JamRoom Diaries: Zuri Marley

You may do a double take when reading Zuri Marley’s name, and you’d be right in doing so. But while her bloodline does lead to her grandfather, the Reggae legend Bob Marley, Zuri is very much so on her own creative path.

The emerging, NYC-based musician has been working on her art for years now, drawing inspiration from the likes of Grace Jones, Sade, Gwen Stefani, and Basquiat. She does, however, still look to her lineage for inspiration, reminiscing on childhood days surrounded by Jamaican music. From our talk, as well as a sneak peak of some of her unreleased music, one thing is certain: Zuri’s going to be a star in her own right, as well as a generally lovely and inspiring creative to be around.
We spoke to Zuri about feeling loved, her style and beauty influences, and why she’s more comfortable on stage than in a recording studio.

When it comes to your overall style, what would you say your major influences, or icons, are that you look up to? Even movies and music videos?

For me, Kate Bush and Bob Fosse. I love dancers’ style, I love the way dancers dress so I love to look at that. Grace Jones is a huge influence on me. Definitely downtown New York, with Andy and Basquiat. When I was living in Jamaica, that was huge for me because no one really knew about that stuff. In America and in New York, especially, it’s like, “You know, blah blah, whatever,” but in places where that’s not our culture, it’s so exciting and new so when I was younger that was really a big thing for me. And Gwen Stefani, of course.

How would you describe the style in Jamaica and how your style changed, if it did, in New York?

It definitely changed, but I was always kind of moving towards this, because what I wore in Jamaica was not when everyone wore in Jamaica. It was already a little bit different, but it was still pretty.. when I look back on it, a lot of florals, I don’t know, just a different mood completely, but I was always looking for the inspiration for what I want to do in art and fashion, from other countries. So I’d bring a bit of that into Jamaica, but in Jamaica, it’s interesting, you don’t necessarily see a lot of people in Jamaican style clothing, unless you’re in a dance, or somewhere where you can really access the culture. So coming to New York, I think I actually tapped more into my Jamaican side, taking from the Dance Hall Queens, that’s a great movie, so tapping more into that culture, mixing the glam. My idea of fashion is glam meets “what the fuck”—like garbage, but not trash! Just bringing those worlds together and just doing it my way. Just finding those little knick knacks that I can always go to. That’s what I love, cause I used to travel a lot with my dad, touring and stuff, and the places we’d go, there would always be little shops and vendors and I’d just find little ne ne ne nes.

My idea of fashion is glam meets “what the fuck”—like garbage, but not trash!

When it comes to makeup, what is your approach to that?

As I’m growing and stuff, I’m just obsessed with products. I’m just a product junkie. So now my approach to makeup is skin care first, I think that’s super important, I’ve been doing so many masks, sheet masks—Dr. Jart and Jayjun. The rose Jayjun mask transformed my skin; doing it before a shoot, it just adds so much moisture and I’ve realized that my makeup goes on so much better. And with makeup, I perfect my skin, and I choose what I’m going to accent—either I’m going do a cool straight brow, or I’m going to do glitter highlight, or I’m going to do lashes, so i choose what I’m going to highlight for the look or the day. I’m very into lashes. Lashes are crucial. It’s crucial for me. I feel like even my music, if I need inspiration, I’ll think about eyelashes and their movement and the way they flutter. And don’t forget eye gloss.

When it comes to the music, when did you start dabbling in music and when did you decide you were going to make a career out of it?

So I was always, obviously, around music, my family is in music. There was always music around me, but I never really looked at it as a career, or something that had any outcome of fame or success. I always just looked at it as this is part of me and part of my life, it’s what I listen to. I’m such a funny person, because there are all these things I’m into out of left field, like Arthur Russell, and different underground artists, and then like… Hilary Duff. I love that though, it’s a huge spectrum! When I was younger I had all of this influence from my Jamaica roots and music, and my mom exposed me to like, No Doubt, Sade, Tracy Chapman, and then my dad’s influence, that’s like reggae music on a whole and reggae legends, and finding my own way through that. And I think when I started finding my own way into music, which was early adolescence, I guess, like 11 or 12, is when I started understanding how I could have my own voice in it, and finding artists I really love for myself. When I was younger it was like 3LW and Jojo, then I got older, and it was Lykke Li and Florence & The Machines, you keep finding people and discovering, then you learn how to start doing it for yourself and feeling emotions and translating them in that way, that’s how you know—that’s the same way I knew. When I heard Lykke Li, I was like, I get this and I feel this and when I hear what I’m doing, just writing in my bedroom by myself, I know that this is something that I want to do and share.

