Feature by Brianna Wiest | Photo by Krismae.com
Her new album really takes you on a journey of loss, redemption, mourning and joy, each of these things inspired directly by the beautiful juxtaposition that was her life at the time.
A name change usually represents a shedding, or a liberation in someone’s life: it’s stepping out of the identity you were given, and into the one you choose. For Zōe LaBelle, formerly known as Dana Alexandra, it’s more of a differentiation. At home, she’s Dana. On stage, she’s Zōe. The space between the two gives her some long-sought freedom to create without being personally defined by her work.
Back in 2011, after her second album “Wash Your Mouth Out” dropped, Zōe (then Dana) took off on an extensive college tour, and was performing everywhere from local venues to NPR. A series of life events led to her years-long hiatus, but with her new record dropping early this year, she’s stepping back into the music scene with years of sober reflection to channel. With the creation of a new character she says has “freed” her, her sound is different, but more importantly, so is her tone.
Adopting a pen-name or alter-ego is a common move among artists–like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Beyonc.’s Sasha Fierce–but to change your name after having established a career with another is a risk. For Zōe, it outweighed the alternative. A series of losses served as the catalyst for this new chapter: the dissolution of a long-term relationship, as well as the death of her beloved mother. In light of it all, it seems she’s ascending to a new level of her creative self, but she speaks as though she’s learned herself more deeply than ever before. The combination, it turns out, has been nothing short of magic.
Though the process of arriving at her new identity was difficult, deciding on her new name wasn’t. Dana Alexandra is actually her first and middle name, her last name being Zbobien. Wanting to keep an aspect of her surname, she pulled the “Z.” She added a homage to one of the greats–Patty LaBelle–and found a combination that flowed. Zōe LaBelle was born.
Known for a more folk-inspired sound, her new music seems slower, more dramatic, and imbued with emotion. It’s not surprising, though: that’s what she was living through as she wrote it. “After my mom passed away, I was having a lot of trouble driving, I just couldn’t focus,” she says of her new record’s genesis. “I was actually with my mom when she passed, and it was one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever experienced. I walked her through crossing over, but all the anxiety I suppressed to stay strong came out after-the-fact.”
For transportation, Zōe relied on the train, which gave her time to journal. It was there that she came up with the idea for “Evergreen,” which was inspired by the perplexing idea that though the seasons were changing, her mind was stuck in darkness. It was a song that, ironically, she ended up recording the vocals to on her mother’s birthday. After playing it for her producer, she was told she’d just raised the bar on herself. “You need to write songs of this caliber now,” were her instructions, and rise to the challenge she did.
Her new album really takes you on a journey of loss, redemption, mourning and joy, each of these things inspired directly by the beautiful juxtaposition that was her life at the time. Mere weeks after the loss of her mother, she met her now-husband. The experience of blossoming love next to crippling heartache is one she describes seamlessly, and her new tracks really walk you through the range of human emotion. She self-describes her work as “sounds your soul makes,” and that’s never as apparent as in her new canon.
Aside from working on new music, and this year’s EP release, Zōe says she’s focusing on making small goals, and not worrying about the bigger picture as much. “The goal right now is just to play another show and see what happens. I try to take baby steps. People that are like goal-catchers, thinking you have to set your big goal first, and I have such a hard time with that,” she says. She’s also learning to find the balance between worrying she hasn’t done enough, and not being okay with what she has accomplished. “I’m a very simple person in a lot of ways, so it’s confusing to me sometimes society is drilling you: more more more do more!” she said. “It’s amazing to do more and be more and learn more, but is it okay if I just live right now?”