As an industry in extreme flux thanks to declining sales and the popularity of pirating and streaming, the music business is both a treacherous and exciting battlefield. Today’s technology allows any budding musician to record albums and songs with little help from studio masterminds and wizardry (or label backing for that matter), while social media grants artists a direct line to the public in order to foster an audience and fan base for their sound. It’s an industry that both deters and embraces the underdog, someone like singer-songwriter Sophia Z. Still a relative unknown, the talented, driven, humble and savvy Sophia Z is carving out her own niche in the bumpy climate of today’s ever-evolving music industry, defining herself and her career on her own terms – a career that you should definitely keep your ears out for.
Greek-American. Formally trained vocalist. Political science major. Vocal teacher and coach. Devastatingly honest lyricist. These are all pieces that form Sophia Z, the artist. They don’t sound like the typical background or laundry list of what one would expect from an up-and-coming rock star, but that’s what makes and separates Sophia Z from other musicians doing it their way to establish a career. Sophia Z has been performing since she was a mere four-years-old, entertaining her large, Greek family with her singing voice whenever they would congregate. “I loved how happy I made everyone when I was singing,” Sophia Z recalls. “That feeling kind of stuck with me and I really have never gotten the same joy that I’ve experienced in anything else, so I just knew this is what I was going to pursue.”
And pursue it she did, though in her own, slightly unorthodox way. There are no talent show auditions or reality singing competitions littering Sophia Z’s resume like many of today’s new talent. It all started from that aforementioned passion for performing for her family and a love of songwriting, which led to her writing her very first song in the fifth grade as a way of getting a schoolgirl crush back. “I started writing when I was 10, and that was inspired by health issues I was experiencing and, of course, boy problems,” she said. Those boy problems led to that very first love song; she ended up showing it to her ex and it actually won him back. Clearly, Sophia Z had a way with words at a young age.
One would assume her early songwriting success story would’ve led to a full-blown, charging path into the music world. However, Sophia Z made a left turn again – she enrolled in Chapman University to study political science, inspired by her politically active family and a childhood appreciation for politics as well as music. “I love learning as much as I can about the world and policies affecting us in our nation, as well as abroad,” she said. “Music is my first love, but I also want to help people and voice issues that may not be as popular as they should be.”
Her desire to help undoubtedly led her to pay it forward musically by becoming a vocal instructor and coach. As a trained vocalist herself, Sophia Z praises the advantages of vocal training, as it endowed her with a greater range and knowledge on how to keep her voice healthy and in always-ready singing condition. There’s an unbridled joy that vocal coaching brings her, being able to foster the results in others that it delivered for herself. “When I get texts from students saying they’re practicing and becoming more confident in their voices, I feel so, so happy. I am flattered that my students ask me for advice and want me to help them.” Beyond vocal training, Sophia Z helps her students with their songwriting, an avenue that is of particular importance to her star-ascending trajectory, harkening all the way back to innocent, grade school days.
“For me, I need singing and songwriting to go hand in hand or else I feel off and as if I’m not genuinely telling my story,” she said, commenting on how she views songwriting in the overall scheme of her musical artistry. Many of today’s biggest pop stars rely on professional hit makers and songwriters to craft earworm hooks for them, and the process of singers and performers singing the lyrics of another is by no means new – just look at two of music’s most heralded voices, Elvis and Frank Sinatra, to show you that not being a songwriter doesn’t mean you can’t have a lasting and iconic music career. Sophia Z understands this, yet knows it’s not the path for her. “I don’t necessarily believe writing should always go hand in hand with the artist. [But] I have a very specific style of writing, lyrically speaking, so it’s important for me to be the one to write my story.”
All great stories start with a seed of inspiration or experience, and the same holds true for Sophia Z. When she puts pen to paper to pour her heart out and write a song that tells her truth, she’s drawing on everything from her observations to her feelings to her experiences. “My writing honestly helps me learn a lot about myself and it’s been helpful for me to use my lyrics as a guide to show me the mistakes I’ve made, and how to not continue repeating history.” She goes on to say that the songs she’s producing as of late have been essential and therapeutic in giving her a sense of closure regarding past relationships.
So what of her sound? Self-described, it’s alternative with some dark R&B influences. Both of those varying sounds come through in the two uploaded tracks to her Soundcloud account. With a stripped-down, acoustic cover of Outkast’s 2003 pop throwback jam “Hey Ya!,” Sophia Z sounds every bit the alternative, indie pop star singing her heart out at a coffee shop open mic night. With a beautiful arrangement, her vocals soar to undeniable heights, turning the up-tempo number into an achingly personal declaration about love. On the other end of the spectrum is “MLV (Say You’ll Be Mine),” a hazy, lusty, intoxicating mid-tempo R&B stunner that invokes teas of FKA Twigs (an admitted vocal influence, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Alanis Morissette, Amy Winehouse, Gwen Stefani, Lana Del Rey, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder) and the cool, edgy R&B that defined Tinashe’s breakout album, Aquarius. On this polished track, Sophia Z’s delicately frothy falsetto and intricate production are the stars.
It feels like Sophia Z’s voice could fit well within any genre, which makes the EP she’s currently working on all the more mysterious and curious as to its musical direction. Celebrating the fact that she’s finally found the right crew of people she respects and trusts, Sophia Z is more than excited about the vision and sound she’s crafting for it. “My favorite part is that I get to create something from what I’ve experienced and share it with other people and they vibe with it, or it inspires them to create music of their own.”
As important as the people working with her is her equipment.
“If you go into a studio that doesn’t have good equipment, everything in that studio session will suck. You need to have headphones that will allow you to hear every single detail so you don’t miss a thing. Also, I need gear that will allow me to hear how the music will sound on different platforms – I would say that the most important piece of equipment would be a great pair of studio headphones.”
And her go-to pair?
“The Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones are perfect everyday headphones. As an artist, I want headphones that allow me to hear all the details in each song, and these headphones do just that. They let me capture the ‘flavor’ and tone of each song, which allows me to experience it in a way that is different from just listening on the stereo.”
While she’s got the typical big dreams of any musician (performing at awards shows and in front of large festival crowds), Sophia Z gets the biggest high out of a small audience, and she hopes that she can continue performing her story for those people on a global scale. Her Greek heritage is of particular importance, as she one day hopes to incorporate Greek lyrics into her music and perform for and touch the lives of the people of her country. “I really do hope I have the opportunity to take my music all around the world so that I can connect with a bunch of different faces and hear their stories and how music has moved them.” Brace yourself, world, for Sophia Z!
To listen to Sophia Z’s music, check her out on Soundcloud.
See more of Matt O’brien’s photography on his Instagram.