Zolita Transforms Heteronormative Spaces Into Queer Ones

Nothing brings me more joy than blasting pop music by queer artists, and recently I got the opportunity to speak with one of my favorites. Zolita is a queer singer, songwriter, and filmmaker who first went viral in 2015 with her music video for “Explosion.” Since then, she’s continued to create visually-driven queer pop content from her “Somebody I Fucked Once” Trilogy to her latest EP titled Falling Out / Falling In. Most recently, Zolita premiered her tracks “All Girls Go to Heaven,” “Bloodstream,” “Small Town Scandal,” and “Grown Up” alongside accompanying short-film style music videos. They are all a part of her sophomore album, Queen of Hearts, which came out May 31.

Author’s Note: This interview has been edited, and some conversational threads have been re-organized for clarity.


The musician Zolita

Gen: I first encountered your work through your music videos and was immediately struck by your ability to squeeze what felt like full-feature films into the tight space of a music video. Can you talk a bit about your background in film and what visual storytelling means for you as a musician?

Zolita: Music was always something I loved, but it wasn’t something I thought was going to be my career. Film and visuals were my first love. I studied film at NYU and thought feature filmmaking was going to be my career. But it was frustrating because I’m the type of person who wants to do things in the now and go for them immediately. I want the fruits of my labor to be out there and accessible to people, so the idea of waiting around and trying to get the money to make a feature film felt like an infuriatingly long process. And at the time, I was really experimental and didn’t want to commit to narrative. I just wanted to put cool images together. That’s how I got into music videos. It’s funny because now my work is so narrative. It ended up circling back around. I still love the format of a music video because it is so accessible. You don’t have to go through such a long process, put it into festivals, and wait years for people to see it. Now, I’ve come to a place where I love the challenge of trying to tell a full story in such a short amount of time.

Gen: I feel music videos are such a powerful art form to put out there, especially from a queer standpoint. Even though we’ve come further in representation, there’s still such a struggle, especially for really young people, to find fully queer-centered stories made by queer people. Growing up I remember being so stressed about getting access to the limited queer content I knew was out there like The L Word and Pretty Little Liars. So I’d just go onto YouTube and quickly watch Hayley Kiyoko, then later, you.

Zolita: Totally.

Gen: So, in addition to being an accessible art form, music videos are also a collaborative one. How do you go about assembling a team?

Zolita: My core crew has remained the same throughout the last several years and it’s all queer, mostly just my friends. It’s been so nice having that established trust and always knowing by the time we are on set the vision is going to be carried out exactly as I imagined it, with the addition of what everyone else is bringing in creatively. It’s been such a gift to use my friends and work to create an environment where people can leave my set feeling like they were part of a big family.  Casting has become my favorite of the process. Diversity is really important to me, and I’m working to represent all different kinds of queer people. Because I produce all my work I’m very involved in all of the pre-production and every element of the video. There are so many happy accidents that have happened like getting Tatchi Ringsby to co-star in the “Somebody I Fucked Once” music video trilogy. She replaced somebody else who was supposed to be in it a few days before we shot. Tatchi is actually the reason it became a trilogy.

Gen: I want to circle back to what you said about producing. So you sing, act, produce, and direct all of your projects. How do you balance those roles and what’s it been like working on these videos with your roommate Shannon Beveridge?

Zolita: It’s a lot. I do so much prep work before the video shoot so that when I direct it, I can focus on being in front of the camera. At a certain point, I have to let go of the reins of the producing part. I have so many conversations with my team beforehand, and I live with Shannon, who creative directs, so she’s basically in my brain. She’ll hear about the project when it’s just a little spark, not a full idea. So she can watch the monitor and know if I’m getting what I want because she knows the vision so well. It’s so nice with editing to be at home and able to say, “Hey can you come in here real quick and look at this?”

Gen: Speaking of visions, your new music video series follows two queer pageant queens, which seems to be in line with a trend in your work overall. You often take what are thought of as hyper-feminized, hetero spaces like prom or cheerleading and queer them in a really fun way. What inspired you to use a pageant as a setting for one of your music videos?

Zolita: You hit the nail on the head; I love taking spaces and worlds that seem so heteronormative and set in the male gaze on the surface, then making them queer. It’s such a right of passage for a pop artist to do a pageant video or explore pageant imagery. When I read the story of Miss Puerto Rico and Miss Argentina falling in love at the Miss Universe pageant and getting married, I knew that was a story I wanted to tell. I also wanted to reference all of my favorite pieces of media like Miss Congeniality and Drop Dead Gorgeous and combine them into this real-life story.

Gen: That pageant theme is being carried into your upcoming fall tour. What do you imagine a pageant-themed tour to look like?

Zolita: I’m so excited. Each act of the show is going to be a different category of pageant. The whole thing will be very theatrical with lots of audience involvement. I’m also going to have dancers and my best friend Sierra has choreographed everything.

Gen: It sounds like a night that’s going to have lots of different facets, and I think the same can be said for your album. How would you describe Queen of Hearts both as its own project and in comparison to your other works?

Zolita: I feel like Evil Angel is the only project I’ve done that felt like a set concept from front to back. With my last project Falling Out / Falling In there are so many opposite themes and very different sonic landscapes. My taste as a person is so eclectic, and the themes I want to explore are all over the place to the point where the only thing that makes it cohesive is my voice and my queer perspective. The album has celebratory queer music like “All Girls Go to Heaven” and “Small Town Scandal.” It also has songs involving things I’ve never dealt with or explored in my music.

When I was writing this album, I was in a pretty healthy relationship and didn’t know what to write about because I was just happy. Eventually, the relationship became not good and there are a few songs about that. But in the moment there wasn’t anything in my love life I was inspired to write about so I ended up looking inwards and writing songs about things I was really scared to write about. That got me to a place to write songs like “Grown Up” and “No One Tells No When You’re Beautiful” which is about addiction and families. It ended up being a very cathartic and rewarding experience. I’m definitely the most proud of “Grown Up.”

Gen: I was struck by “Small Town Scandal” in particular. Before I listened to it, I hadn’t spent a lot of time actively thinking about line dancing and the gap of queer music in that genre. Why did you decide to put a line dancing song on this album and what’s it been like reclaiming line dancing as a queer space?

Zolita: So I started going to Stud Country, which is a queer line dancing night that started in LA and has now expanded to New York, San Francisco, and Palm Springs. The minute I walked in there, I started crying. It was such a special thing to see queer people get to take part in something so ingrained in American culture that we’re usually excluded from. I started going all the time and dancing to all kinds of music. It made me realize I wanted to do a line dance to a really gay country song combining artists I loved like Shania Twain with more classical country tongue-in-cheek references. I grew up a horse girl playing flatpick guitar, like bluegrass. The song ended up reflecting my personal music taste and that part of my life while still having a pop, gay, cheeky feel.

Gen: Because you’re a part of the queerleading cinematic universe, I have one last question I have to ask you for the sake of journalism. As a queerleader what do you think is the gayest thing about cheerleading?

Zolita: All of the touching and lifting they have to do for it! I just think of But I’m A Cheerleader and all of the iconic slow-mo of the skirts and the lifts. So much physical contact between a bunch of women. Very gay.

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Gen

Gen Greer (she/her) is a dog lover, runner, and slasher enthusiast. Her work has appeared in Queerlings, Haunted Words Press, Black Moon Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her looking for little tasks and on Instagram at @sylvia_plath_iamiamiam.

Gen has written 6 articles for us.

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