Although my official interview with hip hop artist Zach Zoya was scheduled for hours before his M for Montreal show at Club Soda, our real conversation began a week earlier.
Having attended the Lou Phelps show at Le Belmont the week prior, I had the pleasure of bumping into Zoya while he attended the show not as an artist, but as a supportive fan. After introducing myself and telling him that I was looking forward to his performance the following week, Zoya’s true character showed itself within minutes of us meeting. He was humble, he was happy and he was supportive. We struck up another conversation hours later in a drunken blur—one that revolved around music, writing, inspiration and a possible interview between the two of us the following week.
Fast forward six days, I walk through the doors of Club Soda, where Zoya is performing “Stake,” his favourite song off his newest EP, Misstape. Despite this only being a sound check, Zoya is bopping around and nailing every note as if he were singing to a full audience, not just six workers and myself. Decked in an all-white Helas tracksuit, Zoya’s choice of comfortable wardrobe reflects the comfort he has on stage. Beside him stands Maky Lavender, his friend and hype man for the rest of the night. The natural chemistry these two have bleeds into their stage presence both during the sound check and the show, when their introduction to Zoya’s “Who Dat?” initiates a mosh pit in the crowd.
To my fortune, Zoya plays his whole set, tweaking audio levels and trying out different pitches where he sees fit. He is doing this not only because he is a perfectionist, but because he recognizes the importance of quality at an M for Montreal show, as an artist who will peak any minute now, with all eyes on him. Important eyes, at that.
Zoya wraps up his set and jumps off stage to greet me and thank me for coming, though I should have been the one doing the thanking. He brings the two of us to a yellow-lit green room underneath the stage.
Sitting on a black and white checkered couch, we crack open a bottle of Jameson, pour ourselves a drink, and Zoya takes me back to the beginning. “I started freestyling at parties,” he said. “It wasn’t really a freestyle. I’d spit a verse, like a Kendrick verse and nobody knew how to do that shit. But I was open about it. I wasn’t claiming it was mine but if they asked I’d tell them. So yeah, I started freestyling, people fucked with it and I was like ‘Oh, maybe I should write a song.’ So I did, then I sat down and I came up with my first shit. Posted up with my laptop and pillows and posted that on SoundCloud.”
At the time, Zoya was living in his hometown of Rouyn-Noranda in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Que. Having come from such a small city, he began to create a local hype. “A local hype back home is like, maybe 40 people saying, ‘I fucks [sic] with your shit!’ So still, to me it was like ‘Oh shit, I’m good enough to do that.’ I think I did maybe three songs before I left to Montreal.”
Zoya was introduced to his manager, Remington Bien-Aimé, through a friend who also rapped. Zoya was told that he was talented, but in order to get his foot in the door, he would first have to step into a studio. After taking this advice and investing both time and money in his craft, Bien-Aimé became Zoya’s official manager and began planning small moves to put the rapper on Montreal’s hip hop radar. But first, he needed the stamp of approval from his mother.
“As soon as I hit 18, I kind of had a conversation with my mom,” Zoya said. “She was down for me to do music, but I had to convince her to some extent. My mom’s a doc. My sisters are doctors too. I have a very educated family, so for me to drop out, I need a reason. But she had heard a couple of my songs, so it was not out of nowhere. I told her, ‘Mom, I’m trying to make this. I’m trying to make this happen. I’m giving myself a year to make this happen.’”
Admittedly, Zoya’s year did not start out with much success. He paid for his own studio sessions and nothing really happened. “Then, 7ième Ciel hollered at me,” he said. “His name is Steve, he’s from Rouyn too. He created the biggest label in Quebec. They got the biggest artists. I can confidently say it’s the biggest Rap-Québ label. So he hollered at me, we had a meeting and he was down to work with me so from that point on, it was like, well, I’m kind of signed now.”
Zoya’s signing allowed him to steadily work on perfecting his art. He recorded his first music video for “Superficial,” which was produced and financed entirely by 7ième Ciel. Yet, it was not until the release of his single “Who Dat” that Zoya got the exposure he needed.
When Zoya recalled the time Montreal producer High Klassified reached out to him on social media, you could hear the excitement in his voice. “He hit me in my DMs and said ‘Yo.’ Then he sent me beats straight away,” Zoya said. “Straight up, he sent me ‘1919.’ He was like ‘Yo, you wanna lay on that?’ I’m like ‘Okay, sure!’ The next day I was in the studio and I laid the chorus for ‘1919.’”
The release of High Klassified’s (HK) Kanvaz EP and its single “1919” put Zach Zoya on the radar for many people. The producer went on to produce Misstape, a collaborative project featuring solely Zoya and HK.
“I have to thank HK for that. He really put me on the map for some people,” said Zoya. “He certified me in a certain way. That’s a big co-sign. In Québec, apart from Kaytranada, I couldn’t have asked for a better co-sign.”
“It’s never a real competition because unless you’re at the very top and competing for #1, there’s space for everybody. There’s enough people in the world for both of us to have an audience and never clash.”
The audience that Zoya brought to Club Soda was an energetic one. Performing in between Rowjay and Fouki’s sets, Zoya played a mix of old and new songs. He debuted unreleased tracks such as “Queso,” “Xandra” and “Slurpee” that were so catchy he had the audience singing the lyrics by the time the second chorus came around. His stage presence, contagious energy and dreads flopping in the air couldn’t help but remind one of a younger Travis Scott in his Owl Pharaoh days. And to anyone who knows what that entails, well, that’s kind of huge.
In typical interviews, once the microphone stops recording, the interview is done. But, the night was far from over.
Zoya invited me to dinner with him and his management, but he didn’t have to. Zoya made sure I received a backstage access bracelet, but he didn’t have to. Zoya let me see him rehearse, sit in on his team’s pre-game pep talk, take front row pictures and party for hours afterwards. But…he didn’t have to. Zoya proved that not only is he an incredible artist, but a very genuine human being. And Zoya, whether you know it now or not, will be going places. The only question is: when?