Saturday, August 20, 2011

Interview with Zach Williams

(Here's a piece I wrote for NoiseTrade recently on Zach Williams and The Bellow's Kickstarter campaign)

To singer-songwriter Zach Williams, community is more than just where he lives, it’s how he lives. Surrounding himself with friends on stage and off, Zach is deeply invested in the lives of those around him and in turn, allows them into his life as well. For a guy like that, a Kickstarter campaign is a perfect fit. Currently, Zach is using Kickstarter to help fund the recording of a new batch of songs with his musical collective of friends dubbed The Bellow. (For those that read a little too quickly, that’s “bellow” as in roar, not “below” as in underneath. It’s okay, you’re not the first one to do that.) With a little over two weeks to go, they’re over halfway to their goal of $20,000. That’s a little over $9,000 more left to go by Friday, September 2. That’s where you, me and the rest of the NoiseTrade community come in. Pledges, emails, tweets, and the unparalleled power of word of mouth can help Zach and his bandmates deliver an incredible album of beautiful music and meaningful stories, without the enormous weight of self-funding. For the financial pledges through Kickstarter, Zach has set up some pretty cool rewards like signed albums, bonus tracks of the original demos, a song played just for you over video chat, a recorded cover song that you request and the grand poobah of a private, full band house show.

But wait, you say! Who exactly is this Zach Williams and what does he sound like? Well, one of the post headings on Zach’s website says “Brooklyn. Country. Music.” and I think that’s a perfectly fitting description. While Zach’s vocals and guitar playing are definitely based in roots music, he’s more in line with the folk poets of Greenwich Village than the twangy troubadours of Nashville. The Bellow beautifully augment his songs with electric guitar, banjo, stand up bass, lap steel, harmonica, piano, drums and tasty harmony vocals. To hear them in action, you can download a couple of free songs and check out their videos on their website. As far as Zach the person, I think you can get a good sense of his heart and vision through his answers and stories in our interview bellow…I mean below.

NT: In the description of your new album's Kickstarter project, the lines "There is no certainty. But there is hope." really stuck out to me. Do those thoughts apply to more than just trying to raise enough money to complete the project?
Zach: Absolutely. It’s about the uncertainty of creating something that might be selfish compared to the hope of creating something that might be worthwhile. The uncertainty of creating something that might be trite compared to the hope of creating something that has conviction. I've said this before, but the songs on this record ebb and flow through tragedy, hope, betrayal and redemption. My hope is that we capture those four things in an honest way.

NT: How has the recording process been at Rockwood Music Hall and did the new batch of songs come quickly?
Zach: It was amazing. Rockwood Music Hall was basically the first NYC venue I played in when I moved here 5 years ago. At the time it had been open for only a few months. It only had one room back then that held 75 people max. I found out quickly that the man who ran sound was also the owner. Each night of the week shows would start at 6pm and go till at least 2am. I was the 2am slot several times. My wife and 3 or 4 good friends would be the only people in the bar. After I played there a couple of times Ken Rockwood (the owner of Rockwood Music Hall) started to encourage me to sing and write more. He'd stand there coiling up the instrument cables in his button up shirt and vest and tell me things like "you really should keep doing this." That is of course the edited version of Ken's pep talks. After playing in NYC for a couple years Ken helped me record a little EP at the beautiful Avatar Studio here in midtown Manhattan. He has always pushed me to be honest. A couple years back Ken opened "Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2" which is the room we are recording in. I had the honor of being the first band to play the room.

Ken quietly built this room for a year or so before that without letting anyone know, so the first time I walk into the place I was astonished. The engineer who helped him build it toured for years as the sound man for The Rolling Stones. He would wander back and forth checking every little detail and mumbling to himself. Ken was constantly getting hassled by the cops. Even during the week that we were about to open the room Ken was still worried that the cops wouldn't let him! The first night was glorious. The line of souls was outside the venue and wrapped all the way around Houston Street. We had to turn away 200 New Yorkers. The 1916 Steinway came down from the ceiling and sat on the stage. The room was silent and about to burst. We sang our songs that night like we were dying. It was a good moment to be alive.

Fast forward to February of this year. Charlie Peacock and I are eating lunch with a couple friends at Georgia EastSide BBQ one block away from Rockwood. The topic of our discussion was "how do we capture this thing?" Charlie then said, "You think your old friend Mr. Rockwood is around? Maybe we could pay him a visit.” We finished up our meal and headed over. Ken was there, just like he always is around that time of the day... pacing back and forth making all the necessary things happen to protect the music that will be made in his rooms later in the night. Charlie shared his vision with Ken. "What if we recorded this record here?" Ken lit up. They quickly figured out all the logistics and it was on. Months later we were loading in all the recording gear and it hit me. These floors, chairs, candles, glasses, and amps have been apart of the music since the beginning and we are literally going to hear them in this recording! Charlie and his team set everyone up where he saw fit. Jason, our banjo player, was behind the bar! All eight of us tracked 14 songs about 12-14 times each for two and a half days. Each song tracked like it could be the one on the record, including vocals. It was nuts.

