You would be forgiven for thinking Zarina Nares was a contemporary of Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald. After all, the quality of her voice is of a different era — a gorgeous, throaty warble meant for listening to on a crackly vinyl or through the haze of a dark, smoky club. Nevermind the fact that she is only 21 years old. Songs to Sway To, the New York-born, Los Angeles-based musician’s new EP, is a timeless piece of work that at once haunts, rouses, and delights. The sometimes-model — who’s arresting gaze and pillowy lips have bewitched designers like Maria Stanley and Desiree Klein — just wants to move you.
“I have just these very distinct memories of seeing someone perform or hearing someone, and going, ‘I want to do that,’ because it would just make me feel a certain way,” she says. “I want to do that to somebody else.” Meet Zarina.
WHAT WAS INSPIRING YOU WHEN WRITING SONGS TO SWAY TO? I guess they’re all sort of love-inspired, but I don’t think they talk directly about a specific romantic relationship, more just about different feelings in love and then different feelings that come with that. “Playboy”’s a bit cheeky, I think. It’s kind of about being a young girl in LA and dealing with older men who think it’s appropriate to treat you in a way that I don’t think is appropriate. And I usually, probably once a month, will write a song about that type of situation, because I feel like it’s something that comes with living in LA and being a young woman, which is unfortunate. And then the other songs are really just about being in love and the different ways that we feel that. You know, being in love is not necessarily always a happy feeling, but it isn’t necessarily being heartbreak either.
LOVE IS ONE OF THOSE EMOTIONS THAT NEVER SEEMS TO HAVE A STRAIGHT ANSWER. Right, yeah. And it seems like with every experience with love you still don’t understand it, you know? It’s in a way it just can’t really be learned or taught. I feel like every experience with love is like a new experience, no matter what relationship you’re in, whether it’s a friendship or with a family member. It’s just always weird and confusing. And so I think that’s why so many musicians write about that. They say ‘love-crazy’ or ‘love makes you crazy,’ but it’s true, it makes you do so many weird things and act in such weird ways and so I think just writing about that, especially as a young girl experiencing a lot of feeling for the first time, writing about that is just a way of making sense of all of that.
BLUES IS A GOOD GENRE FOR THAT, TOO. DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOMENT YOU FIRST REALLY RESONATED WITH IT? There was a clear moment in my life when my idea of music sort of shifted. I was a musical theatre kid. Like, super not cool. I thought I was put on this earth to play Sandy in Grease, was doing classical vocal training, and studying opera. And then in an English class, in sophomore year of high school, we were studying poetry and my teacher opened one of the lessons playing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” by Billie Holiday. And that was just a complete shift for me. I remember crying in class and it was the first time, I think, that I felt truly affected by a song. And that sort of opened up this whole new world of music and what music’s purpose is.
YOU’VE GOT SOME GREAT COVERS ON YOUR SOUNDCLOUD: “(SITTIN’ ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY” BY OTIS REDDING, “YOU KEEP ME HANGIN’ ON,” BY THE SUPREMES. WHAT IS IT ABOUT SOULFUL MUSIC THAT YOU’RE DRAWN TO? I think what is so special about jazz and blues and soul is — it’s so hard to describe — but I genuinely feel something inside me light up. It’s just magical and it feels like there’s just this connection that I have with the music. I mean, I can dance to other stuff and enjoy listening to other music, but it’s just something about soulful music. It’s just so honest, it pushes every single button inside me. And I think also I’m a very sensitive person. I feel a lot and I react very strongly to things that happen to me in my life, just in general, so I think that’s just the type of music that comes naturally with that, in a way. I just remember there’s been so many points in my life where I have just these very distinct memories of seeing someone perform or hearing someone, and going, ‘I want to do that,’ because it would just make me feel a certain way. It was powerful. And I would be like, ‘I want to do that to somebody else.’ I just think that’s the music that feels natural to me and I could eventually make someone else look at me and go, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do that.’
