Getting rejected isn’t fun for anyone. Being the rejecter, though, isn’t exactly pleasant either. Most of us have been in that awkward situation where someone liked us and we didn’t like them back. On her latest single “Empty Calls,” London-based pop artist Zelha reflects on the difficult process of having to reject somebody.
“It’s a really awkward situation where you don’t really know what to do with it,” she says. “When I was writing this song, I was kind of going through that, and I think it helped me approach the situation and hopefully can help other people as well. It’s quite a common thing to go through.”
“I can’t keep it up, I can’t keep it in/I’ve been avoiding, just keep avoiding you/I can’t let you in/let you under my skin/I’ll just keep running,” her clear, hypnotizing voice sings in the catchy pre-chorus against energetic percussion that evokes this very sense of running away from drama only to have it bite you in the back.
The video features Zelha dancing in the street, on the beach, and in a parking lot as she takes the viewer through her emotional process. “The idea was to recreate that feeling of wanting to escape, so the scenes at the beach were by myself; it was really a way to show the reflection that happens in that situation and wanting to be away with your thoughts,” she says.
In her case, she ended up telling the other person everything she was feeling (and wasn’t). “Honesty is always the best policy; if you don’t know where you stand, then it’s just worse,” she says. “I hope that people can relate to it and that it shows them that some things have to be said even if it’s awkward and it’s not easy. In the long run, it’ll be better.”
She wanted the single to sound like a pop song but to also incorporate indie elements; she and producer Jack Gourlay used lots of tom samples to create an organic sound and incorporated multiple layers of synths to evoke an ethereal, nostalgic feel.
The single appears on Zelha’s upcoming debut EP, which she says deals in various ways with self-discovery, dysfunctional relationships, and mental health. One song, “Stage Lights,” for instance, is about the self-consciousness that comes from thinking other people are watching you when they’re really more focused on themselves.
The EP also includes her first single, “Player 1,” a chill, harmony-filled, Lana Del Rey-like track about “someone who wants to control everyone and everything,” she says. “I think especially women tend to have those experiences quite a lot, having someone gaslight you or manipulate you without realizing it.”
She and Gourlay started producing the EP two years ago and plan to release it later this year. All the instrumentation was done digitally, with the exception of some guitar parts.
Zelha, whose real name is Caroline Marcela Zandona, is half-Mexican and half-Belgian and was raised in Belgium. “I grew up with both types of music: French on one side and Mexican on the other,” she says. “I don’t know if it can be directly heard in my music, but the way I write lyrics may be a bit different because English isn’t my first language.” She chose her stage name because she wanted something that worked phonetically in French, Spanish, and English, incorporating elements of her middle and last name.
As a student at the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London, Zelha is currently writing a dissertation on fourth-wave feminism, female artists, and how they’re represented in their lyrics. She’s already started making music for her second EP, which explores the feminist themes she’s studying, and hopes to produce it using an all-female and nonbinary team. “There’s a lot of barriers to women [in the music industry], and I think we should all be helping each other out. By talking about it, it’s just going to become a more common subject, not as taboo,” she says. “Pushing female producers and female co-writers is what we should be doing.”