is paved with good intentions. There are so many things that you could be saying and doing that guide your life, but if you get too deep into any one of them it starts to get blinding too. I try to stay open on that front, but being that aloof sometimes isn’t helpful, but that’s the way I trend more than really getting gung ho for one line of thinking. I think we are all pretty aware that every ethical mindset you could have…… well Capitalism sucks, that’s pretty solid, pretty reliable. Even being “unapologetically” anything has been capitalized, it’s a mess. I do think capitalism sucks, and that’s pretty much fact, but day-to-day it’s really hard. There’s a lot of luck involved, that’s a symptom of capitalism, it’s the worst.
Mack: We’re on the same page.
Opal: It’s a systemic issue, everything is fucked so either fix it or throw it away.
There’s more fixing to do than I think we’re all prepared to do, there’s a lot more burning to do than we’re all prepared to do. I don’t know what anyone is supposed to do, to be honest.
Mack: You were talking about this idea of being “unapologetically” anything, and how that’s been co-opted, I’m queer, I don’t always identify as a woman, and those are things that I used to feel very loud and vocal about, and now my queer “safe space” is actually just being left alone, because of what you were hinting at.
Opal: I don’t know when it switched. When did we go from saying like “I’m queer, I want to see myself represented” to saying “I’m queer, leave me alone”? That doesn’t mean that I need to be pandered to every two seconds
Mack: In ways that feel so hollow…
Opal: It used to be like “Oh my god, you’re Black, AND adopted” people really wanted to talk about that, and I was like “that’s fine, that’s cool, I guess”, but now you like Have to talk about that, when there’s other things I could be talking about, maybe that’s where the grift started happening. Now there’s this weird, again with well-meaning white people, this happens all the time, this “oh my god, we want to be better, we want to learn, teach us everything”, so now I’m now somehow responsible for all of you guys not having your cultural lives together, now the burden is on you to be queer in public.
Mack: It’s like maybe take a moment to reflect on your life up until this point, before making that someone else’s responsibility.
Opal: I don’t have advice for you, people are asking me how should we approach this, and I don’t have an answer for you, I’m tired. It’s like “how would you like to be pandered to?” And the answer is leave me alone, you guys are so embarrassing at this point. It’s a mess. I feel like every time you get to the end of your existential crisis, the fact is that it’s just a mess.
Mack: I feel that, and I think that feeling largely contributed to what you expressed earlier about not being a huge vocal advocate for any one thing, it’s hard to be that person, and also listening and observing and reflecting is really valuable at this point.
I’m gonna pivot here: I want to talk about visuals for a moment, in the colors and patterns and layers both in your fashion and in your album art, where does some of that visual inspiration come from and how hands-on are you in your album art?
Opal: I definitely have always been in an art family, my parents are hippies. There are probably so many influences that I can’t give each of them the time, my mind is always going a million miles a minute, I just want to feel a certain type of way, which is always fleeting. Layers are always relevant, here are the pieces I want to put together for whatever reason, whether it’s elements of album art, or of a song, or clothing pieces, maybe I really want to have an acid green nail right now, so I come up with a whole world that puts disparate things together. After I decide each element, then I decide a common theme, I just want to feel casual or not responsible, or I’m just going to put all of these things together and I want to feel flashy, but not be getting too much attention. There’s always some filter that goes overtop of it, that’s how I’m always doing all this stuff that’s seemingly a whole different person every time, but overall there is this mood and worldview that for me, the process is always a bit the same, so that’s where the cohesion comes in. I don’t curate my closet or my outfits or my album art covers or anything like that, but the fact that I do everything is the consistent thread there. I make the album art, I design the covers, whatever it is. I’m sure that if I ever really wanted to think about it, I could figure out what it is about myself that really is the common thread, but I try to make everything myself, and produce the album myself, and just be that consistent voice of what’s happening.
Mack: On a more granular level, how your songs come together, that process, and where sampling comes in there, that’s also related to what you were just talking about, both on the audio level and the visual level.
Opal: I’ll write demos starting in a number of different places, like starting with a drum beat I really like, and put some keys on it, the original demo for “Es Is” was just drums and keyboards, but I make things with purpose. I have a lot of voice notes, but if I’m going to make a song I have to really do it with purpose. I really want this keyboard idea to go with this drum idea, and they might not sound good together right now (laughs) but we’re going to figure out what the connective tissue is.
My music is not lush, that’s my production style, the parts are very pared down, and each part is very specific, really the event is how do you put those things together justifiably in the same song, but each part is really important. It’s not layers on layers on layers and swells and all that, these are the parts I want you to hear. In the studio it’s like “here’s what I’m thinking: these four parts together” and it’s like “okay I don’t know how that’s gonna work, but…”
Even with the players that came in, I write a lot of the parts, because I just want to hear something. The mixing is probably the part that I will hand off, because I second guess myself all the time. I will probably at some point put together an EP just to see, if I mix the entire thing too will everyone think this is just too much, I can’t listen to this? So with mixing I have someone else give it a first pass so I’m not just going completely nuts. But definitely all the mixing I adjust as well to my ear, same with the masters. I send them out but I adjust them to my ear. I have to hear it, I do think that eventually the goal would be to get to a place where I do everything. I do like the people I work with, so there’s no real reason to do everything myself, but that is ultimately the goal. I know what I want to hear, and I do have standards, nothing is going to sound bad. There’s definitely some stuff on the record that’s unconventionally mixed, produced, recorded, stuff that people might not like, but we’ll see.
Mack: That speaks so loudly to what you were saying right at the beginning though, that you want to make something because it’s what you want to make, not because it’s the sound right now, and I think ultimately your music is stronger for it, those moments are why.
Opal: It’s kind of like a “for your consideration” situation. I know a lot of people who have wild, out there ideas, but once you get it through the arrangements and the mixing and the production, if those engineers are R&B people or pop people, it will go in that direction, it takes work to keep it from becoming something trendy and easy. If you just take your idea to the “Best People” you are gonna get that sound, I think that’s totally fair, but I think that also isn’t what some people want or expect, I like the concept of just doing something unconventionally. And again, there’s still a standard, like I don’t want it to sound bad, I don’t want it to sound homemade, there’s still definitely a production quality that I’m expecting, but there’s other options.
It’s like “what if you just did whatever you want? I don’t know, what if?” (laughs) My music is what it would sound like if I just did whatever I want, I’m hoping that it’s something that sounds just unconventional enough, that people are down to take more risks and do something that isn’t guaranteed to work or sell records.