Bay area pop singer-songwriter Zyles meets us at Green Table Cafe in Mid-City before his performance at The Mint to chat about his new ventures in music, the prominent roles that social media has in today’s society, and the importance of available arts programs in the modern era.
So to start us off here, you’re riding the highs of your single “Secretary” and its accompanying music video. Would you like to share a little bit about how the inspiration for the song and the video came to be?
Zyles: Sure! So the song definitely happened first and was sort of a confluence of a few factors. The imagery itself came about while I was reading this book called Algorithms To Live By.
I’m intrigued. *laughs*
Zyles: *laughs* It’s pretty exciting actually. I’m in computer science by training, so there were a lot of things that I understood, and one of them was having a couple of foundations that you can make interesting points out of. So the idea is that if you’re faced with hiring a bunch of secretaries, how do you decide which one to hire? Once you dismiss one, you can never go back to her, and that idea just sort of struck me. I happened to observe some people who were having trouble letting go and having had those sort of experiences myself, so there was a lot that resonated with me in a full cerebral and emotional way that was pretty cool. At its core, the song is just about separating from somebody, and then it happens to be a secretary, and then it happens to also line up with this piece of literature. There’s a psychological side of it too where people, even with the understanding that they should probably let go, they continue to commit too early I think. So, all that’s to say, in general, I tend to think about right and wrong ways to construct worldviews. I’ll take a step back and say, ‘Look, this is just one interesting thing, but it’s not the only way.’ I mean, we don’t have to be super analytical about it, but it’s interesting when you look at it. So that was the song side of it. The production side sort of came to life in the studio over the course of a few days. There was always that soulful element to it, and I think the groove pretty much speaks to that, but I always had this idea of a Justin Timberlake style harmony and since that was the first time I really played around with that I had it heavily featured in the song.
That’s so awesome to hear is just come to life in front of you from the pages of a book all the way to the studio!
Zyles: It was a wonderful experience.
So, apart from “Secretary,” you also have the well-received summer track “Sundresses” and you’ve got some other singles scheduled to be coming out soon. How was the writing and recording process been different between the songs that you’ve already put out and the upcoming releases?
Zyles: Well, the process is kind of similar in terms of there just being a lot of thinking involved. I tend to start with the concept, and then develop the lyrics and music around it. “Sundresses” was a little bit less out there than some of the other songs, but I think some of the singles going forward are going to be a little bit more in the “Secretary” vein where it’s a concept that’s relatable but showcased in a way that’s new and interesting. Whereas with “Sundresses,” it was more like, ‘Well, let’s play around with this thing that is universally appealing.’ So we took terms and phrases like ‘Summertime’ and ‘summer romance’ and worked off of those.
It’s definitely a well-loved concept. That’s why we have so many songs with that particular theme in mind. Even in books and in movies.
Zyles: Exactly! I think we did something interesting with it where the relationship in the song has a few shared experience elements and is not only just pleasures of the flesh. It’s alluding to certain types of connections. And if I can tell one more story about that song really quick. So the whistle sounds *demonstrates whistle sound featured in song* becoming the theme is one of the reasons why I had an idea to be like, ‘OK let’s do it!’ I didn’t know how I felt about it at first, but I went into the studio, got into the booth, was prepared to try it, and in the meantime I was whistling this melody and ended up deciding to use that. *laughs*
And it ended up working out pretty well!
Do you think that some artists feel pressure to always do something different with every song they put out? Or do you think they get scared to try something new and end up staying in their little box that they know?
Zyles: I’m not quite socializing around this enough with other artists to have a clue so I can’t pretend to speak for anybody. I also don’t think I’m far along enough to be able to speak around it myself, but I think there’s a there’s a constant tension between doing something interesting or doing something that’s accessible. And yeah, I think we’re still too early to see which side of the spectrum we’re falling on, but I also haven’t really spoken to other people on that specific topic.
Totally understandable. I feel like it gets brought up more in terms of modern radio hits since a lot of them are starting to sound the same.
