For this edition of the (probably soon to be legendary) interview series, I present to you an interview with the artist formerly known as Zarif, now Mona Lisa Veto. In a prior life, she worked with Hospital Records legend Danny Byrd, supported Taio Cruz and performed at Wireless Festival in Hyde Park but is now back under a new name, with a fresh sound and some kick ass tunes to boot. Although I'm a huge fan of her debut album, she concedes that what made it so special for me, the vintage sounds were actually rather toned down by the record label and her self release of it was an attempt to draw a line under the whole incident.
Mona Lisa Veto's new material and her recent collaboration with French group My Secretary smacks of a gritty determination, it refuses to be bound by the trappings that hamper so many artists creative flow. It's popular music but with a proper bite to it, a radical departure from the swing and vintage notes of her previous efforts. She's very graciously agreed to answer lots of questions for the blog and has responded with honesty, wit and charm. It's always fun getting to interview people who have a real care for the music they write and that's very much evident in her responses, along with discovering a love of food, mojitos and of course her answer to the universal question concerning a certain chain of chicken restaurants.
Mona Lisa Veto - The Music
Where’s the name Mona Lisa Veto come from?Mona Lisa Veto is the name of Marisa Tomei’s character in the film My Cousin Vinny, which I rewatched last year. I just fell in love with her character and thought it was a cool sounding name.
Where does the inspiration for your songs come from, how does a song come together?Well that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it! I honestly have no idea – sometimes it comes from sitting at home with a guitar and strumming ideas, other times it’s jamming with others, or sometimes I’ll record ideas into my phone if they pop into my head when I’m out and about (which can be embarrassing when you’re singing into the phone while walking down the street!) These new songs have all been written together with producer John Calvert and involve tons of coffee, an endless biscuit supply and many trips to the pub!
I absolutely loved your debut album, Box of Secrets, what was it like to write and what influenced it?
It was a great experience to write it as I got to meet so many great songwriters and producers and really learnt a lot about the studio and recording process. I also wrote a lot of it before I got signed, and the original demos were made in my bedroom, which was really good fun.
Would you consider it a ‘vintage’ sound?I don’t know… If I’m honest I would probably call the sound a compromise. I had an idea in my head of a direction I wanted it to take, but then you have to compromise with the record label and you end up with a sound you never expected. The original demos probably sounded quite vintage, but then it all got cleaned up to suit the more pop market the label were going for.
Do you have a favourite song you’ve written?I really love Back To Square One – it’s one of the new ones and for me was a real turning point in sound and experimentation. It’s something I would never have been allowed to write with my previous label, so it represents freedom. Which is funny as it’s actually a song about being trapped.
What inspired your shift in sound on your new project, Mona Lisa Veto?
When I was signed I didn’t have as much freedom to make the music I wanted. Although I wrote all the songs, the overall sound was massively different to what I’d planned. I guess labels just get scared of experimenting and try and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Which is totally fine, but it was never really “me”. When I left Sony and put out Box of Secrets I could draw a line under that whole period and start being freer in the music I wrote. Now I can make the music I want, and this new sound draws together more of my influences, and is a lot more experimental. I just needed a new start, hence the change of name also.
Is there a Mona Lisa Veto album underway?Any new releases coming soon? Yes there is! I have pretty much an album of songs written now, I just need to finish recording them. An EP of maybe 3 or 4 tracks is on the way first, and is being mixed soon so watch this space.
Are there any plans to perform live soon?Yes definitely. It’s been a long time so I’m really looking forward to performing the new music. I’m in the process of putting a band together now so I’m really excited.
If you had the chance to collaborate with any artist (past or present), who would it be and why?Hmm tough choice between Michael Jackson, Prince or David Bowie. Do I even need to explain why, they’re all amazing! And so unique, and not afraid to do their own thing and take risks. I’d love to be around that, and soak up a bit of their fearlessness!
I first heard of you through your work with Danny Byrd on California and Wait For Me. What was it like working with him?
t was cool, he’s a really nice guy. Funnily enough I actually had nothing to do with the California remix, so it was a nice surprise when it became so popular. We then met and wrote together afterwards for Wait for Me, which was fun as I know nothing about drum n bass, it’s about as far away from my musical influences as you can get! So it was an interesting experience getting involved.
Are there any strange genres or musical styles you’d like to write in?I don’t like the concept of genres, it’s too restrictive! I have no idea what genre to even describe my own stuff, so I think the point is to not set any boundaries in music, and just write what comes out. If that happens to be easily labelled into a genre, then fine, but if it doesn’t then isn’t that when music becomes really interesting?
How hot do you like your Nandos?Lemon and herb all the way.
You graduated from UCL with a degree in Human Sciences! As a philosophy and politics student I have to ask, what is Human Sciences?Here comes the science part… it’s a multidisciplinary course, so you could pick your subjects. I did mainly biology, psychology and anthropology.
If you could rescore any film, what would you pick?Maybe a musical with dance routines. Then you could write new songs to fit the moves!
Favourite one liner, (from TV, film, novel, theatre or other)?I’m the person who always misquotes things, and forgets the punchlines of jokes, so I am definitelty the wrong person to answer this question!
Who’s the most famous person in your phonebook?I don’t think I have anyone famous in my phonebook… I guess I could pretend…
Definitely a nice fillet steak. With mash and green beans, mmmmm
Croydon or Chelsea?Honestly I haven’t had much experience of either! Though if Made in Chelsea is anything to go buy it’s gonna have to be Croydon.
What would your ideal tour rider be?It would have to be full of amazing food- no crisps and fruit, I’m talking a proper meals. Then some beer of course, maybe a bottle of whiskey… Can I ask for a barman to make everyone mojitos?
You’re half Iranian, half Scottish (according to Wikipedia). Has this influenced your music at all?I’d love to say yes but I don’t think so! I keep meaning to learn to sing Iranian music, it’s so hard to do. Maybe then I can put some into my own music.
If you could choose 5, Desert Island Discs records what would they be?Can’t I just take an iPod?! Ok bearing in mind my list probably changes every week, today I will say:
The Police – Regatta de Blanc,
Led Zeppelin – I don’t know which album, maybe IV,
White Stripes – Elephant,
Prince – Sign of the Times,
Madonna – Immaculate Collection.
Many thanks to Mona Lisa Veto for the interview, check out her new music here, it's great stuff! :)