ANDERSON STREET CHATS WITH ZO!
We’re really big Foreign Exchange fans here at Anderson Street. To us, there isn’t a more exciting and entertaining R&B collective out. This past weekend, we got to chat with an integral piece of the group, Zo!, who will be coming to Philly’s Pubb Webb with FE vocalist Carmen Rodgers. He will be performing in support of his newest album SkyBreak, which was released last summer and was highly acclaimed by one of our favorite Neighbors. We talked to Zo! about touring and performing with FE, how the loss of his father inspired the album, Philly being a terrible place if you are on a diet. Check it out below.
A lot of people know you through Foreign Exchange (affectionately known by fans as FE). How long have you been with the band?
I’ve been musical director of The Foreign Exchange since 2008 so it’s almost been ten years. I’ve been a part of all but the first FE album. I think it was, lemme see, Leave it All Behind, Authenticity, Love in Flying Colors, I was either playing on or co-produced a song or two or both. Whereas this last one, Tales From The Land of Milk & Honey, I actually co-produced with FE the entire album. My role was a little bit larger on this last one.
How does your music differ from the band?
Well my albums are usually more compilation style whereas it’s producer based. You know it’s my music behind. It could be nine or ten different vocalists on the project at one time. Whereas FE is mainly Nicolay being the producer and Phonte being the songwriter and singer.
One thing I do like about your work and also FE, is the amount of life that you guys have. It’s a fun record. I always feel like when people think of R&B and Soul music they think about the sadder songs as opposed to the life that the music is rooted in. Can you talk about the feeling in your music and how you would describe it?
Well I blame the late 90s for what you just talked about. It was definitely moving toward the things that was actually gaining a lot of popularity. Like the songs about being cheated on, songs about you gotta get the hell on, this person ain’t worth a shit. You know it was all of those songs and we don’t want to hear that all the time. Breakup songs are interesting and all that stuff and I even have one on SkyBreak, which was a change for me but a lot of times when we are just making music.
I actually just tweeted this today: Creativity keeps me sane. And it’s true. The relationship I have with music is an emotional one. It’s a spiritual one. And that’s how I create. I create so that it’s raw and unfiltered. If I were to release this just as an instrumental album, it would still be able to touch people, without the lyrics. I try to set my bar kind of high on that end so that when Phonte comes and he wants to write on it, it only makes it better.
We usually write just from a feel good standpoint because of the live show. The live show and how we present it to our listeners and present it to new listeners. We just wanna make it so that we have a show so that it’s undeniable - the energy’s undeniable. I really want to translate my love for what I do and my love for music and my love for making people feel good through music in my performance and in my output.
I’ve met Phonte and I’ve interviewed Eric Roberson a couple of times and I mentioned to both of them that the two of them need to teach other R&B artists how to put on a show. Mainly because a FE show and an Eric Roberson show are unlike anything that I’ve been to on an R&B concert tip. You’re laughing, you’re joking, you’re creating a feel that I think has been lost.
You know I've been to a lot of shows where it’s kind of “oh and ok and this song is” and then they play the song “and this song is.” And to me that’s not really a show, that’s almost like a listening party. You really want to make it a show make it entertaining. And of course afterwards that’s where we interact with our fans – what if this is the last time we come back to the city? We want to make sure we give the fans the full experience. I always say that I’m a fan first and if I go to a show and I see the performer come out, that’s sometimes worth the price of admission where the show is almost secondary. We make sure our fan base isn’t a Beyonce fan base where it’s just half the world. It is very much a community. When we go to shows and see people we go “oh that’s so & so.” We know them by name. Usually they’re regulars and we’ll see them on social media. We interact that way. It’s very much a community that we’re trying to build slowly and honestly.
I’ve been to 3 FE concerts and And the most shocking thing I’ve noticed is the amount of men at an R&B show. I’ve never seen anything to like it. I just wanted to ask why you think that is.
It’s a show where they can feel comfortable. And what I mean by that is, if you go to the typical R&B crooner show, you don’t know what’s going to happen. A lot of those shows are for women. If you go to a FE show, you know that Phonte isn’t coming out there with his shirt off. I’m not going to be coming out there pouring water on my chest. Nicolay is not going to be coming out there passing out roses. You know what I’m saying. It’s very much a community. We involve both sides and I think that’s dope.
Every year we asked a few of our followers to share their favorite albums of the year. One of our favorite Neighbors Skye chose your album. Tell us about SkyBreak.
SkyBreak was done through a very painful part of my life. During the recording process my father passed. I wanna say we really got started seriously not too long after that. But after that is when it really went down, which was tough. After that happened, I really didn’t get in the studio for another month. I just didn’t feel like it. It’s one of those situations where folks would be like he’s looking over you and you gotta take that momentum and go in the studio. And I was like I don’t feel like going in the studio. So once we got back in and started working, we were done with the majority of the album being finished in a two month period.
That’s what inspired the title. I remember going to Phonte and saying I got a title. I’m trying to remember what the title was that I had but it was the same concept about my father entering heaven and that’s basically what a sky break is. A sky break is an opening so that you can enter which is the same thing depicted by the cover art. Kind of walking to the light / out of the darkness sort of thing. It was just a tough time. I mean last year was just a tough year with that. I mean all of the firsts that he missed all that kind of stuff. Eventually I did put it in the music. Eventually once the shows came, I put it in shows and dedicated a song to him, the “For Pops” joint which is second to last on the album. I think that even with it being what it is recorded, it’s my favorite material to date to perform. I think that it translates very well live. I’ve heard more than a few people tell me that they like the live version even better. I feel like I’ve done my job when that happens.
The album doesn’t sound mournful. How did you push yourself to create a sonically positive body of work?
The attitude I try to keep around his passing, especially around my immediate family is to look at it as more of a celebration than a mourning. He was was always super supportive of me and my music. Both of my parents have always been. I just really looked at it as a way to make something to celebrate his life; his support of what I’m doing.
What do you like about Philly in comparison to other cities?
One thing I like about Philly outside of performing, y’all are a foodie ass city man.
Ooohh yes we are!
Y’all love y’all food man. And I gotta make sure I’m pacing myself every time I’m here. Cause y’all gotta lot of goodness man. A lot of food goodness that can throw me completely off track from goals I’m trying to accomplish.
What’s the place you gotta go to when you come to Philly?
I don’t have one yet. I really don’t have one yet. I’m trying to think of spots that I’ve been to. I remember eating pretty good at Johnny Brenda’s last time we were there. I’ve been taken to Jim’s a couple times on South Street.
You gotta go to Max’s. Have you been to Max’s yet?
Nah unh uh. Y’all remind me of Memphis. Everyone in Memphis got their got their BBQ spot. You go to Philly, everyone got their steak spot. What’s the other spot? On the tip of my tongue. t’s one of the only spots where I eat their macaroni and cheese. I’m a mac & cheese snob. It’s almost like a diner type of spot.
Silk City! That’s it.
So what do you have planned for Philly this time?
We will have our touring crew from Detroit a crew called Collective Peace, who has been doing all of our shows with us. Collective Peace shares the same mindset as I do because we’re all from Detroit. We go in. We go hard. If you’re kind of expecting the Neo Soul or lighting incense on the stage type of feel, we ain’t doing that shit man. We’re pretty much going up and we’re putting our foot on the gas with the first song and having fun.
Zo! will be performing at Pubb Webb this Friday, March 3rd. Tickets are still on sale.