Western Sydney auteur Zion Garcia’s not letting the moment get to him. Part of Sydney musical collective Full Circle, it’d be easy for someone in his position to start buying into their own hype wholesale.
At the start of the year, he became an Acclaim All-Star, one of the highest honours for any Australian rapper, and he recently appeared on a triple j cypher alongside Queen P and YIBBY. When he talks with Junkee, he’s preparing for his first-ever headline show at the hallowed Phoenix Central Park, and it’s a few days out from the release of his debut EP, ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION). Things are happening for the in-demand MC, and it looks like they’re happening all at once.
Despite all the outside noise, though, Zion’s focused on being the best he can be for one person: himself. “I feel like these achievements and stuff, as cool as they are, they’re not the be all and end all part of why I do it,” he says. “At the end of the day, I love music and I love connecting with people.” Across the seven tracks on ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION), he does exactly that, welcoming people into his world and inviting them to walk in his shoes.
On nostalgic opening cut ‘THE WAY BACK’, he reflects on time spent playing Tony Hawk, while he discusses going on Woolies runs for his love on the velvety ‘HANDHOLDER’. Weaving in and out of different eras, Zion paints vivid pictures of his younger days on this project, capturing the joy of childhood without being unbearingly saccharine and nostalgic. Instead, the EP functions more like a time machine, transporting listeners back in time to when their whole world might have existed within the boundaries of a few streets. Despite that, the future felt full of endless possibilities. Anything was within reach. All we needed was time.
Zion Garcia: The Past, Present And The Future
ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION) has gone through a lot of changes, and Zion estimates that there were “over 140 songs” that were on the project at some point. Songs that made the final cut have evolved drastically, too: Zion first made the beat for ‘THE WAY BACK’ in 2019, for example, but the song’s had a complete overhaul in the last couple of months. Speaking about the project’s journey, Zion says he’s been “applying new knowledge to old ideas”, bringing together his former and current selves.
“A lot of the songs, they are such a product of where I was at when I made them, just because that’s the nature of my process. I’m kind of self-conscious when I make stuff, I don’t go into it wanting to make something, it’s a reflection of whatever’s on at that moment. So by default, I feel like my music feels different and I’m kind of having to retrospectively look at the song. I feel like I’m always mentally growing in terms of when I make the song, it’s such a reflection of who I am at that moment that the process of making the song gets me out of that state of mind. So it is a bit of backtracking, like, ‘Oh shit, how how was I feeling on that day?’”
The project calls to mind early 2000s hip-hop, both through the use of samples (notably, it features the voice of Junkee contributor and fellow Western Sydney creative Adele Luamanuvae), and the way the mixes have been constructed. If you’re a fan of Kanye West’s 2004 album The College Dropout, then you’ll want to dive into the world of ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION). Zion confesses that he’s naturally drawn towards muddy textures, saying that he’s acutely aware that his songs aren’t always pristine from the get-go.
“I realised a lot of my songs — I have bass in them — but I end up making the kick of the song embody all of the bottom end, but like, the bass is really quiet,” he says. “I guess in my head, it’s a subconscious thing, but it ends up feeling classic.” Zion points to his time spent listening to music in a Mazda Two alongside his parents as a source of his love of muddy mixes: he says it was “not a bright sounding car”. Audio technology’s come a long way since then, and even petrol station headphones are better than a lot of the car speaker systems from that era. If you’ve ever left your headphones at home, and had to pick up an $8 pair of earbuds from 7/11, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. They’re tinny, but they get the job done.
While Zion tends to keep things in-house, writing, producing and performing all the songs on the EP, he’s got an ace up his sleeve: fellow Full Circle member Pete Deghaim (aka PJ). He’s one-third of much-loved Western Sydney boy band, Breakfast Road, who have become known for their slick, often futuristic pop sound. Pete mixed and mastered ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION), and, ever the multi-tasker, he revealed to me that he mastered the project while bleaching his hair. Talking about working with PJ, Zion says that he works with him because he helps add some extra spark to his songs, which he describes as “lifting the blanket off my music”. He says, “My music, when I make it, it’s almost lacking this whole top end, the shine. And it’s almost because when I’m making it, I don’t like it. But then, working with PJ It’s like, ‘how far can we bring this into today?’ Because it’s almost like a crutch to me. I don’t want it to feel like the 2000s, as much as that’s what I’m reaching for. I want it to still feel contemporary.”
Zion Garcia: Life On The Silver Screen
If music is Zion’s first artistic love, then film is his second. Listening to ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION), we receive small snapshots of moments and emotions from Zion’s life. Talking about growing up, he says, “I remember the hardships and the dark times but I feel like even those I look [back] on with kind of rose-tinted glasses. I feel like this project is really about growing up in the sense where I’ve been fiending for a way back.”
