- Mon, 2004-08-02 15:25
The Story So Far
Back in 1997 Zena joined a dance troupe called Multi Shades, backing artists like Beverly Knight, Busta Rhymes and Soul 4 Real. Incidentally, Zena describes her dancing as “urban, sexy, street”. We’re not arguing.
At the same time, Zena was writing songs and recording them on the same battered portable tape deck she’d had since she was 14. A cousin put her in touch with a local producer, and she started recording some demos. On sending them to record companies in London, Zena got a proper job in a courier firm in Aston, but with an eye on her long-term goal – to be an all-singing, all-dancing, songwriting performer. “I knew deep down I didn’t want a nine to five job so one day I just woke up and told my mum “I’m moving to London.”
In fact – speaking volumes about her drive – no sooner had Zena made the decision than she was on the train. “I decided I was moving to London on the Monday, got an interview for a job as a sales executive on the Tuesday, found out I’d got the job on Wednesday and I had to start the following Monday.” As soon as she moved to the capital, staying on a friend’s floor in Finsbury Park, Zena “went crazy, buying ‘The Stage’, going to auditions and stuff.” One of her first auditions – which she thought was for a solo artist – turned out to be for Mis-Teeq. They signed her up on the spot.
“It was a struggle,” remembers Zena, “it was hard for all of us because we didn’t have any money. Then, after about nine months we got signed to Inferno Records and we put out ‘Why’. We had a garage remix done by Matt ‘Jam’ Lamont and it just went crazy on the underground.” The single eventually got to No.8 in May 2000.
Zena, however, wanted out. “It wasn’t the direction that I’d originally planned for myself,” she says. “I’d gone to a solo artist audition and it turned out to be a group, the music got crossed over because the garage remix had done so well. We were having people write for us. But the songs we were singing, I had songs as good as that at home.” Zena decided to leave Mis-Teeq. “It was a hard decision to make, but I had to follow my gut feeling.”
As Mis-Teeq went onto greater heights of success (“It wasn’t demoralizing because it was my choice”), Zena went back into the studio. After about nine months, a track, ‘Baby Be Mine’ featuring her friend’s mate Megaman caught the attention of Serious Records. They signed her in 2002, and then, “a whirlwind happened.”
Since May of last year, Zena has been going around the world to work with producers including Redzone (Mya, Blue Cantrell, TLC), Maximum Risk (currently working with Jamelia), Anthony Dent (Destiny’s Child), Loon and Danish wonderboy Saki. The result is a selection of dancefloor destroyers, sweetened with the occasional sumptuous ballad. ‘I’m Ready’ is a racy tale of a girl meeting a man and wanting to sleep with him there and then, ‘Been Around The World’ is a crossover smash in waiting and, as the call-to-party ‘Let’s Get This Party Started’ more than hints, this is not a record to chill out to.
And Zena is not the kind of person to do much chilling out. While she enjoys a night on the sofa watching ‘Sex And The City’ as much as the next girl, you’re more likely to see her on the dancefloor at The Mayfair Club or Attica, or ricochetting between Bond Street and the high street in search of great clothes (favourite labels: Versace, Miss Sixty, Fendi). “Now,” she says, “because of the hard work I’ve put in, my head’s in the right place. I know what I want, I’m focused on the future and I know what I’m doing.”
That’s Zena – warrior, princess, superstar. We caught up with Zena as she releases her new single of her forthcoming debut album, Been Around The World, featuring reggae star Vybz Kartel.
''I like music because... I don't like anything else but music.'' Zena
ILM: So first up, how are you enjoying the summer?
Zena: I'm lovin' the summer so far. I got back from Ibiza last week. I was over there doing some promotional gigs out there and I got to hang out with Charlotte Church and all her mates, it was the time when they were on that girly holiday over there. She's so down to eart, such a good party girl.
ILM: Did you enjoy the MTV Base tour? How was that?
Zena: The MTV Base tour was really good and it was my first time in Ireland, so that was a bit special for me, because I've always wanted to go to Ireland. It went really well, the crowd were fantastic. It was quite intimate as well, so you see people's faces and connect with the crowd a lot more. So I'm looking to actually seeing it actually.
