Exclusive – ZEBEDE on navigating the music industry in 2021

We spoke with up-and-coming band ZEBEDE about the trials of pursuing a music career, how they’ve stayed resilient during the pandemic, and even managed to garner some advice for Gen Z on successfully navigating a creative passion in the 21st century.

A neo-soul band that blends a mixture of modern funk with vintage soul, ZEBEDE is an amalgamation of five uniquely talented individuals who came together while studying at the British and Irish Institute of Modern Music in London (BIMM).

Founded in 2018, the group is comprised of vocalist and Nina Simone-obsessed Leah Cleaver, 90s Hip Hop and Lettuce-inspired drummer Max Ashbee, guitarist Charlie Dauber who draws stimulus from the likes of Snarky Puppy, Joey Landreth, and Ariel Posen, psych-rock and king of Motown James Jamerson-influenced bassist Mike Jones, and pianist Henry Coombes who, struggling to express himself melodically and harmonically at university, decided to channel his inner Robert Glasper and learn keys – despite majoring in drums.

Their diversity as musicians, varying musical backgrounds, and assorted influences all play a significant role in shaping the band’s song-writing process. Not only does ZEBEDE tastefully blend a plethora of genres with apparent ease, but their chemistry as a unit is evident and their creations are driven by a genuine excitement for one another’s ideas.

‘80 to 90 per cent of the time we’re all in a room and we all chip in collectively,’ they tell me. ‘The more we’ve gotten to know each other, the more we understand the direction we want to go in, but it’s constantly evolving.’

‘What shapes our music is five different minds coming out to play. We’ve always been big on sharing songs with each other which is why it feels like there are several alternating styles within each track. It’s like a puzzle where every piece is a different part of one of us that’s been brought to the table.’

It goes without saying that ZEBEDE, alongside countless other musicians with them, have been hit incredibly hard by the repercussions of Covid-19, but their refusal to be disheartened by the complications that have affected them beyond measure is certainly admirable.

A prime example of young Gen Z creatives surviving and thriving during a challenging period, they’re proof that with patience and discipline, success and creative fulfilment is indeed possible, no matter what life throws at you.

‘We’ve had to re-evaluate everything because when you’re used to being persistently busy with gigs and rehearsals every week – which themselves are a release – and all you’re left with is admin, it’s tedious, it becomes all work no play,’ says Max.

‘To combat this, we have days where we sit and listen to our music to remind ourselves we actually do something of value. 95% of ZEBEDE right now is just keeping each other’s spirits high. Reflecting on the past to stay positive in the negative environment that’s been presented to us.’

The band is holding onto the reassurance that there’ll soon be an end to this and that, when it comes, there’s likely to be an explosion of British music within a post-Brexit England. Essentially, they’re finding hope in the expectation that there’ll be a huge demand for UK artists who remained motivated throughout lockdown and managed to adapt to their newfound surroundings.

So, how do five distinct personalities go about getting a song from concept to release?

ZEBEDE’s creative process is an interesting one.

Going beyond just the skills and techniques they acquired during their studies, it involves adapting to the progressions they’ve made as a group and inserting them into the ever-changing mode of expression that is their music.

‘We have hundreds of voice notes of random, unnamed tracks from jamming sessions which, on occasion, we’ll develop into something great,’ explains Henry. ‘In actual fact, we still don’t believe anything is ever really finished. Sometimes we’ll be in the recording studio and think “there’s a new bit we could add,” so it’s not until the final moment it gets sent off that it’s truly done.’

‘As we continue to grow, so too does our music, but our primary rule of thumb is that, at its core, it needs to feel like us.’

In light of this, it feels apt to ask what pushes them to go against the grain amidst increasing pressure to slip into the mainstream. Stressing the importance of staying true to themselves, they tell me that they aren’t making music to please everyone and that the only compromises they’ll make are minimal ones.

‘We’ve always had this thing where we make music that we personally would want to listen to,’ says Charlie. ‘If we have to supress ourselves to make money, we simply won’t. ZEBEDE is our own and we refuse to adhere to limitations because we’re so proud of ourselves for what we create. Why red tape that?’

