NATALIA BONIFACCI MEETS ZARINA NARES. IT’S THE END OF FEBRUARY. IT’S AN UNUSUALLY COLD AND WINDY DAY IN LOS ANGELES, A CONTRAST THAT SUITS THE 22 YEAR OLD MUSICIAN’S AURA WELL. HER PRESENCE IS MADE OF DUALISMS. PILLOW LIPPED, LONG LIMBS, A STUNNING VOICE, A HINT OF NOSTALGIA, SHE’S A BEAUTY MADE OF CONTRASTS, SO IS HER HERITAGE. THE INDIAN-AMERICAN BLUES SINGER, A FULL-ON NEW YORK CITY KID, MOVED TO LA WHEN SHE WAS 17 YEARS OLD TO PURSUE HER MUSIC CAREER. AT 20, SHE FELL INTO MODELING TO MAKE SOME EXTRA CASH AND IMMEDIATELY STARTED SHOOTING AWAY WHILE GETTING SIGNED BY SOME OF THE BEST AGENCIES WORLDWIDE. IN SEPTEMBER SHE TOOK A BREAK FROM THE GLITTER TO TAKE TIME TO RECORD. SHE LIVES IN MELROSE HILL WITH HER BOYFRIEND, ARTIST, CANYON CASTATOR, AND THEIR RECENTLY ADOPTED TEN MONTH OLD DOG, BIRDIE. IN THE INTIMACY OF HER LIVING ROOM, SHE OPENS UP FOR REDMILK.
Q: If you were to describe to a small child what you do for a living, what would you tell him/her?
A: I would say that I play music and I play dress up for a living.
Q: What are your influences?
A: I’d say Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and there are also a lot of male artists, like Otis Redding. I really really love the Blues: there is something about the way the voice plays with the music, a cat and mouse kind of thing. There is that playfulness, but it’s also so heavy in way of emotion. I love that.
Q: Music was always what you wanted to do growing up?
A: I’ve been singing my whole life. My mom says “You’ve been singing since the moment I gave birth to you.” I don’t think it’s actually true when she says that (she laughs) but I started singing before I was making words, at least that’s what my parents say. I started taking piano lessons early. My mom’s friend came over while I was at the piano making a song at four years old, “If you sign her up for singing lessons I’ll pay for it” he said, so that is how I started. When I was in middle school I started doing all the musicals, I was always a performing kid, whether or not I was singing, I was always doing stuff on stage, I took ballet for 13 years.
Q: That gives you a lot of discipline. And it teaches you to suffer for your art in a way.
A: I know how to take directions and how to behave (she laughs). Ballet definitely teaches you how to grow up faster. It’s very professional from the beginning, it’s very serious, lots of rules. I loved ballet so much, but I just was never the best and I think in order to have success in the world of dance, you have to be the best of the best in your group, and then maybe you have a chance. And I wasn’t that as much as I loved it, I never thought I wanna be a ballerina, but I always wanted to be a singer.
Q: And in the meantime, you started modeling on the side.
A: When I first moved to LA, I was working retail for Agent Provocateur and as fun as that was, I didn’t want to work in retail forever. I was so broke all the time. When you work retail full time that’s five days a week. You are working in a shop instead of working on music, I’d work on music on the weekends. Long story short, I was really broke and I was occasionally being photographed by friends and my friend who is a photographer was like ‘why don’t you start modeling for work” the idea of even getting a check for $100 was so exciting. As a kid you see models and you think ‘That’s for other people, that’s not for me. Why would anyone want me to be a model?” he said “You should just think about it,” and he sent pictures to an agency… long story short they turn out to be my mother agency and shortly after I started working, and I signed with Vision in LA, Heroes in NYC, Monster in Milan and Oui in Paris.
Q: You had been working successfully as a model for the last two years. Yet you recently took a break from modeling.
