Backseat Mixtape Volume V

Stop it God. – Zuli Jr.

The development of an artist is always something that spawns conversations amongst critics and fans alike. When an artist releases a debut album, we instantly associate them with that sound. And while that may be easy for us as listeners, I can imagine that it poses a challenge to the artist. An artist never wants to lose the base of fans that helped them rise in the first place, but they also deserve the creative room to grow and evolve. It’s a challenging balance that all creatives will eventually face. But this isn’t at all to say that growth and evolvement can’t be done, but rather, it should be done.

I think most recently about Tyler the Creator, who introduced himself to the music world in 2011, with his debut single “Yonkers.” “Yonkers” (and its music video), like Tyler himself, was provocative, polarizing, controversial, and defiant. Fast forward 10 years and the Tyler that we now know still has all the arrogance and bravado of his 19-year-old self, but his most recent musical output has been very different from what most people could have ever expected.

In 2017 we received Flower Boy and in 2019, IGOR. Many ‘old’ Tyler fans felt so-so about Flower Boy; they were appreciative of his level of self-reflection without having to lose any of his edge that they grew to love. When IGOR was released, there was a lot of frustration from his ‘older’ fans. He all but traded in this edge for upfront emotional reflection through a more refined melodic sound. There was more singing than rapping, and even some of the rap came off as more poetic spoken word, rather than the rough athletic rhyming they were used to. In all truth, I didn’t start considering myself a fan of his until Flower Boy and I consider IGOR to be one of my favorite releases in recent memory. IGOR was a product of Tyler the Creator’s courage to break down the imposed barrier of what was expected out of him as an artist. Perhaps Tyler’s level of fame and prominence in the industry made it even harder to allow his sound to mature and adapt, but even for lesser-known artists, this takes a special combination of skill and guts.

Zuli Jr., a 28-year-old artist from Long Island is diving head-first into this challenge with his upcoming album Stop it God., which comes out on May 14th. Zuli Jr. introduced himself to the music world with his 5-track 2015 debut EP Supernatural Voodoo; the album has a sound that gives tastes of The Beach Boys and Pink Floyd, with a modern pop twist. He followed this up with his 2017 debut album, On Human Freakout Mountain. OHFM feels very inspired by the 60’s sounds of The Beach Boys and The Beatles (the fourth track, “neither am i” sparks instant recognition with The Beatles tune “Across the Universe”). OHFM is characterized by its catchy guitar licks, creative layered harmonies, a forward rock sound, and of course, Zuli. Jr’s unique voice. Weaved in between these influences is a pop-leaning, albeit genre-less sound, almost reminiscent of artists similar to Still Woozy, Gus Dapperton, and Clairo.

Zuli Jr. flirts with this sound (bedroom pop?) just enough in OHFM that as a listener, you can tell he has yet to reach his creative zenith. In 2019 he released a single “ur mistaken,” which has an easy-going sound and Zuli’s signature catchy guitar licks as well as all of the elements in his more 60’s inspired songs on OHFM, but it's delivered in a genre more closely related to that of the previously mentioned artists.

In Zuli Jr.’s current rollout for his upcoming album Stop it God., he has released three tracks from the album as singles. “How to Feel,” “Blue Sky,” and “Two” give us a peek into what we can expect on May 14th. “How to Feel'' fully embraces this sound that he showed glimpses of in OHFM, equipped with excellent production, driving guitar licks, and layered harmonies, all within a restrained laid-back musical environment. In “Blue Sky'' we get the first taste of the concept built within Stop it God. that Zuli Jr. has dubbed Daisy. On Zuli Jr.’s Spotify page, he writes “Daisy serves as the ever-present corporate overload with a HAL 9000-style computer to navigate daily life.” With this in mind, the first lyrics of “Blue Sky'' are “Stop selling me blue sky in a grey light like the clouds won't fill with rain / believing a white lie, like its divine, and It holds up.” Like with “How to Feel,” “Blue Sky'' embraces this newfound sound, and also allows us insight into the Daisy concept, something that he discussed with me in our interview.

