Today (August 25), Zheani releases her latest project, ‘The Spiritual Meat Grinder’. On this EP she becomes a woman on a hero’s journey – a path that wasn’t always guaranteed for the outsider artist.
Born in the isolated town of Wallaville, Queensland, Zheani Sparkes debuted with the 2018 EP ‘Eight’, where she recounted stories of growing up in poverty and foster care – while also revisiting a formative experience in the confusing and shadowy world of Hollywood. Her music was dark and desolate, a showcase of her signature fairy-trap-rap screaming vocals and “post-human” aesthetic.
Four years on, she released another EP that was similarly somber and reactive. ‘I Hate People on the Internet’ documented the tribulations that come with being in the limelight and the hate hurled by people hiding behind screens. “I hope I provoke some people,” she said at the time.
Those releases cataloged the despair that Zheani faced on her journey but also paved the way for her vast cult following – one she’s amassed while staying largely independent. Over the past two years, she’s racked up millions of YouTube views for independently made and released music videos, been named Emerging Artist of the Year at the Queensland Music Awards in 2022 and played a career-defining show at Dark Mofo in Tasmania earlier this year.
And now, Zheani has reached a different space with ‘The Spiritual Meat Grinder’. It’s her first project released after her attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis – which she says has been “empowering” – and is also her most intentional. Both the contents and the sonics of this 9-track EP are lighter and more fun, playing like a gratifying breakthrough moment in a therapy session. It’s a reprieve from the years of trials and adversity, as she describes it, and a moment of calm in the hero’s journey.
Zheani speaks to NME about embarking on a hero’s journey as a woman, not stunting her own growth, and what’s next for her.
This is a mixtape between albums and you’ve described it as a “side quest”. Why release this smaller project between bigger ones? Was there any conceptual reason?
“After releasing ‘I Hate People on the Internet’ I was burned out but felt pressure to stay on task and work on a follow-up project. I didn’t feel like discussing what was going on in my personal life or my life behind the scenes because it was already draining all my creative spirit. I wanted to work on some fun dance beats and dip into the absurd in an attempt to block out all the bullshit that was plaguing my mind and distracting me.
“So making ‘The Spiritual Meat Grinder’ I felt a lot of crisis. There were a lot of obstacles and soul-ripping awfulness that were actively contributing to me ‘falling out of love’ with making music and I was honestly just trying to make ‘the process’ bearable for myself.”
Now that you look back at the mixtape, is there a narrative arc or story to the project?
“I didn’t plan it but maybe that’s what makes the narrative of my catalog interesting. In hindsight it’s still the hero’s journey. This was the part in The Odyssey when Odysseus gets caught up bouncing from one debauched island to another. This was Circe’s intervention.”
Why do you think you relate to the hero’s journey so much, especially The Odyssey?
“The Odyssey is the first Western [adventure] story so it’s just easy to refer to as archetypal. It’s been my goal to make my body of work about ‘the female hero’s journey’. It’s been such a short period of time that women have even possessed the freedom to have a hero’s journey and so, unsurprisingly, there are no narratives for us to embody like there are for men. Without these stories we are expected to go into this new and treacherous domain without a map.
“I long embodied and related to Joan of Arc: the story of a peasant girl inspired by the divine, that acts like a man in a man’s world to fulfil her destiny and then destroyed as [a] heretic and only long after is acknowledged as a martyr. That still might be what I have to do, but I would much prefer to ‘return home’ instead.”
Your previous releases sounded angrier and more reactive but with this EP it sounds almost like you’ve let go. Would that be accurate?
“Yeah, people keep saying that about these songs. Welcome to the sound of disassociation, I guess? Sometimes you need to do it to survive and keep your sanity through a difficult and deeply upsetting period of time.”
I guess that relates to your ADHD diagnosis. You said it’s been cathartic in managing life and your emotions. What effect has that had for you?
“The diagnosis provided me with a kind of infrastructure that I can refer to when I’m experiencing disregulation or overwhelmed, be that mentally or emotionally. It means I now have a road map that allows me to respond to the symptoms I’m experiencing in the most practical and compassionate way. I’m no longer experiencing the chaos and stress that exists when you have no explanation for something that has been an invisible but very real lifelong struggle.
“Knowledge is power and with the knowledge I have been collecting for myself since my very late diagnosis I am far more empowered and sovereign and therefore able to work with my ADHD brain rather than against it. It’s liberating and as I continue to work toward mastering my mind I have no doubt that my ADHD will become my esoteric creative power where it was once my Achilles heel.”
‘Growing Pains’ is a beautiful and relatable song: “I tried to stop myself from growing”. It seems like you’re on a path to overcoming this mentality of stunting your own growth. What was key to that realisation?
“Accepting that it’s time to embody the next feminine archetype as I decay and rot in real time in-front of my listeners. We are all growing older together. It’s the role of the artist to embody and articulate the many life lessons that have been learned along the way. My interests, hobbies and aesthetics have changed throughout this past decade and ‘Growing Pains’ was me attempting to bring that understanding to the light, where it can no longer be ignored.
“I’m telling myself to stop masking, I’m telling myself that it’s OK to embody and show who I am now and where I’m at. I’m pretty sure that trying to remain like your younger, cuter, more naive self will always stunt your artistic growth… and we wouldn’t want that now, would we?”
So how does this project fit into your last release, ‘I Hate People on the Internet’, and your next album? Is it a stepping stone?
“I think you’re right in calling it a stepping stone. There was a lot of hurtful and hard shit that I needed to process when I made ‘The Spiritual Meat Grinder’. It was the kind of stuff I needed time away from music to unpack and work through.
“I broke my foot in February this year and had planned to release ‘TSMG’ in March. So by divine intervention I was forced to take time away from this cancerous, image-obsessed machine that robs independent artists creatively and spiritually and reflect and process who I was, who I am becoming and what my next steps will be. I’m finally taking a break from the ever-grinding wheel.”
Zheani’s ‘The Spiritual Meat Grinder’ is out now