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Cherwell Introducing: Zahra

In our Introducing series, Cherwell will be bringing you the best up and coming artists in Oxford. This week, Joseph interviewed Zahra.

Please introduce yourself!

I’m Zahra, a 2nd Year Philosophy and Theology student at Christ Church, and I’ve just released my debut single, Windows Down!

Who is your biggest musical inspiration?

It’s impossible to choose one! Whenever I think about this I try and remember what I’d play on my family’s CD player from when I was about 4. Justin Timberlake, Madonna’s Hard Candy, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Prince. So, a lot of pop, soul, and R&B: which I feel inspires me when I’m writing pop songs to use jazzy chords, or to incorporate an R&B drum pattern or influence.

Right now, I’d say my biggest writing influences are Boygenius, Phoebe Bridgers, and Olivia Dean. But I feel like the music of my childhood is just so ingrained in me sub-consciously I can’t help but refer to it.

Has your experience at Oxford influenced your writing/performing?

Oxford’s given me so many experiences to write about: I wouldn’t have gone interrailing this summer if it wasn’t for being at Uni which is an experience I wrote multiple songs about, or experiences of dating, boys, romance. Being in a new place and meeting new people is bound to expand your horizons. Funnily enough though, while being here gives me material, I find writing in Oxford really hard. As we all know, it’s so intense, and I find I can only write properly during the vacations: my emotional capacity isn’t there during term, and turning an emotional experience into a creative endeavour is hard to do here.

What is your first musical memory?

It’s a hazy memory I have of when I was 2 or 3, watching Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together music video. It’s just so nostalgic to me. It was my sister’s favourite music video, so we would watch it on the TV together and have a little boogie.

Do you find any connection between your studies and your music?

Doing Philosophy and Theology forces me to think deeply about religion, God, the world, and personal identity. After studying these things in depths and having 1 on 1 tutes it’s hard to get away from it sinking in personally as well: ever since I could recognise my love for philosophy and theology, I’ve had this existentialism which intuitively helps me with songwriting. My studies certainly help me think about my life, my emotions, and experiences more deeply, which goes hand in hand with songwriting and unlocking my creativity.

Describe your sound in three words.

Groovy summer pop.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?

I’ll be 30…that’s crazy! Ok so there’s two options. Realistically, I want to reach a point where I can look at my career and be happy and satisfied. Making a comfortable living from music, no side job or struggling to make music my main purpose.

But if we’re saying the sky is the limit, I’m still getting used to sharing my dreams with other people, like I didn’t tell people I sang until less than a year ago. I like to keep my big dreams close to my heart.

What’s your favourite song right now?

Kind of rogue, but it’s Tell Your Friends, by the Weeknd and, Sober II (Melodrama) by Lorde. I’m in an angsty, Hilary, it’s dark outside and I’m getting drunk 3 times a week vibe! I’m gonna cheat and give you two.

What is a song that made you want to become a songwriter?

Well, it’s not a song but an artist: I have to say Taylor Swift. I think I learned piano and guitar because she plays them. Even though I was writing songs and melodies and poems since I was 6, when I remember being 10 at the piano, I remember thinking: ‘I’m going to write a song because Taylor Swift writes her own songs.’ I felt like I couldn’t be a true musician unless I wrote my own songs. I also had this knowledge where I knew my voice wouldn’t get me where I wanted on its own, so I had to write.

What do you wish was different about the music industry in 2024?

Tik Tok is a double-edged sword. It’s free and accessible, in an industry that is inherently exclusionary, and built on who you know. However, it’s become not just a tool, but a necessary medium for music promotion. Imagine Paul McCartney, or Amy Winehouse, as influencers: these cool, phenomenally creative people, selling songs on Tik Tok? It feels like if you want to be an artist you have to be an influencer, which so many people don’t want! It’s jarring for a lot of independent musicians, when labels expect you to have an online presence.

Zahra’s debut single, Windows Down, is out now. Her debut EP of the same name is coming in late April.

Follow Zahra on Instagram @ zahra.sahamad

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