Zyles: Oh yeah definitely. But now I think the pressure is usually in the opposite direction and that idea to conform, at least among the of music people that I’ve talked to. I think there is a notion of the ‘Spotify sound,’ where it’s a specific type of pop sound that songs can sort of flow in and out of each other without you noticing. That right there certainly might be a pressure in terms of one way to succeed, or maybe it becomes more of a jumping off point.
I totally agree. Especially in terms of how we consume our music nowadays. It’s very hard to get away from that kind of format with how easily available streaming is for us as consumers.
And do you think there’s still an audience for those that still want to have a tangible way of listening to music?
Zyles: Oh absolutely! Again, I’m not too far along to speak about it personally with my work, but having talked to a couple friends who are farther along than me seem to still like having that integrated into their merch. It’s a very different connection when you stumble upon something in a playlist versus when you go see someone perform live because you have a more meaningful experience and are more often inspired to take something home with you that will remind you of that experience. Yeah, you can reach orders of magnitude and more people by having a song on a popular Spotify playlist, but you’ll have a deeper connection with fewer people if they show up to your show.
Agreed. So the modern music industry is very much into the singles game right now. You’re doing that also. Do you feel that’s what music listeners are leaning towards in regards to how they digest their music? Do you think it’s hard for us to process a full album?
Zyles: I would say that might be an element toit. What I’ve noticed more recently is that it seems to be just a function of attention spans, and so, because the news cycle is so short, when you put out an album it’s just caught in the moment. In terms of the news cycle where you put out a single, well, you’ve spent less capital and you still get to be a part of the news cycle. It absolutely makes sense to try to extend the life of your material by releasing singles, at least in some capacity, but there does appear to be some demand for a more concrete piece of work that’s coherent and more immersive. But I think breaking that full work into singles, at least in terms of promotion and releasing and marketing, makes a lot of sense just purely in terms of consumption.
Totally. And with marketing and social media being the main form of it right now, do you feel like it makes it easier for artists to break out? Or do you think it’s harder because it’s an additional pressure?
Zyles: I wasn’t around for the earlier iterations of the industry so I’m not exactly sure, but from what I would gather we definitely democratize it. The artist now has the power instead of sort of deferring to some broader label. But on the other hand, it’s also easier to get lost in the noise. I mean, it’s the tradeoff, right? *laughs*
The love/hate relationship of it.
Zyles: Right. I mean, here’s a more philosophical thing that I’ve discussed with a close friend of mine – even though the internet democratizes the things we’ve mentioned, there’s also the idea that you can sort of find your own community. Like, if I’m into some specific subgenre that derives from this particular academic or political leaning that I’m interested in, I can find like-minded people. It’s a very powerful part of it, but it’s not widely adopted as much as it sort of was promised by the original founding of the internet. It’s more of a funnel where people see a lot of the same content. You see certain artists dominating the Top 10 who have long-lasting power on the charts than they used to because content seems to be fed in a way where everyone ends up seeing the same thing, even though there’s a much longer tail of content.
Yeah. Honestly, thinking about the broader scheme of social media hurts my head a little bit. *both laugh* But we need to do it and understand it in order to be successful now.
Zyles: Yeah, and it’s fascinating! There’s this professor of mine who basically studied social networks and extrapolates human behavior from them. One was looking at teenagers and you can represent how they’re connected to other teenagers by nodes. If they were friends on Facebook they would get a node, and with that you can sort of quantify how connected somebody is and how much of an outcast they are based on nodes on a social network. But not only that, if the group in that cluster ends up being teenage girls or something, you can also predict who is more likely to be unhappy and go address that. So yeah, it definitely gets to the point where it hurts your head, *laughs* but if you think about it deeply, there are a lot of insights that you can come up with that are actually meaningful. Some of these extent to defining different communities, whether it’s being an outcast or how they transform over time. There’s another related one where he examined how the vocabulary of a beer community changes over time. For the people who were members of the beer community longer, their language was relevant until it was no longer relevant. You can measure the vocabulary from the types of words they use to the way they described different beers, and you can extrapolate that to older people moving away from the way that younger people talk. Is it that old people are more or less likely to learn this new form of vocabulary? The point is, in this sub-community, over a slow amount of time you can extrapolate what happens to people as they age in a much longer time span. The way social media works is just crazy and super powerful.
