ZEPHANI JONG DIDN’T REALLY start speaking until she was 13 years old. Well, that’s a bit of hyperbole — she did speak to close family members minimally when necessary, but everyone else was out of the question. “The way I talk today, people would never guess I [didn’t speak before]. It’s crazy because now I sing for a living,” Jong, who performs under the stage name Zeph, tells Alternative Press over a Zoom call following her first-ever cover shoot.
“I physically couldn’t make sound come out of my mouth, no matter how hard I tried. It started with me being really, really shy and anxious, and then I couldn’t get out of it because everyone knew me as the quiet one — not even quiet, but completely silent. I never spoke in front of people, and that’s all they knew of me,” Zeph recalls. She didn’t want to disturb people’s perception of her, which ultimately left her feeling trapped.
Read more: 20 greatest Hopeless Records bands
Now 24, Zeph later found out her condition was due to an anxiety disorder called selective mutism. It wasn’t until her senior year in high school that she finally started speaking candidly out loud. Metamorphosing from the “quietest person” in her friend group to the “most talkative,” Zeph credits social media for helping her open up. “Because I went on the internet a lot to talk to people, I found my own interests, beliefs, and inspirations online. The internet really gave me a sense of independence.”
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Social media has always been a critical part of Zeph’s journey. Before she ever uploaded even one song, Zeph had already amassed a large following from sharing her art online. She began uploading fan art of musicians like Conan Gray and Billie Eilish to Instagram around 2017. A year later, she went viral when BuzzFeed shared her series of Post-it Note doodles inspired by famous viral Vines.
Today, Zeph has over 203,000 Instagram followers, and her posts are a smattering of colorful selfies and anime video clips set to snippets of her music. Her Twitter is much more chaotic: an ever-growing collection of cringe memes, inane shitposts and relatable overshares to over 186,000 followers. The only thing you won’t find on Zeph’s Twitter anymore is a little blue checkmark now that account verification has shifted to Elon Musk’s controversial Twitter Blue. “I don’t care that it’s gone. It’s just annoying because now the only people who have it are the people who pay for it. The entire point of it is destroyed. It’s a fucking ego thing,” she says.
When Zeph first began posting her music on her social media accounts, she was “so scared” the people who found her through her artwork were going to unfollow her. “But they stuck around. They’ve grown up with me, which is cool. It’s a good community,” she says.
While her relationship with her fans can get parasocial sometimes online, Zeph truly sees herself as “one of them.” “As my following grew, it got overwhelming, and now I definitely can’t reply to everyone anymore, but I’ll read my DMs. It’s also really nice when people tell me how I’ve affected them or even just send me a meme they think I’ll relate to,” Zeph shares.
[Alternative Press summer 2023 cover]
Though Zeph is recognized for her irreverent social media presence, there’s one platform she has no plans to sign up for. “Everybody is surprised when I say I’m not on TikTok, but it’s not for me,” Zeph says. “I hate how people on TikTok want to blow up so badly that they’ll just make one hit song and milk it until it’s dead; or just make one part of their song really catchy so it’ll blow up as a viral sound. It’s not sustainable.”
It’s ironic, perhaps, that the one app Zeph doesn’t fuck with is the platform every other artist on the planet is scrambling — or at least being pressured by their labels and management teams — to go viral on. But it’s a conscious choice for the singer-songwriter, who isn’t interested in chasing musical virality through a 15-second audio clip. “I feel like short-form content does not cultivate the type of community that I want to be a part of. It’s not very personal or interactive,” she says.
BASED ON HER AUDACIOUS SOCIAL MEDIA PRESENCE, it may be hard to believe Zeph grew up in a religious, conservative household. Raised in the suburbs of Maryland by a strict pastor father and librarian mother, Zeph was homeschooled until the 10th grade. Though she was “into music very early” as a child, the “extremely sheltered” musician wasn’t allowed to listen to many secular songs outside of Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper. (“That soundtrack is straight bangers, no skips!” Zeph gushes unironically.)
Zeph’s initial exposure to music came by way of Baby Mozart and “Pachelbel’s Canon,” the Christian music her parents would play in the car, and piano lessons, where she began learning music theory at the precocious age of 3. “In every Asian household, they have to put their kid in one thing, like learning an instrument or a sport. Mine was piano,” she laughs.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
One of Zeph’s earliest memories is of playing a song she “made up” on the piano for her mom. The song was the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” In later years, Zeph realized she had relative pitch — the ability to identify and recreate musical notes by ear, which is why she was able to pick up piano at such a young age. “My mom wasn’t even impressed by that. My entire family is never impressed by me,” Zeph says with a shrug.
