It’s taken time, but R&B and soul are finally becoming an established genre in Sweden. While the charts are dominated by the US and UK ‘pop’ hits and revitalised hip hop, the emergence of a new generation of R&B/Soul artists, predominately women, are adding emotional depth to radios’ tired formats. Amongst the artists defining the modern R&B sound is 23-year-old Zikai.
The Swedish singer-songwriter (Isabelle Zikai Gbotto Carlsson) stormed the airwaves with singles such as Champagne for Breakfast and Liquor kisses. Her vibrations of sweet pop/R&B with suggestive charm endeared directly, matched with vivid music videos. Zikai brought a new generation of girl-next-door vibes – young, vibrant and expressive as she experiences the ins and outs of love. Sensual and chic she’s more Britney than Cardi.
Earlier this year, Zikai made headlines after receiving the prestigious 2021 Swedish Grammys for best Soul/R&B EP Make You Mine. It was all the more notable as the Soul/R&B category was making its first appearance at the awards.
Battling a cold, which have reemerged with a vengeance after the pandemic, Zikai described the start of her music career through her stuffy nose. Her journey began as a songwriter Zikai explained as we spoke over zoom. While many begin with poetry, Zikai found her flow in song lyrics.
“I started writing when I was 13 or something – it was straight-up songs on my little piano.” Chuckling, she adds, “I can’t say they were ‘good’. I look back at the diaries, and it’s kinda cute, but it was my way of communicating my feelings.”
The youngest of three, Zikai grew up immersed in the sound of international R&B and pop introduced by her older siblings; it, therefore, felt natural for the bourgeoning artist to write in English. “It made it easier for me to know the structure of a song and how a song was built. I also want to tour the world, and that would be difficult if I sang in Swedish.”
Naturally, her favourite subject at school was music and supported by teachers found herself motivated to keep learning. “I was in a girl band from 3-5 grade, and during these lessons, I learnt to play the piano. I remember staying after a lesson to play Alicia Keys and Drake, who had dropped the single Unthinkable. Just having these instruments around you was really a blessing and helped me a lot.”
Becoming a lawyer, policeman or doctor are some of the ambitions rooted in a child’s (or parents) career fantasies but to Zikai, becoming an artist took hold.
“I did not grow up around musicians. I went to a normal school, and nobody knew anybody in the industry. I knew in my heart this is what I’m good at. And this is what I want to do, and it’s fun, and I want to have fun with it. I wanted to create and work with people. And that energy that was shining through. I think people appreciated that.”
Despite a congested nose, her voice transmits confidence, a sense of determination. Zikai was driven by a personal instinct to do everything she could to make it.
TAKING EVERY OPPORTUNITY
“Every opportunity that came my way – I took it. So when I met the producer, McBeats he told me about some rappers who wanted some choirs on their song. These were big rappers, and I was like, yeah, let’s go, let’s do it!’ That led to more people hearing my voice. I just had to put myself out there.”
Each step took her forward and having a catalogue of ideas and songs gave her a platform to build, adapt and learn from. She was also well aware that her songs were written exclusively for her.
“When I was 16/17, I knew in my heart I didn’t know what to say yet. I’m writing all these songs, but I knew I needed to gain more experience, and I knew I wanted to become a better writer.”
It wasn’t long before a publishing team, Northbound, picked her up. With it came broader sources of inspiration as they introduced her to their artists, expanding her network and enlightening Zikai to how other artists worked.
“When I worked with other artists, they had a story to tell, and I could help them make it into a song. But I felt through my own artistry that I had to keep doing it before I’d have a finished product of my own. When I was 21, I released Mountain Peak. This was what I could stand for and what I wanted to say. But it took some time.”
Her moments of self-reflection and appreciation comes when listening back to a song after a session in her headphones. In these moments, her evolution as a singer/songwriter is more evident, and the feeling of satisfaction is, as in her words, ‘too hard to describe.’ It’s here when she’s most proud of herself.
Stories don’t have to be your own
Joy or pain are two fundamental elements in songwriting. As we discuss inspiration, Zikai quotes a reference that came to mind ‘Artists put themselves in the situations, and create situation only for it to benefit their artistry’.
Following on Zikai said “I relate, but I’d say mine was subconscious. I would stay in a relationship longer than I should. It was easier to write while I was sad than happy. I had to be super in love or super hurt. A couple of years ago, I was in London as my life was pretty still. I met my friend Josh, and he told me about his story, about this girl he was seeing, only connecting when champagne was flowing. I went to the studio and wrote Champagne for Breakfast.”
With Josh’s permission, the single was released to home and international plaudits. Besides this came Zikai’s awareness that others’ stories – a movie scene or anything interesting, could be taken into a song.
FROM PANDEMIC TO HOST
The pandemic struck everyone, and Zikai found herself safeguarding at home and finding scenarios in her head for songs. Though she was happy with the enforced break, writing numerous songs of longing became tiresome. Creativity thrives in Zikai, and not one to sit still, she started a youtube program – Twenty Something (named after her single). The program invited guests such as Cherrie, Liam Kalevi and Niklas Strömstedt to talk about their experiences being aged ‘twenty something’. “I knew I had to do something to be creative. It was a lot of fun.” she says
Watching her as the host, you can see she takes to it naturally. She a measure of maturity and overflowing with playful charisma whilst emphasising her ability to be a thoughtful listener and an engaging interviewee – as I discovered.
As we talk about her Grammy, Zikai explains she takes being an award-winner with enormous pride and has simultaneously compartmentalised the achievement.
“That was a prize for Make you Mine, and I’m super grateful for that. But I’m just trying to look forward and challenge myself. I think it’s important to do that. Putting too much energy into the past will affect my work in a bad way for the future.”
PLANS AND DREAMS
Duets with SVEA, Hitimpulse and Daniela Rathaana have followed and Zikai currently has a weekly residence at hotel Villa Dagmar in Stockholm but she has imminent plans to return to the UK.
‘R&B is really big in the US right now; it’s still something to be established here. My music is very pop-influenced. You can hear ‘pop’ in the structure without being full-on R&B. It’s R&B in its core, and I feel there is a place for me here. People are starting to get it.’
Touring in the UK is an aspiration of hers, and she mentions the crowds’ response to R&B and the fans reaction to her music. ‘There, even warm-up bands get lifelong fans!‘ she remarks.
“My biggest, biggest dream is to tour. To meet my audience, to create a live set, and well… we’ll see. I’m working on an album right now, and I know it will take some time. Sometimes I’m scared to be patient because I fear people will forget (me), but this time I want to take my time and dare to do that. It’s important for this project.’
Today’s female artists are diversifying and marketing their brands, such as Rihanna and Swedish artist Cherrie who have both released exclusive makeup ranges. Zikai’s inventive mind already has unique plans of her own. “My own microphone!” she says, laughing sweetly. “Can you imagine a mic with my name on and in so many colours, ah, I know it sounds weird, but it’ll be so cool! Let’s send this out into the universe, so it happens!”
Consider it sent Zikai!
And for those who are curious, her ideal breakfast would be brunch style. With a deliciously soft tone, Zikai said “A Mimosa, pancakes, bacon etc. foodie, a very foodie breakfast served on the Amalfi coast in Italy.”
Somehow, when Zikai says it, blocked nose or not, you can almost smell it.