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by Richard Thorne

Zowie: Pretty & Dirty

by Richard Thorne

Zowie: Pretty & Dirty

Aside from international fame and doubtless considerable fortunes, what do Marilyn Manson, Kylie Minogue, Depeche Mode, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails and Britney Spears all have in common? Well, one answer is Zowie, or rather Zoe Fleury, the former Northcote College pupil who has recently co-written and produced an album with a bunch of songwriter/producers, who between them have done the same for all the artists above. If songwriter pedigree counts then ‘Love Demolition’ should be as big a breakthrough album as her first single Broken Machine was here two years ago for the artist then newly known as Zowie. Zoe has plenty of pedigree of her own. Her dad Johnny Fleury was NZ Musician’s much respected bass columnist for almost a decade and the girl herself plays drums at least as well as she sings and entertains in front of the kit. Richard Thorne talked with Zowie/Zoe. 

When Zoe Fleury says, with a naturally self-effacing laugh, that it feels like she has been waiting her whole life for her debut album to drop, it’s tempting to believe her. Sure she may appear more fashion model than road-toughened musician, but don’t let the light physique and frequent girlish giggles convince you she is anything but a super competent musician and experienced performer, one who really understands the hard work and reward cycle. One who also fully understands the current popular music scene she is assaulting.

“Actually it’s only been just over a year and a half that I’ve been working on it, but it feels like forever!” she laughs.

For the sake of grammatical simplicity, I’ll stop with the exclamation marks right there, but as you read this feel free to add them (and a giggle) at the end of just about all of Zoe’s quotes. An ebullient dynamo by nature, she is about to see her debut album drop on a major label (Sony Australia), and rightly she’s in a bouncy mood.
‘Love Demolition’ is the name of the album and, together with a handpicked coterie of top international songsmiths, she wrote it over about four months in mid-2010. It’s due for local release early May 2012.

“The whole rest of the time has been finishing off production things and being really fussy,” Zoe explains of the time delay. “I wrote with people all over the place; like Sweden, LA, London and stuff, and then finished the production with the songwriters – so it’s been like online, on Skype, every day. Just finishing things, redoing vocals, live drums and all that kind of thing. Obviously, they work with other artists all the time so it’s also been trying to nab them while they are free.”

It was September 2010 when the ridiculously catchy, bubblegum pop Zowie single Broken Machine popped up, fully formed, seemingly out of nowhere to spend a month in the NZ Top 10 chart. That track was the result of a songwriting collaboration with Elemeno P’s Justin Pilbrow, a taster of where in pop-land Zoe’s then musical persona, Bionic Pixie, might be able to head.

As Bionic Pixie, she had been fronting her own rhythm-led band since 2008, and previous to that had been half of the briefly flaring Bengal Lights duo, along with Maeve Munro.

“I wrote Broken Machine with Justin Pilbrow in 2008 – and by the time that it came out I’d moved on a lot musically. The album is a lot different to that song, it’s not so cutesy and you can tell my songwriting is a lot better. Like I know it’s totally a good pop song, but I’d just moved on. I guess I like that dark element of music, but then I love the pop side of it…””

Back then she didn’t think Broken Machine should even be released, but once posted online by Perez Hilton it quickly did well in NZ, particularly on music TV with the aid of a sharply produced (Special Problems) video.

“No one knew who Zowie was ’cos everyone still knew me as Bionic Pixie. It was cool ’cos I set up Whoiszowie.com and then we had a little teaser video.””

It was also through Pilbrow that Zoe got to meet her highly regarded Australian manager, Will Larnach-Jones, who also has Angie Hart, Via Tania and Sydney electronic duo The Presets on his Parallel Management roster.

“I was saying to Justin that I love The Presets and he said he knew their manager. So I asked him to send Will another song we’d written called Toss The Coin, and Will was like, ‘Oh, it’s alright’. There was something in my head that I knew he should be my manager – and I don’t mean that in an obsessive, weird way. I think it was because he’d pushed boundaries to get The Presets to a number one in Australia, when they do this heavy electronic thing and are quite different.
“I don’t know what came over me, but in 2008 I funded my own trip [to Sydney] and somehow these people from various labels said, ‘Yep, we’ll meet you’.””