A: I have Lyme disease, but it’s not anything new, I’ve had it since I was five, yet the symptoms have been getting worse and worse as I’ve been getting older. Modeling… you think it’s this most glamorous, easy laid back job, and while there are those aspects to it, there is also a lot of work and it takes up a lot of time and I think I got a little overworked, you know?… So in September, I took time off, I finished recording, and I ended up signing a deal with a label, in May a new song is coming out. After the new year, I called my agents, “Ok I am ready to start. I gotta pay my bills.” (she laughs).
Q: The world of modeling is weird because you are you doing you and then you start modeling and all of a sudden, you are still the same person, but the perception of yourself is different, you deal with all of this judgement and criticism. I was wondering if that is something that happened to you and if you were affected by it or you didn’t care.
A: When I first started out I was like completely, “who cares, I don’t care about this,” not caring about what people thought. I wasn’t the most confident person in the world, but I was a pretty confident kid and then you start modeling and for a while I was fine, till you start seeing photos of yourself all the time and you start, “Oh my god is that what I look like?” You do a shoot and they give you a pair of jeans and you start thinking, “Oh my god I need to lose weight.” You start getting wrapped in all of it. You don’t get a job and you think, “I am not good enough.”
Q: It gets to you…
A: It makes you go a little crazy. You start worrying about stuff that you never even thought about before. Part of taking the time off came from wanting to chill out a bit. I started to become too concerned about how I looked or how I was being judged by other people. The modeling industry can be very harsh, and I had to go back to, “No, I am an artist, I’m fine the way that I am.” Any time now I am in a situation on a shoot or a casting where I do feel I am being judged in a negative way I just tell myself, “You are more than this. You are more than somebody’s opinion of you.” And the truth of the matter is that not everyone is gonna like you. That’s just the nature of life whether or not you are a model.
Q: Why LA?
A: I had a little bit of family here, so it was a place I could convince my parents to let me go at seventeen big time (she laughs). They would have loved for me to go to college, I think, but mostly my mom: her thinking was, “I just want you to never have to depend on a man for income.” Now I think they’ve gotten over it. LA seemed one of the furthest places I could escape and although I do love NYC I had only lived there, I had the same group of friends my entire life, I wanted to do something completely on my own. I didn’t
know anybody, it just made sense creatively, it seemed like a place I could work on music.
Q: Was it hard to follow an artistic path having your family having reservations about it?
A: My dad was always very supportive, and I am very grateful for that, because, it’s hard to say, but I don’t know I would have completely gone for it if I didn’t have that. My mom works in a creative industry, but she is Indian. I come from a very strict background where you parents expect you to be a lawyer or a doctor. My grandparents, still to this day. They were here a week ago, “When you are done with this whole hobby thing, you should really look into these schools and think about applying to them.” (she smiles).
Q: Is it easy for you to brush that off? It was very very hard for me when I was your age.
A: It’s gotten easier. But most people, you know, you wanna make your parents proud of you, at least I did, I do. So it did matter to me to make my family proud of me even though I was going against what my mom wanted, I still wanted her to feel proud about her daughter and I think now she does, but I also think secretly she wants me to go to school (she laughs).
Q: What’s your least favorite part about being a musician?
A: Recording. One, because I am a bit of a perfectionist so I’ll record something, and then I’ll listen to it “No, I hate that, let’s do it again.” Also, I don’t find personally inspiring being in a vocal booth, singing the same song over and over again. On stage you get that feed back from an audience. You could be singing the same song you were singing in the studio, but it feels like an entirely different experience.
Q: Is that when you feel the most complete, performing?
A: I feel at my best, almost high, after I play a show. There is nothing in the entire world that makes me feel better. No drug I could ever take that would make me feel that good. It’s been that way my entire life. I remember getting off stage after musicals when I was 12 and that feeling was so good that I just felt ‘Yeah I have to do this for the rest of my life.”
Q: And you moved to Los Angeles cold turkey.
A: I moved in with my oldest sister’s dad and his wife. I was recording covers of songs on my computer. This producer friend of them came to the house and my sister’s stepmom was like, “Listen to what Zarina did! She made this song on her computer!” And I very embarrassedly played it, it was a cover. He said, “Hey, you know, it’s not great, but I like your voice, so if you want to come and try to work on stuff, I’d like to do that with you”. I started going to his studio and he suggested I started writing some of my own material. I started to write bad song after bad song after bad song (she laughs) so many bad songs- but I spent a good year writing every single day, even if they weren’t good songs, it was great because I really really tried to figure out what kind of artist I wanted to be and push what I was capable of.
