At age 22, New York-based pop artist Esther Zynn, better known by her stage name EZI (pronounced “ezzy“), is no stranger to the spotlight. The up-and-coming entertainer has previously acted as the lead character on Nickelodeon’s “The Other Kingdom” and was the first artist signed to Steve Madden’s (Yes, that Steve Madden) record label 5Towns Records. I got to sit down with EZI to discuss her upcoming EP, life as a musician, and her inspiration for pursuing and creating music.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You said on stage that nerves have always played a role when you perform. Yet, once the music started, you looked totally comfortable, like you were in your element. What clicks for you once the lights go down?
EZI: It’s funny – here (Music Hall of Williamsburg) is where I performed my first show, two months ago. It was so nerve-racking because I had never done a set before – I’d never sung in front of a large audience of people, let along singing my original music. I was nervous and scared to get on stage and not know what was going to happen. Either I was going to shake and just bomb, or I was going to do well. I got in front of everyone and immediately I thought “Oh My God, I’ve got this – I can do this”. And something just set in my mind and ever since then I haven’t been scared of performing.
She also noted that practicing mindfulness might play a part in that confidence:
EZI: I try to do some meditation once in a while. It’s a buddhist meditation. It’s a meditation about compassion, and I did it right before I went on stage my first time, and I realized “That’s what performing is. There’s a sea of people who have lives and go through stuff – and here I am worrying about me. It’s not about me, it’s about them – it’s about helping them connect themselves or helping them forget about their day, remember something they love, and connect everyone to each other – that realization also really helped me in performing.
You’ve got your “Afraid of the Dark” EP coming out on January 12th under Steve Madden’s new label. What made you decide that working with 5Towns was the right fit for you?
EZI: The label is very big on giving an artist a lot of creative control and ownership over their music. That was something they talked about before I signed, and it’s something that they’ve held very true to. That was a huge thing for me. I wanted to maintain my ownership over my art and music, everything I put out, and I felt like they were going to help me do that. I also thought it was really cool that they were a brand new label and it just felt like the right fit.
Like Steve Madden, you’re from Long Island. You’ve mentioned in the past that being close to the city has inspired you a lot. How has your experience been navigating the music scene here in New York City? Where have the big opportunities come from for you?
EZI: Being close to New York changed my life. I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t have that outlet. When I was in High School, I would take the train into the city around three times a week to have auditions, or go and start recording when I started out. It was my escape – that’s where I ran away from everything. I would cut ninth period, have a change of clothes, and bring a script and channel everything I was going through into the auditions.
You’ve lived in LA and New York – What’s the difference between the two cities, if you can describe it?
EZI: New York is bold, and really fast-paced. It’s very authentic, raw, “out there”, and loud. LA is super warm, and colorful, and slow. It’s a city that’s built around conformity and fitting in. It kind of feels like a more glamorous version of high school, in the best way possible. Everyone’s trying to follow the trend, everyone’s kind of dressing the same – Not everywhere in LA, but Hollywood especially. I love both, but I feel more at home in New York. I feel like I belong here more. But at the moment, I feel like I’m supposed to be in LA because it’s one of the only places in the world where there are so many songwriters and so many creatives in one place who are ready to collaborate.
Chasing this career, have you found that you’ve been able to maintain the friendships that you’ve had over the course of time, or do you think that pursuing your career has taken you a different direction from the people you’ve spent your life around?
EZI: I think when you get older you learn who your friends are, regardless of your career. You just learn what kind of person you want to be, and what kind of people you want to surround yourself with. I don’t really think it has to do with career, it’s just about growing up and realizing I love being around people who do creative things because I relate to them.
Who do you listen to for inspiration?
I listen to Robyn, Florence + The Machine, Regina Spektor – those are a few I can think of off the top of my head as influences, but it changes every day. I’ll go into the studio and say “I want to do this” (as she waves her arms to describe a big sound) and the next day I’ll say I want to do something totally different. And it somehow finds a way of being cohesive because it’s all coming from me.
Where did your musical style come from? Was it organic, did someone introduce you to this style, or did it just fit the things you were coming up with creatively?
I’ve always loved dark pop music. There’s definitely a resurgence of dark pop music and a lot of females creating dark pop music – but even before that it was something I really identified with. The first song I wrote when I was 11 was a song called “There for Me” and the chorus goes “Leave me in the rain at night and now I see you were never there for me”. I don’t know where that even came from. I was 11, but I just always identified with that genre and that type of expression, so it’s definitely something that came very naturally to me. But I do listen to a lot of music, I love all those [dark pop] artists – MØ, Elohim, Lorde – but I don’t think I really reference them in my music, it’s just something I connect with.
When you’re coming up with the content for your art, where does that inspiration come from?
EZI: I think it’s always going to change, I don’t think it’s ever going to be one thing. But as for my EP, I got really depressed one summer – I’ve always struggled with anxiety or depression – and I’ve never put that into my music. I knew how to channel it into my acting, but I never did into my music. The first song I did that with was Redemption. I wrote that about myself, about how when you’re sensitive, you never get a break from yourself. That whole theme felt very right for the EP. For the EP the whole thing is about me navigating that experience: from admitting it, to denying it, to talking about it, to kind of being scared to fall back into it.
You’ve talked a lot tonight about depression and anxiety. Is that cause something that is important to you? Do you have a message for people who are struggling with issues like that?
EZI: Just talking about it and knowing that you’re not alone – just making that a part of the conversation is so important, even though no one really talks about it for some reason. It’s so weird that nobody ever says “Hey, I’m really depressed”, which is such an honest thing for so many people to say, but they just don’t say it. It’s hard because I’ve gotten people who message me and ask me for advice. I can only speak from my experience, but I try using it as something to learn about myself and grow. I think it’s different for everybody, but I can say for myself that it did get better.
So much of my music comes from my own inner struggle with myself. It’s not something that I really talk about – at least it wasn’t something that I talked about a lot before I was writing music. I think it’s not really talked about among each other enough, so if that music can help people feel less alone or start a conversation that they’re struggling to have, that would be awesome. I would love that.
Figuring out what you want to do – whether that’s acting, singing, or something else – who or what has guided you through that process?
EZI: It has been a lot of people and a lot of things. I think I’m always just kind of chasing what feels right and what feels authentic in the moment. Recently, it’s been music because with music I feel like I have the most control over what I put out. I have so much more ownership over my music and I’m so proud of it, and I can put my stamp on my art. I think that’s very rare for actors. Acting is a service. You get hired because you fit someone else’s vision. You get hired, you do your job and you leave – it’s not really your vision. You can hopefully be creative within your medium but it’s not like it’s your creation.
[Acting] takes so much courage, and I respect actors so much – so many of my friends are actors. As of recently, I’ve just found so much fulfillment from having a say in every step of the creative process [with music], and in do so it’s been really fulfilling. I write my songs, and I have a huge part in all of my visuals. The way I talk about my songs, every tweet, every comment, it’s all very much me — obviously with my team and the support of everybody — but the creative part is very much mine.