Zaho De Sagazan’s Firsts

Her first love. Her first disappointment. Her first success. The ascending singer-songwriter Zaho de Sagazan recalls a range of formative moments of discovery and growth

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Ask Zaho De Sagazan about her “first times,” and one thing comes up over and over again: her piano. It’s partly thanks to her piano that she is where she is today: on everyone’s lips, in every magazine and on every stage.

A year ago, de Sagazan, a young artist with a bewitching voice, was already onstage with her electro-melancholy songs, opening for Juliette Armanet. Today, this daughter of a schoolteacher and a sculptor from Saint-Nazaire, France, who didn’t like herself physically but believed in her talent, is on a mega-tour. Her fans know by heart all the lyrics to La symphonie des éclairs, her debut album. Tomorrow, she will be filling the big stadiums. And the day after tomorrow? The world will be at her feet.

FIRST TEARS

“Right away, when I think of happy tears, it brings to mind my very first time at the piano: I started playing on an out-of-tune family piano that nobody played any more. I played Tom Odell’s ‘Can’t Pretend’ and cried my heart out! It was a revelation – I realized that I loved it. But my real first cry was on December 28, 1999 [her birth date], accompanied by my twin, Kaïta, who must have cried just as loud as I did.”

FIRST LOVE

“My twin sister. There’s nothing more beautiful than our story. We get on wonderfully well. We’re very different yet very similar. She’s modest, rather solitary and quiet, whereas I like to work with a team and spend my time with friends. Like me, she tells stories, but behind the scenes, she’s a scriptwriter. She’s my most important listener. If she doesn’t like the lyrics of a song, they’re no good.”

Zaho de Sagazan by Rory van Millingen

Zaho de Sagazan wears stylist’s own clothing throughout

FIRST MUSIC-INSPIRED EMOTION

“Les Choristes [The Chorus]. We loved musicals at home, and our parents let us express ourselves. It was a bit of a musical dictatorship: we listened to Peau d’âne [Donkey Skin]; Mozart l’opéra rock [Mozart, the Rock Opera] and
Romeo and Juliette on a loop. But the first time I felt real emotion, when I felt the music pierce me, was when I heard ‘Summertime’ by Janis Joplin. I was at a show at my mother’s school when I was eight years old. The first guitar notes hit me, then Janis’s voice. It was physical. I still get chills from it.

FIRST PIECE OF ADVICE

“From my mother, who asked me to articulate. Music was very solitary for me at first. Little by little, I started to get people to listen to what I produced. I’ve got a great family, but they’re very critical; you always have to have an opinion, even when you don’t know anything about whatever it is. [Laughs] So, when my mother used to tell me to articulate, it really annoyed me! I thought it was absurd – I wanted her to talk about the melodies and my voice. She’d make me listen to Barbara to show me how well she pronounced every word. Today, I say, ‘Thank you, Mom!’ Especially when listeners tell me that singers like me who articulate are rare.”

FIRST VISUAL SHOCK

“A live performance of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ces gens-là,’ which I discovered as a teenager. I watched the video of him vibrating and sweating 50 times in a row in the same day, and I realized that a song could also be told, played and experienced. It opened up new horizons for me.”

FIRST ELECTRO SOUND

“Koudlam’s ‘Alcoholic’s Hymns.’ I was 15, a fan of French chansons and rock, and my father told me to listen to a vinyl record that would change my life. Since he tends to exaggerate, I didn’t really believe him, but I listened to it anyway. It was a total shock. I discovered arpeggiators, distorted vocals, heavy bass – sounds I’d never heard before in my life. I fell in love! I realized that while the voice and words could convey emotions, so could the sounds of synthesizers. I tried it myself on GarageBand. I owe my introduction to electro music to Koudlam.

Zaho de Sagazan by Rory van Millingen

FIRST SUCCESS

“Onstage with the Concert Salade choir from the Lycée Aristide-Briand in Saint-Nazaire. Everyone there knows about it and wants to be part of it. Some are selected to be soloists. My best friend Ségolène and I tried our hand at it, singing ‘La Bonne étoile’ by M. We rehearsed for at least 400 hours during the year, skipping a lot of classes to do it. In the end, the teacher loved it, and we were chosen for the Concert Salade.”

FIRST LOVE AFFAIR

“My piano. I really had a love affair with it. I personified it and felt it was the only person who understood me. Today, I have two pianos: the one at home, still out of tune, and an electric one that my parents gave me as a present, which made it possible for me to write my album. Apart from my piano, I’ve never had a real love affair.”

FIRST JOINT

“It wasn’t really a joint; it was a bong. On the first real night out of my life, I was with four girlfriends, and we came across a bunch of ‘old’ 10th-graders smoking a bong. They offered us some, and we said yes because we wanted to look cool, but we looked ridiculous! It was a good mistake. Ever since then, I’ve been smoking with bongs, like all the young people in Saint-Nazaire. [Laughs]”

FIRST DISAPPOINTMENT

“When I realized in 10th grade that I wasn’t going to be a doctor or a surgeon. At that point, I went from being a very good student to a musician who skipped classes. It was both a disappointment and a discovery: music was going to replace medicine.”

FIRST PHOTO SHOOT

“Me and myself in my room, shutters closed. Not in outstretched-arm selfie mode, but in arty mode, with beautiful light, in black and white. I used to do the same thing with my videos on Instagram. It really helped me, as I had a lot of trouble with my image. I was the opposite of feminine: pudgy, deep-voiced, droopy-eyed, H-shaped, no breasts, no buttocks, a belly – the whole package! I wore only suits, and I wasn’t elegant. I was convinced that no one would fall in love with me ever. That changed when I realized that my flaws could become positive qualities in front of the camera.”

This feature has been translated from the French. It was originally published in Mastermind 14 – buy it here.

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