Zoe Mead, the London-based singer-songwriter who writes and records under the moniker Wyldest, released her debut full-length, Dream Chaos, in 2018. Following a couple of EPs, the album served as an introduction to Wyldest’s ethereal, swirling brand of dream pop, and was reworked for the gorgeously stripped-back Redream Chaos last March. Her sophomore LP, Monthly Friend (out now via Hand in Hive), melds the ambient textures of that version and the indie pop sensibilities of the original, drawing inspiration from the likes of Elliott Smith and Soccer Mommy to create a more intimate soundscape suffused in layers of crystalline guitars and tender, introspective vocals.
More importantly, the record positions Mead as a self-sufficient artist, as it finds her taking the helm on production and mixing duties for the first time on one of her own projects – an idea she initially laughed off – while exploring themes of womanhood and femininity. A testament to Mead’s growing self-confidence and focus as a songwriter and producer, Monthly Friend radiates joy and honesty as it reaches, however tactfully, for moments of romantic beauty and transcendence. On ‘Arrow’, she paints an unusually surreal scene that lights up the rest of the album: “Heavenly embrace/ I travelled through time/ To make sense of this life/ We are divine.”
We caught up with Wyldest’s Zoe Mead for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her musical journey, the process of making Monthly Friend, and more.
When did you realize that music was a passion of yours?
I think it routes back to early childhood with my parents playing all kinds of ‘60s and ‘70s music. My dad had Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon constantly in his record player, so it kind of was the soundtrack to my childhood in a way. And then I got into thinking about sound design and how things are made. I never really had lessons or anything – my parents bought me a little keyboard when I was a kid, and I used to put on beats and do bedroom lo-fi stuff that I would love to be able to do now, but I was in a different trail of thought back then. Now it’s very calculated and planned, whereas back then it was just pressing buttons. But it was just a natural thing, being interested in sound design and then trying things and not being able to necessarily just play with toys – I had to be doing something with the toys, like I had to be making a video out of the toys, or I had to be making the Barbies do like a pop star kind of music festival thing. I was a very weird child. I would always be stealing my parents’ clothes, and my dad had this big video camera that we’d take on holiday and it would just disappear out of the cupboard, and I would be in my room filming something or making something. I love looking back at those memories and thinking how I was just finding ways of doing things.
Do you still have any recordings from that time?
I think I do, yeah. I had this little song in particular – I have a close friend who I’ve known since I was about four and we went to primary school together, and she always jokes about how pushy I was as a child and how I used to kind of force her to do all the singing because she was way better at singing than me. She was so good at everything, but she just didn’t want to be in the limelight or be in front of people singing. But we’ve actually got this tape that we laugh about – I need to make copies, actually, because I’m terrified it’s gonna die – and we have this little song on it. It’s actually a decent song, I’m thinking about bringing that back. I mean, she wrote it, I just pretended I wrote it at the time because I was all about the glory. But I’ve definitely got some bits and bobs. Maybe they’ll make an appearance one day, maybe I’ll sample them or something.
That would be really cool. How did you start getting more into the songwriting side of it yourself?
I remember my brother went traveling and he had a guitar in his room and he left it behind. God knows I couldn’t go in his room whilst he was living there, but then he went traveling so I went and ransacked all of his CDs and played his little classical guitar started playing, just finding my way on the strings. I started learning a few songs online, and then I quickly realized that I wasn’t really about learning songs, I needed to write something myself. So it was just a matter of putting some chords that I’d just learned together and then writing some lyrics. I think when I started playing guitar I was about 15, and I guess a couple years later I went out to open mic nights and started putting myself out there, playing my own stuff.
When did the idea for Wyldest start to form?
