This interview, much like Zein’s music, brims with a humble energy that comes hand in hand with being true to oneself.
Zein Gowie is a London-based singer and songwriter of Palestinian and Lebanese heritage. His debut EP, Good Intentions, was released earlier this year featuring four pop-R&B hybrid tracks. Each song harnesses the power of extremely relatable lyrics that mesh so seamlessly with its sounds – not to mention Zein’s smooth voice that glides atop every punchy, stylized or rhythmic beat.
Stepping into Zein’s world is like coming home at the end of a long day, or basking in a quiet moment away from the chaos, as seen in the videos and visualisers, the artist often appears alone or deep in thought in the landscape of beautiful, calm locations. From honoring his Arab roots in his music and future projects, to detailing complicated swirls of emotions in his lyrics, one thing that remains consistent throughout Zein’s artistry is that he always displays a strength that comes with owning himself, his emotions and his truth. A strength that becomes yours as his songs dance through your ears. Combined with masterful layering and production by Zeeshan, the EP demands to be heard.
Talent-filled music, unbridled truth and genuine care: an unbeatable trifecta found in Good Intentions; a set of words that captures only a morsel of Zein’s greatness as an artist and as a human.
Zein talks to FRONTRUNNER all about Good Intentions, being an introvert, what makes a good collaboration and more.
It’s funny, since COVID I haven’t really been listening to music as much as I was before.
It’s normally a passive thing for most people. That’s weird for me. I actively seek new artists and new music. I get a thrill out of finding new styles, because it means it’s another thing I can be inspired by. There’s a book called ‘Steal Like an Artist’, which I like – it’s about taking inspiration from everyone else and incorporating it to form your own unique style. So, I’m very much an active music listener.
I know the EP has been ready for a while. Why did you wait so long to release it?
I couldn’t even tell you when we started it. We made around 20-30 songs, not all were completed, but me and my producer Zeeshan (@zshxn.a), we took that time as a development period. We tried to make as many songs together as we could, and the ones in the EP were the ones that stood out to us. Coupled with the visual creative process, it took the amount of time that it needed. What’s crazy is that we now have new projects where we feel like we’ve really honed in on what we both want the music to sound and feel like. I’m so excited for my next music project. I don’t think we would have gotten to where we are now without all the songs we did over the last couple of years though.
How long have you and Zeeshan known each other? How did your relationship blossom into what it is now?
We actually met through social media. We had a lot of mutual friends. Our friends were like ‘you should meet Zeeshan, you’d work really well together’, and they said the same thing to him. A few months later, he came for an event in London and we decided to meet. I picked him up and we went to my home-studio, essentially a corner of my room at the time, and we made Moving that night. It worked really well because Essam (@masseone39), a rapper from Seattle, and FaceSoul (@ifacesoul), a singer from London, were around, so they came over and the creative process evolved into one of my favourite collaborations to date. They’re both incredible artists in their own right and I got to learn a lot from being around them. From that point, Zeeshan and I kind of just loved working together. Naturally it turned into a long-term friendship.
I love your part in Moving. The song makes me wanna dance and your part in particular is so smooth.
Thank you! It was a great song to make. It was my first time in the studio that I had to write a song on the spot. FaceSoul really helped me write my part in the song, and just seeing him and everyone else in their process was great because mine permanently changed from that point as a result.
So, what’s the secret ingredient for a good collaboration?
I’d say…basically, there are two parts to making a song. First is the actual skill, so you need people who can write, can produce, can sing, can mix and master. But I think the best music is made outside the studio. So, the conversations I have with Zeeshan before we even touch the mic or equipment, that’s where our best work comes from. So, the best collaborations are the ones where you have an actual connection outside of the studio setting.
You write your own lyrics. What makes it easy to write? When are you the most inspired to write?
It varies. Sometimes it’s extremely hard. There have been times where I’ve written a song in 15 minutes. Other times, it’s taken me about 7 or 8 hours. Sometimes it’s even taken me weeks, because I’ve contributed slowly to it. My process is that whenever I feel something I generally write it down and think ‘actually this is something I’d like to reflect on in a song’. So, I’ll write it down in the Notes app on my phone, then when I’m at the studio I reflect back on it. It really helps to have something written down beforehand. If I feel something in the moment at the studio, it’s even better because I get to actually reflect on it in that moment.
Do you ever feel nervous putting your feelings and thoughts out there into the world for people to listen to, or even in the studio for collaborators to create around them?
It’s a weird thing. I’ll read my lyrics and think I would never say that in a normal conversation, but there’s something beautiful about music in that it allows you to express yourself freely while knowing that most people won’t judge you the same way. I’d definitely still say that I get super nervous and anxious. Like you said, it’s because I’m sharing something that I might have gone through. Though sometimes, I write about things that haven’t actually happened but I can relate to in some way. Usually through friends’ experiences or films. I still get nervous. It worries me when people aren’t nervous. It might mean that they don’t care anymore. I think real artistry comes from caring.
What did you want Good Intentions to feel like? To me it feels like the general themes are: first confronting emotions and difficult feelings. Then letting them go, and shedding that emotional burden. Am I right in thinking that?
It’s interesting that you say that. At that time, I had just finished studying 6 years at university. I knew the whole time that it wasn’t for me and wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long run. I reached that point where I had finished and I was considering whether I should practise as a doctor or not. Along with other life-events, I just thought ‘I’m gonna let go and do what feels right’. Solo for example, to most people it sounds like a love song or breakup song. It was actually about me ‘breaking up’ with my career *laughs*. I often leave my lyrics quite general because I want everyone to be able to relate to them.
