Brock Zeman: The Words, the Devil, the Past, and the Future

“I found my voice, and finally things started sounding the way they do in my head” said roots singer-songwriter and producer Brock Zeman. “That was always important to me, and it’s guided me along the way.”

It has guided him through an impressive 11 albums, the most recent being last year’s Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back (Busted Flat Records). Zeman’s voice ranges from gravelly to barking to soothing as his songs span the deeply personal, the heartbroken and the rocking-out-dancing-like-nobody’s-watching variety.

“I spent a lot of time just screaming and it took me a while to learn about dynamics.” He explained. “Sometimes a song calls for you to scream the lyrics and sometimes you need to whisper them, it’s a different kind of range.” Either way though, the lyrics, the words; they’re poetry. Even in songs like the title track of that last album “Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back” where he is pretending that it isn’t poetry; it is.

Zeman has shared the stage with roots and Americana artists such as Steve Earle and Corb Lund. He recently came second place in the Americana section of the 2016 International Songwriting Competition, and in 2011 he founded his own Mud Records label. “Along the way I took over how my music was played and recorded.  That has made a huge difference.”  And as well as helping to make his voice sound like it does in his own head, the label is a vehicle to showcase further egregious talents such as Tom House and Lindsay Ferguson.

It all began in a small town called Carleton Place (“Beautiful little town, about a half hour from Ottawa”) where he started life with his parents and brother Ryan. “Like every other Canadian kid I played hockey” he told me, however like so many music makers before him, he also spent a large amount of his early years in his own company. “I remember spending a lot of time alone and wandering through the woods.  I would read a lot and draw.  I was always making little comic books and writing stories … and did a lot of fishing.”

Interestingly his family weren’t particularly musical. His parents didn’t really listen to music and there were no musicians in the household. His brother Ryan however was different. “He had a pile of cassettes in his room” Zeman told me “He’d listen to anything he could get his hands on from Run DMC to Iron Maiden to The Doors.  If it wasn’t for him I might not have picked it up.”

It was the summer before high school when the music began to take over. Previous to that it had been all hockey, and then something shifted. “I remember my Dad always at me about taking care of my hockey equipment.  He’d say, “I bought it for you, and it’s your equipment, and you’ve got to take care of it.”  One day I asked him if I could sell it to buy a guitar.  I can still hear his heart break.  He finally listened to me and bought me a ragged bass with a little amp.   It was all music from that moment forward, and I joined a band a week later.” His high school years were spent in punk/hardcore bands. “I would write zines, put on shows, make records for people, etc.” It truly was nothing but music from that point on.

But what about his dad? The man who’s heart broke when his son grew out of his hockey years. “It was hard for my parents to support what I was doing at the time” Zeman admitted, “but they did. They let us jam in the basement.  I can remember my Dad saying: It sounds like you’re killing a cat down there.  I’ve got to hand it to them though, they saw how much it meant to me and never once tried to steer me away from it and I’ll always be grateful for that.”

As it was song writing that interested him the most, he started honing his song writing skills immediately. “Early on everyone would want to play covers, which was fine and fun, but I wanted to write my own songs.  I probably wrote close to a hundred punk songs.  I had a hiatus from music after all the bands broke up and real life took over for all my friends.  Then the acoustic guitar made an appearance and I started messing around with folk/ country material.”

He has released 11 albums in ten years (all but one of which released on Busted Flat records). This has been made possible through constantly writing songs in his head. “When I started out I was writing a song or two a week, but quality over quantity eventually took over and I’ve slowed down.  If you want to be a good writer you’ve got to write a lot, and you’ve got to get used to failing continually, writers block and all those things.  “There ain’t no easy way.”’

He hasn’t been struggling through all this on his own however. Long time running mate Blair Hogan has been touring with Zeman for the past ten years or so, and his guitars, bass, mandolin and keys can heard on many of Zeman’s albums. “Blair sent me an email saying that he was looking for a job.  He told me he could play guitar, mandolin, banjo and keys.   I asked him if he played bass and he flat out lied and said he did.”

They toured with Hogan on bass for two years before “moving him over to guitar.” However it isn’t simply his musical ability that has formed the partnership. “Blair is a lifer and that’s hard to find.   Lots of people give up, get married, have kids and get a “real” job.  Blair doesn’t have that in him.  He can’t go without playing music.  And not only is he one of the most accomplished musicians I know, he’s always open to trying new things and reinventing himself.”

The pair of them have recently returned from a successful tour in Europe. “Usually we’re a duo with myself on acoustic guitar and bass pedals and Blair on electric guitar and foot drums.  It’s like two one man bands smashed together, a real big sound.  But for our first time through Europe we left out the extras and played mainly acoustic.  We didn’t want to scare anybody, and it will allow us to bring something new to Europe in 2017.”

The European experience was something new for Zeman. Coming from Canada he noticed how much shorter the distance was between gigs, but there was another key factor to playing in the old country that he particularly enjoyed. “They really appreciate songs over there” he told me. “It was shocking.  They’re not afraid to let you know they like what you’re doing.  It makes it so easy to play your songs and put everything you’ve got into it.  We did encores and double encores every single show.  It amazed me that people could follow the lyrics as well as they said they could.”

When he is back home though he likes to spend his time in that studio of his. He started Mud Records to release a record by his friend Robert Larisey, and it all grew from there. “I’d be perfectly happy down in my basement 12 hours a day working on material.   I love the process and devote as much time to it as possible.  It was a real game changer to be able to work on my own records, and have artistic control over what was going out.”

The quality of the artists he takes on is important to him. “I have to be blown away by the songs” he pointed out. “In the case of Tom House, I called him directly and asked him to come to my place and record.  I had been listening to his stuff for a year or so and was worried that he wasn’t going to release another record.  Tom House – Winding Down The Road remains as one of my proudest moments.”

Indeed Brock Zeman, a young man still in his 30s has a lot to be proud of. It was from last year’s Pulling Your Sword Out of the Devil’s Back that the track “Walking In The Dark” won him second place in the Americana section of the 2016 International Songwriting Competition. This was a much needed morale booster. “I’d been under the radar for nearly 10 years and it was nice to be noticed” he admitted. “I get encouraged easily, and this gave me enough fuel to keep scribbling.”

Zeman et al will be heading over to Ireland and the UK in October next year. In the meantime they’ve “got a couple festivals in the US and Canada, but we always seem to be playing and branching out.  I’ve produced the new David Olney record which should be coming out soon, hopefully with a tour involved.   Also, I’ll be releasing a 14 song concept album about a carnival in November.”

Seems we need to watch this space.

Originally posted on Alan Harrison's Rocking Magpie

Video credit: Brock Zeman