“Fuck, I’ve got stories to tell,” Zheani declares early on in her new EP. It feels like a defining statement for the Australian rapper, who has been fighting censorship, clapping back and telling powerful truths since the start of her career.
In just a couple of years, the 26-year-old has become one of the country’s most exciting new rap names. Her biggest tracks boast millions of YouTube streams, a feat she’s achieved on her own steam as a fiercely independent artist. That puts her alongside the likes of ChillinIt and Lisi as part of a wave of Australian rappers who have built huge fan bases without support from mainstream radio or major labels. Sonically, however, she’s in a lane of her own -- Zheani’s sound moves between abrasive gothic electronica with screamo vocals and the softer “fairy trap” sound exemplified by her 2019 single ‘Lie and Look’. But whatever the genre, Zheani’s self-assurance and strength has always anchored her music.
This year saw her show a new vulnerability on The Zheani Sparkes EP. Across a raw 24 minutes, the EP tells stories of the artist’s fractured childhood and paints an unflattering portrait of the regional Australia she grew up in. She raps about the death of her father, cycles of violence and trying to escape the ‘demons of the past’, all set to a backdrop of red dirt, mosquito bites and bad heat. It’s her most personal and most powerful work yet. Sparkes hopes it will connect with listeners who’ve been through similar experiences. As she raps on ‘2002 (The Hook Is A Prayer)’: “If you relate to what I’m saying, my heart breaks for you”.
To mark the release, we spoke to Zheani from her adopted home on the NSW North Coast about doing it DIY, overcoming the odds and turning the bad stuff into something good. Read on for our interview.
Can you tell me about how you started making music?
Basically, I started making music because I realised I actually had some things to say. I’ve always wanted to pursue art in as many forms as I could, and this was just the correct medium. But it’s really interesting, as opposed to my peers in Australian music, I didn’t have a nice family, I didn’t go to a nice private school, I didn’t get nice fucking music lessons. I’ve never been taught how to play an instrument, I never had a singing lesson in my life, it was all just me as an adult working out how to do it myself.
How did you learn to rap?
You’ve just gotta make some really shitty fucking songs and get better. You’ve got to learn, you’ve got to be okay with starting off sounding not too great, and I think a lot of people get put off by that. I’m still not sounding the best but every song I make I feel like I’m developing, learning new stuff, getting a stronger style to my delivery. So it’s good to know that there’s still a lot of learning to be done.
You’ve got a really strong aesthetic sense and it seems like you’re very involved with the visual side of your music, for instance with the video clips. Is this more like an art project than just music to you?
It’s more like a therapy project. It’s just me, being myself. It’s good to see that shines through from an outsider looking at my stuff, because I don’t have a team. Everything that is done is just DIY. And that’s a very unique element to my work -- again, a lot of my peers have big teams and a lot of the creative elements that go into their aesthetic is helped by outside sources. For me, that’s not the case.
You fuse a lot of different genres into your music --- emo, metal, pop. Do you identify as being part of the rap scene, or do you see yourself as distinct from it?
I’m just learning to make music. I listen to many genres, and I’m influenced by many different genres. Different feelings, emotions and vibes means I’ll make different things. I probably need to focus in on something and really keep on developing that one style, because I do realise my discography is pretty all over the place. But that’s what happens when you’re learning and releasing music rather than coming at it with a concept, knowing exactly what you want to do. I’m feeling it out.
What do you think of the ‘fairy trap’ label?
That’s something that was organically coined in the comments of my YouTube section, after I released ‘Lie and Look’ in early 2019. That’s super cool -- it’s really cool to organically have a sub-genre named after your music. And again, that’s a result of one specific style that I make, and it’s a complete contrast to the heavier, screaming vocals and trap metal beats that I work on. It’s in its own category.
I wanted to talk about where you grew up, because I think rappers often mythologise their hometown and feel a real sense of pride about them, even if they were actually a pretty shitty place. But listening to your new EP, I didn’t get the sense that that’s how you feel about where you’re from.
I’m glad that translated. I guess people like me, who grew up the way I did, we don’t usually become musicians. We don’t usually learn how to rap. Usually people that grow up like I do get pregnant at 18, have a partner that we went to high school with and we have families that don’t want us to even attempt a life in the creative field. It’s like, go to TAFE. Get a real job. Don’t dream, because that’s not for you, we’re not bred for that.