Yeah. The scientific and analytical aspects are insane!
Zyles: It’s amazing! I mean, this is why Facebook and Google, well, less so than Google, but that’s why they’re so powerful and can leverage all that stuff.
Exactly! So you’re originally a native of Manhattan and are currently based out of San Francisco. How would you say the music scenes between the two areas are similar or different, and especially in comparison to Los Angeles?
Zyles: It’s my first time playing out here in L.A., but I’ve already got a growing network here. I did the music video here, one of the producers that I work very closely with in New York is planning to move here, I went to some BMI event and got connected with some other songwriters and producers and whatnot. I mean, New York, L.A., and I suppose Nashville are the hubs for music, right? The Bay Area doesn’t have a tremendous music scene. Yes, there are a lot of great musicians, the guys that I’m playing with are tremendous and they’re from The Bay, but there’s just not a large enough concentration where you get people like you who are writers, or labels, or the infrastructure around music. The Bay Area doesn’t have enough foundation for the music scene to form these ecosystems above it in the way that New York and L.A. do. I grew up meeting a bunch of people playing jazz, rock, blues, and pop, but I think the ‘pop scene,’ like, the real pop songwriting scene is here in L.A., at least according to people that I’ve talked to in New York. Like L.A. seems to be a bit more of the center now.
Yeah. There’s definitely different pockets of genres here. We’ve got the pop scene, and then the singer-songwriter scene, and then the rock scene, just so many different aspects to the local music community.
Zyles: Yeah absolutely.
And since you were already mentioning your experience with jazz and blues and rock, you had also been a part of the jazz orchestra at Stanford University, which is super awesome!
Zyles: Yeah! Definitely some fun times!
How important do you think it is to continue to have these arts-focused programs not only for current students but for anyone throughout all walks of life?
Zyles: I think it’s just as necessary as exposing it to people when they’re very young. Art is a very powerful form of expression. It’s meditative, it’s healing, it creates those connections, and so, I think that at least enabling people to discover it at an early age is important. I can’t make any conclusions about the education system generally, but I think the arts are certainly worth it.
And speaking of education, you got a chance to study abroad in China while you were in school, and with that came the birth of your musical moniker. Wanted to ask if you’d care to share a little bit about that experience?
Zyles: Yeah! So when I was studying in China, I was involved in a language immersion program, in which I was only speaking Chinese in class, with my roommate, and even with the small number of Americans in my program. Music was actually kind of my English escape, so I would write and produce in my room when I had some off hours and on the weekends. I was looking for a stage name, and I ended up thinking, ‘Well here’s my Chinese name that everyone’s calling me all the time. That could be pretty cool if we bring it back around in English.’
The best of both words.
Zyles: Exactly. *laughs*
So a fun question for you, if you could choose three artists to go on your own personal world tour with who would they be and what would you name your tour?
Zyles: Ah! That’s such a hard question! *both laugh* It’s hard to answer that question in a vacuum because I’m probably going to name large artists, and having sort of not really found where my audience is yet or even what my sound is really, I would argue a little bit differently. But let’s see, if I went in a funk direction, which my music isn’t as funky as I sometimes I would like it to be, but I get lucky sometimes. *laughs*
Plus all of the genres are starting to blend together nowadays.
Zyles: That’s definitely true. I really like Chromeo so I think that could be fun. Plus there are a bunch of artists who have some of those similar elements running through their music. But then there’s this sort of more pure, polished pop with high musical complexity that’s still super accessible, and I would like someone like Charlie Puth because he’s a tremendous producer and songwriter in that bracket. But then there’s this other side which is filled with even more complex songs that are a little bit more in line with my lyrical style, so I would really like The 1975. Those are some artists who I would love to float around, spend time with, and learn from, specifically in regards to their sounds.