It started in my bedroom in 2015 as a kind of – because I’d been in bands before mainly where I was surrounded by friends, and they were taking the lead on the writing a lot more, and I was just like the girl up front singing. And that’s cool, it was a great way to cut my teeth in a band. But then with Wyldest, I decided I wanted to do it on my own and I wanted to empower myself to produce. Because I had watched my friend before, he was few years older than me and he studied music technology and sound engineering, and all of the songs that we used to record back in the old band, he used to sit there and do the EQing and stuff and I’d just be fascinated and sit on a sofa behind him watching it doing it. And I think that’s quite common, especially for females in this industry. And it’s changing, but it’s still the sort of “sat on the sofa watching someone do all technological stuff” – we’re obviously lending our voice and sometimes our musical skills, and then they’re capturing it. But with Wyldest, I decided I wanted to capture it, because I knew the only way to really get what I wanted across was to learn that art, be a part of that world, talk the language of the studio and production.
And that obviously informs the direction of the new record as well. I believe with the first album, the project was billed as a trio, whereas now it’s more of a solo endeavour. What was the reason behind that?
It’s not like an ego thing, and I’m aware that now I’m putting it out as “I” and not “we”. Initially it was this trio, and I guess it was down to my own self-confidence. I hated talking about myself and I kind of wanted to be like a silent person doing it; I wanted to pretend it was this band because it was easier for me to post about it and talk about it. And it always was kind of me in my bedroom, and then I’d bring the songs and I’d jam with my bandmates at the time, who are really good friends of mine, and they’d always be like, “You should own it, you need to own it more.” And then COVID happened, and that was a turning point where my bandmate, my beloved friend Mariin, had to move back to Estonia. I still talked to her basically every day and we were very close, but she was like, “You need to carry on,” because she’s there for the ongoing future and unfortunately she can’t really come back to tour. But it’s more of like, “I have to do this now, I have to own it, because it’s the only way I can drive the project forward.”
Before we talk about the new album, I wanted to bring up something that happened I think two years ago, when you got to play with Gary Lightbody from Snow Patrol. What was that experience like?
It was all such a quick, random thing. My publishing label asked if I would write a few covers for that lovely show that we all know, Love Island. And I didn’t think anything of it, I didn’t even know how big the show was, I didn’t even watch it. And then one got picked up, and before I knew it, my phone was just exploding with people sharing – I’ve never had that, I’ve released music for years and I’ve never had that kind of hype. And Gary had tweeted about it as well, and before I knew it I was being asked to play with him in this show, and it was insane. It was just on a scale that I never have experienced before. But he is the nicest man, he is so kind, and I’m so grateful. I love Snow Patrol so much. I used to sit in the back of my parents’ car growing up, and they’d have Snow Patrol on constantly. And I just know every word to every song, so I was backstage singing it.
I don’t know if you would’ve imagined this would ever happen back then.
Yeah, sometimes you do have those pinch-yourself moments. You beat yourself up sometimes, you’re like, “Oh, I’m not doing very well, what am I doing with my life,” and then now and again you’re like, “You know what, 10 years ago if I’d see myself now, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s all right. Well done!’”
Have you had any moments like that recently?
I think the mixing of this album was maybe the most prominent one. Just having the final product and playing it on the record player. I’ve just got just got a batch through, and listening to it back, knowing that I did everything myself – it’s been years of learning and years of growing as a producer to get to the stage where I could actually do that. Even three years ago, the thought of producing and mixing my own album was just unfathomable, and now I’ve done it. So that was an emotional moment, listening to that back, because I’ve had so much turmoil over the last year when I’ve been doing it, so it hasn’t dawned on me what I’m actually doing. It’s all just been this anxiety trip of like, “Is this good? I don’t think this is good.” And then now listening to it back and actually sounding like a record, and actually sounding like something that I would play, is amazing.
You’ve described Monthly Friend as being about womanhood and femininity. Did you go into the album wanting to explore that as a running theme, or was it something that emerged later on as you were putting the songs together?