That’s my background and I can remember always having a passion for wanting to be a part of the creative arts, even as a little girl. And it was always suppressed by teachers and my family. I was the first person in my entire family ever to go to university and I couldn’t even do it -- I dropped out, because I didn’t have the fundamentals because of my background and the way I grew up meant I didn’t know how to complete something, or go to a uni course every day.
So my background didn’t help me develop those fundamentals and the technical abilities you need as an artist, but what it did do was give me motivation to be better. It gave me that chip on my shoulder, knowing that I’m different to everyone around me in this industry. That makes me want to be better, because I’m the underdog and I know that I don’t fit in.
My background didn’t help me develop those fundamentals and the technical abilities you need as an artist, but what it did do was give me motivation to be better. It gave me that chip on my shoulder.
Whereabouts did you grow up?
I grew up in Central Queensland, in Wallaville. And Wallaville is inland, outside of Gin Gin and Childers. I was born in Bundaberg Base Hospital and grew up about 120 kilometres from Bundaberg, near the scrub.
Yeah, that’s middle of nowhere territory.
Yeah, there are pretty interesting characters living around there. The people I grew up around were either there generationally, because that’s where their families were for generations and so that’s where they lived, or there were just weirdos like my dad who had moved there specifically to live in the middle of nowhere.
But then I spent some time in Seventeen Seventy as a teenager when I was living with my mum after my dad died and lost custody of me, and that is closer to Gladstone and Rockhampton. Again, another shithole, but it was a shithole by the beach. And I remember how amazing I thought Seventeen Seventy was a teenager, I thought I had gone to the fucking boujie end of the land. It’s funny going back there and looking around and going ‘man, how far I’ve come'.
So let’s talk about the EP. What was your vision for it?
Oh, context. My vision for the EP was just to give people a little bit more background information about who I am as an individual and the kind of life that I’ve lived. Because I realise that to really understand me as an artist, and understand some of the situations that have been afflicted on me, you’ve got to understand the kind of vulnerabilities someone like me is coming into life with from teenagehood into adulthood.
It was important to spell some things out, because it’s very easy to just assume that the artist standing in front of you is like every other artist and has come from a good background with good upbringing, especially within the Australian music industry. I see those gatekeepers. And it’s good that I provided that context and got to air that chip on my shoulder because I’m able to move past that now. It doesn’t define me. I’ve been able to speak it out, and transmute this negative upbringing -- something that was meant to hold me back -- into something that helps me move forward and grow.
You’ve got massive play counts but haven’t had any of the typical support -- from a label or mainstream media -- that usually helps artists get there. How do people discover your music? Has it all been built through social media?
Well it’s interesting, I see comments coming up these days being like ‘wow, I can’t believe there’s a video clip for this song!’. That means that people are literally just hearing my stuff on platforms like Spotify and vibing it, then finding my social media platforms from there.
DIY and self made, it’s a really wonderful feeling
But originally, it all just started in my own little social media. I know that there’s artists on major labels who would kill to have an audience like mine that’s so engaged and so there. And there’s artists who get played on triple j every day but don’t have the same quality of fan base, the same engagement and interaction, as I do. And I’m really proud of it. DIY and self made, it’s a really wonderful feeling.
Do you have any interest in signing with a label?
I can imagine it would be incredibly constricting. I don’t really like the music industry, I think that it’s a little bit toxic and I would like to go as far as I can by myself. That’s how I feel right now, and I’m not saying that I won’t feel differently in the future, and that I haven’t felt differently in the past. But yeah, I’m pretty interested to see just what is possible working on my own. Because when you’re not tapped into someone else’s tune you’re more authentic, and that’s how I got here: by being myself.
When you’re not tapped into someone else’s tune you’re more authentic, and that’s how I got here: by being myself.
And what’s your overarching vision for or goal with your music? What do you want your music to do?
I want to be able to share my experience in this life and hopefully encourage others that have struggled with the same themes to remember that there’s more than what they’ve grown up around and experienced. They’re more than that. And to value themselves entirely. I want to transform my life into something positive that I can be proud of.