January issue 2014
Profile: Zoe Viccaji
The cosy, if slightly topsy-turvy Viccaji household is bang in the middle of Christmas madness when I arrive to claim a hard-earned hour of Zoe Viccaji’s time. If I was wary of how to behave, I am immediately put at ease by the raucous Dalmatian that greets me, and the open, no-formality demeanour of my host. The scene is frantic: boxes, clothes, DVDs, handbags, jewellery and knick-knacks are littered about the entire place, but Viccaji herself seems quite put together. “Do I look calm?” Viccaji asks, and laughs. She considers herself a high-strung person and a workaholic, and is still learning how to balance things, but she believes in taking good care of herself. Every day starts with homemade carrot juice and yoga, which she calls her “newfound love,” and ends with family and friends.
Viccaji is a relatively new entrant to the Pakistani music scene, but in three years, her career has grown lightning fast. We’ve seen her in musicals like Chicago and Mamma Mia, at private concerts and on magazine covers, heard her on Coke Studio and seen her in Levis ads. She’s currently one of the ambassadors for Girl Rising, an initiative to promote female education all over the world. At this point, it’s safe to call her a celebrity, though she’s not so sure herself: “It doesn’t feel it. I don’t feel like I’ve done justice yet.” Has all the attention changed her? “Not really,” she says, “I come from a background where we’re just very normal, boring people. We’ve always been taught to ‘never get too big for your boots’ at home.”
I ask her what’s playing on her stereo right now and she mentions Rhye, Sade and Amy Winehouse, as well as Lata Mangeshkar, who is a “very new” interest. Viccaji has been experimenting with Urdu more recently, though English is her first language. Partly, it’s a professional move. “If I were to go abroad, they’re not looking for another white person who can sing, they’re looking for someone who is bringing something from their own culture. The question is: ‘What am I bringing to the table?’” But although the exploration started out as work, it gradually became more interesting. “I enjoy the challenge of it,” she says. “If it’s tough, I must conquer it.” She’s trying to find her own place in the spectrum, without losing sight of her own style, which has a laid-back jazz or even island feel to it. It would seem that she’s steadily finding this sound with ‘Bichra Yaar,’ her version of the Strings’ hit, the mellow ‘Jis Nay Bhi Aana Hai’ and ‘Raat Gaey,’ and the powerful ‘Ishq Kinara’ from Coke Studio. Despite all the criticism its receiving, this is her favourite season of Coke Studio. “For me, the only way in which it falls short is that you can’t have all the musicians playing live together in a one room. I’d prefer to watch this season, I’d rather listen to it. “
It’s something that has given her the opportunity to shine, and now with an upcoming album release planned in both Pakistan and India, she faces some pressure to think commercial. “I don’t want to make it about that,” she says, “but at the same time, you want something to do well, you want people to like it. However, Viccaji is clear on what she’s in the industry for. “I enjoy making music for people to listen to,” she says. Like her two favourites, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah McLachlan, she wants “to be able to transport people and give them an escape from the mundaneness of everyday life.”
She’s chosen an alternate career path for herself and says, “it’s really tough.” She warns that raw talent and plenty of self-initiative are needed to make a niche for oneself. It’s not something for hobbyists, as there is plenty of hard work involved. For her, it’s all been worth it, so far. Travel has been a highlight. Meeting musicians in Italy and India, and “seeing the industry that exists and is formed around music,” is inspirational to her.
But she has also come in for a lot of criticism, which she admits is difficult. In fact, she says that every time a song is released “you feel like you’ve put your head on the guillotine.” Luckily, she has effective mechanisms to deal with that anxiety. “At the end of the day, you can choose what to think and you can choose what makes you sad and what makes you happy,” she says. “The best question to ask yourself is: ‘What is the worst that could happen right now?’ and you answer that and realise it’s not that bad and so what if it happens?” Her supportive family is her most effective sounding board. And although she does sometimes fall victim to the “settle-down” mania that young girls her age feel, she’s ultimately her own person. “You should be able to define yourself by yourself,” she says. “You are ready to be with someone else only when you know who you are, and you have something to offer to someone else.”
This profile was originally published in Newsline’s January 2014 issue under the headline, “Low Key Viccaji.”