17 February 2023
- Artist — Zeina Mates
- Photographer — Bilo Boris
- Stylist — Kelly Ann Panagakos
- Writer — Nada Mesh
I remember discovering Montreal-based singer/songwriter Zeina back in 2020, when her music video for “Suburbs” came up in my Youtube suggested, after what must have been a 3 hour deep-dive into soulful, female-centric R&B tracks. The world was in the midst of the pandemic at the time and only Jhene Aiko and SZA’s (then unreleased) “Good days” snippet on a 1-hour loop could soothe my restlessness. The visuals immediately caught my attention, because there was no doubt that the video was filmed in Montreal - the “Boissons” sign in the background of the very first scene at the depanneur did a good job of giving it away. “It wasn’t about being with somebody else, I was just locked in and working on myself.” The hook had me. It was really simple but super effective in conveying the message of the song - which was essentially about lost love, but within a very self assured context. A continual theme in Zeina’s music. The singer/songwriter debuted back in 2016 with her first album “Washing Machine,” and has since refined her sound to merge together influences of Y2K era RnB, Hip Pop, and (more recently), Arabic instrumentations and samples. 3 years later and I’m in conversation with her through Zoom, her in her parents’ home in Montreal for the winter, me in Amman, Jordan, neighbouring her native country, Lebanon.
“Where are you right now? I know you go to L.A often, but do you stay with your parents when you’re back in the city? Or a ‘bnb or something?” I ask.
“I stay at my parents’ when I'm here because it's like, that's what I come here for, to spend time with the humans that I love. I’m on my own when I’m in L.A. But my life there is so hectic, and all about work. It's so chaotic that I need to come back every now and then and recharge, with real energy, you know?”
I ask her about what the two cities mean to her in terms of her creative output, “When I want to create but I’m just feeling unsure of everything, I come back home because it's like my base for everything creative. It’s where everything started for me.”
“Suburbs was kind of a love letter to Montreal actually,” she tells me. “I wanted to make sure that it was obvious to everyone that came from the city that that’s where it was shot. I wanted to pay homage to the city, the snow, to my girls, my Mates.”
Zeina’s mates - quite literally - are her creative collective, most of whom appear in the video with her in a flurry of puffer jackets and lipgloss. A disruptive group of female creatives that bring their different artistic approaches together to form a unified force to be reckoned with.
On the topic of her culture, we delve into what it meant for her to grow up as an Arab in the West for most of her life, and the way this has shaped her art, but also her relatability to her fans.
“I feel like I’ve gone full circle with my relationship to my culture and background. I used to live in Saudi Arabia for a little bit, where I celebrated my culture. I was surrounded by it and I was accustomed to it. And then I came here at the age of five, and realised how different it is here. For a while, I just wanted to fit in. Especially with the stigma around Arabs in the early 2000s.
“Everything going on and all the opinions made me want to mute what makes me different. And it stuck with me for a long part of my life. Those scars are HEALED. And now I stand strong in my culture and I'm truly proud to be an Arab woman.”
The socio-political and economic crises that most Arab nations (especially Zeina’s hometown of Lebanon) face, don’t have to be at the forefront of every Arab artist’s message, but there comes a time in their career where an apolitical stance is no longer an option to them - Something that Zeina agrees with.
A desensitisation of our heritage and the nuances it entails, to a universal audience, helps in slowly breaking down the concept of “other,” and humanising our struggles.
“I feel like if the things I speak out on annoy people, then so be it. If it's a cause that you believe in, and even if you can have a micro impact, that’s what is important.
When it came to certain events with Lebanon, like the Beirut port explosion, I remember posting stories on it and people were reaching out to me like “oh, I didn't even know Lebanon's situation was bad like that.” It's been bad for a long time, but not many people in the West know about it because it's so far removed from their lives.”
Noticing her background I ask if that’s where they shot her most recent video for “Ur Loss.”
“Yes!” She says “I shot it all throughout the house I grew up in, because the decor is super traditional and it just went with the vibe I was going for. The coming together of my two cultures.”
“Plastic couch covers and all.” I laugh, before continuing on to enquire about how the idea came about. “Even the cover art, I can see you did it in the style of Arabic calligraphy, and the oud in the beat! Did you sample a Middle-Eastern track?”
