Arts, Arts Features

Zoe Behrakis: Cultivating Her Pop Persona

Zoe Behrakis, WCAS ’24, and her family were seated around her parents’ living room waiting in anticipation. Their household in Sudbury, Mass. is usually filled with hits from U2, Shania Twain, and NSYNC, Greek music, Behrakis’ older brother playing jazz on the piano, or Behrakis singing a cover of a pop song. But on March 27 last year, they were counting down the minutes until midnight—when Behrakis’ first single, “Grace,” would be released. 

When the 20-year-old’s voice came streaming through her phone, Behrakis felt like a weight was lifted off her shoulders. While commemorating the moment on video, her mom broke down into tears. So did her dad. The single was not only a culmination of years of voice training and vocal therapy, but a sign that Behrakis’ dream of becoming a pop singer was closer to a reality.

“I’m probably still processing it,” Behrakis said about her first single. “I think it was just like a really insane, surreal moment because it was actually happening, you know. I actually had a song that was going to be released and people were going to listen to it.” 

For as long as Behrakis can remember, she’s been singing. When she was a kid, she used to perform concerts for her family with her Hannah Montana electric microphone, drowning out the backing tracks that played the Disney Channel star’s records with her own vocals. 

But that was then. Now, in an apartment five minutes from Boston College’s campus, Behrakis has turned her bedroom into a makeshift recording studio, complete with a microphone, speakers, and a poster of R&B artist Frank Ocean—which resides in a prime spot above her bed. In the corner of her room, the microphone perches on its adjustable stand, waiting for Behrakis to record another cover of Ariana Grande or a demo for her latest single.

The singer has been recording covers in her bedroom since she was a kid, but with three released singles—and a growing discography in the works—Behrakis is advancing her career as a pop artist and songwriter. Writing with collaborators for close to two years now, she’s started to develop her style as an artist. In a music industry rife with clichés, Behrakis is pulled toward creating personal and authentic music. 

“I think it’s so beautiful when people can take either something that happened to them or something that changed their life for the better or for [the] worse and put it into a song,” Behrakis said.

While completing virtual courses for her bachelor’s degree in psychology at BC, Behrakis surrounds herself with a steady stream of “powerhouse” voices blasting from her speakers, including Grande, Whitney Houston, Prince, Queen’s Freddie Mercury, and Kelly Clarkson. These artists are known for creating a commanding presence with their vocals, and Behrakis’ own voice, which possesses a deep honeyish tone, evokes similar reactions—something that producer Johnny Black and recording and mixing engineer Mike Piazza recognized when they first heard Behrakis sing in July 2019. 

“She stood out immediately because she has such a stellar voice,” Black, who’s been working as a music producer for 16 years, said. “She sang in a way that seemed like she had a lot more time in the industry.” 

The Grammy-nominated producers connected with Behrakis shortly after she was invited in May 2019 to join PCG Artist Development, a program that provides mentorship to budding musicians. When Behrakis met with the duo for the first time, Piazza said she was a natural in the recording studio.

“Not everybody is a great musician [who] can come into the studio and perform at their best, especially early on,” Piazza, who’s worked in the music industry for nearly 10 years, said. “And with Zoe, you know, it was a breeze, and it’s always kind of been that way from day one.”

Later that July, she flew out to Nashville for a writing session with Black and Piazza. Although this was Behrakis’ first time writing a song, she didn’t shy away from sharing her personal experiences in her music. Within a few hours, the team had come up with a rough demo of her first single, “Grace.” Paired with Behrakis’ strong vocals and a piano accompaniment, the ballad details the journey of tackling difficult times and doing so with grace. 

“I remember sort of setting the whole thing to a piano, like just playing a piano along while she was talking and telling us the stories,” Black said about making Behrakis’ first single. “We just kind of slowly pieced it together. It started with the first verse, and it just kind of unfolded into ‘Grace.’”

Nearly a year after that first meeting, and hours spent recording vocals and mixing backing tracks and harmonies, “Grace” was released at the end of March 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses across the nation—putting an end to Behrakis’ trips to Nashville. 

