New Zealand pop star Zoe Fleury, whose new album is just out, tells Lydia Jenkin how she became feisty electropop alter-ego Zowie.
When TimeOut meets Zoe Fleury in her record company's Auckland boardroom, she's still dressed and made up as her pop persona Zowie. It's already been a long day of interviews for her debut album. Somehow, Fleury appears more petite and delicate than her alter-ego. She's also enthusiastic and charismatic, punctuating her sentences with much laughter and smiles.
She may be sweet and young, but she's long been musically ambitious. In the past five years she's managed to drive herself all the way to stardom.
The daughter of Auckland master bassist Johnny Fleury, Zoe, now in her mid-20s, took up drums at 11, already eager to make music her life.
She started punk girl duo the Bengal Lights while studying at Mainz music institute, but rather than waiting around to be "discovered" she educated herself about the music business by working for Universal Music after finishing her studies. A stint at Warner Music, and then Apra followed. Funnily enough, she signed up with Sony, one of the few major labels which isn't on her CV.
"I love the business side as well. You can make it fun if you want to, it doesn't have to be all 'ah labels are the worst thing that ever happened'. You can make it cool if you know what you're doing, and know what you're signing, and know who you wanna work with. Just being wary of people is good."
That business head proved helpful when she garnered national attention as her first ultra-stylised alter-ego Bionic Pixie. Early single Toss the Coin wormed its way into the nation's ears via a television ad for Glassons, and she was soon playing fashion shows and festivals, supporting the likes of Peaches and the Kills.
"It was quite out of the blue when we started getting attention. We'd played at the 2009 Big Day Out, first slot in the morning, like 10.30am, and I thought 'oh no, no one will come'. But then it was actually packed out because no one else was playing yet, and in the crowd there were lots of people from the industry and labels. So straight after that was when they all started to take an interest."
With Australian manager Will Larnach-Jones on board she opened for the likes of Katy Perry and Mark Ronson on tour, being lauded by taste-making internet blogger Perez Hilton, and signing a worldwide deal with Sony Australia in early 2010. Shortly after she was on a plane to Los Angeles, to kickstart a worldwide songwriting expedition.
"I was really hungry to be challenged, and write with all these people. But I hadn't been past Australia ever, and there I was in LA for two months by myself, and then Atlanta and Sweden and London. It was amazing."
Travelling on her own boosted her confidence, she explains, making it easier to work with such experienced people, like Atticus Ross who has written with Trent Reznor, Lee Groves (who's production credits include work with Black Eyed Peas, Janet Jackson, Depeche Mode, and Gwen Stefani among others) and Swedish producer Henrik Jonback who's written for artists like Madonna and Britney Spears. One of her most memorable experiences however was working with David Sitek of art-rockers TV on the Radio.
"He's just crazy. We were shooting apples on his property in the Beverly Hills, and writing songs. I've got this crazy photo of me holding this huge rifle, which is just for shooting the apples but it's so funny because I'm so small."
Travelling by herself also helped her to decide that she was on a new path, and to morph her musical persona from Bionic Pixie into someone new - Zowie: a feisty electropop diva with a sly side.
Having an onstage persona has always been important to Fleury, because it helps her performance, and helps to keep her real life separated.
"There's definitely a lot of Zoe Fleury on stage, but I'm pretty reserved and private about certain things, not in a cocky, 'I'm so famous' way, just more in that, it's not important. So I think once I get into the stage outfits and things, I love being this other character. And then you can say 'hey shut up!' when you're on stage, and when you come off you can be normal, and like 'hey, how are you?"'
She's been compared with Lady Gaga for her creative stage outfits and outlandish presence, but Fleury makes it plain that she wasn't her initial inspiration.
"As much as I totally respect what she does, I've been wearing the crazy outfits for a lot longer than that, and Peaches was a bit more of a formative inspiration."
In fact the costumes are less about mimicking any other pop stars, and more about creating an image that isn't overtly sexual, while also being comfortable on stage.
"Of course I definitely appreciate feminine clothes, but I think it can just take away from the music a bit if you don't have pants on, or you're exposing yourself. I mean Grace Jones does it amazingly with her suit jacket and her top hat and so on, but I feel comfortable if I can really jump around on stage, because I'm quite manic - I can end up on the floor and fall over and things like that, so I like to not have to pull down my skirt every five seconds."
Who: Zowie aka Zoe Fleury, the artist formerly known as Bionic Pixie
New album: Love Demolition
Check out Zowie's new video for My Calculator: