In collaboration with
- Words Solly Warner
18-year-old breakout star and Apple Music’s Up Next artist, Zoe Wees, is making unapologetically authentic and empowering music for the next generation.
Growing up, music was Zoe Wees’ safe haven from a world that often made her feel rejected due to her epilepsy. Battling with severe seizures and being scared to speak out, Zoe’s musical uprising began when a teacher in her hometown of Hamburg, Germany, Nils Bodenstedt, recognised her talent and helped cultivate an environment where she could become comfortable with her voice. From sharing multiple covers of popular songs on YouTube to appearing on Germany’s The Voice Kids in 2017, the pair had started a journey down a path that would soon lead to the studio session where Zoe came up with her breakout single, “Control”.
Immediately identified for her deeply personal song writing, “Control” was a perfect way to announce herself to the world as an artist who proudly embraces her own fragility whilst promoting self-acceptance. Now with over 139 million streams, the emotional ballad tells the story of Zoe’s struggle with Rolandic childhood epilepsy. What takes Zoe from a good songwriter to the next level as an artist, is her ability to deliver a powerhouse of a performance and this is something Zoe thrives in. Writing purely from self-experience, her vocal delivery and emotional performance is full of pain and frustration but also an overriding energy. After its release, “Control” soon became a worldwide hit and the follow-up single certainly didn’t miss either.
Launching the single with an appearance on Zane Lowe’s Apple Music 1 show, “Girls Like Us” shares the same emotional backbone as “Control” but this time celebrates the power of togetherness. Standing out with even more relatable lyrics and a pure sense of vulnerability, “Girls Like Us” calls out impossible beauty standards and societal pressures on women, pushing for solidarity between girls around the world. With equally powerful visuals in the music video, the track is currently in the Spotify Global Top 200 and along with “Control” has been featured on numerous playlists worldwide. “Girls Like Us” also recently received a dance inducing remix from indie-pop tastemakers MUNA, who reframe the original version with an upbeat, carefree melody filled with 80’s synths.
Closing out a busy 2020 by joining Sam Smith for a session at the Abbey Road Studios, Zoe started the new year with another huge step towards the top of pop. The young singer-songwriter made her US television debut on The Late Late Show with James Corden in January, delivering another spine-tingling performance of her debut single. 2021 is poised to be an even bigger year for Zoe as she announces the release of her debut EP ‘Golden Wings’, out May 21st. A symbol of strength and security, the EP features five songs, each delicately penned from a personal, honest and relatable place, all helping to tackle Zoe’s own mental health.
At just 18-years-old, Zoe has already proven to be a special talent who makes truly breath-taking music. This has led to her being selected as Apple Music’s Up Next artist for April – Apple Music’s monthly artist initiative geared towards identifying, showcasing and elevating rising talent. The way in which she has touched a nerve for so many listeners with only a couple of singles, shows the sheer power her voice already holds; this is only the beginning.
Notion spoke with Zoe Wees about how she learnt to accept herself, why authenticity is so important to her, how she can’t wait to play live shows and much more.
Let’s jump right into things. Congratulations on what’s been such a breakthrough year for you. How has it all felt over the past few months?
Great! I mean it’s better than I expected it to be and everything is pretty exciting. I just can’t wait to play live shows cuz that’s one thing that I can’t do but hopefully one day.
Starting towards the beginning of your musical career, you were posting covers on YouTube before you made your official debut. Why was it important for you to build an online community before releasing any of your own music?
I mean for me it was just like knowing that people maybe love or like listening to what I do and support it. It’s great to get feedback before you release your own single and I wanted to build up a community, get some feedback, see how people see my voice and how people see me.
As for your debut single “Control”, what was the decision behind picking this track as your debut and how have your feelings towards this song changed over time?
So, at the beginning it was more like I was struggling with epilepsy and I wanted to help myself. I knew that I was going to help people with the song too because I know that I’m not the only one who’s struggling with epilepsy or with anxieties. So, I just took this chance to write a song about that to not just help me but also help other people who don’t know how to accept this and how to move on and how to not think about this all the time. It’s something very special to me because I’ve never heard a song about epilepsy before and I felt like that’s missing, that’s 100% missing.
Moving on to your latest track “Girls Like Us”, this song explores themes of insecurity and acceptance. Where did these particular feelings come from and why did you want to speak out about them?
For this song it was more related to the quarantine situation and I’d just had a session and I felt like on social media everything seems extremely perfect, even in quarantine. If you’re just at home, everyone looks so perfect and I mean it’s very hard for me. I wrote the song before I’d learned to accept myself and to accept the way I look, but before that I was struggling with myself because I just saw perfect around me. I just wanted to make clear that, first of all you’re not alone with that feeling and also bring back some real beauty and bring back some real sh*t.
And these issues are obviously still quite a big part of social media, but are you glad that you are part of this shift of a younger generation that’s talking more openly about these problems?
Yeah! I feel like that’s something that people do more these days, but I mean we all should do that more. I just wanted to open up everyone’s eyes you know?