(Zach wrote a blog about what happened one night while recording and you can read about it at his

NT: Great songwriters always strive to tell new stories in familiar ways. What differences and similarities can we expect on the new album in regards to your last release, Story Time?
Zach: It’s still story songs. Each story is true to my life, nothing is made up for dramatic effect. I think the familiarity might be found in the melodies. I think it’s definitely a much more complete work than
Story Time. I recorded Story Time like this: My manager wanted four songs to help him express to people what we do. I couldn't choose which four because we had been playing about 12 a night at our shows. So we recorded all of them at five different studios and one upstairs bedroom. We used five studios because it was the cheapest way. So lame.

NT: You've got the "Midas Touch" of producer Charlie Peacock behind the board for your new album. How did that come about and what drew you to working with him?
Zach: I met him 2 years ago. He heard my music and asked for my family and I to come stay with him in Nashville for a few days. We absolutely were taken care of by him and his precious family. Charlie and his wife Andi have a special gift of hospitality and creativity that I hope to have in my home someday. At the time he was working on The Civil Wars record. Musically, all I needed to hear was
Poison and Wine and I was completely hooked.

NT: Community seems to be an incredibly important ingredient in your life and one that you feel is worth sharing about. Tell us how you became involved in your current community in Brooklyn and how that translated into forming "The Bellow."
Zach: I believe the best work I have personally done has happened either in extreme loneliness or extreme loyalty. This project has had strong emphasis on honesty and loyalty among the musicians. There is a true since of brotherhood. Brian Elmquist, the other male vocalist and electric guitar player, is one of my oldest friends. We lived together in an old crappy house in Lynchburg, VA 10 years ago. I was singing in the shower one day and he slung the curtain open and said, "You should be ok with singing in front of people." He moved to Nashville for a few years and then found himself here in Brooklyn after that. Brian has that true southern strength. He grew up in the sticks of Sandersville, GA. He brings that charm with him to every rehearsal. Kanene is the one and only female in the band. She has a voice that can knock a wall down. Her older brother is a man that I call a brother myself. He is one of my closest friends and lives life very well. Kanene and her husband Jason, who plays the mandolin and banjo in our band, both just moved back to the states from Beijing, the place they called home for the past five years. They have a strong commitment to the neighborhood they live in and are some of the most loyal friends in my life. Ben Mars plays the bass. He and the drummer Brian Griffin represent the best type of New Yorkers. They have spent their lives learning an instrument and then moved to this city to be a part of music making. They are adventurous souls that have a hard time making any decision in their lives based on fear. They bring their journeys to every rehearsal. Brian Murphy is our ace in the hole. He is a successful music producer based out of Brooklyn and plays the piano with us. He is the level keeper. He has this gift of keeping everything open and real. He is an honest man and you can hear it bleed out of him at our shows. Matt Knapp is one of my oldest friends in NYC. I met him years ago when I first moved here. Matt is the type of person who loves to master things. You can count on every word he says and every decision he makes having much thought and conviction attached to it. For a type A surface, he has a true ear for the things unseen and unspoken. I believe anyone who plays a weeping instrument should. We all met for the first time to play together back in the fall. Not long ago at all. I was going through some hard times in my life and I wanted to make a country sound. We met at 9 in the morning and knew within minutes of playing that this was something special.

NT: Your talents have allowed you the good fortune of playing with folks like Ben Folds, Jon Foreman (Switchfoot), The Civil Wars and Stephen Christian (Anberlin). What does it mean for a relatively new artist to be able to share their audiences and hopefully get to pick their brain a little bit?
Zach: Playing shows with folks is a funny thing. Both musicians will politely chat back stage while both are completely gearing up mentally and emotionally for the task at hand. One night when I was out with
Ben Folds I had a couple good buddies road trip down to the show. We snuck through some secret troll door back stage and ended up in the rafters hanging above Ben and the 16 ft piano. By this time I had played 10 shows with him. That night, Ben came alive. He connected with that crowd and found himself jumping up and down on the top of the rented piano screaming his lungs out without the microphone. It was all I needed to hear. Whoever is talking to Foreman, whether it be his wife, his friend, a fan or a stranger asking for directions, they have his complete attention until they are done talking. It's remarkable. It was such a challenge to me as a human being to watch him be dead tired, sweating head to toe and a fan caught his ear right off the stage and told him his complete life story. Foreman listens. It's such a beautiful thing to watch. I've had the honor of watching The Civil Wars take off. Their humility and meekness is something my own Mother wrote down in her Moleskine.

NT: I read a quote from you that said "Art is a stop sign" and I loved how you explained the concept of pausing and being present in the moment. How do you try to incorporate that into your songs and shows?
Zach: Listening! Trying my best to listen to strange moments that happen between words sung and instruments played. I struggle with being afraid during an entire show. What am I doing? What are they thinking? Can I sing this note? Is this worth while? It has taken up the space in my mind so much that I have often forgotten the words to songs I have written myself and sang hundreds of times. It's like I don't stop. Maybe I wake up late that morning, grab my girls, feed them, hug them, rush to work, then rush to sound check, check morale with the band, worry about everyone, write the set list, hit the stage, then sing 10 songs and I never stopped to just be. I try to stop and listen during shows. What's happening in the room? Should we be silent for a moment? Should we wait on something? It's beautiful to be a part of that process. It feels like you’re really present. That’s the goal right? To be aware.

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