The most recent release of these singles, and the one that excites me the most about what’s to come, is “Two.” Like Tyler the Creator with Flower Boy and IGOR, Zuli Jr. commits to his leap of faith with “Two.” The classic verse/chorus structure fades away, as Zuli Jr. allows his lyrics to almost float on top of the soft melodic finger-picked guitar line. And at 2:10, he enters what would equate to musical uncharted territory relative to what he has previously released as a solo artist. He delivers us a Frank Ocean/Tyler the Creator/Daniel Caesar-like sudden shift in musical environment, as if the floor has fallen out from under you, and he starts to rap. “Two” makes clear that Zuli Jr. isn’t willing to settle into a specific sound, and that is a fact that excites.

Zuli Jr. is by no means new to the game, having an album, an EP, numerous singles, collaborative projects, and millions of streams under his belt. But based on his newly adapted sound and the three releases from Stop it God., I have a feeling that Zuli Jr. is only now approaching what is likely to be a huge rise in the music industry. He’s shown the courage to transform his sound, and the skill to not lose any of the characteristics that made his earlier music so good. Read my full interview with Zuli Jr. down below where we discuss the process behind the development ofStop it God., Zuli Jr.’s path as an artist, and what it means to be alive during times like these. Go check out his 2017 album On Human Freakout Mountain, as well as the newly released singles, and keep an eye out for Stop it God., which comes out May 14th.

A Conversation with Zuli Jr.

Aaron Bogin: I first heard your music over the summer, and I had songs like “ur mistaken” and “blaze” on repeat for months. And now you have the new singles that you just released, it’s exciting!

Zuli Jr.: Dude! It’s an honor. I’m so glad the music found you, it means the world.

Aaron Bogin: I’d love to talk to you about your new album coming out soon, but I’d be happy to start off just by asking you how you’ve been, and what it’s been like being a musician during this period of time?

Zuli Jr.: Dude, I’ve been okay, you know. It’s obviously been weird and there was this traumatizing moment last year when it was like, “what do you mean there won’t be shows until fall of 2020?!” That definitely rocked everybody’s world; nobody ever expected something like this to happen. But honestly, even now being a year out, it feels like in so many ways that It was kind of a necessary evil. I think there was a lot of growth that happened, at least for the people in my general circle, where it felt like a necessary time to reflect and really get our ducks in order and things. I’m not saying that was the case for everybody, but right now I’m trying to find a balance within this new way of living, even like getting a better understanding of what being an artist means and what that will entail moving forward. It’s definitely helped reestablishing my love for making music and art and everything in between. I’ve been one of the lucky ones.

Aaron Bogin: Did you find that there was a specific way that you were reflecting on that stuff or did it happen naturally, or did you have to drag yourself to it at the beginning? What was that progression like?

Zuli Jr.: Well I was super lucky in the fact that I was quarantined in a house with my girlfriend and four of our best friends, so we had a little commune basically. The first month or two was very just like “the world is over! Let’s have as much fun as we can!” So that was the vibe at first, I don’t know if carefree is the word, but in the face of all the anxiety and stress it was hard to double down on work and stuff. At least for me. I wasn’t in the place where I was gonna write my next album… It felt like the time for me to step away from all that stuff for a little while. Just time to reexamine all the important things in my life. And that if anything kind of grounded everything that I was doing before COVID, and now after, just reestablish my love for the art. Reconnecting with friends and family and realizing how much that means: getting back to the root of the stuff that really matters in your everyday, outside of social media life.

Aaron Bogin: I totally hear you with that. So, was your upcoming album not a product of that period, or has it been a long time coming? What was the time frame of it like?

Zuli Jr.: It’s kind of ironic, I was just talking about this. The album had a fairly wrong writing period in between OHFM (Zuli Jr. 's 2017 album, “On Human Freakout Mountain”) and this new one. Then we tracked the album December 2019 until around February, and the whole album on a base level is just about all the stuff I went through in between. The growth and the evolution, and the sadness and such. But it has this underlying metaphor of how technology and social media and shit affected me at that time. And it still does, it affects everybody. It’s just a part of the human condition at this point. And it’s funny because, yeah, the album was recorded before COVID, and I was kind of using it as a mantra of “yeah, this stuff is important but it’s not who I am, and I don’t want to get all caught up in that. I want to get back to the things that are important to me and not get so caught up in the fast motion of social media life.” And THEN, the world shuts down and that’s the only way that any of this is even tangible. So, it was really, really weird timing. I was onto something but like, fuck, this is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. There was a lot of growth on my end trying to overcome that state of mind and finding a balance outside my comfort zone.

