Zoya on new album Bad Girls Dream: 'It’s a cool time to be a pop artist because there aren’t really any rules anymore'
Zoya on her new album Bad Girls Dream, breaking into global music and popular culture, and chasing her long-standing dream of success as a pop musician.
Growing up in an artistically-inclined household, Indian-American singer-songwriter Zoya Mohan’s creative journey began at the age of five. She remembers singing around the house all day, and writing lyrics and melodies from an early age. At 11, when her father taught her how to play the guitar, she quickly combined the two and discovered her love for songwriting. “I had two albums out by the time I was 16 which, today, I have successfully wiped off the internet,” she tells Firstpost with a laugh.
However, growing up in the US also meant it was hard for Zoya to believe her musical dreams would become reality, “due to the fact that I did not fit into pop culture’s typical depiction of what is marketable.” But with the release of her third album Bad Girls Dream on 6 May, she’s taken a leap in that direction, the album being a thorough pop offering. “Pop used to be one thing in the late '90s, but pop now is a very ambiguous term,” she says about the genre. The pop charts on Billboard, she adds, are “a giant mix of hip-hop, singer-songwriter, country, electronic dance music, and rock. It’s a cool time to be a pop artist because there aren’t really any rules anymore.”
A shift from her first two folksy-electronic albums The Girl Who Used to Live in My Room and Natural Disaster, Zoya’s confidence to venture into pop on Bad Girls Dream stems from the four years she spent in India as part of the local indie scene, after completing her degree in music business from Berklee College of Music. “Music is a medium used to change culture which becomes evidently more important in traditional or religious societal structures that tend to chain freedom of expression. When I was in India, you really felt a part of a movement that was breaking the norm and inspiring a generation of young Indians to feel liberated and free… India was amazing. The revolution is there,” she says about the Indian indie scene.
Being in this environment opened up new musical directions for her and helped her get a clearer idea of what she wanted her music to sound like. “While touring in India, the bigger the stages became, the bigger I wanted my sound.” She’d been experimenting with a more commercial sound for months after Natural Disaster and soon released The Kingdom and Afterglow, a series of 17 singles which signal an electro-pop sound, inching closer to the dream of pop fame she’d always carried. And on returning to Los Angeles, “things finally fell into place regarding production and the cohesiveness I needed to make a pop record that could compete commercially.”
Produced by Chuck Inglish and Mark Nilan Jr, at under 22 minutes, every song on the nine-track Bad Girls Dream sees Zoya expanding into different pop territory, from playful hip-hop to soft, soulful vocals, making the album a satisfying pop experience. It opens with the spoken word ‘Dream Prologue,’ with strings by Johan Lennox, where she’s meditating on the lengths one will go chase one’s dream. “The dream came first, always. The prologue is an ode to that idea.” It’s followed by the groovy dance tune ‘Champagne on a Monday,’ which they called “dark bop” in the studio, alluding to her experience of excessive partying to escape the pressure she felt about achieving this dream.
Next on the record is the electronic ‘My Last Prayer.’ With lyrics like ‘The only bet left is myself/I could get nothing, I could get the world’ and ‘I lay here on my bedroom floor/Trying to dream, can’t dream no more/I want it all, I want it real,’ the reverb-heavy track drives home the frustration of chasing a dream and just wanting to get there already. Zoya follows this up with ‘Two Ways,’ a light, fun song with beats by producer duo SMLE.
“A big realisation I had was that the girl I am now is already the girl I have been working towards.” This is what she celebrates on the next track, ‘Beautiful Lie,’ among Zoya’s favourite songs on the album, co-written with Emily Fullerton and produced by LA-based Dreux. It’s followed by the short ‘Bad Girls Interlude,’ a recording of Zoya and a girlfriend talking in the studio, which “perfectly set the tone for the next track.”
The next, ‘Bad Girls Dream’ featuring rapper Jack Harlow, released as a single in 2019 and was the first song she worked on with Nilan Jr. for the album. Her definitive pop anthem, it signaled the new path Zoya was going down, a track she consciously shaped to be “radio-friendly.” After finishing this song, “the entire concept of the album quickly came together.”
‘Worth It,’ which follows the eponymous track, is “honestly the song I am most proud of,” says Zoya. With a delicate, singer-songwriter vibe, her soulful vocals are supported by a gentle piano. With lyrics like ‘Say I look like a dream come true/And you wanna build a life for two/When you say I’m the one you choose/Baby you make me feel worth it,’ she’s singing about how love can be the greatest dream of all to come true. “It’s one of those songs I hope someone dedicates to the love of their life. It’s a song to celebrate the person that completes you,” she says.
Bad Girls Dream closes with the intimate ‘Here,’ “a raw account of the journey I took to get myself here.” Following on from ‘Worth It,’ she ends with the same singer-songwriter vibe, celebrating her accomplishments so far. “I wrote ‘Here’ on guitar in my bedroom in about twenty minutes. It was one of those songs a songwriter waits for because it came so naturally,” says Zoya.
This sense of authenticity has always resonated in Zoya’s music. “Creating in a raw and vulnerable state is the only way I know how to make music,” she says. She’s had her moments of feeling drowned in others’ thoughts, and being creatively confused, with her transition from indie to pop even inviting “a lot of opinions.” But the music she finally created has been a result of that tumultuous time. “I’m happy I got out of that head space and am now trusting my gut above anything else.”
And as Zoya floats into her pop dream, she’s also hopeful about being another Indian face in the US’ commercial entertainment space. Having such examples “will have a dramatic effect on Indian kids growing up in this country and hopefully ‘normalise’ our race in global media to ultimately empower more young Indian creatives.” To continue spreading awareness about the lack of south Asian representation in global music and popular culture, she’s also readying to launch 'This is Life'. Besides being a social platform that encourages such conversation, it’s also a lifestyle brand, where she’s collaborated with Kolkata-based design studio Lata Sita to bring zero-waste, ethically produced fashion. Besides 'This is Life', there are music videos for Bad Girls Dream in the works, and Zoya has already begun working on the next album.
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