But Behrakis hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic. Since then, “Grace” has acquired more than 120,000 streams on Spotify. She’s released two additional singles, “Echo” and “Strangers,” and has plans to release an EP. When a song title, concept, or a lyric or two strike her, she’s taken to jotting it down in the notes app on her phone. Although Behrakis is developing her skills as a songwriter, her voice is ultimately what distinguishes her as an artist, Black said.

“She’s just got a really natural tone, but she also has very, very strong technique,” Black said.  “And that’s rare that somebody has both.” 

Members of PCG Artist Development also noticed this when they first heard Behrakis sing “Beautiful Disaster” by Clarkson at a workshop in Boston, which was hosted by PCG and Behrakis’ voice teacher, Sharon Erman of the Sharon Erman Vocal Studio. At the event, Erman saw that Behrakis had left an impression on the program’s members.

“It’s one thing to be a good singer,” Erman said. “And it’s another thing to move an audience.” 

Erman, who taught Behrakis for six years and still has lessons with her occasionally, understands the difficulties of breaking into the music industry—especially as a pop singer. But after performing for PCG, Behrakis saw her opportunity. She was invited to join the PCG Artist Development program in Nashville—a guarantee that she would get to develop her persona as a musician. 

Finding a path into the industry wasn’t Behrakis’ only obstacle, though. When she was close to graduating high school, Erman noticed at one of their voice lessons that Behrakis was straining to reach notes she had always been comfortable singing. It sounded like she was singing two notes, Behrakis said. Although she had just recovered from a head cold, the virus left her with weakened vocal cords, a lingering effect that lasted months. 

“I didn’t know if I actually could keep singing because it was so bad, and like this virus just destroyed my vocal cords,” Behrakis said. 

Without proper treatment, Erman said, the additional stress would damage Behrakis’ vocal cords, so she advised her to attend voice therapy. Behrakis, accustomed to singing every day, scaled back her efforts to just singing during her therapy lessons. The summer leading into her freshman year at BC, she was in and out of these sessions, practicing breathing techniques and strengthening her vocal cords. 

“There would have been a lot of people who just gave up, but she just persevered,” Erman said. 

Without this experience, Behrakis said, she wouldn’t be where she is today—with a voice that’s stronger as a result. 

She’s carried this strength with her into the studio with Black and Piazza. After “Grace,” Behrakis, Black, and Piazza worked on her second single “Echo,” a high-energy pop song that was inspired by Grande’s “breathin.” Although she had already released one single, Behrakis said she felt more nervous about this release.

“When you’re writing about any type of personal writing … you’re going to be vulnerable and it’s going to be nerve-racking,” Behrakis said. “But with [‘Echo’], I feel like it was just like next-level personal.”

On this track, Behrakis details her personal experiences with anxiety. But paired with an upbeat track and her powerful vocals, she delivers a message of determination. Her latest release, “Strangers,” a pop anthem about letting go of past relationships, was her first single produced outside of the Nashville studio. Through virtual sessions, Black, Piazza, and Behrakis wrote and recorded the song this past summer, splicing together demos of Behrakis’ vocals recorded at Wellspring Sound Recording Studio in Acton, Mass., while Piazza layered her vocals with beats.

Black said he believes Behrakis is only getting started and can imagine her songs may start appearing in TV or movie scores in the near future.

“She wants to be great,” Black said. “… If you don’t have that, ultimately, something comes along that makes you not want to chase it anymore. And she’s got that drive, and that’s the one thing that can’t be taught.”

Behrakis is not just driven by her own ambitions, but also by her personal commitments to the BC community and to her family. She’s a member of the a capella group Bostonians of Boston College, and her recording of the national anthem is being played at BC athletic events this year. For now, Behrakis can’t perform in person for a live audience, so she and her 22-year-old brother George Behrakis, a graduate student studying jazz composition at the New England Conservatory of Music and a piano player for the past 17 years, have performed duets of her songs on Instagram and Facebook to promote her new music.

Behrakis is starting to forge her own identity within the pop industry, even if, for now, she has to continue making a name for herself from her bedroom. 

Propped up in her desk chair, laptop flipped open, Behrakis adjusts her microphone while running through vocal warmups. Up and down she runs through a scale, then another. She queues up a backing track for the latest song she’s been listening to on repeat: “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton. Checking that her headphones are connected, she hits play on her laptop, takes a deep breath, and sings. 

Photo by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

March 22, 2021

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