Aaron Bogin: That’s so interesting that you spent all this time writing, reflecting, and putting a ton of work into this idea, and then almost having that idea smack you in the face and be like “you need me, what’re you gonna do?” Did you have that inner conversation? I’m sure that must’ve been wild in your own sphere in the world where it’s like “okay, so this is happening to me…right now.”

Zuli Jr.: It felt like one of those really weird moments where I was like “wow, I was definitely on one haha, I was definitely onto something with that. You know, I think even just through the process of writing and then coming to terms with it and then COVID, it’s just been a learning thing. At the end of the day I think everybody just needs to find that middle ground of balancing it all. Obviously, I was trying to make an artistic statement for myself trying to get back to my roots, but it almost feels like I’ve been able to navigate it with a better head space, rather than just total denial.

Aaron Bogin: And when you were thinking of this album was it concept first, music first, a little bit of both?

Zuli Jr.: I’m not the kind of person that has the entire thing mapped out front to back. I think through the process of doing the work is where all the ideas start really snowballing. At first the songs were very much a reflection of where I was and everything I was going through and then I started better understanding where I was pulling from and what was really affecting me: finding the common themes of everything I was writing. And that evolved into this whole Daisy concept, and the Stop it God. title. With everything I do it’s all just the matter of being inspired and then finding the thread in between everything.

Aaron Bogin: It sounds to me like you have a kind of- reflection, inspiration, writing, as a constant cycle with your life and music.

Zuli Jr.: Yeah! I think that’s the best way to do it. I won’t lie and say like every idea that’s ever come to me is from this very deep introspective—I mean, I would say once it comes to actually penning the song it goes there. But there’s so many facets in how art can inspire you and how songs come to be. Certain songs like “How to Feel” for example, I just sat down at the piano and the first couple lines came to me and I had the idea of the song and it just kind of fell out and became what it was. And later on, after doing some revising, I was able to dig deeper into what the song meant to me and tie it into the whole narrative.

Aaron Bogin: That’s awesome. And with “How to Feel” and a lot of your music, just my perception of it, you have these incredible power hooks that are catchy and upbeat. I listened to your music all summer and it just has that feel good vibe in the music, but then you also have these lyrics that aren’t saying the same thing all the time, and that’s a really cool dichotomy between the two in the same song. Is that something you’re actively thinking about?

Zuli Jr.: Well thank you man! I appreciate it to start. Yeah, it’s tough though. That’s even something with me looking at my songwriting objectively and seeing what I’ve done in the past compared to what I’m doing now with this upcoming album (coming out May 14th). But it’s tough though man, because I tend to personify my feelings in a very romantic, kind of love way. I think it’s the best way for me to understand them and put them together in a legible format, I guess. But it’s weird because the songs are usually very cathartic and about me going through the pains, the human condition, all that jazz. But yeah, a lot of people have talked about how “this song feels so happy” and I listen to it and I’m like “oh shit, this is definitely not all sunshine and flowers and what not, what’re you guys talking about?” And I think that’s the sweet spot for me. Not every song on the new album fits that, but usually my favorite stuff is cathartic but not necessarily wallowing in the feeling. It’s like I’m overcoming it in a positive kind of way. I’m gonna say what I have to say but it's gonna make me feel good and want to move. This feels like the best way to check off all the boxes of saying what I have to say as an artist but also working through what I have to work through.

Aaron Bogin: And that gives your audience a lot to work with because there’s depth to your music. They’re going to listen to it the first time and be like “this is a bop” and listen to it the second time and be like “this is a bop” and listen to it the third time and be like “woah, this is a bop but also I’m really hearing through the lyrics what he’s saying.” And that creates an experience that with every listen you’re getting more dimensions.