She laughs in recalling it now, but her future with Larnach-Jones was almost jeopardised by inadvertently drinking some coffee, which she hates, and fighting a gag reflex most of the brief meeting. Exuberant and high energy by nature, Zoe takes her caffeine hits from the can.

“I didn’t speak with him for about a year after that, but I started getting lots of deals offered, so I emailed him and asked if he could look at some of them for me. He replied that he would come to NZ and watch me play at Fashion Week [September 2008] – and after that, he said he wanted to work with me. I knew it! I’d made the Broken Machine video by then as well, so he would have seen what we had done with that song and how much I’d improved.”

It was as Bionic Pixie that she signed with Sony Australia (for the world) early in 2010.

“That was kind of off the back of the labels all seeing us play at the Big Day Out in 2009, so it had been a year of me managing myself and talking with David McLaughlin about what to do. I learnt sooo much crazy stuff about that side of the industry – I feel like I know everything that I’ve signed.””

Backed with the organisational aid of Sony, the artist we now know as Zowie shortly after took off on a four-month global songwriting trek. She says with certainty that she could have done the album by herself, but finds collaborating with others a lot more interesting.

“Together you both come up with things you’d never have thought of. I just wrote a dream list of people I wanted to write with and just threw in some who I knew I wouldn’t get – and then I got them,” she giggles as if still disbelieving her luck or her music’s appeal.

“It was amazing and they were all very understanding ’cos they knew the budget and everything, but they really wanted to help me – so it was cool.”

ZOWIE cover 142All 12 tracks on ‘Love Demolition’ came from that writing trip, from which she returned with more than three times as many to choose from.

“It was crazy ’cos I was still wanting to do more and more, even though I had 40 songs – so I’ve got so many songs left over. When I was doing my first songwriting session something just clicked in my brain, I don’t know what it was, but something I’d been holding inside of me. Maybe I just felt comfortable or something.

Mostly it was just Zoe and one other already successful writer/producer. She says each was completely different in the way they worked together, though she wrote all the lyrics and generally looked after the vocal lines and beats.

“I’d always written my stuff as very beat orientated, and then rapping over the top – when I was doing like the Bionic Pixie stuff. During the trip, I was writing lots of lead lines and everything.”” 

Sweden figures most highly. She was there around the end of the northern summer when it was getting light about 3am.

“I’d always wanted to write with some Swedish songwriters. There’s just something about their musical brain. I was asking them why their scene was so good and they’d say it’s because none of them wants to go out. The weather’s so weird, it gets dark really early and it’s so cold a lot of the time – so they are just in their studios hunched over their computers!

My Calculator and Bang Bang are a Swedish guy called Henrik Jonback. He’s amazing and he’s written heaps with Britney Spears and Miike Snow – he did that crazy guitar in Toxic by Britney Spears.

Idiotise and Nothing Else are another Swedish guy, Jonas Quant. He works a lot with Hurts and No Doubt… lots of pop, Kylie Minogue and others. That was probably one of my favourite sessions because we did cool stuff. We went outside and recorded stuff like car doors slamming and opening his cat food, smacking on the desk – really weird out there stuff, just like dad would do.

Ping Ping, that’s another Swedish writer. Sometimes I’d have two days and we’d write like four songs and others when I had one day with someone and I’d be completely blocked, but at the end of a 15 hour day I’d have something like Ping Ping. That was one of the trickiest sessions! It was like a half time feel and wasn’t right, so we doubled it and it came together.”

She also spent a lot of time in LA, where her songwriting partners included Jimmy Harry, who recently won a Golden Globe for Masterpiece, the song he did with Madonna.