As an introvert myself, I relate to Running and Late Drives in particular. They’re about wanting to be alone, choosing and wanting to be in your own company and enjoying that. Tell me a little bit about that.
100%. It goes back to what we said before the interview, that I’m very much an introverted person even though my outward appearance might not give you that impression. I read somewhere that the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is that an introvert is someone who loses energy by spending time with others, socially. While an extrovert is the opposite. For me that’s especially true. I might be out a lot with people and friends, but it’s not an environment that I always thrive in. A lot of the time it’s like giving small pieces of myself. So, Running and Late Drives are kind of about that. For me, I feel like I thrive a lot of the time in my own company – when I have the freedom to be able to reflect and do what I enjoy.
Tell me about your music videos. How important is the visual aspect to you?
With Good Intentions, the visuals came after the songs were done. I planned for months with Sam Rock, the Director and Videographer of the project, and then he finally flew in from Sweden with stylist Ella Fahlén. For a week straight we travelled up and down the UK to different locations during the day for the visualisers, and then during the evenings, we’d film Late Drives, around my home in North-West London. It was tiring, but definitely worth it.
I must admit, I didn’t have the visuals in mind as much with the EP as I do now when creating new music. I think visuals add a completely different dynamic to a project and have the power to complete a story. When writing music now, I almost always try to visualise how I’m feeling and where I would be if those feelings were a place. In reality, we don’t really hear in isolation, there are always other senses that accompany the sound. In that same way, I want my music to be experienced through other senses, and I hope my future music will showcase that.
How did you get into music? What was your first ever recorded song?
I wasn’t always in to it. My parents weren’t really big on music growing up, so naturally I didn’t have much exposure. But I remember when I was 14, everyone would mess around on the keyboards in music class at school, where I would finish off tasks fairly quickly. One of my music teachers noticed that and asked me to join a weekend music academy. I think that was my first real exposure to learning music. I was even part of a band with other students, but we won’t get into that.
I dropped it for a year to take academia a bit more seriously, and then after going to university, I somehow ended up being surrounded by musicians again. I lived with a producer called Ketone, and he’d just play his beats for us to vibe to. Eventually we bought a microphone and started experimenting with it. From there, I kind of just fell in to it again.
When did you know you had a good voice?
People around me have always commented on my voice, saying it was good and that I had potential. Even now I have doubts about my voice. I’ll think, ‘do I have a nice voice? Are my friends lying to me?’
Music is very subjective. Some people will enjoy my voice and some people won’t. Sometimes I like my own voice, sometimes I don’t. I don’t know, I’m just doing it!
You recently graduated with a medical degree. What did music mean to you during your studies?
During the first few years I wasn’t really taking music seriously at all. In the last couple of years, I started to become more interested in music than I was in my medical degree. I started meeting a lot of creatives outside of Southampton (where I studied), so I was always disappearing back to London. It probably affected my friendships in Southampton, but it was the most growth I’ve ever made creatively. Looking at it retrospectively, I’m glad I did what I did, because I grew creatively and still got to take home a medical degree.
Being both Lebanese and Palestinian, and based in London your whole life, how do you navigate all these cultures when it comes to your artistry?
The soundscape of home really inspires my sound. When I go to Lebanon, I stay in the home my mother grew up in. It’s on the 10th floor of an apartment building in the centre of Beirut, so you can literally hear things from every angle. I took Zeeshan with me last year and we would sit on the balcony in silence and just listen. We took a lot from that. We even wrote the beginning of ‘Solo’ there.
Although the majority of people who listen to my music are from the UK, Canada and the Netherlands, I definitely hope to grow in the Middle East. I don’t really sing in Arabic but we’ve started experimenting with that, so there’ll definitely be something in the future. There are hints of Arabic melodies in Late Drives, but that’s as far as we’ve come for now.
Which music artists inspire you?
The answer to this keeps changing to be honest, but I really enjoy listening and growing with emerging artists. Mustafa The Poet (@mustafathepoet), who only released music for the first time around a year ago is someone who’s music I really resonate with. He walks the line really well between being authentic to his culture, but still making music that can be appreciated by everyone. Other artists I’ve been listening to are Nick Hakim (@en_hakim), Lolo Zouai (@lolozouai) and Mcevoy (@mce.voy). I’ve also been listening to a lot of Saud (@saud.013), a really dope producer from Saudi Arabia – he really knows how to seamlessly integrate sounds from the MENA region with Western sounds. Hopefully we’ll be working on something together in the near future.
How is your next project different to Good Intentions? And what’s next?
I’ve gotten to know myself a bit more and feel like I can better put how I feel into words. I’m not where I want to be yet but I think that’s natural with artists – to feel like there’s a long way to go. Zeeshan and I have both come a long way. We’ve both gotten a lot better at understanding each other, his music and my voice, and how to best use our skills. Kookoo (@iamkookoo), who co-produced on Late Drives, and Ocean (@prodbyocean), who I’ve also worked with on unreleased music are also two producers who I look forward to making more music with. It’s really dope to be part of the materialisation of a group of people that care about each other and share a common vision. I think my next body of work is a lot more about collaboration, having fun, and continuing to grow.
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