I didn’t initially, because I’d only written maybe 15 songs or so – at that point, when I’m writing, my process is like, I have a book of poetry and ideas, and I kind of sing a bunch of gobbledygook whilst I’m writing chords. So I had that, and then I was waiting for the opportunity to record them somewhere else or rewrite my lyrics, be inspired, go and watch some films, go and experience the world, you know. But that didn’t happen. So I ended up with writer’s block in terms of lyrics, I was like, “I’m not experiencing anything. Nothing’s going on. My biggest problem is that my Zoom app isn’t working.” There wasn’t much going on, so I guess I did delve into a lot of feminist literature for that reason. I wanted to write about something I cared about and that meant something to me. I went down a lot of rabbit holes and read a lot of feminist poetry, and one of my favorite poets, Rupi Kaur, her poetry book the sun and her flowers was maybe one of the first things I read, and I felt like this is what I kind of want to base the album on. A lot of my lyrics reference little bits of her poetry book. I just love the way she mixes nature with very deep and almost harrowing stories about herself, but in beautiful, poetic form.
There are also lot of references to sleeping or not being able to sleep on the album, and I read that ‘Beggar’ was written when you had bouts of insomnia. What state of mind are you usually in when you’re writing?
I do suffer from insomnia and I did while was writing this album. It’s great that you did notice all the sleeping references, because I guess that was kind of the setting, me in a late-night haze, in the midst of a global pandemic, writing these lyrics. I just remember the stillness of it, and that was quite unsettling because I’m so used to the city bustle and I kind of get comfort from that, so the fact that it was so stale and so silent was quite scary. And I guess it stirred up things which maybe otherwise I wouldn’t have found. There was a lot of existential thoughts, you know, lying in bed late at night, “What is the world, what is happening?” There was a lot of that – there always is a lot of that, but at that particular time that was in its extreme.
There’s a sense of loneliness to the final track, ‘The Void’, but there’s also this line, “Still the show goes on.” Why did you choose this song as the closing track?
I wanted to close the album with something that left everything open, I guess a big void. I didn’t want it to be like a completion and that’s it, like a happy ending. Because as we know, there isn’t really a happy ending as such in life. And ‘The Void’ was reflective of having, you know, an emptiness inside of me that need fulfilling, and the only way of doing that is to keep working and keep trying to make something work. We’ve referenced it, it could be a relationship, with my particular thing it was with… everything. I mean, politically, everything I constantly think about when I’m lying awake at night, and how the world can be better and should be better. And also, I was borrowing feelings from how I felt in past relationships, and kind of using a person or a thing – in this particular occasion, a person – to fill a void that is there. I read a poem by Rupi Kaur, and it was about not wanting to have this person fill the empty parts of me. She wants to be full on her own. And that really struck a note with me.
And ‘The Void’ is about that, really, the whole kind of “doing it on your own” and constantly working for it, because it’s not something that fills up and then that’s it. It’s something that will constantly fluctuate throughout life, you know, anxiety, everything – like, happiness, I was reading about the actual definition of happiness and how to be happy, and we can only get true happiness when we’re in flow, which is when we’re creating something or doing something or spending time with someone.
When was the last time you felt you got into that flow?
I guess the time when I really felt like the most at flow in the last year was when I was writing a song for a film soundtrack, which is outside of doing my album. That was when I felt suddenly the weight was lifted off my shoulders, because with the album, there’s a certain element of expectation to it, whereas with this soundtrack, I didn’t even realize I was doing it but it was so fun and so chilled out. I just wrote it and it just flowed out of me. It was literally over the space of a week where I was laying down textures and making some music, and then before I knew it I had something, and it was almost like this process of being under a trance. And I think that was maybe flow. I don’t know what it is and I don’t know how to define it, but it’s kind of when you don’t put any pressure on yourself or you don’t have expectations, and unfortunately we live in a world where that’s not really possible.
When I first started Wyldest, I remember experiencing that same feeling, and I have done a couple of times when I’ve collaborated with a friend and there’s been no reason necessarily to be writing something. It’s just been, “We’re gonna write something for a laugh,” and then something great happens a lot of the time. Something shit happens sometimes, but that’s just the nature of it. But then it’s like, you almost don’t know what’s happening and it’s just building and then and then a day or two or a week or a month or however long you’re lucky to be in flow for goes by, and then you have something and you’re like, “Wow.” And you can barely even remember it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.