Queensway Tunnel, the debut album by Liverpool's acclaimed singer-songwriter (and noted sci-fi obsessive, gamer and comic book enthusiast) Zuzu is out now. We at Townsend Music have been smitten with Zuzu's music since we first heard her How It Feels EP last year and jumped at the chance to work with her and her team to release physical copies of this vital album on own her own Planet Z imprint. On the day of the record's long-awaited release, we caught up with Zuzu and enlisted the help of her friends Red Rum Club and The Lottery Winners to take us on a whistle-stop tour of Planet Z.
This afternoon finds Zuzu in her flat - all rows of guitars and shelves of books - preparing for a weekend tour of record shops to promote the release of Queensway Tunnel. Although playing acoustic shows is nothing new for Zu, this particular setting is virgin territory: "I’ve never really played in-stores before because I’ve never really had a record out!" she laughs excitedly. "It’s a new experience for me. I don’t know what to expect but I’m always very happy playing my songs on my own - that doesn’t bother me. It’s how I wrote them, so it kind of makes sense!" Whether it's one of the acoustic videos Zuzu posts to Instagram, or playing in Liverpool's beloved record shop The Jacaranda, "playing songs on her own" is a core component of the Zuzu experience. One observation that has resounded throughout the album reviews rolling in is the dichotomy at the heart of Zuzu's appeal: the ability to explore big themes with the closeness of a personal friend. "Despite its intimacy, it’s also pretty universal..." - DIY Magazine marvels. Dork calls it "heartwarming and sincere" and Gigwise promises that "there is no doubt that you will find yourself in one of these songs".
Winning praise across media including NME, The Guardian, Clash, DIY, The Independent and The Line of Best Fit, as well as radio support from BBC 6 Music, Radio X and BBC Radio 1 (including a couple of plays from Tom Grennan as he sat in on their Future Sounds show), Queensway Tunnel is a record that cements her leap from her trademark acoustic sets in bedrooms to full band outings on festival stages. With the larger stages that Zuzu has found herself playing over the last twelve months, is keeping the confessional intimacy of her acoustic sets a concern? "It’s very different when you’re playing a festival" she observes. "You’re putting on more of a show and concentrating on getting the crowd going. I use my voice and band to elevate those moments and songs whereas when I play them acoustically, it’s rawer. I guess I'm playing them with heart as opposed to adrenaline."
"Both ways are cathartic - it’s just a different kind of catharsis!"
Along her (sometimes challenging) journey to get to this point, Zuzu has won friendship and support from a whole host of musical kindred spirits, notably including indie-pop luminaries The Lottery Winners. Ebullient frontman Thom Rylance recalls the first time they met: "I’d been a fan of Zuzu for a little while, but first met her when we were both filming something for a clothing brand. She is a bright light and she filled the room with her warm energy. We became friends that day and have since hung out and even worked together on music."
After a busy Lockdown period that included writing music for Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time: Distant Lands and contributing a 'Simlish' re-working of her song 'How It Feels' to The Sims video game, in May, Zuzu became the first artist in the northern hemisphere to play a non-socially-distanced live show, as she opened for Blossoms in front of 5,000 enthusiastic fans.
"It was a really surreal experience because at the time I was - on a personal note - very down on myself" Zuzu reflects. "I was unsure about whether I’d even get booked for that kind of gig again. When that came through it filled me with excitement and nerves but once it was done it really put a spring back in my step. And there was a big influx of people interested in our stuff." When asked how she found the set itself, she is clearly still coming to terms with the magnitude of the historic event: "It wasn’t like a festival or a normal gig - I don’t think I’ll ever play a gig like that again. When are you ever on the news going 'I’m playing a gig today?!' It was a great experience, I feel very lucky that I even got to do it at all."
Zuzu's most recent big stage experience was a support slot for fellow scousers Red Rum Club on their celebratory homecoming show to mark the release of their How To Steal The World album, also out today. "The gig was boss!" Zuzu exudes, "I first met them at a show years ago and now we’re like this..." Zuzu crosses her fingers dramatically. "Very supportive. Their journey so far has been a joy to watch and I'm honoured to know them."
When asked why they chose Zuzu as the support for such an important set, Red Rum Club's frontman Fran Doran returns the sentiment: "We saw Zuzu in all her glory for the first time ever at FestEvol 2017 in the Invisible Wind Factory and she blew us away. I thought I was watching a touring band from somewhere in Europe that Revo had somehow scouted - that was until she spoke in between songs! There was something undeniable about her then, as there still is now."
The peaks and troughs that Zuzu has overcome - particularly difficulties with previous record labels exacerbated by the awful timing of a national lockdown - have been a source of inspiration within the tight-knit Liverpool scene. In Merseyside, the emergence of Queensway Tunnel is cause for celebration: "People should go and show her support with this album because we know what she’s been through, particularly over the last few years, just to get this music out and released into the world" Fran explains. "It’s really hard to do what she does and she has shown unfaltering determination to get this far. She deserves all the success she gets and it’s an inspiration to see someone so wholeheartedly dedicated."
The city of Liverpool is at the heart of Zuzu's songs and image. How does she feel about the support that its music scene has shown her? "Liverpool is a very small city, so in the music scene, it’s relatively tight" she explains. "You can go into town and see people casually. I take it for granted because it's very natural but actually, we’re in a really cool part of the world and not many other places are like this; all my best mates are artists and I don’t know if I’d have that anywhere else!"
With that level of closeness in the music scene, one wonders if competitiveness and jealousy are prone to rear their ugly heads? "Well, just like everywhere else, people here are competitive I don’t think anyone’s immune from that," she says with a knowing smile. "But I’ve learned over the years that that’s not good for you. It’s not good for you internally and it’s not good for you externally - it’s not good energy. A lot of people here realise its strength in numbers."
"Scousers get a lot of shit from the outside world - I feel like we’ve gotta stick together!"
One of the most striking landmarks of Planet Z is the enthusiasm of her young fanbase; Zuzu's openness about her own mental health challenges and her fierce championing of individuality gives her devotees a role model who is also a friend. Her audience reacts and engages on her social media accounts with as much passion and frequency as fans do for artists with far more established followings. Of course, many of these devoted teenagers are much more familiar with streaming tracks than they are playing them on a stereo, so it's interesting to understand how Zuzu sees the place of physical music formats in a digital world. "I do believe that buying music is important" she acknowledges. "Nowadays most people know and accept that streaming doesn’t equate to any real money for artists so kids are buying music to say ‘I’ve got the record, I’m a big fan of your band’ and that sets them apart from just being a streamer. With that said, I’m not trying to take away from streaming; you can’t beat the ease of streaming. You’re not going to take your vinyl player or CD on the school bus!"
Ultimately, Zuzu is happy however people want to listen to Queensway Tunnel as long as they're enjoying it: "It just means the world to me that people are up for buying my record. You don’t have to listen to my record on vinyl - you can listen to it on your iPhone speaker if you want. I don't care!." For those of us who want to own it on vinyl, CD or tape, the record is available now on the Zuzu official store.
When asked why anyone should be interested in getting a copy of their own, Thom from The Lottery Winners doesn't hold back: "I honestly feel like Zuzu is a special songwriter; one of the best of our generation. I’ve physically seen her write a song, and it astounded me. She was able to write with such emotion, heart and relevance so effortlessly. I love everything she’s done, and I can’t wait to receive my copy of the record... I got the full bundle!"