The recording twosome speaks candidly on everything from influences and family, to breakups and,of course, Beyoncé.
Plus—an exclusive acoustic session of their new song 'Follow.'
Interview by Haley Albert
How did you two meet?
Z: Crossroads High School. I remember in seventh grade when he came in, and he walked into the room and there was a reaction from everyone. Everyone was like, (gasps)!
O: Why was there a reaction?
Z: You were rumored to be having a Disney Channel show.
O: I did have a Disney Channel show in the works—it was called Fashion Academy. It was going to be in the segments in between…you know how there was As the Bell Rings…We did it and they said they’d have to cancel it. It was too expensive.
Z: Me, on the other hand—I was not going to be on a fashion show.
When did you get into music?
O: I’ve been singing forever—since I was a baby. I was adopted into a musical family. My dad’s a music producer, my mom sings and I sing and do my thing. I’m originally from Texas.
Z: That’s where Beyoncé is from…
O: I know! Same city, same area. I’ve also been around my dad as he did his production. I’ve been around music forever. My parents even had a band.
What was it called?
O: So many different things over the years. She did solo with my dad in background. Then eventually they realized that, to be in a relationship, they shouldn’t be in a band together. So they broke up their band—but, luckily, not their relationship. My dad has produced Bonnie Raitt and Ray Charles. He also has worked with Alison Mosshart of The Kills.
Z: (joking) If you list three of anything ever, you’re done.
O: He's so supportive with me about music. He always wanted to push me, like his dad did to him.
Z: Bob Thiele Sr is the greatest. He wrote ‘What a Wonderful World!’ What are the odds of you being adopted into that? Can you imagine being adopted anywhere else?
Z: My mom comes from a family of five in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They all sang together—not professionally, but they had a little family band going. That was just part of being in the family. My dad is not a good singer, at all, but has great taste in music. Grew up with him putting me onto Stevie Wonder records, Parliament Funkadelic, all this funk stuff. Bootsy Collins and Earth Wind and Fire, and Prince. So when I was growing up I always wanted to perform, and I didn’t really know how to go about that. The first instrument I started playing was the electric bass because I really liked Flea from the Red Hot Chilly Peppers. At the same time I got my first computer, which had GarageBand on it, and so while I was learning to play bass I was writing and recording and producing drum beats.
What other instruments do you play?
Z: I can play anything well enough to record for four bars then loop it, except for the saxophone.
What are you studying at school?
Z: African American Studies at Yale. I’m interested in how that tells an American story in general. I’m also interested in how funding in schools affects the music that’s made. There can be cuts in music programs, and then you get hip hop because no one plays instruments, but they can mess with this new technology [that’s available].
How did you two come together for the EP?
O: I’ve always wanted to work with [Zack], and we both came back from winter break. Obviously I admired him, and we became friendly. Zack was in a similar emotional state that I was in. My boyfriend has just broken up with me and I was down in the dumps, and I was telling Zack that writing music was the only thing that was really getting me through it. And Zack said, totally, I dig that, I feel that, that’s where I am.
Z: It was the relationship thing for him, and for me, it was very much a leaving-everything-I-had ever-known thing. Leaving high school which kind of felt like a break-up, even though there’s not technically romance involved… I have a very romantic relationship to this place, and the life that I have here, and the people I know. And so we came back and I had started this beat before we went to brunch and when we came back I played it for him. And I had started this little chorus and he started singing—and I realized that Owen could sing anything. I have limitations with my voice and it was really freeing to write with someone that I knew that any crazy idea that I had, they could execute.
How did growing up in LA affect you and your music?
O: I think if I grew up where I was adopted, in eastern Texas, my life would be so different. I think my willingness to be my self comes not only from growing up in a family that’s so accepting and amazing, but also in a setting like this—beautiful every.
Z: When I started making beats that originally existed only in my head, I realized that there were so many other people doing that that also live in Los Angeles. I didn’t think there was something for me to bounce off of at firs, but I realized this is already happening and there’s a community here for me to join. I don’t think if I grew up anywhere else I would have felt so eager to continue on and feel accepted.
O: I feel like LA really wants you to win.
Where did you produce the EP?
Z: We did it in my bedroom at my childhood home with really limited equipment, all on my laptop in the Ableton app, in four days. We got friends to help, friends we grew up with. It’s been a real family affair, and it felt so organic, we were really just hanging out over four days. When it came to the latter stages of the project, we really just wanted to keep it simple and not change anything.
What was the inspiration for ‘Without’?
O: ‘Without’, for me, was obviously, you know, without a relationship, which is the first part. But what Zack said, it became so much bigger than that. It became without things that we were comfortable with, without a sense of comfort. We were so without so much that it felt weird and different.
Z: In this time of your life, you ask yourself: who am I without my context? You identify yourself in a particular context and then you pull yourself completely out of that, and there’s this feeling of being extremely untethered and asking yourself who you are, and what do you want? That’s a very lonely, confusing place.
O: And it stems from so many different places. A boyfriend breaks up with you, like mine did, and you think, oh, I’m so alone, and then you realize you were alone in so many other ways. Zack had a totally different thing where he kind of realized it first, without having a romantic thing. That’s what ‘Without’ is. I think it’s a step-by-step of relationships, in general.
Are either of you classically trained?
O: I’ve never taken a voice lesson before.
Z: No one taught me how to produce or anything. But with the bass, I spent a lot of time in jazz settings.
Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?
Z: I’m a huge John Coltrane fan. In San Francisco, there’s a church that’s called the John Coltrane where they believe he’s a real deity, and I’m pretty down to be a part of that. I kind of trace the big pop-ups of genius to bands like Sun Ra, with the space age view of the world. It’s futuristic but very referential to the ancient, and that runs through to Parliament Funkadelic and the like. As far as current stuff, I grew up around great players like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, Austin Peralta—rest in peace to him—who went to Crossroads and is the greatest jazz piano player I’ve ever seen.
What are you listening to right now?
O: On the way here I was jamming to JoJo. Like old school JoJo. I also love the new D’Angelo album.
Z: I’ve been listening to Unknown Mortal Orchestra a lot. Multi-Love is so good. Even just the title track of the song is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, in every way—both the singing and production. I also love Young Thug. I think he’s melodically on point in a big way. Also Popcaan, like his new ‘Unruly Prayer’—He’s just in the middle of the jungle in Jamaica and all the OVO boys are there. He’s such a legend.
Where do you see yourselves in 5 years? Do you have any venues you’re dying to perform in?
Z: I’m really happy. I love playing Low End Theory [in Los Angeles]. I’ve done that a few times and it’s my favorite place. The community is so supportive. I like performing at a place where people are down to see someone experiment. I’m so down to play festivals if that comes, but I’ll always love intimate settings.
O: My dream is a place like Largo at the Coronet. It’s really small—I saw Adele there when she wasn’t big at all. She had just released 21 and she was work-shopping the show, and it was just the best thing I’ve ever seen. It’s on La Cienega between Beverly and Melrose now. It probably has 75 seats.
Who are your dream collaborators?
Z: I feel lucky for having worked with so many amazing people already. I really want to work with Erykah Badu. She’s incredible. Also Anderson Paak—he’s an amazing drummer from LA and he has a great style.
O: I’d love to work with someone like Sia. There’s also a girl named Audra Mae. Every song you listen to on the radio was co-written by her. She’s someone for sure.
Will you perform together in the future?
O: My dream is to always work with Zack and have him be my producer. But I think eventually I’ll have work with different people. He’s also working on his own thing. But for this EP, and for the album that eventually manifests, we’ll be together. We’re in an open musical relationship.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.