- Words Sophie Walker
- Photography Will Beach
- Fashion Rianna Faye
- Makeup Francesca Brazzo at the Wall Group
- Hair Tomi Roppongi at Saint Luke Artists
- Creative direction and production Nura Abdela
- Photographer Representation Digital Picnic
- Photographer Assistant Harry McCulloch
- First Stylist Assistant Alana Newton
- Second Stylist Assistant Lacie Jade Gittins
- Hair Assistant Takumi Horiwaki
Bringing us further into her world with her new debut EP, Golden Wings, Zoe Wees chats to Notion about cultivating friendships with her fans, using songwriting as a form of therapy, and setting her eyes on the world stage.
Zoe Wees knows there is no drug like resonance. Though the 19-year-old grew up in Hamburg, she was truly raised under the hothouse lights of the internet, a fertile breeding ground for unapologetic self-expression. Amidst the platforms that insist on flawless self-presentation that only runs skin-deep, Zoe has carved a space of honesty through the communion between herself and her piano. Her voice, weighted equally in darkness as it is in light, cut through the online pretence of her generation: Zoe Wees, more than anyone, dared to drop the act.
Her rise has been nothing short of meteoric. While she emerged as a finalist on the German edition of The Voice Kids in 2017 and was met with rapturous praise for her rich, sonorous vocals that belied her 15 years, her success in her home country didn’t liberate her. “People would tell me I’d never make it out of Germany,” she says. “I got so tired of people telling me that. Anything’s possible if you work hard enough.” Her home country left her claustrophobic: she had an appetite for success that extended far beyond it. It wasn’t long until Zoe discovered the limitlessness of the internet, with its community of artists and music lovers that was border-defying — and that was her ticket out of there.
Her covers on YouTube, which put her own spin on classics from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to contemporary staples like Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved”, have racked up views in the millions. With comments saying how her voice had brought them to tears — or better still, that it was a gift from God — her fans are nothing if not devoted. “We’ve actually got a group chat on Instagram where we talk every day,” says Zoe. “That community is the only reason I’m on social media right now because I can’t see them in real life.” Besides fostering friendships with her fans, they’ve also banded together as a supportive force for each other’s struggles with anxiety and depression — something which Zoe is pointedly open about in her music.
“Control”, the lead single for her new EP Golden Wings, has generated streams in the hundreds of millions after TikTok users found that Zoe’s confessions about her deteriorating mental health encapsulated a feeling they couldn’t find the words to express for themselves. In that sense, none of her appeal is down to chance or a trick of an algorithm. It’s something far more simple than that: a sense of unity. Zoe explains: “The whole EP is basically about my mental health; it’s my therapy, written down. I want to make everyone see that no matter what you’re going through, you’re never alone. That’s all I ever wanted to hear in songs when I was in these situations: ‘You’re not alone Zoe’.”
She hears often from fans about how “Control” appeared in their lives when they needed it most. “There was a girl who told me that her girlfriend had passed away because of epilepsy,” Zoe shares. “She was driving to her grave, and then when she heard my song on the radio, she had the feeling that her girlfriend was still with her.” The burden of releasing a debut single with such emotional weight is one that Zoe is willing to carry. “It made me feel good about writing “Control”,” she reflects. “It’s pretty tough to release a song that deep because you have to talk about it and go through it every day, but when people hear it, I don’t regret it at all.”
But the meaning for Zoe isn’t quite so universal. “Control” was written about her struggles with benign rolandic epilepsy (BRE), which left her prone to sudden seizures. It was after her diagnosis that she started to experience the first symptoms of anxiety and depression. “It was pretty hard to live with that, before I wrote “Control”,” she says. “Being afraid of having a seizure every second is so annoying — you really feel trapped in your body, and you can’t get out.” She hasn’t experienced seizures for three years now, but her white-knuckle grip on her reality hasn’t changed.
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- Sunglasses SVNX
- Earrings H&M
- Shoes Nike
- Trousers GRMY
“Control”, and its successive single “Girls Like Us”, an affirming meditation on womanhood and the market engineered insecurities which blight it, belong to a greater picture on Golden Wings. “I want every song to shine,” says Zoe. “The themes are different, which is good, but it’s basically about my mental health and how I got stronger.” Rather than being united under one concept, Golden Wings defines an era of her life. “I remember writing “Overthinking” the night after everything happened, where I felt like, ‘OK, giving up seems easier to me than carrying on’. But the next day, I got into the studio and wrote the song — and it felt so good.” But despite the catharsis that the process brought her, she admits, “I’m far from being mentally stronger than ever. I think writing this EP has helped me to just accept those things now.”