When she turned 10, Zeph began to develop a deep love for film and movie scores. Her dream job was to become a movie score composer, and she cites the prolific works of Hans Zimmer, John Powell, Patrick Doyle, and Jóhann Jóhannsson as some of her most formative musical inspirations. If Zeph were to compose for a film, she’d love to link up with someone like Greta Gerwig because “a lot of people tell me my music sounds like a coming-of-age movie.”
Later, Zeph found a love for Japanese rock band Radwimps, who scored the soundtrack for Makoto Shinkai’s critically acclaimed 2016 anime film Your Name. As Zeph chats over Zoom, her prized Your Name OST vinyl peeks out from behind her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to go to the band’s Los Angeles show when they played on her birthday this year because all the “good seats” were way too expensive. “Ticketmaster, side eye,” she quips, visibly salty.
For someone so heavily inspired by movies and pop culture, it’s surprising Zeph grew up without access to cable TV. “My parents were like, ‘We’re not paying for that, and you’re not wasting your time watching TV,’ so I could only watch TV when I was on vacation or over at a friend’s house,” she shares, adding that she would “watch as much Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network as possible” when she could.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
Her forbidden fruit was Nickelodeon’s Victorious. Zeph was also obsessed with High School Musical, Camp Rock, and Lemonade Mouth — the latter’s “corny, nostalgic pop-punk” soundtrack influenced her music style.
It wasn’t until Zeph turned 13 that she began actively seeking out music on her own. She counts Owl City as the first artist she listened to autonomously, which “makes sense considering the music [she] makes now.” Zeph also tuned into Troye Sivan, Melanie Martinez, Panic! at the Disco, OneRepublic, and Jon Bellion, who “all have a big influence on [her] music now,” but she credits her love for “cheesy” pop songs to “peak Katy Perry, the Teenage Dream era.”
ZEPH SPENT HER TEENS self-teaching herself how to produce, cobbling songs together on GarageBand on her family’s shared iPad, “sneaking” in orchestral flourishes and strings to tie in her love for cinematic music. But she didn’t start singing until 2018, which is around the same time she dropped out of college.
Zeph’s very first song with lyrics came from a place many can relate to: jealousy. When her Vine star ex-boyfriend’s long-distance girlfriend at the time posted an original song about him on Bandcamp, Zeph took the girl’s song and interpolated the chords and melody with her own lyrics about her unrequited crush — essentially Frankensteining a “You Belong With Me” meets “The Boy Is Mine” confessional. Though she never uploaded the song publicly, Zeph admits her “career started because I was being petty.”
The same year, she released her debut single, the fuzzy, guitar-driven love ballad “Forever & Always.” The track quickly racked up millions of listens on Spotify. Over the next two years, Zeph continued to release music, captivating listeners with her emotive, layered alt-pop and unapologetic authenticity on tracks such as “Ways to Go” and “i’ll never fall in love with myself.”
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
By 2021, her music had caught the attention of Waterparks, who invited her to support them on tour. The run marked her first live shows, but it also took a unique toll on the musician, who couldn’t get onstage unless she was drunk. “The only part of the tour I didn’t like was being onstage, which is kind of the whole point. People always tell me, ‘I know it’s scary, but once you get onstage, it’ll come to you,’ but I get onstage, and the only thing I can think about is how much I want to get offstage,” she recalls.
The same year, Zeph also released her scared of everything EP, featuring breakout singles “are you?” and “friends or not.” At some point, Good Charlotte vocalist Joel Madden stumbled upon her music on Instagram. The two connected after he commented on one of Zeph’s posts, and eventually, she joined Madden’s MDDN artist agency. “He’s like another dad to me. We recently got dinner together, and he gave me advice the whole time,” Zeph says of Madden. “He’s very wise. He validates me a lot and has believed in me since the beginning.”
Madden also helped Zeph navigate her crushing sense of self-doubt. “I have impostor syndrome, so I feel like I’m in my industry plant era. I got lucky with the people that I’ve met,” Zeph shares. But do people really think she’s an industry plant? “Not so much anymore. If you do two seconds of research, you can see I’ve been putting music out since 2018. There was that phenomenon for a while where every influencer wanted to be a musician, so some people just looped me in with that.”