“He’s amazing. Sugarcone and Smash It were done with him. Zip It Up I did with a couple of guys who are in RedOne’s kind of group. They were like, ‘Oh Lady Gaga wrote Bad Romance in this room! They’re quite pop and I made them do distorted stuff and they felt really out of their comfort zone. Nasty Fun is the same guy I wrote Bite Back with and we used a Tom Tom Club line through that one – to make it like the hook of the chorus.”

Still more co-writing was done elsewhere, including Atlanta, Toronto and in London with Hannah Robinson, who co-wrote a track or two on Ladyhawke’s first album.

“There’s quite a few Sydney ones in there too. An amazing writer, Lee Groves, who did a lot of Depeche Mode and Marilyn Manson’s, and you can hear that in Love Demolition, it has that dirty Depeche Mode vibe.””

Though keen to keep going, Zoe was also looking forward to getting back to NZ to do the things that are key to her, like the drumming, her instrument of choice since she was nine.

“It was really important for me to play the drums on the record, still my main love is drums. I even did some things out of my comfort zone, like playing bass on some songs. It was just important to be the musical overseer of everything on my own album, so it was at a point where I love it.””

Far from all being demo roughs, Zoe says some of the tracks were already quite sparkly when she left the producer sessions. After she got home to Auckland the process continued with the trading of emails and Skype sessions whenever each of them was available. She accepts all blame for the long delay between Broken Machine and the arrival of her album, saying her manager would have rather had it out ages ago but she was insistent on making sure it was all finished to her satisfaction.

“It was all jammed into whenever they were free. I had everything prepared for when they had time. I did a lot of it myself and was very specific about what I thought still needed to be done.”

The sounds changed a lot in mixing as well.

“I got two dream people to do that. I wrote with Atticus Ross (I couldn’t believe that), and I asked if he would recommend anyone that Nine Inch Nails had worked with – because they are so good at making it pretty and dirty as well, which I so wanted to get across with the album. He highly recommended this guy Michael Patterson who mixed like The Social Network soundtrack and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and hip hop stuff like P Diddy and Dr Dre, and then also pop stuff like Pink. I messaged him and we met up at SXSW to see if he liked me. He did about half the songs and we got a Swedish guy, Anders Hvenare, to mix all the Swedish tracks. He’s mixed I Blame Coco and the Miike Snow record as well – it’s amazing it all sounds cohesive.”

Indeed ‘Love Demolition’ is cohesive and also ferociously catchy, pointed but friendly, cold yet hot in that clever way of Swedish pop. It’s busy too, littered with fabulous original sounds from a variety of analogue synths as well as plug-ins, along with her own punchy drumming and even some guitar extremism from Zoe’s dad, Johnny Fleury.

It’s said that you make your own luck and another significant part of the Zowie story to date was in getting to play at CMJ (October 2010) and SXSW (March, 2011), with the aid of both NZ On Air and Outward Sound funding.

“At CMJ up in New York we were told by some of the organisers that, based on the press and reviews that came out of it, we were like the top band of the festival. That was incredible. Nylon magazine, which is one of my favourites, saw us play a showcase and asked if we wanted to do a photo shoot the next day. Then the harshest music reviewer from the New York Times gave us this most amazing review.

“All that led us into SXSW and Perez Hilton got us to play at his showcase there, which is pretty much the biggest one of that festival. So we got to play that with Kids of 88, as well as a bunch of other amazing artists, which was cool. It was one of the best crowds we’ve ever had, a lovely vibe, so positive.””

To the valuable Perez Hilton stamp of approval, Zowie has since added Katy Perry – she was on the support bill for the Californian pop princess’s 11-date Australasian tour earlier this year.

“There were three here and eight shows in Australia, and they were all sold out arena gigs. I wasn’t too nervous but it probably is one of the hardest challenges to play to the fans of an artist like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga because for a lot of them it is the first show they have ever been to – and they are there to see them. So you do feel nervous, but the adrenalin rush is insane and you just do your thing. I was surprised, at every show we had screaming fans who were so supportive. Our Facebook fan numbers went up about 7,000 from the tour.

