Meet: J. Zunz talks new album, influences and more

Lorelle The Obsolete‘s Lorena Quintanilla just released her second album as J. Zunz: Hibiscus. The record exhibits an even more electronic maelstrom of captivating, ethereal sound than previous projects. Lorena discusses this transition here, as well as the origins of Hibiscus, her influences, and songwriting in general.

J. Zunz

(Photography by Sofia Ruesga)

Hi Lorena, I really enjoyed the album, thank you for taking the time to do this.

Thanks to you! I enjoyed answering!

You say that the album was written “during sleepless nights filled with overwhelming thoughts and feelings”. This impression comes across immediately, the plethora of ideas and song-writing elements are handled masterfully, not entirely overwhelming but extremely powerful. Was it ever difficult to balance these “thoughts and feelings”, or was it easier being so charged with ideas?

Going into the studio every day to work on these songs wasn’t difficult at all, on the contrary it was a very joyful experience. I didn’t have any control over external situations but I did have control inside the studio. It was very empowering to know exactly what I wanted and what I was doing. Almost like becoming someone else. The difficult part was the physical exhaustion caused by the insomnia but apart from that all the tornado of emotions was happening during the nights or outside the studio.

I don’t recall having this clarity prior to any recording process before. Maybe because this album had been cooking inside of me for a while.

Recent releases, such as Lorelle Meets the Obsolete‘s 2019 album De Facto, and Hibiscus even more, have become more electronical- has this been a natural step, or more something that you have been intent on exploring and developing alongside the other aspects of the songwriting; individually and as a band?

With Lorelle…the addition of electronics has been accidental in a way. We have never been reluctant to use different instrumentation on the albums, it’s just that we don’t own tons of gear in our studio. But every time we have access to a synth or anything else we use it. By the time we were writing De Facto we were sharing the studio with a friend who had some different synths and drum machines so we were just having fun using all this new gear.  It was very refreshing. We always work with what we have, we don’t stop.

Using electronics on Hibiscus was more intentional though. I was lucky enough to still have access to all this gear. I was looking for a colder sound. It was part of my idea of expelling any vulnerability from the songs.

Your debut album Silente, although blending in a substantial amount of electronic and synthetic elements, also featured a lot of guitar and more organic instrumentation, compared to the new album’s dominance of electronics. Was it difficult to keep from introducing guitar parts in a similar way, or was it intentional and important for you to differentiate from previous projects, and to constrain yourself entirely to electronic writing; or to follow this creative path deeply?

It wasn’t difficult to let go off the guitar for Hibiscus, it was purely intentional. When I recorded Silente I was very attached to my guitar and I was forcing myself to be someone that I wasn’t anymore, I was resisting a change. And I think that the music suffered because of this. But I learned the lesson. In Hibiscus, I actually wrote most of the songs on guitar but I was happy and open to translate them into something else. I was looking for a clean direct sound, so I thought electronics would be a perfect fit. I think that some attachments can keep you from growing. I’m sure I still have many and I try to stay vigilant about that.

Several tracks on Hibiscus use repetition as a tool, whether in the music or lyrics, creating an enthralling trance-y sensation as somewhat of a thread throughout the album. Are there any particular influences in using repetition (such as Krautrock)?

When I started playing in bands, I went to a Yo la Tengo show. They played this super long song with a repetitive bass line while Ira Kaplan was going crazy on the guitar. It was very hypnotic and strong. Live experiences always create more damage I think, in a good way. Also listening to bands like The Stooges and Spacemen 3 and Krautrock music for sure.  Later on, the album African Skies by Phil Cohran made me see repetition in a different way. Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane too.

What were your earliest musical interests, do these continue to influence the kind of music you make currently?

The first thing that comes to my mind is that when I was a kid I formed some fictional bands with my siblings, we created our own festival and we all had different alter egos playing at it. I wrote some silly songs with one of my brothers, who is also a musician, he learned how to play guitar very young, and we still remember those songs. I remember to be listening to the radio all the time. I had a green walkman and I would listen to every cassette in the house, from Mexican pop singers to John Lennon, anything. For a while I was in love with Robert Smith and obsessed with The Cure.

What were you listening to during the conception of the new album, how did they influence it?

I was listening to Dälek and Alice Coltrane. I was paying extra attention to their bass sounds and basslines. I was also listening to Colleen, she has some beautiful sounds and atmospheres. Also, when I was recording the album, I went to a show here in Ensenada where Osday, a musician from Mexico City, played and it was amazing, I loved her set, it was like being under the water for 40 minutes. In the same show I saw Kali Malone, Puce Mary and Camedor. They were all great. That show was like a vitamin shot and I came back to the studio reinforced.

What was the main difference for you in writing solo, rather than with Lorelle Meets the Obsolete? Was there anything you learnt or discovered in the process of making your solo debut, that you took into the second album’s creation?

The writing process starts the same way, with any instrument and a vocal melody. The main difference is that with Lorelle… I don’t go further, I just share incomplete ideas with Alberto so we can go over them together and then transform them and he does the same. Being solo is to keep going until the song is finished, even if I’m open to opinions I need to have some clarity about the song since the beginning.

Where did the idea behind the album title of Hibiscus originate, does it relate to the mentality you experienced and wanted to convey with the record?

I had a surreal moment with the word Hibiscus. One of those sleepless nights during the recording of the album, I finally fell asleep and I dreamed a voice telling me that the Hibiscus flower was supposed to cure me. I woke up and wrote it in a notebook and forgot about it for weeks. Once I was ready to write the lyrics I opened the notebook again. I did some research about the flower and it took me to so many different places, all of them relevant to me at that moment. Also, I found out that hibiscus tea actually helps with insomnia. Now that the time has passed it has even more meanings to me than before. I think that that experience wraps up a whole stage in my life. 

With this, was it a cathartic experience pouring these emotions into making the music and creating an album that captured and embodied them?

It was very cathartic. I was feeling better and stronger as I was moving forward with the album. The day I finished it I remember feeling very light weighted, like when you take a bunch of layers out of you. It is very healing to transform weaknesses and fears and confusion into music, or something else.  I prefer this than talking, sometimes when I’m talking I just get angrier or sadder.

Hibiscus is quite “singular” in terms of being a progression from “earlier comfort zones in (your) work”, do you intentionally embark on such significant changes, or do you simply prefer these types of progressions to occur spontaneously?

I prefer the spontaneous way, like not knowing where I am going next. But I also think that all the work happens outside the studio and there’s an intention there. I need to transform myself constantly in order to do different music. To nurture my mind and expand my understanding. To take care of myself. Because that’s the part of me that is going to take the songs into different directions, following different routes.

Do you see or wish to explore a particular sound, genre, or form of instrumentation with future projects?

Right now I still feel very interested in electronics. We’ll see. 

Read the review of the spectacular new J. Zunz album Hibiscus, here. Buy or stream Hibiscus here.

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