It’s been almost three years since I last saw and spoke to Zonke. It was November 2015, and I was running a few minutes late for our interview at a beachfront hotel in Durban, but the singer was more than understanding.
I was also rather nervous: she had lost her sister Lulu the year before, and I would be one of the first people to speak to her about her loss. Having lost my father suddenly a few months before, we shared our pain, and her strength immediately inspired me.
Fast-track to 2018 and the award-winning singer and songwriter has released her latest single, Tonight, and is ready to release her sixth album. Titled L.O.V.E, which means Living Out Various Emotions. Zonke says this album is a about celebrating life and being happy.
“I am always writing songs, and it’s not that I am writing towards a particular project, it’s just that writing is such an important part of my life that I even get up in the middle of the night with a melody and write music.
“So, just after my last album, Work of Heart, I wrote Tonight and honestly, that single set the tone for this album,” she says.
But this was never meant to be a full new album. Zonke, who releases a new album every four years, was meant to go into studio to turn her previous album into a deluxe version.
“We were just meant to repackage Heart of Work and add four new songs. Sony never rushes me to get into studio because I do the four-year break between albums, but I was keen on getting back into studio sooner, even though I also found myself cancelling and moving the studio date.
“When I eventually went in, about seven months ago, I knew I wanted to produce a whole new album,’’ she says.
And so the plan changed, and she began putting together L.O.V.E. “I must be honest, with this album, I made a conscious decision to tap into a happier side, a younger side and a different side of me.
“I knew that for me to heal from the loss of my sister, I had to let go of Heart of Work, and that album is incredibly special to me because I would send my sister songs off that album and have her listen to them, and she would give me advice. So I did not really want to let go of it and make a new one, but I am glad I have, and I thank God that I have healed through the music,” she says.
“I never have albums with certain themes or have an exact plan before I go into studio. I just knew that I wanted a happier album because I was in a different place in my life, after losing my mother and father, and then sister all so close to each other. I don’t want to cry any more, I want to be present in life.
“I realised that for the longest time, I was not present: I was on cruise control just doing things for the sake of doing them. Which is why I love Tonight so much, it makes me feel different. It gave me goosebumps and really made me feel good, and I thought, well, if it’s doing this to me and I love it so much, it must be the first single off the album.
“It really just helped with the rest of how everything flowed with this album. And because I wrote it a long time ago, and it still spoke to me, I knew it was special,” she says.
L.O.V.E features just one collaboration, between Zonke and rapper Kwesta. “There is a song on the album that just screamed Kwesta and having him on it was so natural,” she adds.
“This album deals with the emotions of love. It’s not bashful, it’s about love in relationships, friendships, the love you share with your parents and siblings.
“It’s about being happy, and my happiness at this point in my life translates in the music. It’s also a fusion of genres when it comes to the sound,” she says.
Zonke, who has performed at events like the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, also paid tribute to the late Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at her funeral last month.
She sang, Viva the Legend, a song she wrote for her late father, Vuyisile Viva Dikana, that many fans love.
“I am just a girl from Port Elizabeth. I still don’t understand how my music is able to touch people, and Viva was for my father, but whenever someone needs to be honoured, I am asked to perform it.
“Singing at Mama Winnie’s funeral was an honour, but it was not a music moment. I was hurt and just wanted to pay tribute to her. When you speak or write from the heart it is from one heart to another, and there is nothing greater than that,” she said.
The mother of 6-year-old Noah and 16-year-old Milani says her children are her greatest gifts and she loves how they don’t care about her singing career.
“It’s so funny, but one day Noah said “Mommy, I know that your name is Mommy, but I also know that your name is Zonke and you are in a band’. I thought that was so cute.
“I recently showed my daughter a magazine cover of me and she just said ‘Oh that’s great, well done’, and went upstairs to her room.”
Zonke has grown into a producer, composer and songwriter. She says she has learnt to stay true to herself and to wait her turn.
“I have learnt that there is a time for everything and there is nothing more rewarding than waiting for your time and not rushing things. God is never late with your blessings, He is always on time - even the Bible says so,” she said.
* Tonight is available on all digital platforms and L.O.V.E will be available in June.