YOU POSTED A BEAUTIFUL PHOTO ON INSTAGRAM ON FATHER’S DAY OF YOUR DAD [JAMES NARES] BUSKING IN CENTRAL PARK IN THE ‘70S. WITH HIM BEING AN ARTIST AND A MUSICIAN, DID HE PLAY A BIG ROLE IN ENCOURAGING YOU CREATIVELY? Yes. Without a doubt. Both my parents, really, but my dad was constantly encouraging myself and my sister to be expressing ourselves, and creating things, and doing things that made us happy. He’s an extremely supportive person. He moved to New York City when he was just under 20, I think, in the ‘70s, from England, and just started painting and working on his artwork. And so I think he’s just very understanding of that feeling and that necessity for me, because that’s what I did — I moved to Los Angeles when I was 17 to pursue music and so, in a way, I feel like I’m following in his footsteps.
YOUR MOM DID BEAUTY CREATIVE DIRECTION FOR BRANDS LIKE CHANEL, TOO. WERE YOU CONSTANTLY SURROUNDED BY MUSIC, ART AND FASHION GROWING UP? Yeah. I had a very unusual upbringing. It feels completely normal to me, but yeah, you know, I grew up in New York City, which already is kind of an interesting place to grow up for that reason. There’s just so much going on, all the time. We grew up living with my mom in Tribeca, my dad lived in Chelsea, but he would come over every night for dinner. Tons and tons of fashion photography books lining all the walls. Just anyone you could possible think of, my mother has their book. And then magazines everywhere. At one point, I think we had every Vogue from 1990 to 2010, or something. Vogue, and W and Harper’s Bazaar, and Interview — just tons of magazines everywhere. And then my dad, always coming around and taking us to his studio, and we would go to gallery openings on Thursday nights in Chelsea. I was saying to someone the other day, ‘I grew up running around gallery openings from the moment I could walk to, by the time I was 10, eating snacks after school in an advertising focus group about what the next Calvin Klein fragrance should be named.’ So it was just a lot of creativity around me at all times. And, truthfully, it just seemed normal. But now, I consider myself very lucky and really grateful to have been given the life that I’ve been given.
HOW DO YOU THINK THAT ENVIRONMENT SHAPED YOUR ATTITUDE TOWARDS STYLE? I think growing up with a mother who works in fashion, we were always pretty up to date on what was cool or trendy and what not. But, I think also my parents are both just, like, effortlessly cool-looking people. And while they’re stylish in their own ways, they’re very much individuals, and I think that’s really what’s shaped my style. I wear what makes me feel good and my mom would always say, ‘If you feel good in your outfit, you’ll have a great day.’ She loves to wear Chanel. She’d always be in her Chanel mini-dresses and I think I have that in my mind, always. And I find that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started dressing more and more like my mother. My mother walks into a room and generally stands out. In New York, where everyone wears black, my mom would always be in a hot pink mini-dress or something. And gold jewelry.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE? Well, a friend said this once to me and I like it: a modern-day Edie Sedgwick, maybe? I like something that I can wear during the day and then go to a party as well and it still kind of works. But, yeah, I guess fun and colorful. Mismatchy. Lots of prints and patterns.
DO YOU THINK WORKING IN BOTH FASHION AND MUSIC WILL LEND A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE TO EACH OTHER? I think that the two worlds are very different, but I think they both help one another. A lot of people will ask if music has helped build confidence for modeling, which I think is so funny, because I’m like, ‘no, it’s the complete opposite.’ Modeling has completely built confidence in music, because modeling is like playing house for a living. It’s just getting to play pretend, which is so fun — you get to dress up and be a new person each job, depending on that magazine or whichever clothing company. And music is really just the complete opposite. It’s everything stripped away and it’s just myself not getting to pretend to be anybody else. I think both things are slowly helping me build more confidence in myself, which is good, and I think as one thing helping the other — I hope that modeling helps music more. My goal, really, is to one day just get to be a musician. Modeling is very fun, but music is really just what I know in my heart I’m meant to do.
FINALLY, WHAT’S BEST SONG TO SWAY TO AND THE PERFECT OUTFIT TO SWAY IN? [giggles] It would have to be “You and Me” by Penny & the Quarters. And perfect outfit to sway in… Gosh. I would say a mini red dress. Nothing body con, ever, if you’re planning on swaying. I mean, no body con in general.
By Yasmine Shemesh.
This interview has been edited and condensed.