When you’re listening to, especially the influences that you just talked about, what is it that you find yourself most drawn to, is it the lyrical content, is it the sound?

It’s definitely the lyrical content, and how much I can feel of the person coming through, so how organic, how honest the artist is. Even in pop music, with the top of the charts, the best songs are still the ones where, even if it’s a simple idea, you get what the person is saying and you feel it. That’s the most important thing for me, “Can you feel it?” That’s something that I try to do in my own music, when I listen back to something I do and I don’t feel it, I don’t get a little tingle, a little vibe, it ain’t happenin. And also, something I just want to say, I feel like my musical influences were never solely musical, it was always in something else, whether it was dance or theatre, it always came to me in different ways. I was obsessed with theatre as a kid, I would turn regular songs into broadway songs. And like Bob Fosse, I mentioned earlier, but having that element of performance as a way to translate your emotions as well, not just through the singing and the song, but how you’re moving, how you carry yourself, what you’re expressing. That’s something that’s very important to me—incorporating all of the theatrical, creative, artistic elements outside of music into my work, so that it becomes work. It’s not like, “I’m going to release a single and here it is and here I am.” I am invested in this with my body, my mind, my spirit.

You mentioned, also, you come from a musical family, do you feel like you’re following in your parents and grandfather’s footsteps, or you feel like you’re creating your own path or is it somewhere in between?

I feel like I’ve taken the elements of what my father and grandfather did, taking the core elements of it, and that’s what I feed off of, that’s where I live. It’s not face value, it’s not like ‘she sings, and she should have dreadlocks, she should do reggae’. Because I feel like that’s the image that people see of my family, but there are core values there, and that’s what I’m interacting with, which are freedom, rebellion, going against the grain. That’s really what that was. Now we see him and we’re like, “Yeah, Bob Marley, smoke weed, woohoo!” Back then that was a statement that was being made, so I’m taking those statements and the things I learned. I didn’t learn how to be like them, I was created as myself, and I’m interpreting what I see. I guess some people would say I’m different, or rebelling from my family, it’s not that I’m rebelling, I’m just taking those lessons. The lesson is be free, do what you want to do, you’re as free as you want to be. That’s what I think I take from my family. I think I’m definitely going on my own path, doing my own thing, veering away, especially because I guess some of the things I do are considered risqué, and that’s not really in our culture. But at the end of the day, it’s the same message—free yourself, do whatever the hell you want. I don’t care, no one should.

I am invested in this with my body, my mind, my spirit.

It’s interesting, too, how people even, outside of the music, define an aesthetic that they think you should fit because of who you’re related to. So when it comes to the aesthetic, the album art, the music video, how do you approach the aesthetic and images that have to go alongside the music?

So I am a collager, I do a lot of collages, and I do online collages, whether it’s Photoshop or Pages, just taking and making things, cutting things up. I do that on my wall, as well, every year I put up a new collage. I use a lot of different textures, bubble wraps, post cards, take all of these different elements, and I think that’s the same way I create my work and the imagery for it. I go back to the root of, I guess, my fashion influence that we were talking about earlier, Bob Fosse, that whole era and that whole feeling, and I try to incorporate those tones into whatever imagery I have. I always think about music, and I always think about the imagery when I’m creating my work. Where do I see myself in this song? Is it a fantasy that I cannot reach, and I’m talking about it? Or is it a place where I see myself there, but the world doesn’t see me there? And I think that happens a lot with artists of color, especially women of color, a lot of narratives are narratives that we have never experienced or have been shut out of, but are in the American media landscape. You know, as an awkward black girl, have I ever experienced any of that bullshit that they tell you girls have to do, or should do, or should have in order to feel loved? No. Do I think about that stuff, and American media and American dreams? Yes I do.

