This week I spoke to Zak Sloan. As a plugged in singer/storyteller Zak steals the vibe of Petty and combine it with modern pop sensibility to create jangly pop/rock that is modern but never stripped of its blues rock roots. His music sounds like the Boss taught Matchbox Twenty how to fight.
His new album – Nowhere, New Mexico – is a nod to the small town upbringing that shaped him. Never one to hide his influences, the sound of the 70’s falls all over the record. He brings a small town sensibility to his music that calls back to John Mellencamp and Creedence Clearwater Revival without sounding dated or narrow. These songs are about love, growing up in a small town, the desert of the south west, and the people that have shaped his life.
Where to find Zak Sloan
Website – zaksloan.com
Twitter – twitter.com/zak_sloan
Instagram – instagram.com/Zak_sloan
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ZakSloanOfficial
YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/user/sloanzak
Spotify – https://open.spotify.com/artist/7xRtPMhaMLO9t7sjoLIA1d
Transcript – Download PDF version
SWR: Today we have Zak Sloan, a musician, a producer, singer-songwriter, up from Colorado. Thanks for joining us.
ZAK SLOAN: Thanks for having me.
SWR: Yeah, this is going to be fun. I like your story, so maybe we should start there. This wasn’t always your day job, right?
ZAK SLOAN: No.
SWR: So what I’d like to do is maybe you can tell us what your day job was and how you made the decision and say, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do now.”
ZAK SLOAN: Sure, sure. I started off, in 2006 I started teaching fourth grade. I was a fourth grade teacher for three years, and I loved it, but I was kind of starry-eyed, and I wanted to help more kids. I was only helping like 30 kids a year, and so I went to law school, and I became an attorney who represented abused, neglected kids. I did that for three years. I practiced law for five years, and after five years of practicing law, I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I called my wife, Annette, and I was like, “Man, I want to quit.” And she was like, “Yeah, I know.” And so I went to my boss, I gave him a month’s notice, and I started making music. I had made one record prior to that, but it was not full-time. So yeah, I was an attorney, and I quit, and I have never regretted it.
SWR: Yeah. What was, I guess, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, that said, “This is what I want to do”?
ZAK SLOAN: You know, if I had really thought about it, I would have never done all the other stuff. When I was younger, I went to music school first, and it was always like, “You’ve got to have a backup plan. You’ve got to have a backup plan.” And what happened to me is my backup plan became the plan. And so I went music school, but that was like, “Ah, I should really go … I’m good with kids. I should become a teacher.” I don’t regret teaching. I loved teaching, but … I got my degree in early childhood education, and then I taught, but the whole time I was teaching, I would spend my entire summer making music. I had like a little, at the time an eight-track and a 12-track and a 16-track recorder in my apartment, and I was making music. Then I went to law school, and I remember my first semester at law school, right before finals, I was making music instead of studying. I was like, “Yeah, C’s are fine.” I think it was just accumulation of years of me trying to suppress what I really wanted to do, and then after five years of practicing law, I just realized it was not for me, and I just walked away.
SWR: Fantastic. Today, what is your songwriting process like? You’re up at nine and trying to get to work, so do you say, “From nine to 10 I’m going to sit and work on music and write,” or is it sort of whatever you feel like?
ZAK SLOAN: That’s actually a great question. I’m still refining that. What I have, is I have a special planner that I use, which is the Rockstar Life Planner that a friend of mine actually makes. I love the planner because it doesn’t have … Let’s give you like a random day. Like it doesn’t have time slots in it, it just has big … You may not be able to see it. I’ll get it closer. It just has big blocks of dates, so what I do is I list the three or four important things I want to do that day. Like today, I know I need to reach out to at least five venues to book shows. I have some mixing I’m doing for a couple clients I work with. And I’m also working on my next record. So I have those big ideas of what I want to do, and then I figure out when’s the best time to do them. Like I know booking shows in the early morning is not useful, because a lot of times you’ve got to call the clubs, and nobody’s in until two o’clock, so I’ll put that in the afternoon. In the morning, usually the first thing I’ll do is I’ll either mix or record or track, because my ears are fresh, and get that going, or if I have some emails that need to be attended to, I’ll do that. And then from there I sort of stack in the rest of the day. And what I do in songwriting is that if I decide I’m going to write a song, like say I have an idea, what I wind up doing is I say, “Okay, I have this idea for a song.” I’ll use an example of one I’m tracking now called “Reckless and Ready”. I had this idea for a song. I reached out to a co-writer … don’t always need a co-writer, I’ll do it myself a lot … and I say, “I have this idea for a song. Let’s write the song.” And then we schedule a time, or I schedule a time for myself, and then I don’t stop until the song’s done. That’s sort of my process, is I won’t leave a song unfinished. I might edit later. Like I might go back and go, “Man, that lyric is kind of garbage. I better fix that.” But if I leave a song unfinished, it will never get finished. So that’s how I schedule it. I’ve got to be careful, because that means I never put anything after songwriting. So I usually song write like two or three in the afternoon at the earliest, because what if it takes four hours or five hours? That’s the most important thing I do, so I’ve got to make sure I block out that time.
SWR: I actually like that approach, because I’ll agree with you. I’ll write something and walk away from it, and there’s a couple verses, maybe a chorus, and it’ll never, ever see the light of day again.
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. And I also think it helps you really … There have been times where I’ve been two hours into a song, and I’m fighting with it and fighting with it, so I’ll just do a quick demo and I’ll listen to it. I’m like, “Yeah, it’s because it’s a terrible song. That’s why I can’t finish it. It doesn’t need to be finished, because it’s bad.” And that’s cool too. You’ve got to get through that.
SWR: Getting through that, does that mean … I know if you look at the industry, these guys are writing 300 songs a year, and pitching maybe, I don’t know, 10 or 20 of those are getting cut. Do you follow the same process? Do you just keep writing and writing and writing?
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. It’s funny, for my record I’m working on now, I had this idea that I was going to write 30 songs and then pick the best 10 and make an album. And so I set aside a couple of months just to write songs, and that’s all I focused on. So I got to like 30 or 32 or 33 or whatever and then I started tracking and demoing, and then I just sort of kept getting song ideas. At first, it was like, “Well, I’m not writing right now.” I was like, “That’s stupid. Man, if you have an idea, write the song.” So I wound up writing, I think I’m at … I have my list here … I’m at 45 songs now that I’ve written for this record, and I know that a lot of them aren’t very good, and that’s okay. But kind of more to your question, people who are writing 300 songs a year, I totally get that. I don’t necessarily think I have the time for that, but if you’re, say, pitching songs for other artists or you have a publishing company or something, it makes total sense to do that, because it’s kind of a numbers game at some point. You have to have enough material out there, so that other people will do it. A buddy of mine, he’s had two artists cut albums of just his material, but he’s been doing it 20 years. He had to have that material out there, and he goes through a lot of bad songs to get to the good ones, I’m sure.
SWR: That totally makes sense. My next question is what are your goals for songwriting? I’m beginning to wonder if any of your past experience … I mean, you said you really wanted to work with children and that really mattered to you … does that somehow come into your songwriting?
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah, because … It’s funny now for me, is like my kids who I used to teach all are out of high school, which makes me feel old, but thanks to Facebook … Facebook has its problems, but I appreciate it for the fact that I’m in touch with a lot of my students. If I start getting too pessimistic, I do have that thing in the back of my head saying, “You know, those kids that I really cared about, who are now adults, might hear this, so do I want to put that kind of negativity out there?” There have been times the past year, just being an election year where I was just frustrated all the time. At one point, I was like, “Man, I have a lot of bitter songs. I better turn that ship around.” Just because I’m unhappy with something doesn’t mean I have to express despair. I can put it in more of a social change or a movement context. And so those kids are always in the back of my head, and it’s not just the kids I taught. I used to represent abused and neglected children, and their lives were tough enough without me putting out more negative stuff in the world. Those kids, I was funny, because I would always just like, when I would be with them, we would listen to a whole of banging hip-hop, and it was funny, because in hindsight I go, “Well, yeah, they want to listen to a lot of songs about people enjoying life and having fun and things like that.” Even some of my kids from the roughest situations were into not only party hip-hop, but like Miley Cyrus and stuff, because man, life was tough enough. They didn’t need anybody else bringing them down, so they listened to music that was fun. So I try to do that. Even if I’m writing a sadder song, I will try and put some sort of positive spin on it somehow.
