In the past, “ours” referred to the trio of Zutrau, multi-instrumentalist Joe Valle and guitarist Marty Sulkow. But, before starting work on the new project, Sulkow left the band as tensions mounted over artistic direction. In doing so, he cleared the way for Zutrau to steer herself and Valle, 29, down a new path.
“I had issues with the last album,” she says of 2016 debut Don’t You, which debuted at No. 76 on the Billboard 200. “There were a lot of voices, and it was unclear what we were making.” Valle adds, “The process of putting out a debut album has so much more weight to it, it was nice to follow our own instincts a bit more with this one. “
On Still Run, their vision crystallized, opening their moody R&B sound to sunnier production with two tracks -- ”You’re Not Wrong” and “This Woman Loves You” -- courtesy of Rostam Batmanglij (HAIM, Solange). Zutrau remembers staying with him in Los Angeles for a couple months “when I couldn’t work with the boys and had to leave New York because we couldn’t figure our shit out.” She says, “There were many moments in the process of making the album that I was like, 'We’re not gonna get through this. I’m not gonna get through this. It’s too hard. It’s not worth it. I should do a different job. I should start over. This has gotten too messy, too chaotic.' And now, we’re done. We’re here, and everyone’s alive.”
Though contemplative with each response, Zutrau doesn’t shy away. She’s open about how hard it was to watch a founding member leave, and how in his absence she came out more vocal than ever. “The whole landscape of this project changed, partly because I decided I was going to take control,” she says. “When a lot of people are involved and you’re trying to please everyone, it can be confusing who the album is for. This time, it was very important for me that no matter who liked the album or didn’t, that I felt like I did my best work -- and I feel that way. I can’t tell you how many times I had to go against the voice that said, ‘Stay quiet. Compromise.’ It was hundreds of moments of being like, ‘People hate me. I’m making things difficult,’ to finally say, ‘I have to speak up.’"
She points to the tender track “Lately” as the example of the shift, documenting the experience of making this album and exploring the importance of reevaluating relationships. “Superficially, it seems like it’s about Joe and Marty because of some lyrics, but it was about everyone in my life at the time,” she says. “The decisions that went along with making this album are some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
And that’s not to say Zutrau has had it easy. The oldest of five sisters, she was raised by her “tough” mother in Boston. She got a full-ride to a private arts school two hours away, but soon burned out. “I was smart, but I didn’t know how to do school on the level that these kids knew how to,” she recalls. She says she struggled the whole time, and ended up feeling depressed and alienated. She dropped out when she was 16, and the two years that followed were "the darkest years of my life." She adds: "My mom kicked me out of my house, I lived in a scary situation, worked a shitty retail job, did a lot of drugs, drank a lot. That was the true lowest point of my life. It really was because I couldn’t write. It came down to one 20-page paper and I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I quit.’ Talking about myself as a writer [now] blows my mind still.”
On Still Run, Zutrau wrote the chords and lyrics, and says Valle “settled into an amazing support role.” But on “There’s A Reason,” the breezy first single from the album, the two were more collaborative than ever. Zutrau remembers completing it as a beautiful moment, because up until that point “it had been a shitty, difficult, kind of like classic second album process.”
From so much strain came an uplifting album. Standout “Softens,” which Zutrau deemed the “emotional peak of the album,” sees her sing of the intersection between beauty and grief. An intersection that Zutrau and Valle unknowingly ended up in, and are finally moving out of -- together. “It’s been a very dark couple of years,” says Zutrau. “It felt like necessary to have this album feel good.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the June 30 issue of Billboard.