“FROM THE TIME I WAS BORN,
I NEVER REALLY LISTENED TO KID STUFF.”
It’s not often that a child appreciates and gravitates toward R&B as his musical genre of choice from a young age. It’s especially rare when your dad listens to Pantera & Metallica, and your mom loves the Eagles. Yet that’s exactly the environment Zak Waters was surrounded by in his youth. His love of Maxwell, Usher and Tyrese was bred from his stepfather’s tastes, which spanned from funk, to soul, and R&B. His stepdad’s musical tastes were so influential, in fact, that Waters decided he would later become a musician who would aim to blend aspects from each of those iconic genres into one cohesive sound.
“My first concert was Brian McKnight and Tyrese…” Waters told Early Bird over FaceTime from his home in his native Los Angeles. “My stepdad listened to all the R&B stuff…all the classic stuff. Marvin Gaye, Zapp & Roger, The Gap Band. All the Motown stuff – he was a big Lionel Richie fan, Earth Wind & Fire. I was just exposed to that really early on. My real dad was a big metal head. He listened to Pantera, Metallica – that’s what I was exposed to when I was very young and I still love it today.”
While heavy metal and Lionel Richie weren’t exactly rocking his friends radios at home, what his divergent musical interests did draw was the attention of others looking to expand their musical horizons. Rather than having musical interests that others looked at as odd or lame, Waters found it was actually something that made him stand out among a sea of sameness.
“From the time I was born, I never really listened to kid stuff. In Elementary School, I used to hold up my tape recorder to the radio and bring the tape recorder to school. I remember one of the first mixes I made had Tony! Toni! Toné! on it, Bone Thugs and Harmony, I think it had some other dope 90’s group…it was just a couple songs on it. So I’d bring it to school and show my friends. I always felt cooler I think, because my friends would be like “What song is that?” And I’d be like, “Oh you don’t know this new Tony! Toni! Toné! stuff?”
A childhood filled with music led a young Zak Waters to make music his career, starting a band, Blueskyreality, which was signed to Universal Republic Records in 2010. After that went by the wayside in 2011, Waters decided to throw himself into his own solo work, releasing his debut EP New Normal in 2011. The EP caught the attention of French producer Madeon, who featured him on his song “The City” a year later.
The song’s high tempo is par for the course for a 2012 electronic song, but Madeon was known for incorporating funky beats, so the song was a natural fit with Waters’ excellent vocals. The song was a certified hit, netting over 30 million streams and reaching no. 20 on the Billboard Hot Dance Charts in the U.S., and even higher in several European countries. The feature put Waters’ music and vocals on the map, opening up other doors down the road.
The success of “The City” and his New Normal EP had captured the attention of Betty Who’s close friend and collaborator, Peter Thomas, who then gave Waters the chance to tag along on her tour as direct support in 2014. “Peter heard my first EP New Normal, and really loved it – he and Betty were just fans for a really long time.” Over the course of that tour their relationship truly blossomed and has now become both professional and personal in nature. “We just became friends through that. She and my best friend are now engaged, so now we’re engrained in each other’s life. I did a lot of work on her record The Valley (2017), writing and producing a lot on that.”
Following the tour, he had some short-term work performing at a local venue every Monday for five weeks in LA, while simultaneous couch-surfing at his friend Jarrad Kirtzstein’s house. “I wanted to do something new every show, or the last two or three shows, and have covers or something.” Luckily, Jarrad, who co-produced Waters’ first EP, New Normal. Graciously, Jarrad K allowed Zak to lease his studio whenever it wasn’t in use, giving him the perfect opportunity to create some new material.
Interestingly enough, though, the studio wasn’t where Waters’ most important single to date, “Pony”, a cover of R&B singer Ginuwine’s 1996 hit song, came to life. That happened in Jarrad K’s kitchen. He described it in detail as if it were yesterday, saying, “It was one of those days where he had a session, so I was like I’m gonna change, put my headphones on and just make a backing track for a live show.”
“I went to the kitchen and just threw the track down really quick, because again, I was making this to play live, so I didn’t have to get crazy on the sounds or anything. I didn’t spend too much time on the drum sounds – I ended up taking those out anyway because I had a live drummer.”
“When it was done, I just recorded the background vocals for live, and we played it that week…and everyone went fucking nuts when I played it. It was so unexpected, and we played it the next week, and the next week. It became such a favorite that when I played it, everybody was just like, ‘You should just put it out!’” [My response was] like, Pony, though?It’s dope… but it’s so kitschy. I mean I love it, it’s a classic. But I never really intended to put it out.”
Eventually he did release the single in June of 2014, but “Pony” didn’t immediately stick with web listeners. In fact, he says the song took a long time to find its ground on the internet. “It didn’t go viral until almost a year after it came out. I put it out – and, it’s not like nobody cared – it did its thing, it got some good press with the blogs – but then it just kind of died down.”
During an eight or nine month period after the release of “Pony” and a subsequent creative lull that saw no new original releases, he began reconsidering a lot about the project. “Pony” had seen some moderate success and was a cult favorite among his fans at his live shows, but his streaming numbers weren’t shining quite as bright. While he’d been making respectable music and getting solid vocal features, the project seemed to lack a clear idea of what it was supposed to be, and began to feel like it was straying from where he initially wanted to take it.
“I feel like I did so many things that weren’t necessarily what I wanted to do. With EDM and stuff like that, the vocal features – there’s a few that I think were really fun. I loved all those songs and those were good things for me. But I was really bummed out when I would go to my Spotify and it’s like it was never a uniform identity there.”
