Zak Abel talks Love Over Fear, major label turmoil, and coping with hearing loss

UK singer-songwriter Zak Abel has spoken to Headliner about his long-awaited new album Love Over Fear, coping with severe hearing loss, and why he has vowed to “never, ever, sign for a major label”.

Six years on from the release of his debut album Only When We’re Naked, Love Over Fear is a an apt title for a record that embodies precisely what it means to overcome significant adversity in both its creator’s personal and professional life. The intervening years have seen Abel endure a protracted departure from two major labels, the Covid pandemic, and a severe condition called Otosclerosis that causes hearing loss in both ears.

Now signed to the BMG label and doing all in his power to overcome the ongoing challenges of hearing loss, Abel says he is now more excited than ever to be releasing music. Here, he opens up to Headliner on the trials and tribulations he’s overcome on the road to releasing Love Over Fear, the impact his hearing loss has had upon his creative process, and why he’ll never sing for a major label again…

Talk us through the origins of Love Over Fear.

I started writing this album pretty much immediately after putting out my first album in 2017, so I’ve been working on it for a while. Love Over Fear is an affirmation of what I’ve been saying to myself for a while. So many times as human beings we have a choice to make, whether we try to avoid something that we are scared of, or whether we try to pursue something we’d really love to happen and take a risk on ourselves. For me it is the ideal to follow love.

Stylistically and musically this album is what I love; it’s inspired by soul and funk and also has honest singer-songwriter vibes that I’ve always wanted to put out. And publicly there are a load of things I’ve always wanted to speak about in my music but haven’t had the courage to do so. Mainly losing my hearing – this is the first time I’ve ever spoken about it in my music.

Can you tell us about your condition and the impact it has had on your life?

It’s called Otosclerosis and it’s essentially the hardening and overgrowing of the stapes bone in the ear and it means that as the bone becomes more brittle in the ear it vibrates less and less. Essentially, it’s progressive hearing loss. I lost my hearing in my right ear and had an operation on it to restore some of the hearing, and unfortunately it really affects the way I hear pitch, so it still affects me now in that I’m not as confident as I used to be in terms of if I’m in tune. And now my left ear is starting to deteriorate in the same way. I wear a hearing aid because I don’t want to have the operation, so I’m just trying to manage while I still can and make music while I still can and make the most of making music.

Is there anything that can be done to halt or overcome the condition?

The good news is that I could lose a lot more hearing in my left ear and have the operation then with the volume restored, so from quality of life point of view I’d probably be OK. But my quality of life is very much determined by whether or not I can make music, and there is a lot of uncertainty around that, so for the time being I wear a hearing aid and as my hearing deteriorates I just boost that up. It’s been really useful, and I would recommend anyone with hearing loss to just get a hearing aid because it’s so awesome to be present in conversations and not have to ask people to keep repeating themselves. You really do zone out when you can’t hear people; you don’t feel part of the conversation and a hearing aid really helps that.

I vowed I would never ever sign to a major record label. Zak Abel

When did you find out you had this condition?

I was 21, which was about a year before my first album. I would wake up sometimes in the morning and there were roadworks going on outside my flat, and I noticed that I could really hear them with my head on one side of the pillow, but when I changed sides I couldn’t hear it anymore. So, I got it checked out thinking maybe my ear was blocked, and eventually had a CT scan and discovered I had it in both ears. It was a big blow but from that I went to therapy, learned about mindfulness and focused more on what I can control.

You have two options when something like that happens, you adapt or give up. My response was to accept and adapt to the situation. You also realise when something happens to you that everyone has something or is going through something. Sometimes they speak about it and sometimes they don’t. And the more I speak about it the more people message me saying they have the same issue or have some other diagnosis, and you realise human beings are very adaptable. We can cope with a lot and still have really joyous lives. And I can still sing better than some people [laughs].

Has the condition impacted your creative process?

There are a few ways it’s impacted me creatively. Firstly, is onstage. I can’t not wear in-ears. When they operated on my right ear, in order to get into the stapes bone, they have to cut through what is a compressor in your ear… your ear is so smart, in that if there is a really loud noise it will compress so you don’t feel the full force of the volume. I don’t have that muscle in my right ear anymore so when I hear a loud noise in that ear I hear it super accurately, and it’s unbearable. So I have to wear in-ears.

Also, in my left ear, my in-ear is boosted in the same frequency my hearing aid is boosted. So essentially I’m wearing a hearing aid onstage as well, and I’m so lucky to be living in a time where that is possible. Because I’m reliant on technology like a hearing aid, I don’t have 100% confidence in the objectivity of the sound, So in the mixing process of my album I made sure I had my manager and A&R in with me just to double check and advise on the intricacies of the sound. As long as the basic sounds of the production are good then I’m happy, and then I have to rely on others for the intricacies.

What does the creative process look like for you when writing an album?

I started beginning with the title of a song first a few years back and that was a game changer for me in terms of writing, because you have the end goal immediately and you know where you are going. I like starting with a title then jamming around some melodies and chords that fit into that title. Also, a title can lead to different directions that you could go in. I like the idea of a title being interpreted in different ways. That excites me form a songwriting point of view, framing experiences and ideas in different ways.

Why has it taken six years for this record to come out?

I got very, very unlucky! I was very slowly dropped by Atlantic about two years after the release of my first album, and it took about a year for me to be released from that deal, which was so frustrating as you can’t release any music while all that is happening. I then signed for Universal in Germany and US as a joint venture. I loved the team I signed with, and then the pandemic hit about a month after signing. I’d written loads of songs in LA and there was so much momentum and suddenly everyone has to wait due to the pandemic.

During that time, my A&R in the US leaves, my A&R in Germany leaves, and I’m left signed with this massive corporation with no one moving it forward, and I was just waiting with all this music. I was asking if we can get it finished, but because no one was taking ownership of me in the label I was unable to do anything. So I couldn’t pay producers to finish the album. It was horrible. Eventually, we asked if we could leave the label, and they said yes.

So, I then signed to BMG with almost the same album to put out. But there was so much time wasted and I vowed I would never ever sign to a major record label where you have people being fired and coming in all the time. I can’t afford it and you lose momentum.

How has it been with BMG so far?

It’s been awesome. They are great and it’s the same people working there for years, so you can think long-term. A lot of the major labels are only looking at the next six months.

How does it feel to finally have the album out in the world?

Amazing. I’m just so happy to be able to give the music to my fans who have waited so patiently. Now they are actually going to get the album, so I’m just super grateful. And I can’t wait to play these songs live.

You can listen to this interview in full below.