Spotlight On... Iona Zajac

We shine a spotlight on Dublin-based Scot Iona Zajac and take a first listen to her new single, Red Corn Poppies

Video by Tallah Brash | 07 Apr 2022

Formerly of Glasgow-based folk and blues duo Avocet, poet, multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter Iona Zajac recently released her debut solo single, the gorgeous and pondering Find Her in the Grass. With her four-track EP of the same name due this May via Rod Jones' Post Electric Artists label, this Friday 8 April sees her release the beautifully understated and enchanting Red Corn Poppies.

Ahead of its release we're shining a spotlight on Zajac to find out more; we're also delighted to bring you an exclusive first watch (and listen!) of the single's accompanying music video, which you can watch in the above YouTube player (click here if it's not displaying correctly).

The Skinny: Tell us a bit about yourself – how long have you been making music and what inspired you to get into it?
Iona Zajac: It all started with my great granny I guess. My mum talks about her love for the piano, dressing up and making up funny songs, anything went – this was passed down to my granny, to my mum and then to me. There was always music at home growing up; mum playing Joni & Carole King, dad occasionally sitting down at the piano to fill the flat with Chopin’s heart-wrenching pieces.

My sister and I were always ready with a party piece, probably most famously Promiscuous, when we were about seven and nine, me as Timbaland, she as Nelly Furtado. But as a family we’d sing Love Potion No. 9 and then lots of traditional songs: The Pride of Petravore, Wild Mountain Thyme, car journeys were full of these.

[Our parents] were really keen to introduce us to traditional Scottish music so we went to Summer and Easter camps – they don’t sound very cool but they really were. It was at the Feis in Gillespie’s High School where I picked up the Clarsach [harp], playing it for five days every Easter holiday. It was a few more years before actually getting hold of one myself, having selected the biggest, heaviest and most expensive traditional instrument.

I met Sam Grassie at Tinto Summer School when we were 12 and we started our first band when we were 17, originally called Samaniona (I know!) and then when Herbie Loening joined us on double bass, we became Avocet.

You're about to release your second single as a solo artist. What inspired you to go it alone?
I think the paths of people in their early 20s means that teenage bands often come to a natural end. I’ve loved all past experiences of making music with other people, but it’s never been anything like the music I make on my own. I would normally find the melodies over someone else’s riffs. Avocet was folky blues (see: Bert Jansch, Davey Graham, Pentangle) – it was groovy. We actually released our album [Lend Your Garden] in May 2020 and have it on vinyl too if anyone’s interested...

I didn’t consciously make the decision to ‘go solo’ until the first songs started appearing, and when they did I was like, 'hmm, I really like these, they actually sound like me.'

Image: Iona Zajac by Niamh Barry

Your new single Red Corn Poppies is beautiful. What’s it about?
‘Everything is dry and dead and unclean
And love spits for information’
(Hannah Sullivan, Three Poems)

I kept returning to Hannah Sullivan’s collection when I was living in Woodlands, Glasgow in November 2018. The streets were a mass of wet cardboard and browning curtains, getting anywhere felt like trudging through wet wool. One evening I went into a local fruit and veg shop after a very long day, to find everything inside had gone off, just filled with mouldy vegetables and wilting flowers. But for some reason I couldn’t Ieave without buying something – I think I salvaged a single plum. Red Corn Poppies is about the thing that wills you forward when all you want to do is sit down on the pavement, and let it all go.

Excerpt from my poem which the song came from: 

'She sits in the middle of her shop, surrounded by rotting vegetables and red corn poppies.
If red corn poppies are the flowers of love then why have you let it all go?
She looks me in the eye and lets out a squawk, I turn and search in a box of ladies fingers. My hands return as claws.
This happens each time, but it's the only shop around,
In this decaying town.'

I’m fascinated by the fact that your songs start as poems which you then transform into songs. What's the process like for you and did you always set out to turn your words into songs?
No, turning the poems into songs never occurred to me when I was writing them. In fact not for a year and a half after the collection was finished. I sat down to have a go on the guitar one day and wanted some lyrics to sing over what I was playing, I opened my laptop and found Find Her in the Grass. It sat perfectly – I had the first single in 20 minutes. So then I just kept going, and this EP is in the order in which they came.

I think the song structures are much more interesting as a result, the syntax and rhyming patterns are so different in my poems than whenever I’ve tried to write a song from scratch, sometimes on the verge of nonsensical, and that is good. There was a long editing process that went into my poems, and I think that translates in these first two singles in particular. I need to keep going with that, to edit the words down, place them carefully together before finding the melody. I often only need half as many words as I originally thought. So the trick now is to write more poems and try and forget that I’ll then try and turn them into songs.

Red Corn Poppies is released this Friday. What does the rest of 2022 hold for you and your music?
There’s two more singles to be released after this one, to make up the full EP which will be released on 20 May. Following that there’s a lot to come. I’ve already recorded the majority of the next EP.

Coming up in Scotland gigs-wise – I’m opening for Ye Vagabonds in Glasgow on 4 May, playing The Great Eastern, Hidden Door and Doune the Rabbit Hole and you can catch my first headline gig at The Hug & Pint on 1 July. I’ll also be spending a lot of time in the studio but also be heading out on some tour dates too.

Red Corn Poppies is released on 8 Apr and Find Her in the Grass is released on 20 May via Post Electric Artists

Iona Zajac plays The Blue Arrow, Glasgow, 4 May; The Great Eastern, Edinburgh, 21 May; Hidden Door, Edinburgh, 12 Jun; The Hug & Pint, Glasgow, 1 Jul; Doune the Rabbit Hole, Cardross Estate, Port of Menteith, Stirling, 16 Jul