“Yeah my main producer - LosHendrixx who’s also the executive producer of my project added those touches. “Ur Loss” was actually a track I knew I would debut these new sounds with, so I wanted to get experimental with it, and I brought in a lot of references.
I was looking into Saudi Arabian chants, clap, etc... There's this one video I found on Youtube of men in a tent and they're doing this melodic, coordinated clapping that was instantly something I knew I wanted to incorporate.”
I tell her how much the track resonated with me and how I see it as the start of an evolution for her. “And I noticed heartbreak is a big theme that you touch upon in your work and for sure, we tend to draw inspiration from our lowest points, but what other motifs do you find yourself referring to in your artistic expression?”
“I think there's a couple topics that I find myself coming back to in my work. Loyalty is a very important one to me, and when I touch upon it in my songs, I don't necessarily just mean the loyalty between lovers. I talk about loyalty between friends and even humans in general. It’s such a powerful value. Even in Arab culture, loyalty is such a big pillar, with family, and community.
But even when I talk about love, it’s interesting because yeah, sometimes it'll be about a situation me or my friends have been through, but sometimes I view my career as a relationship and probably the most toxic one in my life.”
I nod my head and smirk because I can’t help but know exactly what she’s talking about.
We talk about finding the balance between wanting to constantly evolve and work harder, and being gentle with ourselves when it comes to attaining the goals we set for ourselves.
“Actually I did want to touch upon that because I've seen from your interviews that something you talk a lot about is your time in L.A. when you really had to hustle it out, and were sleeping on a mattress on the floor with a bunch of other people. And how it really opened up your eyes to the reality of things and lit even more of a fire within you. So my question is, how important do you personally think the notion of struggle is in shaping an artist?”
“I think it's what separates the artists that have longer careers from those that have shorter ones, because sacrifice is so important in chasing a dream.
So if you don't understand that it's not all luxury and glitz and glamour, and that things don't just fall out of the sky, then you won't be able to understand what it takes to get to certain places. When you’re used to living in a place of comfort and you're not willing to go to certain places or talk to certain people, because they’re foreign to you, then you'll never be exposed to what it is you need to succeed.
I feel like my experiences, like the ones I had in L.A., taught me that it’s about finding happiness in the bare minimum, because you're pursuing your dream, and as long as you’re on the path you love, that’s all that matters.”
Not many people know this, but before Zeina transitioned into music, she actually started off in med school. We talk about her growing up and always knowing in the back of her mind she wanted to be in the entertainment industry, but pushing those thoughts out of her peripheral, as she found herself surrounded by people who shared a completely different vision.
“I decided that med school wasn’t the path for me. I found that when I made that decision my life started becoming more aligned with who I always knew I wanted to be. That’s when my collective “The Mates” started coming together as well.”
It’s funny how life works that way, like a constant loop of experiences that feeds itself, with the support of a community definitely being a tool which helps validate your path.
We segway into Montreal, and the strong sense of community and subcultures that everyone operates within, especially in the creative scene.
“Montreal is really my favourite city in the world. Honestly, there's nothing that's ever going to replace it for me. There's definitely a love-hate relationship because, like with any other city, If you're trying to make it out of there, until you really establish yourself, it's kind of like, who are you? What are you trying to do and say? But I feel that once you start earning your stripes, then you can enjoy the city for what it is creatively. It just inspires me so much.
Lowkey, I love the winter.”
We both laugh at that one because we know what it feels like to be attacked by the elements in Montreal, but also have a sense of awe for the extremities of each season.
“If somebody painted a picture of what any season looks like, it would look like Montreal.
The city is just a huge pillar in who I am as a person. And I'm never going to forget that, Montreal is the core of who ZEINA is.”
We round up the interview by talking about what’s next for her after the drop of her track “Whatever” off her upcoming project.
“I have one more song coming out after that, and then it’s going to be the project, Eastend Confessions, and I’m really excited about this one because I've been fine-tuning it since the beginning of the pandemic.
I feel like sh*t kept coming up, and my supporters were definitely getting impatient with me *laughs* but I just wanted to wait until it was the absolute perfect time to put it out. So yeah, It’s going to be 11 tracks, and a labour of love for sure.”