“Sometimes I get emotional thinking about my childhood because I feel like everyone’s childhood was their favorite time period of their life, especially when it comes to things like family, which is a big topic point of my project, and my culture, proud Tongan, Pasifika culture and my Spanish side. I do look back on it, kind of romanticisng my past. I think everyone does that nowadays, but it’s definitely something that I think over time I do want to move past. But, right now, I’m in love with picking out stories and vignettes from my past and putting that on show.”
To get himself into the mindset to create the EP, he went back and watched his favourite childhood films, including Chronicle, Boy, Birdman, Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre and Dynamite, as well as Spike Jonze’s filmography and music videos. While he acknowledges that “some of the magic’s gone” now that he’s rewatched these, they were impactful enough that they’ll always be “five stars no matter what” — and because he was reaching for a lot of these childhood memories and emotions, revisiting these films helped him place himself back in those days.
“It’s the wonderment aspect of childhood that I feel like I try to maintain in my life, even now,” he says. “Looking at things with a sense of just wanting to learn and wanting to feel like there are just endless possibilities. There’s not this shit in front of you that’s telling you can’t do something.”
Zion Garcia: Things Are Hotter Out West
If you’ve been paying attention to Australian music over the last few years, even sparingly, then you’ll likely have heard some sort of discussion about how Western Sydney is the new hub of creativity in this country. It’s not an unfounded statement — artists like Isaac Puerile, Vv Pete, grentperez and tiffi have showcased the myriad of sounds that the current generation of artists coming from the area are creating — but defining artists by a location ignores a whole lot of context that also surrounds their art. It’s important to be a representative of your local area, and give back to your local community, but equally, if you’ve got national or international ambitions, then it’s important to think bigger. As Zion puts it, “I’m just trying to see new horizons at the end of the day, because the West is the West, and we’re going to support the West.”
If you speak to any of the Full Circle crew, it’s clear that part of their strength, and by extension, Western Sydney’s music community, is exactly that: community. It’s hard to go a week in the world of Australian music without getting involved in a discussion about community: if the Australian music industry had their own version of a Google Trends graph, references to the idea of community have gone up at least 1000% since the start of the pandemic. It’s a trend he’s noticed, and one he’s glad people are discussing. “I see when people talk about the community thing and they really back it they really fuck with the idea of it.”
“But, sometimes, I read certain things and I feel like it comes across a bit little bro-y. It’s like, ‘this is a community’, and pushes them to the side. It’s like ‘this is a little community doing a little thing‘ as opposed to really trying to nurture what they’re doing.” He adds, “At the end of the day, community-mindedness and not doing it alone, trying not to be cliquey, it’s good overall for the country’s sake, so I’m glad community’s spreading. I feel like it’s still early days, in terms of its reach, so I feel like it’s bound to be this way right now. But I’m glad that the people that it’s supposed to hit, it’s definitely starting to hit those people.”
When talking to Zion, this topic of mutual support is a constant: no artist is an island, and as he points out, when you’re in a collective with other talented artists (as is the case with Full Circle), you have to believe in yourself. Otherwise, “they’ll straighten you up real fast. If you’re doubting yourself, you’ll just get roasted. So you might as well just back yourself!”
It’s this confidence that has elevated this debut EP. In the past, Zion’s been open about his struggles with self-doubt, rapping on 2022 track ‘overthinking’, “Funny thing is I know in my heart/’This not even a thing/Just an amalgamation of my insecurities.” Those inner demons aren’t ever going to wither and die completely, but they’ve been relegated to the shadows.
“I think the main thing is just how much I’ve come into being comfortable with how myself my music is and how I try to work my art,” he says.
“I think for the longest time I’ve felt that how personal my music was almost like a crutch, because I think when it came time to perform the songs, for example, it felt like a bit of a — don’t know if vulnerable is the right word — but I realised how much my songs were really personal to me. And then I’d have to share it with other people and I’d be like, ‘Oh, shit’.”
“But I think [on] this project, I’m most proud of just the fact that I feel like now I’m really comfortable with how my music works for myself. And I’m not so you know, overthinking in the sense where like, I’m just wondering, ‘Oh fuck, is it a bit too much, is it a bit too, in your face with how much it is really me?’”
“That’s why I ended up calling it myself, because in my head, all my favorite artists’ first projects are the really indulgent kind of, this is where I am right now. It might be a bit rough around the edges, but I feel like that’s just embodying what I want this project to be. I’m proud I kept in all the little indulgent passages and I didn’t trim certain songs, because I just feel like this is what I want to come out the gate and say, like, this is me right now. And I’m proud of that.”
Zion Garcia’s debut EP ZION GARCIA (THEATRICAL VERSION) is out now.
Ben Madden is a Melbourne-based music writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmaddenwriter and Instagram at @benmaddenwriter, as well as keep up with his Sucks column here.
Image: Pariss Bostick