Zowie also won fans among Perry’s 70-strong crew, some of whom even took to wearing her T-shirts. She says the star herself was”… just as she seems; bubbly, supportive and polite.””

Around the same period she and her band were also part of the Future Music tour in Australia, and played some shows there with Mark Ronson – but without an album and with no build up singles being pushed at radio, performance opportunities have, all up, been erratic over the last year. It’s no surprise that her NZ band has seen some changes.

Synth/bass player Harry Champion finished up late last year, as did Andy Thomas who plays with Auckland act Tokyo Keys. Sometime Cut Off Your Hands‘ guitarist Jonathan Lee filled in at CMJ. Jordan Clark (who also used to drum for The Naked And Famous) has remained the one constant since her Bionic Pixie days, and recently his younger brother Dom has joined them on guitar.

“He’s a freak, the sort you think must have been playing since they were born. and we’ve got an amazing synth player, Liam Hornby, who just finished at MAINZ last year actually. We are a really tight, I love them to bits and if we could rehearse every day we would.

“I think that I’m supposed to feel nervous and some pressure but I feel so confident that we are such a tight band live. A lot of people can’t perform their songs live but we have worked so hard. We get amazing feedback from the recordings but it’s the live side that I’m super anal about.”

Zoe admits to envying her drummer friend when they play live.

“I always look at Jordan and go like, ‘Damn you’,”  she laughs. “His drumming is perfect and he’s like a crazy spider.””

Overcoming a natural shyness, Zoe has made herself very at home at the front of the stage. She does get to use an electronic drum on a few songs and says they’re working on developing her drumming more, so it’ll be a two drummer show in places.

“It’s cool. People just love drums and they find female drummers bizarre, which I love.”

By now well adept at brief showcase gigs and supports, they played an hour for the first time recently.

“I feel quite comfortable at the moment doing a solid 40-45 minute set. Doing short showcases you can be just getting into it when you have to finish, but I don’t mind, I just want to play all the time.””

She’s been well-described as a ‘futuristic cheerleader’  and in the way of a Katy Perry or Gaga, on stage Zoe brings her full positive energy and commitment to each song. Given her proclivity for exotic fashion she will no doubt be doing mid-set costume changes anytime soon, but be assured it won’t be about vanity or as an excuse for the music. A teenager in her mid 20s (but ‘from the year 3000’), she has already adopted her second performance persona and there will likely be more.

Zoe was working with a fashion designer back in the Bengal Lights days and says the desire to wear “really weird clothes” then wasn’t so much to get attention, more to help her get into the right character mode on stage.

“When it changed to Zowie the songs were just getting stronger and the character was stronger, and I was getting more confident about what I was doing. Probably the artists I look up to as well all looked exceptional. I had been obsessing about Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, all the characters that Bowie would evolve into. Even like Grace Jones, she was always evolving, and Michael Jackson and Prince. I don’t want to copy what Bowie did but the idea of it excites me.

“When I was on the writing trip I was thinking that I didn’t feel like her [Bionic Pixie] anymore. Before that I hadn’t been past Australia – and I was in LA by myself for months and London by myself, and Sweden by myself – so of course I grew and just was so much more confident in everything.

“So I messaged my manager and said I want her to morph into another character – and I guess that’s a label’s worst nightmare – but they were so into it and set up a really cool story for Zowie. All the Bionic Pixie fans just loved it.”

“The designer fashion thing has helped me a lot. It got me into Nylon and then on the front of the New York Times’ fashion section after CMJ, so it is definitely helpful and important. It’s just exciting to have a job and be able to wear insane clothes – and it’s endless what you can do.”

Not all bright sparks get fanned into flames, but in all sorts of ways it likewise seems endless what Zoe Fleury can potentially do. Musician, songwriter, producer, performer, clotheshorse, character – she’s a striking package – and ‘Love Demolition’ is quite some striking debut album for Zowie.

Photo by Amanda Ratcliffe

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