It’s a clear Wednesday evening in late September, and Zachary Cale and I are enjoying a few tacos and beers at Brooklyn, NY staple, Union Pool. For most of our long-hour conversation that touches on his childhood, his travels, and his latest album, Zach stares aimlessly at the sky, his mind recalling every detail and memory. From his early years in rural Louisiana to his time in Indonesia and Washington state to his current residence in Brooklyn, Zach doesn’t hesitate to share with me his past and his present. Reflective. Thoughtful. Contemplative. Precise. Engaging. Humble. That’s Zachary Cale the man and the musician.
Released on September 24, Zachary Cale’s fourth LP, Blue Rider, is a stripped-down, acoustic album of great songwriting and finger-picking that beautifully harmonizes blues, indie-folk, and alt-country. It is a very personal album, one that touches on many facets of Zach’s life. As Pop Matters wrote recently:
Blue Rider excels as a personal document, reflecting on the sweet and hard times…but it’s also more than that. It’s a document that perfectly represents the plight and joy of the independent musician, of the artist constantly knocking on those gates, hoping for that welcome noise on the other side.
Following his record-release party on Friday night, which was attended by Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, Zach admitted he was nervous, but that was never evident with the exception of his upward gaze as he sang and plucked each string of his guitar. Backed by a talented three-piece band, Zach brought to life “Blue Rider” and his presence was similar to that of Ryan Adams (I owe the reference to my friend Valerie Strait). Dynamic yet understated on stage, his talent and voice filled the room.
We meet just before 5:00 outside of Union Pool. As we wait for our drinks and food, I learn Zach is still working a day job. It’s a realization that so many independent artists today still struggle to make a living in today’s competitive, beat-driven music industry. And in New York, the competition is fierce.
Why did you move to New York?
I moved to New York 11 years ago, 2002. It was the one-year anniversary of September 11. It’s a day that I will always remember because there was no one on the plane. It was kind of intense, but I didn’t think about it until I was on the plane. It was halfway into the trip that I realized I had the whole plane to myself and what day it was.
What brought you to New York and is this where you now call home?
I had some friends here, but when I finished school I knew a girl who lived out here. I basically followed a girl. It was kind of a whim. We were together for a bit, but it didn’t work out and I ended up staying here. So, yeah, New York is now home, as I’ve lived here as long as any place that I have.
I did live in a few places when I was younger since my parents were international school teachers. I lived in Louisiana, Indonesia, and Washington. I spent most of my early years in Louisiana, and I also have some family who still live there. So, while I feel like my roots are there, it’s not necessarily home since my parents don’t live there anymore, and I haven’t visited Louisiana in a long time.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
My father played guitar. He had guitars all over the house. As a kid, it was a visual thing at first, but I eventually picked one up and dinked around on them not knowing how to play them and never thinking I would. Fact is, they were sitting around all the time and eventually you start learning to play.
My father had some acoustic guitars, some electric guitars. He actually had one guitar, pretty much the first guitar that I remember hearing. It was an old ’61 electric Jazzmaster. He would plug it in to an old amp, and I would sit around and listen. I would put my head next to the speaker while he was playing. I actually have that guitar now. It’s one of my most prized possessions for sure. It’s the oldest guitar that I have and still sounds really great.
What was your dad like as a guitar player?
He was kind of a hobbyist musician. He was working and he didn’t try to do music seriously. He was the type of guy who would get up early and play guitar for an hour before work or come home and play. It was a relaxing, meditative thing for him. Kind of like putting order to the chaos. Playing music you can lost in it and it’s like medicine, soothing.
His style, he had a fluid, lyrical way of playing guitar, reminded me of Jerry Garcia. Really pretty, really melodic, loose quality to it. It’s hard to explain. He would sing a little bit, but his voice is kind of funny. Really not the best voice. But when he played the guitar, it was really dreamy, really nice.
Some of his favourite bands were Pink Floyd – I heard that a lot. He liked English bands, and I remember him saying that he liked English bands more than he did American bands. He actually like Roxy Music, Brian Eno as well, really more obscure things, eclectic rock. He also had records by Television and stuff from the CBGB scene in New York.
Have you ever thought about recording your father, maybe have him play with you on a record?
When we get together, we play sometimes. I always think I should record him some time, but we don’t see each other very often. He’s going to come visit me, and I have recording stuff at home. I thought about that. I should record him just to have it. I’ve written songs about everyone, so yeah, maybe I’ll do it.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Actually, I do. I thought I was just a guitar player and couldn’t write songs. I thought it would be really difficult and had to be really creative and something you just had. I was of the frame of mind that I just wanted to play the guitar.
