La Zarra


While there’s a decidedly modern bent to the music that Fatima-Zahra Hafdi makes as La Zarra, it’s clear that the Montreal singer is indebted to the past. “My conservatory is YouTube, where I’ve studied with the most eminent professors,” she tells Apple Music. “I learned swag from Peggy Lee, how to breathe with Barbra Streisand, how to hit on precise notes with forcefulness listening to Shirley Bassey, and changing tempo and melody with [French singer] Barbara.” But maybe her biggest influence from a bygone era is Edith Piaf—from the tremolo in her voice to the way she bites into her words. La Zarra’s debut album is a byproduct of her collaboration with singer-songwriter and hip-hop producer Benny Adam, with whom she developed her classic-meets-contemporary sound. Here, she talks through how each of the LP’s songs came together.
“Fille de joie” “There’s something cinematic in the arrangements, and I’m glad I insisted on having a genuine orchestra. This song is a good example of my approach: the strings, the Mozart-style drop, my voice, which is alone at first before the hip-hop accompaniment kicks in. The lyrics set the tone, especially when I say, ‘Même si c’est le bordel autour de moi, je ne suis pas une fille de joie’ [‘Even if it seems like I’m in a brothel, I’m not a lady of the night’]. I think it’s clear that what we’re talking about here is a woman of character!”
“LVQM” “Stan Ness offered me this very joyful piece for piano, which almost sounds like a nursery rhyme, and I sang to it when I started writing. It talks about a girl who’s in a difficult financial situation and she meets a rich man, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped because the guy’s a gangster. She accepts it, saying that it’s ‘la vie qu’on mène’ [‘the life we lead’], which explains the title, and at the end, she’s ready to move on to the next affair. It’s quite a lighthearted song, which I really enjoyed writing.”
“Simple ami” “One of the many songs I wrote with my long-standing collaborator Benny Adam. He’d actually started to write it for himself, but I pinched it from him. We did the demo, and I knew I wanted to add elements that would make it more powerful, so we put it on the back burner for almost a year and a half while we worked on the rest of the album.”
“Tu t’en iras” “This one came about pretty much by chance, towards the end of the recording. Benny sent me a topline, which I listened to on loop for months before I started to write. I wondered whether I shouldn’t release it as the first single, because it’s faster-paced and differs slightly from my usual style, but ultimately, I allowed myself to be persuaded by my team. The sound is very modern, very compressed, with 808 keyboards, and that’s down to the production by duo Banx & Ranx, who I’m really happy to have been able to work with.”
“TFTF” “It dates back to when I started going back and forth between Montreal and Paris and meeting different composers and musicians. I had a very relaxed session with Benny and Wladimir Pariente, who’s a very talented pianist. I don’t know why, but the first words that popped into my head were ‘tout feu tout flamme’ [‘all fired up’]. I loved the way it sounded, and it reminded me of the dragon character in the TV series La princesse astronaute, which I used to watch as a kid.”
“Traîtrise” “It’s one of the first tracks I wrote, and I remember I wasn’t super confident in my abilities yet. But the melody had been haunting me for ages, so I played it for Benny and when we got down to work, we finished it in a single day. I was listening to a lot of Barbara at the time, which perhaps explains the waltz. It illustrates the many disappointments and betrayals I’ve experienced, and which drove me to music. There’s a lot of bitterness, but it also talks about regaining control, about coming to terms with the past.”
“Pas le cœur à la fête” “This was a collaboration with John Mamann and Neo Maestro, which I completed with the Salah brothers, who collaborated with Slimane and Vitaa, and who did me the honor of working with me. There’s something sunny and danceable about it that reminds me of Ibiza. It’s like the album’s little guilty pleasure. It talks of those alcohol-fueled nights spent in nightclubs looking for some kind of closeness you never find. That’s a far cry from who I am now: I’m more the type to eat in bed watching Netflix.”
“Comme je l’aime” “I love the production and arrangements, which were done by a guy from Toronto called Sean Fisher, who completely restructured the song and amplified that James Bond feel it has. It’s basically very simple: I tell a guy that I’d like to continue loving him, but that I prefer someone else who, unfortunately, doesn’t love me like he does.”
“Amour de quartier” “It’s a song I’d been carrying around with me for a long time, and I was finally able to create it thanks to Benny and Montreal guitarist Clément Langlois-Légaré, with string arrangements by Français Fred Lafage. It’s definitely my favorite, but it’s also something of an Achilles’ heel: There’s a sort of foregone conclusion to this track, which talks about wanting to spend your life with someone who’s, unfortunately, no longer there.”
“Ne m’en veut pas” “We invited Banx & Ranx and Ruffsound, who work with lots of rappers, to come and rework it, hence the slightly trap sound. I really like the contrast between the two genres, the more French chanson side to it and the hip-hop production. It wasn’t deliberate—that kind of mix comes pretty naturally to me.”
“Fleur oubliée” “I started it in Paris with composer Alban Lico, but we finalized it in Montreal with the help of Philippe Brault, who did the arrangements. It started off as quite a simple song, just piano and vocals, but then we added strings to give it a bit more depth.”
“Je coule” “I wanted to talk about that anguish many artists feel when their creativity eludes them and goes elsewhere. You might get the impression I’m talking about a romantic relationship, but I’m actually addressing inspiration.”
“Vie d’artiste” “Nazim Khaled came to me with the lyrics. He works with a lot of big names in France, and he has an amazing knack for analyzing an artist and then coming up with a song that’s perfectly suited to them. I’m not normally able to perform a song written by someone else, but this time I immediately said, ‘This one’s mine!’ I think he has a clear grasp of all the insecurities of life as an artist, but also of that sort of bubbling optimism felt by those who decide to take the plunge even if they don’t know where it’ll take them. I’m totally crazy myself, but I’m able to channel my madness!”
“C’est une chanson” “I think it’s a very unifying track. It reminds me of Piaf, who I allude to when I sing, ‘Je me réinvente en brune, en blonde’ [‘I’m reinventing myself as a brunette, as a blonde’], but also another classic of French chanson called ‘Les feuilles mortes.’ I had Dalida’s disco version in my head, which inspired the melody. I think it’s a powerful song and I can picture myself in a bar, surrounded by loads of people, singing ‘la-la-la-la-la-la’ at the top of my voice. It ends on a high note and makes you want to listen to the album again.”


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