Esther Zynn was looking for shoes.
The Great Neck native’s Nickelodeon show “The Other Kingdom” had ended, though she was already more interested in music anyway. She had been working on new songs and had been checking out showcases, including one where she briefly met shoe magnate Steve Madden, who she had heard was looking at launching a record label.
But on the day that changed her life, Zynn was looking for shoes at Madden’s store in SoHo. She had tried on a pair when she heard a voice behind her say, “Those shoes look great on you.”
When she turned around, she saw it was Madden visiting his store.
“It was serendipity,” she says. “I told him that I was a musician and he was super-cool. He gave me his email.”
Not long after that meeting in 2017, Zynn became known as EZI (pronounced “Ezzy”) and became the first artist signed to Madden’s new record label, 5Towns Records.
“It’s really an honor,” says EZI, calling from her home in Los Angeles. “He has always believed in me and they have done what they could to make sure that my vision comes out. It’s been really cool.”
Now, EZI has a Billboard dance charts hit “Dancing in a Room” under her belt, as she is set to headline a New York show — at Elsewhere in Brooklyn on Saturday, Jan. 26 — for the first time. She is also wrapping up work on her debut album, the follow-up to last year’s “Afraid of the Dark” EP. And the new single “Family Tree” shows her growth as an artist and how she has found a more confident way to speak her mind. “That song is coming from a more mature perspective,” says the 23-year-old. “On the ‘Afraid of the Dark’ EP, I was focusing on just being a songwriter and a singer and learning all the motions of finishing stuff… I’ve grown up a lot and this song is a testament to that.”
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EZI’s artistic vision has always been important to her, even when she was in high school at Great Neck North, where she graduated in 2013. She was only 15 when she started acting professionally, though she had done plenty of musical theater before that, from “Annie” and “Once Upon a Mattress” to “High School Musical.”
“Everything leads to the next thing,” EZI says. “But what people don’t know is that acting is often very much like a service industry job. You are created in someone else’s vision. I wanted to put things out on my own terms.”
Steve Feinberg, who founded 5Towns Records with Madden, says that he was impressed with EZI as soon as he met her. “I’m interested in more multifaceted artists and with EZI, you can tell there’s so much more to her than just a voice,” he says. “Her growth has been unlike anyone I’ve ever seen. She gets better every time she sings and every time she writes. That’s an incredibly attractive quality for an artist.”
Feinberg says he was pleasantly surprised by the success of “Dancing in a Room.” “You just don’t know what’s going to catch on,” he says. “I thought that record had power. And with so much out there, I was just happy anyone had ever heard it. It was out for a year before radio started really getting behind it.”
EZI says she’s thrilled by that reaction. “It’s a song that’s meant to make you feel good, to help you embrace yourself,” she says. “It’s just wild how many people it has reached. I recorded that in a bedroom… And the great thing is that the people who found it early on have a connection to it that’s even stronger because other people are seeing what they saw in the song. They have a sense of ownership of the song now too.”
EZI says that she doesn’t get back to Great Neck much, but she is thankful for its influence on her.
“Growing up in the suburbs, I very much felt like an outsider,” she says, adding that he parents, who emigrated from Russia, were even bigger influences. “Seeing my parents come from a foreign country, literally with nothing — my dad came to New York in the ‘80s with just a violin. He’s a musician too. He first lived in Crown Heights and he would tell me his apartment would be broken into every week and people would get mad because there was nothing to steal. That drive, that hustle — especially because I’m at the age that they were when they come to the U.S. with no language and no money — I really respect that. Working to have a better life, because you want to strive for something bigger. I think that is the biggest kick in the butt you could have. That is the ultimate fire. I always come from the perspective of not wanting to disappoint them and letting them know that all their risks were worth it.”
WHEN|WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, Elsewhere, 599 Johnson Ave., Brooklyn
INFO $12; elsewherebrooklyn.com
FIVE TOWNS FEMALES
When shoe magnate Steve Madden started working with music and marketing exec Steve Feinberg to sponsor concerts, they had a certain sound and style in mind.
Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Iggy Azalea – they all did events with Steve Madden Music to help promote the Cedarhurst native’s shoe lines and stores. So did The Kills, Santigold and Grimes.
“Steve Madden Music was there to promote female artists – either female solo artists or bands with a female lead,” Feinberg says. “We had a certain sonic aesthetic and when we started using the brand to cross promote the shows, it only made sense.”
However, Madden wanted more. “He wanted to get closer to the process,” Feinberg says. “He wanted to be involved in the art of it all.”
When Madden and Feinberg founded 5Towns Records, named after the Five Towns area of Long Island where Madden grew up, they continued to support female artists.
After signing EZI in 2017, 5Towns Records continued to add female artists to its roster, including British singers Katy Tiz, who had the hit “Whistle (While You Work It)” before signing with the label, and Harlee, who shares management with EZI. Singer-songwriter Anna Shoemaker rounds out the label’s current roster.
“Unlike most label guys, I realize it’s their art,” Feinberg says. “I just help them market it. I don’t step in and say, ‘You should sound this way.’ They always surprise me with what they do. It’s why I enjoy being here. It’s what indie labels do best in general.” – GLENN GAMBOA