In my high school English literature class, we had an assignment about a play we were reading, Hedda Gabbler. We could write a poem or an essay, and another thing was that we could write a song. I was like, “Wow, I could do this. It would be really easy. All I would have to do is record the song.”
I really didn’t want to write an essay or something like that, so I wrote this song about the protagonist, Hedda Gabbler. She’s this socialite that is this miserable person. She’s really bitter and complains all the time. She in the end actually kills herself. It’s really an intense, high-school English thing you read. Anyway, that was the first song. It was an experiment to see if I could do this. And yeah, I could do it!
It’s funny because it’s kind of like a protest song as it had a lot of depth to it. It had a character study quality to it, kind of like the early Bob Dylan protest song, Hattie Carroll.
What grade did you get?
I actually got an A (laughing).
Did you have to perform it?
I only had to record it. I did it on a 4-track cassette machine and dubbed it on a tape because that’s what people listened to back then. I brought the tape in and I hid my head in my desk while everyone listened. I was terrified, totally mortified. But everyone loved it. I think people thought about me differently. I was like one of the cool kids after that. No one else did what I did. Everyone wrote a poem or an essay.
You’re coming out with your fourth album. How would you describe your progression from your first album to the latest one?
The beginning, I wasn’t setting out to make an album for everyone to hear. I was more recording for myself. I had just moved to NY and I didn’t know anybody. It was just something to do and to keep me busy when I wasn’t working.
I remember thinking I was done with rock music when I moved to NY. I had been in a lot of rock bands in college, and when I moved here I didn’t know anyone and just had an acoustic guitar. So I just started writing these songs, but I didn’t set out to write folk songs. I didn’t know much about folk music. I just wanted to see what I would sound like with a guitar, singing, and if these songs were good enough to stand alone. What do the songs sound like? What do I sound like?
That eventually got released by a label in NY (New World of Sound Records), which totally surprised me because I didn’t set out to have it released. That’s how I got my start.
Then I started taking it seriously. I had some money saved, so I just hunkered down and wrote. I spent about 3, 4 years just constantly writing songs. I think I wrote about 300 songs. I was learning. How can I get better at this? I was also learning different guitar styles and things.
As the albums progress, the lyrics, the songs got better, more complex and less pedestrian and generic. The second one isn’t as poppy, but it has this classical side to it with strings. The songs, themselves, are way more poetic like short stories with a lot of words – actually too many words. I don’t write songs like that anymore, so that’s something different. I’ve learned to pare it down again, realizing it’s good to be basic. But at that time, I was really into being super literary.
The third album was more of a full-band thing with folky elements and some experimental sides and upbeat, full-band songs. With that, I didn’t want to be labeled as just as a “folk” guy. I like folk music, but I love everything else too. I wanted to show how many different types of songs I could write, sort of like a Beatles album – sporadic with different elements. So the last album was an experiment to see how many different types of songs I could put on one record yet still have it make sense.
The new one is a return to form – basic, real minimal, just guitar and voice. It’s focused on the essential and be as basic as possible. Even though the songs are isolated and kind of singular, they’re quite complex in their form. It’s a blues thing. With this album, I was thinking of those old blues records with a singular voice. But those records are really complex and have a haunting quality. Like Robert Johnson for example, it’s just a guy and guitar. The songs aren’t basic; they’re crazy-sounding to me. They sound really abstract to me.
And with this album, while I go back to basics, I don’t want to be known as just as a folk musician. I think I’m more of a singer-songwriter. I guess it’s tough to get rid of the label as a folk artist when you are plucking an acoustic guitar, but the last album has a bit of country, blues, and roots.
Your thoughts about music today?
What bothers me about music today is the internet. It’s made people think music is free, but it makes it difficult on artists. It’s devalued music.
As such, I won’t listen to music on the internet. The only way for me to listen to music is on a record. I like having the physical object in my hand. That’s why it’s called an album.
What’s the last vinyl you purchased?
I just got a box of records of old folk and blues records from a friend in California. He has this massive collection, and he told me he was getting rid of a lot of them. These are really hard-to-find records, like Ledbetter records, Skip James. I just got it yesterday. It really made my day.
You’re about to tour with Crystal Stilts. What are some of your thoughts about touring?