A lot of that came down to how Zak Waters lacked a distinct brand. In order to find that, Waters reevaluated precisely the type of music he wanted to produce, and ultimately leaned on inspiration from his musical upbringing. “I wanted to bring back the sounds of The Gap Band and Rick James, and I thought that needed to be popularized again. I thought that there was a lane for it, because there was nobody doing it. There’s a freedom to it, and it’s super derivative of R&B, which I grew up on, and very sexual usually, and very dance-oriented.”
“As soon as I decided that I was going to just go straight toward my absolute inspirations, which are neo-soul and funk, I think that the visual stuff just exploded in my head.”
After solidifying the sound that he wanted to pursue moving forward, the shift necessitated a realignment of the visual aspect of his brand as well.“As soon as I decided that I was going to just go straight toward my absolute inspirations, which are neo-soul stuff and funk, I think that the visual stuff just exploded in my head.”
The personification of that visual explosion was a new act entirely, which he dubbed “Pretty Sister”. Describing why he sunsetted Zak Waters, he admitted,“I needed a change, really. With Zak Waters, I never knew what it was supposed to look like as a character. I never considered what that was supposed to be. I think it’s hard when you’re just going as your name, because there’s a lot of stuff you won’t do when it’s attached to your name. You don’t think about it visually. You go: Well, that’s me – I’m Zak.”
“I knew exactly what I wanted stuff to look like and what imagery I wanted to associate with the Pretty Sister thing. It just opened up, it was so weird. Because the music isn’t much different from Zak Waters. It’s still funky, it’s still electronic, and it’s still me producing stuff. With Pretty Sister, I just knew I’d have a lot more freedom to be more of an artist, and more of an act.”
Where Zak Waters the person kept his hair sharp, face clean, and wore monochrome short-sleeve button ups, Pretty Sister was the opposite – it was a character by design. Pretty Sister personified the 1970s zeitgeist with a loud, colorful, and debauchee spirit. “I have an affection for things that are kind of trashy–but–also–high–fashion,” he said while panning his camera down from his designer t-shirt to show off a pair of zebra print slides. “…like, leopard print is tacky as fuck, but it’s also kinda baller, too.” Animal prints, bleach-blonde disheveled hair, five o’clock shadow and flashy tops had become Pretty Sister’s new uniform, finally giving him an identity that matched his visionof a neo-funk revival.
During this reinvigoration of his musical image, “Pony” somehow found its way back into the public ear in 2015, too, courtesy of Spotify. Describing the series of events that revived his modern rendition of the beloved cult classic, Waters noted “Eight or nine months after it was released, Spotify just decided to put it on their Throwback Thursday playlist. I don’t know who did it. It was the first song on that playlist, which had a million followers or something. Then it hit there, and they put it on the Alternative R&B playlist, too.”
“The irony is, all of this was happening as I was changing everything to Pretty Sister. It literally was as that happened. I was like Screw it, Zak Waters doesn’t have any social media, this is a bummer.” While he may have lost out on some social media recognition and potential fan conversion while transitioning his channels to Pretty Sister, deciding to sunset the Zak Waters act altogether in order to go all-in on Pretty Sister gave him a clear persona and a fresh start. Now he was making music within a genre that felt like a natural fit, meaning Pretty Sister could thrive into the future.
After reconfiguring his music and polishing his new artistic identity, Waters’ first official release under the Pretty Sister moniker was the infectiously sunny single, “Drive”, in 2016. “Drive”, a song Waters had been sitting on since 2012, came about when his publisher pushed him to write a song for a movie. After picking it back up once becoming Pretty Sister, he wrote the lyrics in the perspective of an innocent transplant moving to L.A. for the first time. “I started it being like, what does it feel like to be someone who’s from Michigan, say, or New York…coming here when they’re 21 or 22, just getting out of college, here to feel the magic with the sunshine and a carefree attitude?”
“Drive” was Pretty Sister’s first real funk song under his new name, setting the tone for future originals in a similar style, including “Come to L.A.”, “West Coast” and “Thirsty”. He calls his flavor of funk “z-funk”, a play off of the g-funk (Gangsta funk) and p-funk (Parliament Funk) movements of the past. Pretty Sister’s z-funk is its own hybrid style of neo-soul vocal elements, traditional funk instrumentals, and modern electronic music production.
Reflecting on how today’s funk compares to the traditional funk that he grew up on, Pretty Sister doesn’t believe today’s modern funk is that divergent from the funk of yore. “I would say neo-funk is similar to old funk, just a bit different: It’s got fatter everything…fatter bass, more synths, more energy – that’s the spirit of neo-funk.” He finished, “But the coolest part is they’re the same in the bass line, and the tempos are the same for the most part. The melodies are inspired by that era.”
Following “Drive”, Pretty Sister continued to put out new music and didn’t shy away from features. 2016 saw collabs with Dragonette, LDN Noise, and his transformative hit single “Dynamite”, with Swedish duo Nause. The single is both Pretty Sister and Nause’s most successful work to date, amassing more than 112 million streams on Spotify alone.
More than just a vocalist, Pretty Sister has also continued to produce and write music for multiple artists, including the aforementioned Betty Who, someone he’s toured with twice already. He contributed both as a co-writer and producer on her 2017 album “The Valley”, and her 2018 single “Taste”. You can hear Pretty Sister’s signature funk influences in the latter especially, with its funky melody, lively bass, and overtly sexual lyrics.
As far as new work of his own, Pretty Sister recently released “Tension” on June 1, his first official single since 2016. He’s promised another single before the summer, so keep an eye out here on Early Bird for when it drops. You can listen to “Tension” on our “TGINMF” Best of New Music Friday playlist on Spotify and Apple Music.
To listen to more, check out our Pretty Sister playlist on Spotify AND Early Bird’s “Funk Renaissance” Playlist: