"Fire is a cleansing tool. A destroyer. A pain causer. Fire is the thing that is used to burn witches," says the Melbourne-based artist Zheani. In Australia, the threat of fire is constant, but it's also a source of regeneration — "a way to start again from scratch on fertile ground," as she puts it. In Wallaville, the rural and run-down town where Zheani grew up, the cane fields across from her house were burned down each year to make the soil more fertile. She remembers how the ash fell from the sky like "black snow," leaving the ceiling of her home smutted with a century's worth of smoky residue.
On Christmas Day, 2015, that home was set ablaze by an unrelated house fire. "My father was burned and turned into ash," she says. "One day, maybe soon, so will I. And that's the fate of us all. There is no escape from that, no matter how hard this modern world tries."
Fire — both literally and metaphorically — is all over Zheani's new and fifth EP, I Hate People on the Internet. With a violent and abrasive flow, she screams about "raining napalm" over aggressive beats, grinding synths and heavy guitars. But Zheani's music isn't simply rap-meets-metal; it's a next-gen genre-blitzing blend of dark electronica, emo, pop, trap, hardcore and industrial. She is like Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth, when she hollers to "burn it all down" — the broken homes and family she came from, the music industry that is similarly historied with abuse and neglect. (In 2019, Zheani accused Die Antwoord's Ninja of sexual assault, the details of which she addressed in her song "The Question." She declined to comment further on the allegations in this interview.) This shitty world is Zheani's cane field, and, with righteous anger, she wants to set fire to decades of intergenerational trauma and start anew.
Zheani's mission is well underway. She's already one of the most exciting rising voices within the shadowy realms of underground pop and heavy music. Her captivating songs and wild music videos have logged millions of streams and views, and she's backed by a dedicated fanbase who call themselves "Zheani fairies." And now she's primed to bring her fire to the world stage — a reality she couldn't even imagine growing up in Wallaville.
"Most of my peers have done music all through high school [and] university, and have been immersed in music industry culture," she says on a Zoom call, a runic tattoo wrapped around her dyed-purple hair-line, posters on the wall that read "ZHEANI CAN SAVE YOU," diamantés on her black crop-top that spell "GOD'S FAVORITE." "They've almost been bred for it. They come from families who are supportive and understanding."
Zheani's origin story is something altogether different. As a child, she experienced little hope of escaping the seemingly unending swathe of her Queensland hometown. The journey to school was an hour each way, a grocery trip took no less than two hours. "Maybe it's that placement that makes my story unique," she says. "It's not an urban, ghetto vibe. It's dirt roads, bikies, 40-degree [Celsius] heat, tar melting on the road."
There was no glamor in Zheani's world either, only grit and dirt. "[People] will say, 'I remember being six and watching Britney Spears and being like, Wow.' That's so many worlds away from anything I saw," she says. "People didn't even wear makeup where I was from." Like most young people who aspire to fame, Zheani just wanted to feel loved. "A lot of people in the entertainment industry … are just broken children that weren't loved properly or nurtured …" she says. "Now we're these lost Peter Pan adults looking for love from outside sources."
Zheani describes her upbringing as "a big, old mess." Her parents were "more concerned with the drama of their own lives than they were with her," she says. Her father was a heroin addict; her mother smoked bongs throughout her pregnancy.
In conversation, Zheani appears flustered when asked to talk in macroscopic detail about her childhood. "Fuck, I'm sucking at this interview," she says several times. That's perhaps why each of her songs function like episodes rather than full story arcs: They zero in on the minutiae of her experiences. She lays down her life, one moment at a time, in order to move on from it.
"In my music, I come across … like I wanna destroy, but there's the flipside of me [that's] maternal and wants to protect … I'm almost proving to the adults in my life that it's not even fucking hard to take care of people," she says. "Like, why was it so fucking hard for you to give a stable, nurturing environment where I didn't have to watch horrible domestic violence …"
Using music to purge her childhood trauma, Zheani says, "is the most embarrassing thing you could ever imagine." Prior to making music, she'd spent the past 28 years of her life hiding her upbringing. "My parents didn't even fucking work. I can't even say I was working class," she says. "But I was able to overcome that feeling of shame and turn it into pride and empowerment."
Zheani found her first form of escape — and connection to the "big, wide world outside of Queensland" on the internet. She created her first digital avatar "punkprincess" at age 12 and spent her days on Absolutepunk.net swapping messages on the My Chemical Romance forum. Through music — her taste skewed toward the heavier, gothier side — she was able to channel the pain of her childhood into her own burgeoning individuality. "You know how you joke about it being a 'phase'? It didn't stop for me, it's still happening," she says. Her early introduction to heavy-metal culture, she's noticing, is currently paying off. "A lot of people who are in the heavy-music domain have only just adopted that style recently, because it's come back in fashion," she says. "I understand the culture [and] the sound … and what I'm trying to convey."
As a result, I Hate People on the Internet never feels derivative or dilettantish; it could even be the sound of metal's next chapter. Produced by Soundcloud rapper go-to King Yosef (XXXTentacion, Ski Mask the Slump God, Youth Code), the EP is made up of a bone-crushingly abrasive palette of sounds, from the murkiest trap beats to the doomiest guitar riffs. "I Hate People on the Internet began as a working title because I was isolated in the mountains of New South Wales. I was feeling very irritated by people," says Zheani. "Upon reflection, I realized the only interaction I was having with people was on the internet."
It's no wonder Zheani has grown to hate people on the digisphere. Now that she has a not insubstantial following — almost 200,000 on Instagram, a similar number of monthly listeners on Spotify — rank accusations are thrown at her casually, and often. "People attack me for being a 'Moloch-worshipping,' 'child-sacrificing,' 'Illuminati bitch/witch/whore,'" she says. What was once an escape now sometimes feels like a death portal. "I make music [to] get catharsis from anger and resentment," she says. "It's ironic that the avenue that I am so privileged to have — of self-expression and employment on the internet — is a two-way street. A negative feed-back loop giving me more fuel for the fire."