“It wasn’t an identity crisis so much as a statement…”
Ryan Camenzuli, who creates music under the name Zuli, said of his album as we sat across from each other at a small, historic diner in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighbourhood. The psychedelic-pop rocker’s first full length album, On Human Freakout Mountain, was released on the 20th October, and he had been counting down the days.
It is early. Much earlier than one would think when imagining an interview with an up-and-coming musician in one of the world’s most notorious cities for late night shows and never sleeping. As few people in this profession are morning people, we took our time discussing the key themes on his forthcoming album, writing about his friends, and what makes a good song over large cups of tea.
“Up until this project, I always worked with bands and when I recorded,” Camenzuli explained. It wasn’t until this album that he decided to try a more solitary creative process. “I think I wanted to be more hands on about this project. I was really passionate about doing my own thing, just having full creative control and do what felt best.” The Long Island-based musician recounted the new experience saying that he was a firm believer in the “too many cooks” analogy when it came to making an album. “Doing it myself allowed for the studio itself to be part of the composition. I’d have the rough song idea and then I’d figure out the bass and work around with it.” His music has the framework of a strong pop melody built up with multi-part harmonies and infectious guitar hooks. Unafraid of experimentation, no song stays that way for too long before it evolves into something much for psychedelic and sonically vivid.
The streets are quiet after the rush of the morning commute. Customers were dotted in booths nearby. The large windows making up much of the walls of the diner make it a prime spot for people watching. “I think sometimes witnessing something happen whether it’s a serious event that affects the world or just a relationship with someone you know – it’s easier to get that context and think ‘How does this affect me or apply to me?’” the songwriter theorised. Many of his songs take inspiration from the experiences of his close friends. Sometimes they come from the most unexpected of places.
His song “Blaze,” which in many ways ties together the album’s larger themes of fear, uncertainty, and self-worth began with the experience of a friend. “At its core, the song is about the anxiety and heartbreak that can build up in a toxic relationship, but was originally inspired by the relationship between a boy and his dog, Blaze.”
Even knowing the backstory, it is easy to find yourself in the lyrics sung in infectious, Beach Boys-esque harmony. This is exactly what the artist intended. “I’m not a huge fan of songs that are too specific where they give you the day-to-day. It’s so specific to their life which is great and it gives them their own voice, but I can’t really take away from it,” he continued. “You’re setting a scene so well that I don’t know how to apply it to myself. So I feel like with my songs, I want it to be applicable and be my voice but at the same time, you’ll be able to listen to it and apply it in some way as well.”
As we finish our tea, Camenzuli adds one final thought that is as relatable as any song lyric. If coming of age were a song, this would be the chorus. “I don’t know if I’ll ever truly feel successful and I think that’s a good thing. I’m always going to want to be striving for the next thing in life.”
Words by Sarah Midkiff