Zenesoul’s “Brown Sugar”, Dash of Sweetness We All Need This Summer [Interview]
From Coffee to Brown Sugar
Just as a spoonful of sugar transforms coffee from bitter to indulgent, so does Zenesoul’s latest EP turn past pain into positive perspective. Her Brown Sugar is not only a celebration of love and growth, but also a follow up to any lingering bitterness in her previous project Coffee. After all, what’s a cup of joe without a little sweetener?
Based in Brampton, Ontario, Zenesoul has made a name for herself in the rich Toronto music scene. Born in Nigeria, she moved to Canada at 7 years old and brought her love of singing along with her.
The buttery-voiced neo-soul artist is inspired by the likes of Lauryn Hill and India Arie. Their poetic lyrics and unapologetically emotional vocals have had a profound effect on her own style, which is smooth and expressive and reminiscent of the golden days of 90s RnB… with a decidedly modern twist.
The meaning behind Zenesoul’s name
Zenesoul chose her stage name by flipping the N in her first name— Nene— to a Z, and adding ‘soul.’ The play on words with “zen” is fitting in several ways: not only does “zen” evoke the chill vibe characteristic of her sound, but it also means “music” in Hungarian. Not to mention that “zen” is perfectly fitting for her voice, which is both soft and powerful.
Since the inception of this name, Zenesoul has surpassed over one million streams on Spotify and received critical acclaim for her pensive record Coffee.
Now she’s back with a focus on the sweet side of love and a message to not settle for anything less than the love you dream about and deserve. Brown Sugar is defiant: Zenesoul isn’t ready to believe that it’s not possible to have what she wants. Read the conversation below to find out more about her creative journey and the symbolism behind Brown Sugar.
An Interview with Zenesoul
SSB: So your newest album Brown Sugar dropped a few days ago, and it focuses on the sweet side of love. I was wondering what inspired or motivated you to create this kind of album right now?
Z: Coffee was all about past relationships and heartbreak, even though at the end it was about ‘is this what it means to love yourself and find yourself?’ But I realized I didn’t want to keep on putting negative energy out there. I wanted to manifest what I want and talk about the positive side as well and hope the universe returns it to me.
So I wanted to focus on what I want and also on the idea of loving yourself too and not putting too much emphasis on the painful side but on the growth that comes from all that pain. And I felt like with the pandemic, to put out another heartbreak kind of project wasn’t what we needed. We need positivity right now! And I don’t normally write love songs but I made it a mission to do so.
So would you say that Brown Sugar is a reflection of personal growth you have gone through?
I believe so. Even the fact that I just came from a workout [before this interview] — I made it a mission to do the things that I say I want to do rather than just talking about it… “Hurt People” was me saying I don’t want to go out that way, I don’t want to displace whatever hurt I have onto somebody else. So I’ve been taking the time to do the things that I love and not focus too much on the negatives.
Is music a side gig or your full time occupation?
To be honest, I work in the hospital as a Physiotherapist and Occupational Therapist Assistant. But I do music full time, so I do both full time. I don’t consider it on the side for me, I spend more time on it than even on my full time job. But I always make it work! I really enjoy it and love it so it doesn’t feel strained.
Do you feel like the job at the hospital brings a balance?
Yeah I really do. A, it helps me find my music. B, I feel like if I wasn’t doing my full time job and I was doing just music, since I’m an up and coming artist, I’d feel like I was lagging behind if that makes sense. I want music to feel like something I love and not something I need to make an income from. Once all the pressure of “oh my gosh I need to get a gig” comes in then the fun starts getting sucked out because you’re focused on how to gain from it rather than just doing it for the love of it.
I read that when you heard a beat from your producer for “That Love,” it made you think of 90s Black Love culture found in movies and music at the time. I was wondering if you could tell me what about the portrayal of love in that time appeals to you so much?
Back then it seems like guys didn’t seem afraid to be vulnerable… In the movies back then it wasn’t fully toxic-type relationships, it was loving relationships. And also they displayed love more… Like with “Hurt People!” Honestly people are now more guarded, and it’s seen in what we watch as well. It’s obvious that they aren’t as free as in the past.
What draws you to this 90s RnB sound?
I’m literally obsessed with it! The music was more meaningful to me, I understood everything that was being said and it’s like everything was more direct, literally just saying what you want to say from your heart.
Have you gotten any feedback from fans or critics on this old school sound of yours?
I’ve heard a lot of love! People saying ‘thank you we’ve missed this.’ And it’s really crazy because in music and fashion and art in general you always go back. So it’s cool to see that people are starting to miss conscious music, music with meaning.
Do you try to infuse your own modern energy with that sound?
Oh of course, I think the way I try to do that is with the terms we use now, like “lost in the sauce” [a lyric from “Witchu”]. And the way I say some words modernizes it.
The album ends with the song “Yourself,” which is all about self love. I was wondering if there was a significance as to the placement of this song?
I wanted to place it at the end because although this is what we fantasize about, if it doesn’t end up happening for me it will be okay because at the end of the day I got myself and I know I don’t need to settle for anything.
What do you want people to feel when they listen to Brown Sugar?
I want them to feel happy and feel hope. And to just feel like they’ll be okay regardless of what happens and they don’t need to internalize experiences.
Regarding your cover art for the album, did you have an artistic vision for how you wanted to be photographed or did it just happen in the moment?
I did have a vision, I wanted to be isolated in a room to give the idea of being in my thoughts and with myself and in my own space. And in the process of doing that we accidentally got a shot similar to the cover. I saw that and I thought oh my gosh this is perfect ’cause it’s like me reaching for all the things that I want. And I’m looking away from reality which is my shadow.
What inspires you creatively?
Just trying to give a meaningful message that someone can take away.
How would you describe the sound of your music in three words?
Soulful, nostalgic, and melodic.
And what about yourself?
Kind, hardworking, and strong.
How would you describe your songwriting process?
I’m in the car, I put on a beat, I kind of freestyle until I find melodies that I like and then I start putting them together with words. I don’t like paper and pen because it feels forced. When I’m just free styling and finding lyrics to go with it it makes me feel like I’m speaking my truth.
Can you tell me what producers and collaborators you worked with on Brown Sugar?
Larumadeit is one of my favorite producers, if I get a beat from him I’m instantly happy! … He’s such a kind person and he just fits my vibe so much. I don’t think I would have been able to find my sound if I didn’t find him. We don’t communicate that much — he just puts beats out — but the kind of beats make it easy for me to write, and the simplicity of it showed me this is my niche, this is what I’m best at because it comes so natural…
When you find a creative that’s in sync with you it’s the best thing ever. And that’s like my engineer Nate Smith… Nate allows me to keep trying. I tend to be frustrated with myself and he just says ‘No keep going you’re fine you’re fine’ and he gives me his opinion…. He speaks up and I really appreciate and love that about him.
And everyone on my team is the exact same way, they will tell me what to change if they think it’s not right. And at the end of the day I make the final decision but just to have people around me who let me know [their thoughts] is amazing… So shout out to my team! Like Whiskeyafterwork is the producer of “Witchu” and “Hurt People,” and he just randomly texts me beats all the time! … I love them.
What are your plans or projects going forward?
I’m planning to hopefully release an afrobeat song soon, but also an RnB song because I don’t want to confuse my audience. I want to release my first full length album next year, so I’ve started working on that now.
I have a lot of features coming out soon, I have a feature with Romeyo Wilson, he’s another RnB artist here in Toronto; Dayton James, he’s also out here in Toronto but he’s from the UK; and LOTi, he’s an afrobeat artist.