Zhora sits at the Twilite Lounge in Deep Ellum, shooting straight "Kentucky whiskey," as she calls it in a mock-Southern accent. Zhora is the stage and DJ name of Dallas-based singer Taylor Rea, inspired by a character from Blade Runner. Onstage, she's a catsuit-wearing siren, moving with the swaggering precision of a gymnast, which she was, from 3 to 12. Though this month Rea has light blue hair (which she's sculpted into a faux-perm, using an impressively complex technique involving bent bobby pins), she swears, "My life is boring." But with a new album coming out, a regular DJing scheduling and even some gigs moonlighting on radio jingles, "boring" seems far from apt.
Rea grew up in Houston in a matriarchal household run by her grandmother, which she says was a "cultured environment." But she describes her middle-school years as a '90s teenybopper's utopia: Her mother was a concert promoter and good friends with Joey Fatone from NSync. She lights up like she's 12 again while relating her times backstage with her friends and the boy band, seeing Britney Spears and taking pictures of Mariah Carey.
She was a precocious child, and began going to concerts and nightclubs at 11. She's certain that this background enticed her into the music scene web. "That's when I thought, 'I want to be an entertainer, I want to feel the crowd,'" she says. That's when she began taking singing lessons.
Starting out, Rea had a crippling case of stage fright. "Singing in front of people was a real struggle for me. I would literally start crying," she recalls. When her mother took her to auditions like Star Search, she didn't make it past the initial producers due to her sobbing. She became a competitive cheerleader in high school and graduated early, as she puts it, "Just to get the fuck away. School felt like a factory to me." Her cheerleading got her a scholarship to Hawaii Pacific University to study psychology, but she spent a year surfing and barely passed enough of her classes to stay on cheering. "It was like a fairy tale," she says. But she admits that the partying got in the way: "So I decided to come back to the mainland and get my life together."
A friend of her mother's introduced her to a producer looking for a singer he could turn into a star, so she began commuting from Houston to Dallas, staying with an aunt and uncle in order to work with the producer at Good Night Studios. "It was near all the strip clubs, and I think it was once owned by Stevie Nicks," Rea says. "They wanted to make me pretty much a machine."
Through the studio, she met and joined local band The Kul. "Those are my brothers, they're the reason why I'm here," she says. Rea moved on to join Ishi, Dallas' electro-pop giant, beginning with an opening gig for Telegraph Canyon at House of Blues. She quickly moved her way up the stage from backup singer to JT Mudd's stage-partner in crime. The duo's chemistry oozed sensuality. Rea recalls, fondly, "We had so much fun. When John and I are onstage it's different than any other experience I've ever had." She pauses. "But I wanted to be able to pursue me."
As she transitioned from cheerleader to star player, Rea formed and became Zhora, a sophisticated dance-music act with "permanent drummer" Ross Martinez. As a performer, she's opened for her own idols like Berlin and Marina and the Diamonds. As a DJ, she's a regular at places like Off the Record and spins at large events like The Pin Show, playing plenty of soul and funk. "But I try to vibe out with the crowd," she says.
Earlier this year, Rea guest-sang on Sarah Jaffe's single "Visions," which is so '80s inspired it walks a charming line between homage and parody. The song originally included AD.d+, but it was repurposed for rapper Sam Lao, whom she praises: "She's just the baddest lyricist, I think." Through Lao she met producer Ish D, with whom she put together "Rivers." Another rapper, Blue, the Misfit, remixed the track, and both versions of it are featured on Zhora's upcoming EP, Lights.
The EP's title track was co-written by Tiger Darrow and produced by Adam Pickrell, who's worked with Bobby Sparks and St. Vincent, and it's electro-pop emotion at its deepest stage of REM dreaminess. "He's so fucking good, I can't thank him enough," she says of Pickrell. The EP will be released at Off the Record on December 19, with a disco-ball party featuring visuals by Edward Ruiz.
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"I believe Zhora is combining a lot of vibes together that are both experimental and familiar," Blue says. "She also has a good range vocally that allows her to take the music in multiple directions." As Zhora, Rea has a playfully avant-garde visual presence, and her sound presents a dancey paradise. But her unmistakable appeal comes from having a honeyed, versatile voice. She takes pride in her autonomy in producing her music: "I just want to continue growing. I'm learning a lot doing it on my own. I've learned more in this year than the last three."
Zhora had an original demo EP a few years ago. "It was a little premature," she admits. On the side, she plays guitar in Ronnie Heart's band and sings radio jingles in a Deep Ellum studio. "They called me when I was singing for Ishi and asked me if I was interested in doing jingles. I said abso-fucking-lutely! Today I sang for Doritos," she says, laughing.
Rea is looking forward to some upcoming shows, like the KXT Holiday concert, where she'll be opening for Shaky Graves at the Granada Theater, and she was invited to DJ at El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas, on New Year's Eve. She's intrigued by the small desert town and tourist attraction, saying, " I just know Beyoncé took a lot of great pictures there." While she's played remote locations before, she's only done "one-offs," or single dates, and is excited about the prospect of going on tour.
Though Rea's an established music scene character who regularly collaborates with the local musical elite, she exudes the bright-eyed enthusiasm of a newcomer. Then again, as she makes her way out of Twilite she's just as excited when she gets stopped by a man on the street who's wearing a scarf matching the same unusual pattern on her coat. She asks to take a picture with him before skipping off, back to that "boring" life of hers.