Whilst you may have come to know her under the moniker of Despicable Zee, Oxford artist Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani has now decided to use her own name for her innovative solo creations. Taken from her upcoming new EP, latest single ‘Waiting‘ showcases Tehrani’s ability to create sweeping, ethereal soundscapes with a shimmering raw emotion. As unique swirling layers of instrumentation are interwoven with crystalline vocals, this new offering is a beautifully stirring percussion-driven ballad, oozing a truly captivating majesty.
We caught up with Zahra to discuss about what has inspired her to create over the years, the influences behind ‘Waiting’, her experience of the music industry, and more. Have a read, and then make sure you watch the accompanying beautiful video for ‘Waiting’, made with Oxford/London-based textile artist Shoshana Kessler.
Hi Zahra, welcome to Get In Her Ears! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Zahra – a community connector working alongside various organisations in Oxford, mainly to explore diversifying music and space. I’m the director of YWMP which is a twenty two year old music education charity supporting young people to access music – whether that be trying an instrument out for the first time or booking their first show. I’m a percussionist who learnt how to use music production software and now I make beats with my voice and sounds around the room I’m in. I’m also a single parent who is passionate about alternative education; I’m a survivor of domestic abuse; a second generation immigrant raised up in the most unaffordable city in the UK. Navigating the hurdles I’ve faced hasn’t been easy, but supporting others to create and channelling the stress I experience through making music of my own has helped me through some of the toughest times.
Are you able to tell us a bit about how and why you initially started creating music?
When I was a kid I used to help my mom clean student houses, and I remember sitting in one of the living rooms with a guitar and plucking the strings open for maybe thirty minutes straight whilst she was busy scrubbing the bathrooms and upstairs bedrooms – I was pretty scared I’d get caught making noise but something about the drone, the vibration of playing this guitar had me hooked. I ended up having a couple of lessons at school but didn’t take to it so well, then a bit later on I got a drum kit from someone my dad worked with for twenty quid. I learnt to set it up from the manual it came with and started drumming along to my favourite tracks at the time. I then found a local music project which helped me start writing, recording and performing live, and stumbled across Kate Garrett (the founder of YWMP) who listened to what I had to say and provided a space for me to play without judgement; this was exactly what I needed as a teenager and her support provided me with a great platform for the future.
We love your beautifully ethereal sounds, but who would you say are your main musical influences?
Thank you! I would say drum patterns and solid vibrations get me going across all genres. I listen to a lot of R’n’B, pop, afrobeat, dancehall and songs from the SWANA region. Seeing artists live feels like a rehearsal, I tend to get more inspiration for my music that way rather than the music I vibe to day-to-day. It’s kind of odd to me that what I create just comes out, I don’t plan or have a fixed idea of what I want – I try not to tamper with things too much once they are down and just aim to capture the moment rather than replicate a sound/genre/artist.
You’ve recently released your captivating new single ‘Waiting’– Are you able to tell us a bit about it?
I spotted a friend walking across the street and they were locked into whatever they were doing, but beaming and super content with their pals en-route somewhere. I just started jotting stuff down that day on my notes app – I was in my bubble taking my kid to the park but noticing that kind of joy from a distance felt special, I was a part of it in some way. We’ve all done it, put the outward projection of someone on a pedestal – whether it was genuine or not, I felt connected in that moment to something bigger than me and the turmoil that was unfolding in my personal life. I started to build a track around the feelings I was experiencing around that time; the want to move on from a long and difficult break-up that was muddled up with a family court case, but trying to be patient with myself, allowing myself the time to begin to heal but also protect myself in new encounters. I wrote a loop on the steel pan, bass and with a quick vocal line for a completely different project, but it seemed to fit pretty well with these lyrics and the song kind of grew around it – its the happiest song I’ve ever written, and to be honest it’s really not that happy…
Being based in Oxford, do you get to see lots of live music? Would you say it’s recovered since the pandemic?
Tough question – I’ve notices a lot of touring acts avoid Oxford. I’m not surprised with the lack of live music venues, but we do have one great promoter who never fails and that’s Divine Schism. I have been so supported by them, both as a punter showing up to gigs with my kid just looking for somewhere to be, and being given the chance to perform with some of my favourite people. They are challenging what other promoters are doing in the city by making a point of diversifying their line-ups and making shows as accessible as possible without being tokenistic. I think Oxford’s music scene still need s a good shake up, but first of all we need a decent grassroots live music venue, preferably not run by older cis-het white men.
And what can fans expect from your live shows?
All I can hear in my head is the Wealdstone Raider saying “You’ve got no fans!” Seriously though, if you come to one of my shows I will likely be joined by Julia Meijer and Darcie Chazen who accompany me on steel pan, drums, other bits of percussion and vocals. We all swap around and attempt to recreate some of the layers of my tracks live, which is fun. Expect sad songs with uplifting chats in-between. I have reimagined some of my older Despicable Zee tracks with this setup too.
How do you feel the industry is for new artists at the moment? And do you feel much has changed over the last few years in its treatment of female and queer/LGBTQ+ artists?
I do feel it’s a tough time for emerging artists, things are oversaturated and the focus has switched so much to tiktok – short tracks with a race to get getting play-listed. It seems to be a product of the lack of live music over the recent few years and a backlog of unreleased music from major acts. I would say that marginalised artists have built spaces to emerge from and those are being highlighted more – the excitement to be together and take up space is key right now which is making a huge difference, and seeing an enquiry being made into misogyny in music across the UK is promising. I’m seeing more marginalised people in positions of power in a gig setting – doing lighting/sound/promotion and rebuilding many of the grass roots music/creative/queer spaces/scenes. Its not a huge change, but definitely noticeably different from when I was growing up and playing in punk bands.
As we’re a new music focused site, are there any other upcoming artists you’re loving right now that you’d recommend we check out?
Julia Meijer, Tiiva, Jenny Moore, Uwade, Dream Phone…
What does the rest of the year have in store for you?
I have some shows coming up in London and Oxford, a second music video for ‘Waiting’ coming out soon and maybe even another single before the year is out…! Next up I’ll be supporting Jenny Moore at Servant Jazz Quarters on 14th September – tickets here.
Massive thanks to Zahra for answering our questions! Watch the new video for ‘Waiting’ below: