Getting to Know Zak Smith -- Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist
Zak Smith is from New Jersey and proud of it. There’s an incredibly large musical legacy in that state and Zak works hard at maintaining his place within it. As one music critic pointed out, “Zak Smith proves his worth with passionate vocals and concisely written songs from the gut.” What more could you ask for? Not much.
Zak Smith is one of 24 emerging artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
Kathy Sands-Boehmer: New Jersey seems to have bred an amazing number of terrific musicians, from Frank Sinatra to Bruce Springsteen to Whitney Houston to Zak Smith. Is there something in the water? It must have been a thrill to have one of your albums listed as one of the Top 100 albums from 2000-2010 New Jersey Artists.
Zak Smith: Yeah, that was really nice to be in that book. I love New Jersey. I was born there and that’s where I feel at home. There’s a lot of great musicians to look up to when you’re growing up there.
Have you been enamored with music for as long as you can remember? Did you grow up wanting to be the next Springsteen or Bon Jovi?
Springsteen yes, Bon Jovi no. I didn’t really get into music until the beginning of high school. When I did, though, it felt like it was the only thing in the world that mattered besides girls.
Your latest CD is called The Precambrian Age. What is the significance of the title?
A bunch of songs on the album we’ve been playing live for a couple years now, so putting them on an album felt like going back in time to some old things. It also felt like it took two billion years to finish the album.
I listened to samples of your music from your new CD and also from your earlier self-titled album. There seems to be a difference in approach and lyric content. Your self-titled album seemed a lot rougher and edgier, while the new CD seems more accessible to a different audience perhaps. Did you have a shift in thinking about your musical path?
I didn’t really think of it as a shift. The arrangements are a little bigger, but there wasn’t a conscious thought like “let’s do something different”. They’re still my songs, I can play them rough and stripped-down or with horn arrangements and a bigger band. The musicians that I like have records that sound different from each other.
It was very uncomfortable, there wasn’t a back to it, for some reaso. It was like a pointy steel bar underneath me. That’s the main thing I was thinking about, there were no thoughts about anything deeper than that.
You've said that you’re comfortable describing your music as alternative Americana. What does that term mean to you? How would you describe your sound to someone if they weren’t familiar with those terms?
Americana covers a lot of music I love -- Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, blues, and old gospel. My favorite kind of music is usually [when] songs can sound good with just someone playing them by themselves on guitar. That’s kind of roots to me. The alternative thing is because, if I just said Americana, I think people would have more of a Southern/countryish thing in their mind than how we usually sound.
If you had to detail how you write a song, what would you say about the process?
The best is when I just get a song in my head and it comes out like it’s already written. When that doesn’t happen one thing I do is come up with a verse melody or a chorus melody and keep playing and singing it, and sing whatever comes into my head without thinking about it. Then, if I sing something good, I write it down and go off of that.
What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?
The most satisfaction I get is when I write something I’m really happy with. Those are always the best times.
Take a moment and learn some more about Zak by visiting his website.
Here’s a video of Zak Smith singing his song “The House You Haunt.”