ILM: Your single, 'Been Around The World' feat. Vybz Kartel is out now, we really like it, can you describe its vibe and tell me a bit about it?
Zena: Been Around The World was originally produced by RedZone in the States and what happened is, we knew that we wanted to get a feature on a track on the album and we picked Been Around The World because it's got such a laid back vibe, and the contrast of having a Jamaican dance-hall artist doing his thing on it is such a good contrast because it's a laid back summery track, and a very girly track, and to have Vybz Kartel on it gave it a whole new element. I think out of all the tracks on the album that was the best track to have him on, because it gave it a totally different feel.
ILM: Which track from your album did you have the most fun making?
Zena: The track called Feeling You was written by me, and it was quite funny because a singer had already had to sing it down for me to get to hear it, and was doing these ad libs which weren't the kind I wanted to do - I wanted to do my own adlibs. So I was in the studio with the producer, French, and we just had a laugh doing these ad libs and we were messing about. And some of the ones when I'm laughing and joking around are actually in the track. So I had a lot of fun recording that.
ILM: You’ve already made a mark in the US with your cameo in the Ja Rule and Bobby Brown Thug Lovin video – tell me a bit about that and what were Bobby and Ja Rule like?
Zena: What happened is, I hooked up with Bobby Brown and we did some collaborations together and he was scheduled to do the Ja Rule and Bobby Brown video for Thug Lovin and on the day he was leaving, we went to the hotel to say goodbye to him and he was like, 'I really want you to do this video with me, we've got a private jet waiting, so we had to pack our bags in ten minutes and get to the airport and he took us to LA. The night we arrived there we went to Usher Raymond's birthday party and I got to meet Usher, although I was actually a bit disappointed when I met him because I was actually taller than him, so it kind of burst my bubble. I thought he was really tall and strong, but he looks a lot smaller in real life, although he's still very good looking.
And the next day we did the video shoot which was fantastic. The time I was getting ready and having my hair and make up done, Ja Rule, Bobby and the two other girls who were doing the scene were actually on set waiting for me, and I had to have this little buggy thing to carry me round on to set, and once I got on set because they were waiting for so long, everybody started clapping when I got on set. It was a scene where we were in the car with Bobby Brown and Ja Rule, and I was set next to Ja Rule and he was like 'are you ready now?' And I was thinking oh my god he couldn't start his own video because of me'.
ILM: Did you meet Whitney?
Zena: Yeah I met Whitney in the States, she came to the studio to meet me and sat me down and talked to me about the music industry and how you can get really caught up in it, and to keep myself grounded. And her and Bobby where over here about a month and a half ago filming a fly on the wall documentary in London, and they actually phoned my management up and invited me out to dinner, so we went to dinner with them in the West End for a Chinese. The Prince of Brunei was there which was great because I'd actually met him before, because I'd performed at his 18th birthday party when I was in Misteeq, he got us to go over to Brunei to perform for him. So I was that there with Whitney Houston and a bunch of other people, and I was nattering away with Whitney Houston because she had me sit next to her. And the Prince of Brunei's come in and said 'Oh hi Zena' and I've gone 'Oh hi' and so it looked like I knew everyone and was really big, and I thought people will think I'm a star.
ILM: Do you have any dream collaborations?
Zena: Mary J Blige, because I admire her as an artist. She's been consistently successful with all of her albums and just her as a person as well, she's such a strong person and says what she feels and she's so real that you can relate to her. She lets you know who she is, what she's about, what she's been going through and how she's come through it, so you can look to her and learn a lot from her. Her first album, What's the 411 is an album that inspired me to do this.
ILM: You joined Blazin’ Squad for their sell-out arena tour earlier this year, any plans to tour yourself?
Zena: Before a tour I'd really like to do an intimate gig, maybe a few tracks from the album with a live band, and put a twist on the tracks so they sound a bit different. That's something I've been talking to my management about and is something I'm focusing on, and letting people see me as a performer with maybe a bit of dancing too.
ILM: You joined multi shades dance troupe after school, backing artists like Beverley Knight, Busta Rhymes and Soul 4 Real. What was that experience like and did it give you a taste for showbusiness?
