You can probably count on one hand the number of DJs who have successfully moved into recording their own vocals. There’s the likes of Green Velvet and Scumfrog, of course, and Darren Emerson had a go at lyrics while recording tracks for his long-awaited debut album, but other than that, there aren’t many. So it’s a brave move by James Zabiela to lay down some vocals of his own on his latest EP, Perseverance. If anyone can make his voice work though, it’s James, one of the most exciting DJs of recent years, and a man with an undeniable talent for pushing the boundaries. So here, on this cracking little four-tracker, you find the Zabiela production skills in full flow, backed up – and given an unexpected warm, personal touch – by his own voice. Could this be the start of a whole new Zabiela sound? EQ finds out more…
Have people been surprised by the move into tracks with lyrics?
Yeah, I think some people are, but I made the EP with a view to one day making an electronic album that’s got melodies and lyrics, an album that’s song based and isn’t just ravey music. So I included an element of that in this EP. And I also wanted to see if I actually have the skills to make music like that, something a bit more substantial that just club tracks.
Was it difficult moving in that direction? It must be quite a jump from just making clubs tracks to suddenly putting lyrics down.
Yeah, it is, but these are still club tracks. They’re not full-blown songs. I’ve just tried to add vocals to see if I could, and I’ve learnt a lot by making this EP. I’m a bit more confident about producing stuff in the future now.
How was it doing the vocals yourself?
Some of the lyrics were just sung into the mic on my laptop – they’re not professionally recorded. They were done in hotel rooms, bathrooms and places like that. You get good acoustics in the shower. It was really just an experiment and I’m happy with how it all came out.
So can we now expect to see you getting on the mic when
Oh no, I wouldn’t have thought so. I’m not a performer in that field. Maybe if I wrote a proper song, felt confident, practised a lot and didn’t try to do anything beyond my singing range, I might do it. But it’s such a hard thing to do. Even when I was laying down these lyrics – as few of them as there are – I was checking the hotel hallways to make sure there was no one around. It’s terribly embarrassing. The worst thing is when you’ve recorded yourself and it just sounds awful when you play it back. It took loads of take to get it right.
The vocals really make the tracks stand out though.
I suppose they do make them a bit more distinctive, a bit more emotive. In the track Human, for example, there are no real lyrics in there. It’s just wails and moans from me – I was trying to use my voice as an instrument, rather than making a song.
Has that pushed you in the direction where you might use vocalists in the future?
I don’t think so. When I make the album, it’s going to be a solo album. I get really nervous when I work with other people. I feel really pressured. I’m not a musician, so I like to spend some time playing the keys in. If there’s someone else in the room, I get nervous. That said, I’ve just engineered a track for a friend, so I might do some collaborations in the future. But I do work better on my own – as a school report once said: “Does not work well in groups.”
So how far away is the album?
Oh I’ve not started it yet. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve got a sketch down for one track, which is a slow vocal record. It’s a long way off though. I’ll probably take some time off DJing this summer to write some music. It’s kind of hard though, because you’re either in the mood to make music or you’re not. You need a moment of inspiration. So the album’s a way off, but the intention is there…