Zen: Multi-Facetted Artist and Musician – an Interview
By Liam Klenk
Zen is a multi-facetted artist, residing in Paris, France. From painting, to film, to composing and performing his own music, Zen is exploring means of artistic expression. He refuses to be limited and confined to only one genre, one style, one state of being. In our interview, Zen speaks openly about how he discovered himself as an artist. And how this led him to create his current project, Sovaj.
My parents met on the Ivory Coast… and I was born there. Today, I know how important these origins were for me as an artist.
My mother told me how loud the drums sometimes were in our neighborhood. How it even scared them. But, the rhythmic beating of the drums was the first sound I heard.
This had an important impact on me. When you listen to my music today you will find a lot of different beats and rhythms.
When I was still little, we moved to a village in France. Life became very normal. Really protected and not at all artistic. My mom was a housewife and my dad the director of a college.
Looking back, I know that even back then, at my core, I was already the artist I am today. But growing up in the confines of the beautiful French countryside, I felt a bit imprisoned.
I couldn’t express myself in the ways I wanted, couldn’t develop my creativity in these safe and proper surroundings.
I did take classical guitar lessons when I was young, but the class structure did not inspire me. However, apparently even back then I must have shown promise, because my teacher was under the impression that I practiced a lot. But… I never did. Eventually, I stopped going to the lessons, because I really came to hate them.
Later, when I was about thirty, my brother came to live with me and my partner for a while. My brother played the guitar and, inspired by him, I began to play again.
This time I enjoyed it immensely.
But, to quickly backtrack again to when I left school as a teenager:
I wanted to study art. However, my parents didn’t want that. So, I let go of my dreams. I tried to please everybody. Still, I chose a short course of study, because I told myself, “Afterwards, I’ll do whatever I want.”
During that time, I often drew instead of working on my homework. And hid my drawings after.
Amazingly, getting married was the first step to beginning my artistic journey. I stopped working at the optician I was employed at, at the time, as my partner made it possible for me to begin working on personal art projects. It was a revelation.
I thought I would be a sculptor. But, living in Paris where space is a valuable commodity, I rather turned to painting.
After nine months, I managed to have my first exhibition.
Then, my partner and I separated and our children came to live with me. During the day, I would be busy with family errands. Then, at night, I would put the kids to bed. And after, every night, I would paint and write until 4 or 5 am.
Many of my paintings were words and pictures on canvas. When I began writing as well, it became more and more clear to me that I was actually painting and writing song lyrics.
I never believed myself to be a singer.
Still, after writing those texts all night, I would take my guitar and I would begin singing the text I had written, to a melody I would either find or make up.
That’s how it began with my music.
I managed to learn how to do covers very quickly. Then did many of those.
After that, I began to compose and write more and more of my own lyrics. I seemed to have the intuition to find the right melodies to match the words.
Yet, at that time, I was still far from thinking I could go on stage.
I realized I had to become more proactive. I had to make myself heard, speak up, make a stand. But, I was incredibly shy… and I hated my shyness, felt trapped in it. I suffered a lot because of this conundrum. Which made me understand that writing and playing songs were perhaps my way to speak up.
It was a long process. Mostly, because I was such an autodidact. A friend of mine helped me produce my music from the beginning. She always told me, “You’ve got something.” Still, the road was very long.
When I finally had my break-through, it was rather weird and overwhelming. I managed to sign with a tour manager.
These were my very first live gigs. It’s how it all began. With only five composed songs in my repertoire. I ended up being the opening act for a lot of big stars in France.
I learned a lot, but I wasn’t really ready. And, the tour management company was too big for me. Additionally, this was at a time when music was changing. I felt left alone in a forest of music with trees transforming into unknown shapes all around me.
There were many disappointments. But also marvelous experiences.
One such positive moment was when I performed at the Olympia concert hall in Paris. I was the opening act for the then famous American band Cock Robin.
Shortly after, I almost made it into television. I was in the very last round of the selection process for a live show. But ultimately, I was still too shy.
Then, I met a French producer. I knew her work and admired her.
Imagine my delight when she told me she wanted to produce a record with me. In that moment, I believed I had finally found my music family.
But, it all turned into a nightmare. I composed twenty songs over the course of one year. After a while, it became apparent that the producer wanted more than music. For me, however, ours was strictly a business relationship. My focus was on professional growth. We produced the songs. The producer even already engaged musicians to perform with me on stage. But, in the end, she refused to release my songs. It felt as if my work was being destroyed.
The experience almost killed me artistically. It took me three years to recover.
My project name had been Zen K. I didn’t want to continue under that name. But I gathered myself and began composing again. I wasn’t finished and I was going to get my work out there one way or another…thus I created Sovaj.
The creation of my first EP was a true milestone.
I asked for a sound engineer to make sure the voice and synthesizer recordings were top quality. Everything else, I did on my own and it was great! Some good article coverage, too. Lots of positive feedback.
On your own, the amount of work is staggering and far from easy. You have to find your gigs, do the promotion, film video clips, create arrangements, compose, etc. It’s hard to be on the front line. Progress is slow.
But I know now, it’s what I need to do. I have accumulated so many relevant skills over the years. And I know, I have the drive. Even when I’m down, I’ll compose again the next day.
In the early days, I craved validation because I thought other people will know better than I do. Now, I don’t need that anymore. I’ve realized it’s you and you alone who knows what you need to do with your music.
So, Sovaj is the start of a new personal era.
It’s my way. It’s long. But it is authentically me.
I’m not a marketing manager, which made it depressing for me to try and struggle to be on the front line. Instead, I’ve made a deal with myself and have decided to just do what I can do, whilst aiming for continual growth.
At the end of October 2020, I participated at a short film festival in Paris. I love film, enjoy filming and working with images.
I am not only a musician. Instead, I am a rounded, complete artist who does not easily fit into any niche.
I do exactly what I want when I want to be doing it.
This is Sovaj.
When i decided on the name, I wanted to be “savage”, because I was still angry about what had happened with the producer. But I matured. Sovaj matured. Now, the name holds far wider meanings and implications. Being “sovaj” in richness and creativity.
Sovaj has existed for three years now. It has been and still is a journey of discovery… of creativity and of self.
I am easily affected by people and the atmosphere around me. My only defense is to take that and transform it in the best and most beautiful, artistic way possible.
Most of the time, people will want to label you and make sure you fit in a box. They will need you to pick one genre, one theme. Once you have done that successfully, they will want you to focus on only that for the rest of your career.
We are artists. But people in the art and entertainment industry ask us to limit ourselves so we can fit in easily consumable boxes. For me, that is complete nonsense. I have to be the versatile, rounded artist that I am. And, if that means one day painting and one day music… well… then that’s exactly what it will be.
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