And I think yours is specifically tailored to what you want to accomplish as an artist and your admiration for them. It would be such a cool collaboration to see!
Zyles: Yeah! I should also say that I would also be interested in exploring the soul side. Like, spending time with like D’Angelo or something would be really cool.
Totally! So you had already mentioned that Justin Timberlake was the sonic inspiration for “Secretary,” but which artists have influenced your style for your sound and songwriting?
Zyles: So there are the artists that I grew up with who might not be relevant now but have sort of formed my impression of music on a general level. I think a major force there would be Steely Dan, just because of their endlessly interesting songs, deep lyrics, a little bit of guts to show off a sense of humor on top of that. I love the pure energy of Prince too. I mean, I was still following the stuff that he released closer to his death and I thought it was pretty cool. And then Bob Dylan also of course.
If you could give your younger self-advice in regards to what you’ve been doing with your music, what kind of advice would you give him?
Zyles: So I mentioned being influenced by jazz growing up, but honestly, jazz is hard. In order to play at a really high level, it requires a lot of practice and patience, but also a deep understanding of the music itself. It becomes second nature when you’re really really good like most things do. I remember when I first picked up the guitar, or even before that when I was still doing classical piano, and I said that I’d like to go learn jazz. It took me a while to get to finding out what playing jazz really meant, and maybe going along with your school question, that would be something that if I had the right arts program, I would’ve found that out earlier, but I also wish that was more a part of my DNA. Just to have that all the way ingrained would be pretty cool.
Just that extra little superpower. The superpower of jazz!
Zyles: Right! Just the superpower of insane jazz playing! *both laugh* I’ve wanted to practice jazz a lot more, but it’s so hard these days.
I can imagine! Especially with being in the tech industry for your career.
And what do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Zyles: Man, there are so many answers. I hope that will relate to it, I hope that they can be inspired by it, and at the right time, I hope they will want to dance to it.
You’ve gotta feel the emotions before you feel the energy.
Zyles: Yeah exactly!
And to end us off, apart from more singles that are planned to be released, what other big, exciting things should we be expecting from you?
Zyles: There should be an EP coming soon. I have the material ready and it’s going to sound great, I’m really excited! A lot of this is still experimental right now, but I’m going to start working with press and doing little marketing campaigns. A lot of it is dependent on how people respond and if I have to go make more music before I’m ready to release the other songs that I have ready. It’s a lot of learning and discovery still so I will say that it’ll most likely be an EP, but it’s contingent on how things evolve.
I’m sure everything will work out exactly how they’re supposed to.
Zyles: I hope so too!
About Green Table Cafe:
L.A. has numerous neighborhood pockets where a quick turn around the corner can lead you to a mish-mash of event venues, shops and cafes. Mid-City is absolutely no different, and is the home to Italian plant-based cafe Green Table Cafe. Created by a pair of holistic nutritionists, there is plenty of guilt-free food and drink choices for you to choose from when you pay the shop a visit. Healthy versions of familiar faves such as pasta, burgers, and quiche paired with superfood bowls and gourmet salads give even the pickiest of visitors something to crave, with vegan desserts rounding out the menu to end your stay on a high note. But first, coffee!
Green Table Cafe serves up a combination of classic Italian-style recipes, which includes the Macchiato Fior di Latte, and modern go-tos like matcha and chai lattes. If you’re stopping in for a beverage that is bit more on the healthier side, look no further than their impressive list of organic smoothies, fresh juices and elixir shots. Since I had time to kill before Zyles’ first show at The Mint, which is quite literally across the street, I got myself a refreshingly intriguing Bella Vespa juice that consisted of orange, carrot, ginger, cayenne, lemon and aloe vera, AKA the perfect mini boost of energy without bouncing off the walls.