Zoë Johnston is quite literally the voice behind Above & Beyond’s Vocal Trance hits. The English songstress possesses one of the most unique voices in the industry, and captivates audiences worldwide with her inherent talent.
Furthermore, the Grammy-nominated singer has managed to work with various artists such as Delirium, Faithless, and Sleepthief to name a few. I had the privilege to ask Zoë Johnston a mixed bag of questions, and below is the Vocal Trance stalwart’s exclusive interview with One EDM.
Hasan Singh: Zoë, you are blessed with a very beautiful yet distinct voice. It absolutely tugs at the listeners’ heartstrings, especially when paired with the emotional melodies and synths of Above & Beyond. At what age did you realize that you wanted to become a vocalist?
Zoë Johnston: First of all, thank you for the compliments – that’s very kind. I’ve never had a realization about becoming a vocalist. There are lots of creative things I wanted to do in my life, and singing was one of them, but it was always fused with the idea of writing music and using words to make shapes out of the blurriness of feeling and experiencing things. I started playing the guitar when I was about fifteen. It was around that time I remember people asking me to sing for them.
It became a bit of a thing whenever there were groups of us together, or it was someone’s birthday. Later on it became one of the things that happened after drunken nights out – “Play us something, Zo!” On occasion someone would start crying. Really profound life stories would come out in the early hours, like the music had bumped up against an already full cup. I think by the age of 18 I’d realized I would always want to sing.
Who are some of your influences that helped you carve your musical path?
I don’t really see my musical path as separate to the rest of my life. There are many people I’ve known and who I am still close to who have inspired and encouraged me along the way. Additionally, I had a brilliant teacher at college who mentored me in a few ways. He was a big influence on me. He wrote great songs which were full of the most thought-provoking stories and poetry. What really stuck with me was the total lack of ego in them. I used to think that sentimentality was the way forward if you wanted to write something touching.
However, through him, I learned to be more truthful and honest in my writing, and to find ways of describing emotions without relying on clichés or quoting from other people. He was a great teacher because he never used his power to force me into anything. He respected my abilities, even though I was very young. In fact, on my first day of art class he came up to me and said, “There’s nothing I can teach you, but if you have any questions just come and find me.” That’s when I thought, “Here’s someone I want to learn from.”
What unique rituals (if any) do you do in order to keep your voice in pristine shape?
I don’t have any, to be honest.
We all have the one track that we consider a favorite. Mine is “Good For Me.” What’s your favorite song to perform live?
I don’t think I have a favorite. I can get into them all!
Have you had any embarrassing moments onstage during your career?
I remember playing in the Netherlands with Faithless, and I was wearing some new boots I’d bought that day. They had ridiculously tall heels. As soon as I walked out in them, I regretted it because I realized I couldn’t stand still without toppling over. They also had no grips and were very slippery. I had to keep moving non-stop in tiny steps throughout the entire show just to stay upright. Someone commented online afterwards that I seemed nervous. I wasn’t. I was just constantly focused on not breaking my ankle or skidding across stage mid-song.
What was your first concert?
I sang at a fundraising event in a pub when I was ten. It wasn’t a concert, but it was my first experience of singing in public.
Probably a French film called, “Tell No One.”
If you could choose one artist, dead or alive, to work with, who would it be?
Honestly, there are too many great musicians to choose from, all with unique qualities you couldn’t replicate. I can’t pick one over the others!
What are your 3 essential things that you cannot do without?
People I really love! That’s the only thing coming to mind.
Favorite place in the world to visit?
This is hard. There are so many amazing places, all interesting for different reasons. I love the beaches in Hawaii, the super rich greenness of Liechtenstein, and the little seaside towns in the north east of England. There are more, too. I don’t have one favorite.
What’s your favorite moment in the studio?
I think it’s got to be the moment you’ve finished a song and you feel very close to it, but you’re suspended in that little bubble of time where it’s not out in the world yet. You feel this kind of magical stored energy. It’s like a really great secret you’re keeping, and you know it’s going to change before long so you just want to savor it while you can.
What helps you stay focused on your work?
Just the drive of being into it, I think. I’ve got quite an addictive nature so it’s easy for me to stay focused if I’m passionate about what I’m doing.
What’s currently on your music playlist?
I haven’t properly listened to other people’s music in so long. All of my time and focus has gone into my new solo album over the last few years, so that’s what I’ve been listening to. There is this one song I heard recently though that I really like for its atmosphere and beautiful vocal work. It’s called, “God Don’t Leave Me” by Highasakite. Speaking from experience, if you listen to it while you’re very tired in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s probably going to bring tears to your eyes.
What message would you like to give the world in light of the current situation?
I think taming the imagination is an important thing to do when there’s a lot of fear flying around. Often when we compare our actual realities to the drama in our heads, they are like two totally separate films. This is a one day at a time kind of situation, which we will get through eventually. Let’s just be kind to each other.