SWR: Fantastic. When you sit down and you have a song, is there a goal? I mean, I know you said that the goal was just to get the song out, be done with it, but now that you have this album, do you have a specific goal of these are the people I want to reach, or is it just I just want to get my music out there?
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah, now that it’s a business … When I did my first record, when I did “Nowhere, New Mexico”, I didn’t intend to put that out. I just recorded it, and I was into the mixing phase, and I was like, “Oh, this is not bad,” and I started playing it for people and they liked it, and so I was like, “Okay, I’ll release it.” But I had job. Now that it’s a source of income, I do have specific people I want to reach, and what I do is I look really hard at my Spotify analytics. I look at who’s purchased my album and figure out what my demographic is. And then I try and reach those people. I’ve run some Facebook ads, only a few, where I’m targeting women in their late 30’s and early 40’s, men in their, I think it’s 24 to 32, and about a 50/50 split of that. Teenagers almost not at all, because they don’t listen to me that much, plus they don’t have that much money to buy music with anyway. And so I have those specific people that I’m trying to reach. But I’m also trying to reach a broader audience, which is nice with the internet, because I can kind of do that. I’m pretty active on Twitter, so I’m always looking for people who might be into my stuff, and I’m chatting them up on Twitter, or sometimes on Instagram a little bit. So it’s like I have a specific audience I’m trying to reach, and then a broader audience that I’m trying to reach. At the same time, to the second half of what you were asking, yeah, sometimes I just want to put music out, and I just put it out there. So I release a single a month too, just to keep myself from being stagnant. Because it’s not like I don’t have the material. I’ve got plenty of songs written, so I’m cranking out a tune a month. I’m even contemplating going up to two a month, just to get it out, and just so that if you go my Spotify profile, if you stumble upon me, you can see that I’m doing something. I’m not one of those pages that gets put up and then is neglected. So I’m doing a little bit of both, really.
SWR: Cool. Okay, so you’re based out of Colorado. How is the music scene out there? I mean, I don’t know if it’s definitely a music town where you’re at. How do collaborate with people? Do you already have a set of people that you go to, or do you reach out to somebody else?
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. The first part of that, the Colorado music scene is not as good as I would like it to be. Not to say there’s not good players. There’s a wealth of talent up here, but before I ever played a show in Colorado, I toured … well, “toured” is probably a strong word … I had a band that was based in Lubbock, Texas, and on the weekends, we would go play Austin, Houston, Dallas, all those places. The Texas music scene is amazing, because it is the most supportive music scene I’ve ever been in. I suspect California … I don’t know what California is like. I hear like in the Bay Area, it’s a similar kind of thing.
ZAK SLOAN: Is it not? Okay.
SWR: It’s definitely becoming better. I mean, I think there were these high points. You look at the ’60s and the ’70s, a lot of bands, fantastic bands and musicians came out of here. Even in the 2000s, sort of. I just talked to someone who’s, sort of like you, a musician and a producer, and there was a scene in the 2000s, and it sort of just died when streaming and stuff came out. I’m based out of San Jose, and it’s sort of coming back up. I did a gig at a coffee shop, and it blew my mind. We were the only band that showed up with acoustic guitars. Everybody had electric, and it was a heavy metal scene in a coffee shop.
ZAK SLOAN: Really?
ZAK SLOAN: Like intentionally? The coffee shop, they were booking metal bands?
SWR: They were trying to do a band night, so it was the weirdest setup I’ve seen. There’s two stages, and one band was setting up while the other band was playing, and people drinking coffee, turning left, turning right, and watching band after band. We were the only mellow band. It’s not as strong as, like you were saying, Austin or even New York. LA, of course, the scene is fantastic, but up here in the Bay it’s very mellow.