Zena: It did. It prepared me for me being on stage. It's quite daunting being on stage. I'd just finished school then and had got myself into this dance troupe, and I was really shy at that time as well, because I'd really always liked dancing, and we'd all get in the dance studio and I'd be the one sitting on the bench at school, and I didn't really come out of myself until I left school, and that gave me the taste and confidence for being on stage and have people look at me and watch me. I just love dancing and it's something I always like to incorporate into anything I'm doing, like videos and performances, so it prepared me for what was to come and helped my confidence to grow.
ILM: Do you feel you made the right decision to leave the band – after all you’ve been busy on your album since and are now doing the kind of music you wanted to do, but it must’ve been a little difficult to see their massive success?
Zena: It wasn't something that happened overnight. I was actually in Misteeq for over a year before I made the decision to leave, and for the majority of that time I was extremely unhappy in the group and people don't see what's happening behind closed doors, but there were times when we wouldn't be speaking at all, and it kind of took it's toll on me because I was very young then, and I was in London on my own without my family for support, and it was a decision I'd thought long and hard about. I'd already recorded the second single, the first single had gone to number eight, so it was kind of obvious there was going to be success within the group.
But I took the decision even knowing that and it prepared me for what was to come and I didn't have time to feel regret, because as soon as I left the group I fell into new management and started shopping my demos to record companies, and within eight months I'd been signed again, so I didn't really have time to ponder on it, and that would've been unhealthy anyway to sit at home watching them on TV and think 'oh no'. As a person I'm very strong like that and if I'm going to make a decision, and with this I'd thought about it so much, and I'm really happy for them because I think that was the best thing for all of us. Everything happens for a reason and I think it couldn't happen (their success) with me, I think I was going on my path and they were supposed to go on their path, and it's something that they've always wanted to do, just like me doing this kind of music, so I'm happy that they are achieving what they wanted to do and vice versa, I'd hope that they would be happy for me doing what I wanted too.
ILM: You wouldn't be having a chinese with Bobby and Whitney if you hadn't left. Have you seen the Mis-teeq girls since you left the band?
Zena: Yes we do cross paths at industry parties and we say 'hi' but there's not catching up because it was more of a professional relationship anyway, so for us to start to develop a relationship like that now would be a bit fake. We didn't have girly chats it was more on a professional level.
ILM: You write a lot of your own music and have been doing so for nearly ten years since you were 14, do you have a place you go that inspires you creatively?
Zena: I don't. With my writing I go off my vibe. I think if I had a set formula to write I think it would get a little bit boring and too obvious. So sometimes I could be at home vacuuming, and I just get a melody in my head, so I'll sing it into my dictaphone, or there's been times when I've been out and about and I'll just start humming something, so I'll phone my answering machine and sing it into that. It's wherever the vibe takes me or wherever I am. I think if I was to consiously sit down and think, 'I'm now going to write a song' I'd get writers block or something.
ILM: What advice do you have for collaborators and artists starting out?
Zena: Record and write as much as you can. Send it out to record companies, go to as many auditions as you can and just remain positive and focused. It's not as easy as it looks and there are a lot more setbacks than it seems. Don't take a set back as something negative, learn from it and take something positive from it. You can ask why that setback occured or why you failed to get an audition and learn from the feedback you get. Take a negative and turn it into a positive.
ILM: What is your earliest musical memory?
Zena: My dad played a lot of rare groove and lovers rock in the house, but probably I remember dressing up in my bedroom in my black tights and leotard, as I used to do tap dancing, and pretending to be the girl out of Michael Jackson's 'The Way You Make Me Feel' video, and just wishing so bad that I was her. I must have been 7 but I wanted to be her.
ILM: What is in your CD player right now?
Zena: Brandy's Aphrodisiac and Usher's Confessions - I can't get enough of that. It's fantastic.
ILM: Can you tell me your favourite tune that: Makes you smile/happy?
Zena: Real Love - Mary J Blige
ILM: Makes you feel relaxed and chilled out?
Zena: Jazzy Jeff- Summertime
ILM: Makes you want to have a good boogie?
At the moment J-Kwon - Tipsy