Do you feel loved without it? You don’t need that.

Hell yes! I feel loved without it and it’s also like, if I’m putting myself in those places, mentally or within my music, being aware that that’s not what it is, and giving that messages of like ‘This was never your life, this is never what they said you could do, but you still dream of it’ How are you going to accept that dream, and make it your own. Make your dreams your own. All of our dreams come from somewhere, we all have a source, whether it’s negative or positive, and then it’s how do you make those your own, so you fit in into your own narrative in your mind.

That’s so interesting. I know you’re still working on releasing new music, but you’ve performed live before still, how do you approach that? Do you get stage fright? Are you comfortable in front of an audience?

That is my favorite part. Live performance is the part where I’m most comfortable. I have recording anxiety, for a lot of people it’s the opposite. I have recording anxiety, I’m just starting to feel more comfortable in the studio and taking charge, because I’m self producing, so I have all of these moving parts of different musicians, and sometimes it’s really overwhelming because it’s just me. But when I’m on stage, I am responsible for myself and I’m responsible for delivering something to my audience. I feel like in the stage work, I go back to my roots in theatre, I feel it coming through and then I’m just like singing. There’s less of a pressure live, as well, because it goes away. Someone comes to hear you sing once and then it’s gone. I enjoy that a lot. I really enjoy performing in front of large audiences. I did perform a lot with Blood Orange last summer, and performing on those stages was amazing. That’s what reminds me to keep going, because I’ll get to perform on a stage like that again. I’m not gonna be cooped up in the studio. People like to make artists feel like if they don’t love being in the studio, they can’t do it, but no. There’s a lot more that goes into music.

Yeah, and how is it when you are performing live, in terms of the audience interaction? I find it so interesting how you start to see the play counts go up and the view counts go up, and then it’s so different to see humans actually watching you, and it’s an exchange, a beautiful one, if you’re both feeling  each other.

Yeah, I much prefer it. It’s all in the eyes really; that’s where all the power is. Even if you have a large audience, you don’t have to pinpoint one person, but you are and you don’t even know it, because you’re using your eyes to translate something. That’s how I like to connect. That’s a good part for me.

When you’re looking at your songs lyrically, do you find things where you’re like ‘Oh shit! I’m really caught up on this person or this thing that happened!’

Exactly. You find it after you write it. Completely. My song writing process is just I write. I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write about this, I just go with whatever comes to me and I look back at it and I see, “Oh there I was exploring my sexuality, there I was really caught up on that guy,” and it’s really interesting because at the end of the day, when you’re looking at all of it, you can piece together your story.

I finally feel like I have something right. It’s quite exciting.

Yeah, it’s an interesting shift, because ultimately any art that you’re doing is for yourself, but then it also becomes for an audience, and there is a point where it switches over because you’re releasing things publicly.

Yeah, and some of the songs that will be coming out I wrote when I was 16, when I was still in Jamaica and they still mean something to me, and they’re still fun.

Do you go back and edit them a lot now that you’re older?

No, I don’t edit them at all. I don’t touch them, because when I’m done, I’m done. I work independently, there’s no outside noise of “this is what it has to be” yet. So I get to say, “Hey I wrote this song, and it’s like that. That’s it, it’s like that.” Right now, there’s no pressure on me to be at a certain level, right now it’s just pressure on myself to just give it to you guys!

One thing I want to mention is that, when people think about production, a lot of times they think about you sitting in your room pressing buttons and sending it out, but there’s an old way of producing which is you get everyone together, maybe you write the parts, and that’s kind of what I do. Every single part in my song, I chose the chord, I write everything, I make it all happen, and I produce other people to make the sound. I am orchestrating the entire song. It’s a bit different, but I’d still say that I’m the producer. I’m putting all these pieces together, so that’s the way I produce. It’s a bit more old school, that’s what they did back in the day.

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