Q: And what does that look like?
A: I am still figuring it out, but I think I just want to be considered a very honest artist because I consider my songs diary entries. A lot of people who become musicians have a character. You have a Lady Gaga or a Lana Del Rey for example, that’s not their name, they are putting on a version of themselves. From the beginning I knew that that wasn’t what I wanted to do, I wanted to be who I was and channel that into music, and not because there’s something wrong in having a character, but it’s just not who I am or what makes me happy. I call my music a modern blues, it’s very jazz and blues influenced, because those are my main influences and inspirations. I don’t think it’s very common amongst people my age, but for so long it’s been the music that resonates with me the most.
Q: How come?
A: Because it’s pure feeling and emotion in a sound, you hear Billie Holiday, who is huge for me, she’s not like Whitney Houston who hits these crazy notes, but there is so much emotion in the few notes that she chooses to sing. In a way I find that so much stronger than going up on crazy Mariah Carey runs. I guess is not that common, but I am not influenced by music that most of my peers are listening to.
Q: You just signed with a label, was it a goal?
A: I signed with Manimal Vynil which is based here in LA- I don’t know if it was a goal of mine to sign with a label but it was definitely… It’s like being a model and signing with an agency: it gives you a sense of validation for yourself, ”someone is taking me serious” you think, you are not trying to do stuff on your own anymore and it’s a nice feeling to know you have somebody else who believes in you as much as you try to believe in yourself.
Q: Because there are ups and downs…
A: You know, I wish I was the kind of person that is ‘I’m amaaaazing” all the time (she laughs) but I don’t always feel that way. But then again, I am proud of myself. From 17 to now I created a life for myself: I have an apartment, I have a dog, I have a boyfriend, I get to work on music every single day, that is exactly what I used to dream about.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice that someone has given you?
A: It’s from an acting teacher when I was 15/14 years old, an old guy, maybe 80 years old or something, and he said, “Nobody’s success takes away from your own, so there is no point about ever being jealous of anybody,” which I still have to remind myself of that all the time, because it’s very easy to look at someone else’s life and start, “Why don’t I have that? Why am I not getting that kind of recognition?”
Q: What is the quality you like the most in people and what is a real turn off?
A: I’m curious, I like when people are able to have a good conversation, because that is another thing about phones: everyone is so used to be on their phones or communicating that way that some people cannot actually have a conversation and that is really crazy…
Q: Communication via emojis.
A: Exactly! What I hate is a mean girl kinda mentality. I just can’t stand that.
Q: Did you grow up with music?
A: I didn’t grow up with musicians necessarily, but my dad played in bands when he was my age and he is very into music. He is an artist. He would always play certain things and wanted us to listen to certain kinds of music as opposed to listening to the radio. It was a lot of ‘60s girl groups: Diana Ross & the Supremes, The Chantels, The Shangri-Las. I’d listen to it with my sisters. I am very close with them, growing up in NYC, you know, you grow up in an apartment as opposed to in a house. We all three shared a bedroom our entire lives until I moved out. We had to learn how to get along and that made us really really close friends. My sisters are my absolute best friends. They both live here now: they moved to LA.
Q: Everyone is escaping the cold.
A: I am so happy they are here, but I also wanna tell other people “Stay, don’t come, you are making the rent go up.” (we both laugh)
Q: What’s the best quality about you and what is your biggest flaw?
A: I think my best quality is that I am very generous and very caring. I think it’s so important to be kind to every single person that you meet because I’ve been made to feel bad before and it’s the worst feeling in the world. I never want to do that to somebody else. My worst quality… I think it’s just a lot of self doubt (we both laugh) which I am working on.
Q: The name Zarina means Little Queen in Russian…
A: True. It’s an indian name as well, and it means ‘valuable’.