It’s also worth noting that a musician’s creative process is an inherently lengthy one, requiring serious dedication and perseverance. For this reason, it’s understandable that ZEBEDE would feel reluctant to conform, not solely because it means losing integrity, but due to the sheer amount of time and effort that goes into making a song.

‘After that first release, you come to understand that it’s in no way an instant turnaround,’ says Max. ‘It doesn’t matter how quickly you write them, or how many you have under your belt, the whole process can take up to an entire year.’

Creative differences and using music to enforce change

Regarding how to deal with creative differences – an issue anyone traversing an artistic field will encounter at one stage or another – ZEBEDE tells me that trust is essential and that, while there’s bound to be conflict, it’s about acknowledging that five individuals equals five alternate viewpoints.

‘We trust each other a great deal so when someone’s absolutely sure about an idea, we trust their judgement and we’ll go with it,’ says Leah.

‘When someone’s really gunning for something, it’s part of them, they’ve committed to it, and we appreciate what they do, the way they play. If it ever gets heated between us, it just goes to show how much we care. We’re very respectful of that and we aren’t here to shut anyone down because we want to create things that represent us all.’

Leah, who has a knack for writing poetic lyrics merged seamlessly with witty raps that appear to immediately click with her audience, explains her method of doing so. ‘For me, it’s how the words react to the music, the way they sound when I sing them’ she says. And, as a young, Black woman she’s optimistic that her music will be a positive force for change, raising awareness about the absence of POC and female representation in the industry.

‘The boys are very free-thinking, so I don’t think we’ll ever not cover it, but I’d like to see more musicians like me owning who they are, celebrating themselves, and finding power in it,’ she says. ‘I don’t want people to treat me differently as a Black female, but I also don’t want them to forget it.’

Leah believes that people listen to music more than they do their peers and adds that although some artists avoid addressing certain topics, with a platform comes a responsibility to help us understand how to do better and it’s what she sets out to do with her words.

‘If you feel a certain way you should always write it down. No matter the size of your following, they’re going to listen to what you have to say so you just have to say it and put it at the front of your art.’

This also applies to music as a means of dealing with emotions, which is particularly relevant amidst a global pandemic that’s had a tumultuous impact on the industry. With the creative process a cathartic one, it’s something to hold onto at a time when maintaining the resilience to keep going seems no easy feat. ‘Being a musician may be a complete whirlwind, a personal, complicated, and emotional journey,’ says Mike, ‘but we need it now more than ever before.’

Advice for Gen Z on what it takes to successfully navigate a creative passion in the 21st century

With more and more young people questioning the benefits of securing a degree nowadays, it seems necessary to ask these five BIMM graduates their opinions on the importance (or lack thereof) of attending university when looking to pursue a creative passion.

Intriguingly, the general consensus that shines through isn’t so much to do with the qualifications it provides, but places emphasis on the social aspects of spending four years studying music.

‘It gave us otherwise unattainable access to a network of people who’ve become integral to our futures as musicians – the platform was there for us to take advantage of and we did. After all, we’d never have met if it weren’t for BIMM,’ they tell me.

‘And, perhaps the most valuable thing we got from the experience was the understanding that if you’re going to be in the industry, you want to be likeable and easy to work with. Remember: if you want to eventually go out there, make money, and play, your social skills need to be charismatically good.’

Of course, it’s not all about that. An aspiring musician attempting to learn by themselves isn’t often privy to the guidance a professional will offer in the classroom, which, as ZEBEDE explains, is where you figure out the kind of player you are and what you need to do to improve.

It can highlight a number of things you might’ve been unaware of, teach you adaptability – how to rectify mistakes as soon as they happen – and, ultimately, help streamline progression. ‘The difference between going to uni versus doing it yourself using online resources or books you can buy is that alone, you can hype yourself up, get excited by what you can do, not what you can’t,’ says Charlie.