For sure. I guess for you it must be quite scary emotionally exposing yourself to the world through your music, but does sharing these emotions allow you to grow further and see yourself in a better light?
Definitely. I mean of course it’s very hard to talk about that and about yourself. I can’t talk about myself when I’m not singing it so I’m just happy that I can do this now. It’s extremely hard to talk about your past but it’s gonna help me and it’s gonna help other people and it would be so rude if I wasn’t taking this chance to make people see that you’re not alone.
Does real emotion also help in the performing of the music as well, if there’s a real authenticity behind it?
100%. I’m always authentic and I really wanted people to see that I’m talking about real sh*t, singing with real emotions, it’s extremely important.
And your message in “Girls Like Us” is made even stronger in the music video. Were the visuals for this track equally important to you?
They were. I didn’t want it to do too much because I want people to listen to the lyrics, that’s extremely important to me. But I had this scene where two hands take off my makeup, which was a brave moment for me because all these years I was walking around with makeup and I had never showed my real face. But for me it was pretty normal, and I never showed myself without makeup but now all of a sudden, I’m not wearing anything nearly, so I learned to love myself even without makeup and I felt like if I can do this, other people can do this too. I just wanted to be the first one to show it this way maybe.
Even more recently you have a remix for the track with MUNA. With both versions, they hold the same powerful message through the lyrics with the original as a slower, ballad but this remix instantly makes you want to dance. What are your thoughts on the new remix?
Usually I don’t like remixes and I am not a fan when people do this with my songs. But I heard the song and I felt like we could reach so many people who would listen to my songs. So now I’ve heard it a couple of times and I’ve started to like it. But the remix is good that’s not a question, it’s just I’m not used to hearing remixes and stuff but yes, I’m liking it every time I hear it more.
Another collaboration of yours was with Tom Walker on his song “Wait For You”. How did that collab come about and what was it like working with Tom?
I was in the studio and my producers showed me “Wait For You” because it was out before he asked me to collab with him. So, that was pretty exciting because they showed me the song and I was like alright that’s a good, good song. Tom then just asked me to jump on the track and I said, “of course!” because at first, I asked him what the song is about, and he told me it’s about having a friend during a really tough time. If I could help him to express that, then I had to do it and it was fun. I met Tom Walker in the studio and we just talked a little and yeah it felt good and it’s still a good feeling to have done that with him.
You recently performed on The Late Late Show with James Corden. What was that experience like? Was that a pretty big moment for you?
That was my first time on US TV. That was crazy. I mean, I’m still not over it because James Corden has got the big, big names and then there’s a little Zoe Wees in between, you know? It’s crazy but I’m still very happy that I have had the chance to do that.
It was amazing. And also, at the end of last year, you had the chance to perform at Abbey Road Studios and you were joined by Sam Smith. How was that for another major experience? Was he able to give you any advice?
That was pretty exciting for me. Opening up the show for Sam is crazy and it’s still a great feeling. Sam just taught me to be me and be authentic. It was a really great experience.
Because your musical rise has occurred during a global pandemic, has it been hard at times to grasp how well your music has been received, and does it all feel a bit like a dream?
It definitely feels like I’m still dreaming. It’s crazy to realise because I just see the numbers and I see everything that happens on social media, but I don’t know how many people are really behind these numbers. So, for me, I’m still dreaming, I think.
Also, for many successful young artists starting out, everything can happen very quickly, and it can be difficult to take it all in and enjoy it properly. But, because the pandemic has put a pause on large parts of our life, in a strange way, are you quite glad that you still have many new experiences to look forward to?
Oh definitely. I mean, of course, I would love to be playing live, but I feel like doing all the promos, doing this and that, and then doing the live shows as well… I mean, I would have thousands of mental breakdowns. So, I think everything’s meant to be and I don’t know how any other artists did all that before when they started with their music. I couldn’t imagine myself doing this now because it’s already pretty tough and hard to do.
You’ve touched on it a few times, so I get a sense that touring is something that you’re particularly excited for.
I’m so ready. I’m so ready. I can’t wait to play live!
I feel like the people are ready as well.
With tackling some very personal issues in your music, especially alongside an overriding challenging year, who are the people in your life that have kept you going?
I think it’s the team. I mean, I’ve got the best team on Earth. Like, they show what hard work can do and because they work hard, I really want to work harder every day. And, of course, my Mum and my friends, but mostly my team. The whole team just gave me strength and helped me express myself and helped me to still be me and not to lose myself. They are always there for me and they just inspire me. Because they never stopped working. They work every second and that just motivates me even more.
Just to wrap things up, what does the next year have in store for you? Do you have any particular goals for the rest of 2021?
Yeah, so the EP is already done. I’m just waiting to release it. So that’s going to come out soon, and hopefully an album at the end of the year. But I’m just focusing on the EP and the new singles. In terms of goals, I take every day as it comes so we’ll see. But the EP is going to come out soon.