She mostly keeps out the noise, but that doesn’t mean Zeph doesn’t get in her own head sometimes. She may not care about what people think about her, but how they view her, how they see her, is a different story. She doesn’t like being on camera, so much so that she sometimes wishes she had started releasing music via some sort of visual avatar to represent herself, similar to Gorillaz or Studio Killers.
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
“I don’t know what to do with my body. I feel like I’m not built for this. I don’t want to be perceived,” Zeph says. Going fully virtual is a possibility to consider for the future, and she does have an animated music video on the way for her upcoming, twinkling acoustic ballad “walls,” which she’s very excited about.
Perhaps ironically, Zeph’s anxiety about being in front of the camera loomed heavily over her today during her Alternative Press photo shoot. She admits she briefly considered canceling the shoot altogether after she got “so overwhelmed.” Luckily for us, it was too much of a “big deal” to pass up.
ZEPH’S WILLINGNESS TO overshare and say the quiet parts out loud is just one of the many reasons she’s racked up more than 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify and was courted by Hopeless Records, who she signed with in early 2023. The label’s talent roster includes legends such as Avenged Sevenfold and Sum 41. Zeph was surprised when they reached out asking to sign her: “I feel like I don’t fit in with the rest of their artists, which lean very rock and punk.”
Zeph’s authenticity bleeds into her lyrics, too. In March 2023, she released her first single with Hopeless Records called “like everyone else,” a sparkling synth-pop track about alterous attraction — neither platonic nor romantic — and the yearning desire to simply be special to someone. “My favorite thing to write songs about are the in-between feelings people don’t want to acknowledge,” Zeph explains. “If I feel too embarrassed or awkward to talk about something, I’ll just put it in a song.”
The single is off Zeph’s debut studio album, character development, which she describes as “very Disney Channel Original Movie-sounding.” Due out this summer, the nostalgic alt-pop album finds the artist louder and more sure of herself than ever before.
The record tells a chronological story about a girl discovering what she really wants and learning to express it with her full chest. “The first half is about grappling with a person who doesn’t like me the way I want them to, and the second half is about being scared to be in a relationship and then realizing I’m emotionally unavailable,” Zeph says. However, even though the album features a narrative, Zeph wouldn’t describe herself as a storyteller when it comes to her music. Not like Taylor Swift, anyway.
“Taylor Swift does a lot of storytelling in her songs. She sets a scene, like with the 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well.’ It’s very visual. I don’t ever do that,” Zeph explains. While character development “has a little bit of a story,” she prefers to write about her thoughts and feelings versus situations. “That’s what I need to do to cope. A lot of my songs are sad because, if I’m happy, I don’t need to process those feelings.”
In truth, Zeph’s music shimmers with a bittersweet gleam. Her songs capture the lingering melancholy of a beautiful tangerine sunset or the last spoonful of melted ice cream at the bottom of the carton. “It’s cruel and unusual the way you always keep me wondering after the fact/Just rip the Band-Aid off,” Zeph pleads on album opener “you don’t like me like that,” a pop-punk banger that sets the tone for the record, both sonically and lyrically. Elsewhere, Zeph vulnerably sings about friend envy on “my best friend” and the complicated transitional space between her last relationship and a brand-new crush on “backseat.”
[Photo by Lindsey Byrnes]
The energy on character development is much more direct and in-your-face than Zeph’s previous releases. While scared of everything was “about doubt and uncertainty and feeling timid,” the album is aggressive, urgent, and brutally honest. If scared of everything sounded like a girl writing passively about her crush in her diary after school, character development is the letter she slipped into his locker between classes, demanding answers and, possibly, commitment.
“Between that EP and this album, I’ve become so much more confident in my music and voice. I think my singing and producing has definitely improved, which has made me more confident in expressing myself,” Zeph shares. She also credits her cross-country move to Los Angeles, as well as her therapist — who encouraged her to be more direct and “less weak” with how she communicates with others — with helping her grow her confidence and set healthy boundaries.
For example, things are “so much better” with her family now that she’s not living with them. “We’re not clashing all the time. It’s funny ’cause my mom majored in psychology in college, and she would be like, ‘You’re fine. Just read the Bible and drink water.’ Now, I tell them I’m in therapy and taking medication, and it’s helping a lot,” Zeph says.
Like her gradual ascent to fame, personal growth has been a slow and steady process for Zeph. She’s in no rush, either: “I’m glad it’s been so slow for me because I’ve learned a lot, like what I’m OK with and what I’m not OK with,” she says. With character development, she may still be figuring some things out, but at least Zeph isn’t afraid to speak up for herself anymore. She’s finally found her voice.