Having witnessed a lot of people who couldn’t handle it drop out over the years, ZEBEDE urges that you need to have a very thick skin to succeed, but not to be put off by the stress because, as they put it, if it isn’t forcing you to work hard, make an effort, and step out of your comfort zone, it isn’t worth it.

After all, if everything were without struggle, it wouldn’t be satisfying because the hard parts are what make the highs even higher.

‘When you get to uni your ego is stripped, but that just makes you stronger, it prepares you for what real professionals experience day in day out,’ they explain. ‘From the criticism you advance more quickly, which is a good method of separating the wheat from the chaff because if you give up the second it gets tough then, realistically, you aren’t cut out for it.’

According to Mike, ‘the more you know, the more employable you are’ – and he’s right. Though a degree won’t automatically give you exactly what you were aiming for right off the bat (overnight fame only really happens in the rarest of circumstances), it homes in on the notion that while you probably won’t use half of what you learn, it’s there if you need it.

Such information can be invaluable, especially in terms of setting you up for the obstacles you’ll inevitably face along the way.

‘If you’re striving for quick fame because it’s the ‘trend,’ don’t expect longevity. It’s not an easy, direct path, you need to be aware that just because you can play something it doesn’t mean it’ll be handed to you on a silver platter,’ says Henry. ‘All the tools are out there, you’ve just got to put in the work and diversify, you have to learn new things to grow, or you’ll get stale.’

Above all else, ZEBEDE deems it vital to go out of your way to pique people’s interest from the get-go by ‘being your authentic self.’ With the current landscape so saturated, unique selling points are a must, so realise that in order to stand out amidst the thousands of others doing the exact same thing as you, figure out what sets you apart and use it to progress.


The logistics of marketing on social media, artwork design, and merchandise for revenue

Upon telling me the advantages of being independent – having full control over what they do, total creative freedom and a say on what gets uploaded to social media – ZEBEDE mentions that the main downside to not being signed by a label is the lack of external support.

‘Adopting the role of your own manager, publisher, and promoter means you need to work 10X harder,’ they say. ‘The dream is not having to think about anything else, but we aren’t funded, and we all have other jobs which makes finding the time to market ourselves online, get artwork designed, and sell merchandise for revenue all the more difficult. But we manage.’

Integral to building a fanbase, self-promotion, connecting with followers, and generating content for social media is a sure-fire way to get your name out there. ‘We strive to be as honest as possible because you want a cohesive theme that coincides with the way you are in person,’ says Leah. ‘You need to show face to stay in everyone’s memory and another way of doing that is through merch.’

ZEBEDE’s only source of income at present, not only does merchandise grant them enough money to record with, but it gives what they do a physical feel in a world where everything has become non-physical.

‘If people like your music they’re definitely going to want to support you,’ she adds. ‘It’s about creating a brand, if you’re not doing that in 2021, then you aren’t the complete package.’

The same goes for artwork. During a pandemic that’s meant no-one’s getting paid to do anything, independent creatives have the space and time to support other independent creatives.

‘It’s about finding the right person that understands us,’ they say. ‘Instagram is a great platform for coming across artists, it’s where we can form relationships with people that’ll do us a deal because they’re also starting out and from there, we can build a team of people we’ll refer to over and over again.’

ZEBEDE has certainly come a long way in the three years since making a list of goals they wanted to achieve post-uni. They’ve performed at British Summer Time, Ronnie Scott’s, Abbey Road, have released several seriously funky tracks (not to mention a whole EP), and have established a solid following on Instagram.

Looking ahead, they want to grow their fanbase, prove to the world that everything they’ve worked so hard for has something to show for it by releasing more music, and continue to expand upon their message. ‘We’ve got big dreams,’ they finish. ‘It’s good to have something out of reach because it compels you to be the best you can be.’

Guaranteed to make your head bop, ZEBEDE’s latest single – and their first dancey tune – Devil in my Bed drops tomorrow. Be sure to pre-save this vibey mood-booster here.


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