Zuli Jr.: And that’s just the nature with music too, I think. I don’t think anything I’ve ever listened to, unless it's something extremely profound, but for the most part the song feels good and then you start digging and get comfortable with. All my favorite art and artists do that, where there’s little Easter eggs you don’t catch on your first play. That’s another big thing that’s been a through line for everything I’ve been making, especially of recent.

Aaron Bogin: And we were just talking before about Frank Ocean and that’s one of the things that makes him so special that the people who listen to him a ton really understand. His music is beautiful, but it’s also heartbreaking, and it forces you as the listener to confront your own stuff, and that’s what good art does.

Zuli Jr.: Dude, I couldn’t have said it better myself honestly. His wordplay is so profound, and it hits so many analogies…it’s just wild man. He just pens incredible stories that connect in so many ways on an emotional level but also a heady intellectual level.

Aaron Bogin: Absolutely. So, other than Frank, who are some of your inspirations musically? Who are you listening to now/in the past?

Zuli Jr.: There’s a lot; my foundation, especially for the EP and the first album, was very like Beatles, Beach Boys inspired, I can’t get enough of them. Guitarists like Dave Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors and Unknown Mortal Orchestra were big for me at least in taking that retro sound but giving it a modern twist with crazy guitar playing and things like that. As of recent, The 1975 have made a big impact on me the last few years. SZA’s control was a huge musical moment for me. A shift happened. That album just really resonated with me. Like this is where it’s at. This is the kind of vulnerability that I’ve been missing in what I’m doing. And I’m obviously not SZA nor will I ever be SZA, but it opened up the possibility to me that I can open myself to other influences and evolving my sound. But the full list is huge man.

Aaron Bogin: On a slightly different note, one thing that really stands out to me when listening to your music is your voice. Bear with me for a second… I was having this conversation with my friends recently who are a group of musicians, and for a lot of male singers I think there’s an innate fear of singing up high or in your falsetto. I’m not sure whether that’s a masculinity thing or what the cause is. But I really admire how you use your voice in that range so confidently and so often, and I can tell that you’re not ‘using your falsetto,’ you’re just singing.. I was wondering if there’s ever been any thought behind that or direct inspirations. I know that’s a loaded question.

Zuli Jr.: That’s so interesting man. It’s funny you say that too, cause just going back to The 1975, I feel like the biggest connection for me is—I am a straight male human being, but I feel like I’m much more in touch with my feminine side than my masculine side I would say, and that’s a really hard thing to balance sometimes. It’s a very gray area that feels super weird. And Matty [Healy, the lead singer of The 1975] is kind of an amazing person, I saw a lot of myself in him. It’s interesting that comes across to you in the music because I don’t think that was ever a drawback or something I was worried about. Something I veered away from but then came back to is ultimately, other than expressing myself, the most important thing to me with these songs is I want to sing something that I want to sing. Something that’s fun for me to wail out in the car too or whatever. As much as you want other people to sing your song, using my voice to the best of its ability and not overthinking it is very powerful. Staying true to your guns and what’s true to you is what’s right.

Aaron Bogin: Back to the album, what’re you most excited for people to take away?

Zuli Jr.: I’m really excited for people to hear it in context. A lot of the visuals and the little things we’re teasing online will make more sense once you listen to the album front to back. The whole DaisyAI thing is, not overkill, but it’s a very present part of the album. Right now, it’s very esoteric so I’m really excited for people to get the whole context. And I hope people resonate with the change in sound and what the music is really talking about, both each song and as a collection. We live in a crazy time, COVID aside honestly. Right now, everyone’s self-perception is so fucked. I don’t think people pre-this era needed as much self-help quotes as we do. It really is hard to talk about being a human without computers being a part of this point. We’re so intertwined with it and it is causing such an identity crisis. The whole album title Stop it God. is just realizing that I’m not the end all be all. I have goals and things to do but there’s so much self-importance on social media and it can kind of rot you from the inside out. As well as being a double entendre for reaching that point when you’re looking for something greater than yourself. It doesn’t need to be a religious thing, but I personally found solace in, at the end of the day, no matter who you are, we all have to believe in something. And actually, I think Frank says something along those lines, so there you go.

Aaron Bogin: Well, I’m certainly excited.

Zuli Jr.: It means a lot. More than you know.

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