At the age of 18 Julia Zahra was the youngest ever singer to audition and win ‘The Voice of Holland’, the Dutch edition of ‘The Voice’. As a soulful acoustic singer-songwriter she topped the charts in the Netherlands, with her live performances becoming a regular feature on prime time TV. Originally hailing from the US, she has woven her fascinating life story into her writing. And as one of Hollands most exciting young LGBT artists, she is looking to break into the UK music scene with her new album ‘Remedy’. We spoke to her recently.
Your new single Indiana is about you imagining a life where you’d grown up in Indiana in the USA? Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes I was born in Indiana but I grew up in a small town here in Holland. I was adopted when I was just 2-3 weeks old, so I have no memory of that time. When I started writing the song, I had no feelings about it as such, it was more curiosity and the older I get I continue to think more about the life I could have had. It’s just about asking myself the big “What If” questions, so where would I have gone to school, what friends would I have had? That kind of thing.
How has growing up in the Netherlands shaped you as a person?
I think it’s a great place to grow up. In Europe we have a lot of great countries and to be honest I grew up in a small town called Bussum, that behaves like it’s a big city (laughs). We like to image that we’re a big city that’s for sure. I had a great childhood with nice friends and nice schools. I think in Holland we have the image and atmosphere of sober and down to earth people and that’s what I appreciate most about it. I have a lot of opportunities here to think in a down to earth way. I often go back to a peaceful inner place and don’t include any drama. It’s important to have a sober view, and I think that’s a Dutch thing.
You said previously that you’ve reflected on your unique place in society, because of your sexual orientation and your bi-racial identity. How does that inform your song-writing?
I think in many ways it’s just a big part of my life. I talked to my girlfriend about it, because if you’re gay you don’t want to call it a burden, but the reality is that you have to overcome certain things. It gives you a step ahead in that you have already had to overcome something. It also makes it a little bit easier in your later years when you have to overcome certain situations and be resilient. The song Tired from my new album is about having a bi-racial identity. I’ve had to overcome a few of those barriers and I think you can hear it in the song writing and the story-telling in my music. Those experiences have shaped many things in my life.
What age did you start playing, and why did you pick up a guitar in the first place?
I was really young when I started playing. Initially I took a course for several weeks, and it was great because every 3-4 weeks we got to try a different instrument. I was 6-7 years old at the time, but I couldn’t choose my favourite instrument. I took some saxophone lessons because I liked that instrument the most. However after a year I felt the need to play and sing at the same time, which I couldn’t do with the saxophone. After that I joined my first band at the age of 10. It was just the three of us and my brother was the drummer in the group. All we wanted to do at the time was take it to the streets, and make a lot of money busking during the Queens Day celebrations. Queens Day is a national holiday which is celebrated every year in Holland, where everything turns orange! So we took it to the streets for a few years, and eventually we asked a guitar player to join us and played some open mics. I picked up a guitar at 13-14 years old when the band broke up, and I started looking up things that I liked on YouTube. At that time it was about having fun with it, and I’m glad I did because that’s the most important part.
Which musicians influenced you growing up?
More than a few. My Dad really liked Dutch based artists, like Anouk, and they influenced me in a big way. Because of her I wanted to improve and she definitely influenced my singing style. Also American artists like John Mayer and Jeff Johnson. I was 15-16 years old when I discovered them, and I knew there was more to music than just singing, so that’s when I became a songwriter.
What was it like being catapulted into fame at the age of 18 (on The Voice of Holland), and what lessons have you learned in the years since that early success?
I learned a lot. In the past few years I think I’ve learned the most, and that’s because previously I had been so busy doing a lot of commercial work and TV. Of course those kinds of experiences were fun, but I learned that for me it’s more about putting out music and writing music that is legitimate and comes from the heart. I have done things that didn’t match my own initial intentions, so I wanted to remind myself during these past 2-3 years what matters. As a result I put out songs that I really believe in which are mine and not somebody else’s story. If I don’t believe in something it doesn’t make sense to me.
What would your advice be to young artists starting out in 2021?
First of all I don’t really see myself as a good advice giver! Find out who you are as an artist, what kind of stories do you want to tell? Are they yours? Writing your own music is important, so pay attention to being really honest. If the end product is not to your taste, don’t do it. You have to have fun and be honest.
Where are your favourite places to play live in the Netherlands, and how much have you missed live audiences in recent months?
I’ve missed it so much. It’s been tough, because there’s nothing in the future that’s been mapped out yet that we can hold on to. I really remember playing the first show with my current band, who have been together for about three years now. The first show was in The Hague, at a venue called Paard in the south of Holland. I was very nervous but it was a great show, such a good vibe. We’ve done two small tours since which were both amazing and really fun to do. I wish I could play more festivals in the future too, as I really like going to festivals.
What are your hopes for the future? Both for your music career and more generally?
My starting point is that I’d like to make the core of my career really small, and by that I mean make the best music I can make, and just try to reach a lot of people with it. After that I would really love to do a European tour. I think that various other European countries really match the industry we have in Holland. I would love to see some more places if it’s possible. I went to London once, which was really beautiful.
Your new album Remedy is coming out next month – where was it recorded and how long did it take you to put together?
I started writing it a year ago and the recording process took a little bit longer than expected. It also felt unfinished when we were done recording, so it needed more storytelling throughout the album, we did this by using samples and different soundbites. Luckily I could call on help from a school friend who had studied music production, who wanted to help me finish the record. This is now the story we wanted to tell.
Tell us about your 2018 album Something New? Is it fair to describe it as more of a solo acoustic project, and how does it differ to your new album?
My writing continues to develop, and it’s changed in recent years, but it’s the production side that’s changed the most. We decided back then (in 2018) that it was more about the songs, as I’d done so many commercial projects up until that point it had to be more about the songs and the storytelling. With Remedy I wanted to tell stories too, but on this album the focus is on the production side as well, and we have tried to marry that with real emotional value. We’ve connected it up to make an even bigger story.
We’ve been enjoying listening to the new album and to the Something New collection too. What was the inspiration for your song I Blame It All On Me, and was that a forerunner to your new album in some way?
That’s a good question. I think I always have a few moments when I listen to songs that were written a while ago, which feel applicable to now. It was a break-up song, so I put all of the feelings from that break-up into it to soothe me. After I had played it for a while I reflected that it was my side of the story only, in terms of the break down in the relationship. If I am honest about it I’ve always had trouble taking 100% responsibility for my emotions in terms of how I react to those type of things. More broadly I felt that there were feelings in that song that are applicable to everything in my day to day life right now. So by trying to take responsibility for those things, it gives my life a whole new level of meaning.
Julia Zahra’s new album Remedy comes out on Zip Records on 5 March 2021. Website http://www.juliazahra.com