Well, I don’t often leave New York, but I have toured in Europe. For some reason, it’s easier to tour in Europe than it is to tour here. People just really respect music in Europe. For some reason, I do really well in Germany. They really love American western, folk, blues music there. But they are like that pretty much all over Europe. The first time I went there they treated me like I was Johnny Cash.
In Europe, music is really art. In the U.S., it’s about the money. Even in many of the venues in the U.S. it’s the bar first. It’s the sad fact. They make so much money off bars, but for the artists it’s difficult to make money unless you’re huge. In Europe, they take care of you. They make sure you’re paid, you’re happy, you’re fed, and that you have a lot of free drinks.
FEEDBACK – 12 Short Questions to Know the Artist
1. Do you have a pre-show ritual or a J-Lo-esque list?
I usually have one drink before I play and I don’t eat right before I play.
2. Favourite drink?
Whiskey on the rocks. I’ll drink scotch if you buy it.
3. Bucket List?
I haven’t really thought about this. I think I really want to record all the songs that I have written, even as demos – well, at least all the good ones. I also want to see more of the world.
4. Cat, dog, other animal, or none?
I like both cats and dogs. I have two cats right now named Lois Ledbellly and Memphis Underfoot.
5. Guilty pleasures?
I like bad sci-fi and western novels. I also like the schmoltzy ’50s music.
6. Musical act or band that desires more attention?
There are two bands that are friends of mine. Plates of Cake is a rock quartet and they write really cool songs. They’re kind of angular and a bit nerdy, like Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
Then there’s another band called Woodsy Pride that are this earthen, folk-rock trio. It’s heart-warming, emotional songwriting, but they can rock, too.
7. Anyone – dead or alive – with whom you would like to collaborate?
There are too many options. I think I would choose a producer, like Brian Eno. He would be my go-to.
8. Pick-me uppers on a tough day?
Listening to records. I love buying vinyl. There’s a funny Peanuts story, where Linus says, “Whenever I feel low, I buy some new records.” It’s this very easy antidote, but it’s true.
9. Favourite Muppet or Sesame Street character
Grover, at least that’s what my mother use to tell me. Actually, Oscar may be my favourite. I think if I was personified on any of those shows, I would have been Oscar. That is what my girlfriend would tell you.
10. One word to describe yourself
That’s hard. I don’t think I could answer that question. I’ll regret it if I say anything.
11. Any pet peeves?
I probably have a billion, which is easy when living in New York. Off the top of my head, people eating food on the subway. I think it’s disgusting because it just stinks up the whole car.
This is more of a philosophy, but I’ve learned that you never try to repeat the same great experience because you’ll just disappoint yourself. Just enjoy the experience and create a new one.
Thursday, October 3 – Ortlieb’s Jazz House in Philadelphia, PA
Friday, October 4 – Golden West Cafe in Baltimore, MD
Saturday, October 5 – The Half Moon in Hudson, NY
Sunday, October 6 – The Elevens in Northampton, MA
Monday, October 7 – Valentine’s in Albany, NY*
Tuesday, October 8 – The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, ON*
Wednesday, October 9 – Garden Bowl in Detroit, MI*
Thursday, October 10 – Empty Bottle in Chicago, IL*
Friday, October 11 – O’Leaver’s in Omaha, NE*
Saturday, October 12 – The Walnut Room in Denver, CO*
Monday, October 14 – TBA, Missoula, MT
Tuesday, October 15 – Barboza in Seattle, WA*
Wednesday, October 16 – Electric Owl in Vancouver, B.C.*
Thursday, October 17 – Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR*
Friday, October 18 – The Chapel in San Francisco, CA#
Sunday, October 19 – Echo in Los Angeles, CA
Sunday, October 20 – Echoplex in Los Angeles, CA*
Monday, October 21 – The Rhythm Room in Phoenix, AZ*
Wednesday, October 23 – Parish Underground in Austin, TX
Thursday, October 24 – Red 7 in Austin, TX*
Friday, October 25 – Dada Dallas in Dallas, TX*
Saturday, October 26 – Lamar Lounge in Oxford, MS*
Sunday, October 27 – BottleTree in Birmingham, AL*
Monday, October 28 – The EARL in Atlanta, GA*
Tuesday, October 29 – Strange Matter in Richmond, VA*
Wednesday, October 30 – Black Cat in Washington, D.C.*
Thursday, October 31 – Bowery Ballroom in New York, NY
* denotes appearing with Crystal Stilts
# denotes appearing with Pure Bathing Culture
Share This Article On...
Follow The Revue On...