Monday, February 22, 2010

The Musical Journey of Zach Strout

By - Joshua Witchger

Byline: In anticipation of Zach Strout’s debut CD release, the singer-songwriter discusses his songwriting, recording, and partnership with Blackroom Records.

CCM Worship Arts major Zach Strout is gearing up to release his debut album Luggage Rack on March 9th. One thing’s for sure, he has a passion for folk music—but his ambitions haven’t always been such. “When I was younger I wanted to be in a screamo band,” recalls Strout. Over time though, his tastes have developed, almost exclusively, into favoring the metaphorical language of folk music.

“I was initially drawn to folk music through Bebo Norman’s album Ten Thousand Days,” says Strout, who admires the beauty of folk lyrics, melody, and composition. “But it’s the picking patterns that really drew me in. I would sit for hours replaying music just to learn the patterns.”

As Strout matures, his pursuit of conveying honesty in his songwriting is something he continually refines. Tipping his hat to the music of Jon Foreman, Derek Webb, and Tyler Burkum, Strout seeks to adapt a similar conversational, down-to-earth approach he admires in these artists. “What I see is honesty, they have a certain rawness in their approach to explaining their emotions. And while I’m not sure if people feel this way when they listen to me, my hope is that they feel like I’m talking to them.”

Strout’s journey of performing folk music began his freshman year, fall of 2008. Having just arrived at Greenville, Strout quickly teamed with like-minded individuals, forming a folk outfit known as Ellery Grange. “I had only played one or two shows before coming to Greenville,” recalls Strout. Over the time spent with Ellery Grange, he became comfortable playing in front of an audience and collaborating with friends. However, with two members having left Greenville, Strout decided that instead of looking for new band members, he would pursue his music as a solo artist.

Playing a handful campus shows, and open mics, Strout quickly exhibited a new repertoire of songs. “Breathe and 61 were some of the first songs I wrote back in 2007,” says Strout, who over the past few years has been building a collection of original material. “One of the songs I play [Mary Lou] was written with Ellery Grange, but most others are fairly new.”

Currently, his pursuit as a solo musician has taken several unexpected turns. Most unexpected was his partnership with Blackroom Records, which all began when Strout’s friend enrolled to take a new course, aptly titled Blackroom Records. The basic idea behind the course is to operate as a record label—signing an artist, recording, producing, promoting, and marketing. In order for the class to function properly, they needed a musician. Thus, due in part to Strout’s friend, his name was suggested as a possible candidate for this role.

Some time later, Strout ran into one of the coordinators for the course, who mentioned in passing that they would like to hear a demo of his music. Strout jokes of how he just happened to be carrying one with him at that instant. Forgetting he had given the demo away, he was surprised a few weeks later when class instructor David Shreiber contacted him, wishing to hear additional songs. Knowing the decision lie between him and two other artists, Strout was told to expect a call informing him of the group’s final outcome.

Strout describes his evening of unveiling while he was at work. “I’m not supposed to answer my phone while I’m working, but I was really anxious to hear their decision,” recalls Strout. It turns out that faculty member David Shreiber incidentally stopped by Strout’s workplace that night. Spotting him from across the store, he excitedly shouted to him, “Hey, did you get the message? You made it.”

Form there, Strout describes the rest of the process as a bit hectic. “Plans were quickly made to record the album during the fall and have everything completed by Thanksgiving weekend— but it took a lot longer than it should have,” says Strout, who was initially a bit hesitant towards the final product.

Eventually, Thanksgiving weekend came and the record was far from completion. “[One of the hard things was that] while recording I would only get to hear pieces of the songs, and none of it was mixed yet,” describes Strout. Hearing the raw sound of the recording process, contrasted with his hopes of producing an album that would fit comfortably in his folk catalogue, Strout was a bit disheartened.

But then it all came together. Peter Lokey, who recorded and mixed the album, finished the tracks, and right when the fall semester came to a close, Strout’s album was complete.

“I was given the tracks right when I got home for Christmas break,” recalls Strout. “I sat down in my room and just listened to the tracks… and was really pumped. Peter was amazing to work with and he did a great job finishing up the album.”

Partnering with many other student-musicians, Strout considers himself fortunate to have such a supportive community of people who worked together to complete his album. In addition to Strout, who writes all the music, sings, and plays guitar, a wide range of other instruments were utilized to present a fuller folk sound. Piano, drums, viola, and stand-up bass are featured on several tracks, played by Sarah Maitlen, Evan Sieling, Blakeley Woessner, and Nichole Graham respectively. Also playing on a few tracks are Blake Holderread with lap-steel guitar, Lucas Harger with banjo and guitar, Jay Wilde with trumpet, and myself with mandolin.

All in all, Luggage Rack contains 11 tracks with a final instrumental reprise. “The last one was all Blakeley’s improvised composition,” says Strout, who thinks it is a fitting way to close out the album. “And I think it might also be my favorite song.”

With the first shipment of CD’s just arriving, Strout is anxious to share his music with the Greenville community. Strout and Co. is preparing to offer a full band performance for the release show on March 9th in the Blackroom With the anticipation of more shows in the future—possibly even a small summer tour—Strout is fully embracing whatever direction Luggage Rack takes him.

Join the Greenville community on March 9th in welcoming the official debut of Zach Strout’s album Luggage Rack.

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