This overarching theme of music as a form of emotional release for Zoe is underlined on “Hold Me Like You Used To”. The song was written as a way of contending with the death of her great-grandmother. “I was just in bed, and I was crying…” She loses her train of thought. “Sorry, can you ask the question again?” The subject is still very much an open wound for Zoe. “I will always feel the same, but writing the song has helped me to change the way I think about it,” she explains. “I really learned to accept what happened. She’s in a better place now, looking down on me. It was definitely like a kind of therapy.”
Zoe has recently started going to professional therapy, too. Does she ‘enjoy’ therapy — if ‘enjoy’ is even the right word? “Definitely,” she says. “With that and writing songs, I’ve got two therapies in one. Songwriting is the best therapy for me because I can just write it down, and that’s all. Everything is kept in the studio, and people don’t think you’re weird for sharing what’s going on in your head. Nothing is stupid.”
But despite that, she feels that in the space of the year it took to write Golden Wings, she has changed irrevocably. “Jesus Christ, I’ve changed a lot!” she says. “But it’s still me. I hope it shows people what I’ve been through and proves how strong I’ve become and how brave it is to write about these topics. If I could go back, I’d probably just say ‘Zoe, don’t be too hard on yourself’. I still struggle with that.”
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- Sunglasses SVNX
- Earrings Accessorize
- Rings Joanna Sinska
As a songwriter whose music is so personal, it comes as a surprise that her lyrics are the product of careful collaboration. “I write a lot of stuff with my best friend,” she explains. “She knows everything about me. She knows what I’m going through, and she knows what I want to write about. You usually talk to your friends about stupid stuff, but we always talk about music.” Zoe is even close friends with her songwriters in the studio — they talk every day.
Music was her first passion. It was something she discovered for herself, independently. Her mother played piano but wasn’t quite devoted to it in the way that her daughter would grow up to be. Raised on a diet of strong, female artists with powerhouse vocals, Zoe was a precocious child, writing her first songs at the age of six. “I mean, they’re terrible!” she laughs. “But I’ve got them written down in a book somewhere. I don’t know what I was writing back then, but when I was nine I was diagnosed with the epilepsy and that’s when I started writing about how I was coming to terms with that.”
Even after her success on The Voice Kids, Zoe still felt like a lone wolf in her home country. “In Germany, even when they sing in English, they just stay in Germany,” she explains. “I’ve always wanted to be international, so I know I would never make a German song. I just hate them. No matter how sad they are, they just don’t touch me in any way. I’ve got friends here, and when I’m with them it feels like home, but in general I don’t feel that way here. But I did when I was in London — it was a completely different feeling.”
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But now, her viral brand of fame means her fan base knows no bounds. Making the transition from YouTube, where there is a degree of separation between the artist and the fans, to TikTok where that divide is increasingly blurred, was not easy for Zoe. “The struggle with TikTok is that people perform their songs one minute, and the next thing they’re doing comedy. If you want to be a singer, you have to be careful to portray that image of yourself because otherwise people will see you as someone else. No one will take you seriously.”
Zoe Wees is a global artist, but with that comes great responsibility, surely? “I don’t feel pressure at all, but I’m aware of the responsibility I have towards my fans.” But the internet is a poisoned chalice, and no artist in the public eye comes out unscathed from the intense levels of scrutiny that hundreds of millions of eyes brings about. “It’s a ride on TikTok,” she sighs. “People hate on me for nothing — you can’t hate me for what I write about. But a lot of hate has come my way on TikTok.” People have already even sent her death threats. “I wrote a song about it, called “Ready to Die” — because what if I do?” she says, sharing that it is set to appear on her upcoming album which is already underway. “It can seem like a small thing, just a comment on TikTok, but it’s actually a big, big thing to deal with. But in a way I’m thankful for the comment, because I wrote an amazing song about it.”
It’s this ability to reckon with the negative experiences that tie her down and reshape them into the very same thing that liberates her which makes Zoe Wees’ music so powerful. It’s a sentiment she echoes herself: “Success, for me, is when you see people really hearing what you write about. The lyrics are 110% of the song, so if people really listen to them, they really listen to you and your story.” And like any masterful storyteller, Zoe Wees has an ever- expanding audience who are just dying to hear it.