ZAK SLOAN: Okay. Colorado has kind of a similar thing where … I think there’s two parts to Colorado. One is that I don’t think the clubs are necessarily as open to having live music, because the people, nobody really comes to Denver for music. People come to Denver for skiing and for weed, whereas if you go to Austin or Nashville or LA or New York, you’re going to go see a band. You’re going to go to the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. You’re going to go to places like that, so clubs don’t necessarily invest in it as much. But there a few, and when I find those clubs I get to know the owners really well, and I go and I support them, and then they support me, and that’s really good. So that’s sort of the Colorado scene, but the nice thing about the Colorado scene is that the musicians, by and large, are pretty cool. You asked how do I collaborate with people, and I go to a lot of open mics. Even though open mics don’t pay, and they’re not really great exposure, they’re a good place for me to work on new material, and it’s a good place to just meet a bunch of musicians. I don’t know what it’s like where you’re at, but here it’s the singer-songwriters who go to open mics, and those are the people I want to know. So I go to a lot of open mics. I try to go to one a week at least, meet new musicians, pass out business cards, and if I hear somebody who writes good songs, I say, “We should write a song.” I try to book it as quickly as possible, because I hate that thing where you’re like, “Hey, we should work together, we should jam,” and then it never happens. It’s like, “Hey, we should write a song together. What are you doing on Friday?” or whatever, and get that booked. Then the second way I reach out for collaborations, and I just did this. I released a single on New Year’s Eve called “The Date Was Bad (But the Night Was Good)” that’s a duet with country singer Allie Rose, and I had this idea for the song, and I wanted it to be a duet. So I just got on ReverbNation, and I looked at singers in my area. I just started reaching out to people, like, “Hey, I like what you do. I have this idea for a song. Let’s write it.” And Allie got back to me and was excited, and so we got together, we wrote it in an afternoon, we tracked it and released it. But ReverbNation, it’s almost like the Tinder of musicians. You can get together, and you can write a song, and then she moved to LA right afterwards.
SWR: I totally did not know that. I’ve not really actually checked out ReverbNation, so I’m going to have to put it on my list to look at.
ZAK SLOAN: ReverbNation is an interesting beast, because there’s a lot of people on it who … like, you can tell that there are people who spend money to get followers, because they’ll have like 10,000 followers and then like no engagement. And some of the most successful songwriters I know, they’ve put a page up and they’ve ignored it, but they have more streams than anybody else. They have like seven followers. It’s hilarious. So I always, I look at those numbers as vanity metrics. I don’t really pay attention to that. I go through and I like, who looks like they’re playing shows? Because then you know they’re active. And do I like what they do? It’s a good way to find talent. It’s not as impressive, I think, as some people make it out to be.
SWR: Going back to your work, do you have any established routines, practices that you do before you start or after you finish?
ZAK SLOAN: Like for writing?
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. This is actually something I’ve just started doing, well just like in the past six months. Whenever I have an idea, I always write … I used to keep it in my phone, I had an app, I used Evernote or whatever, and I would keep ideas in my phone. Then I read about how Kirk Hammett lost his phone making the new Metallica record and lost like 12,000 riffs or something crazy. So now I put it all in my planner. I just write down ideas. What I do when I decide I’m going to write, if I haven’t written in a while, I will just put a day in my calendar, “You’re going to write,” and then I go through my ideas. I go, which one’s cool? Which one is resonating with me in that moment? And I’ll start writing on that, and if the song turns out good, my post-routine is that I do a quick demo of it as quickly as possible. I very quickly do a demo of it, so that A, I don’t forget it, because sometimes I’m a master at writing a song and forgetting how it goes, but B, what I’ve learned is if I can get a demo out of just me and an acoustic guitar or me and a piano, I know pretty quickly if the song’s good or bad, because I can listen to it the next day in my car or while I’m walking the dog, and go, “Oh, that’s good” or “that’s bad.” And that helps a lot, rather than what I used to do of writing a bunch of songs and then trying to pick the ones from just writing them that I like, because I just picked my favorites that weren’t necessarily the best. I’m sure as a songwriter, you’ve run into that too. It’s like your personal favorites, other people may not really dig as much, because they don’t have that connection that the writer has.
SWR: Well, that’s an interesting topic, which kind of brings me to my next question, who do you trust after you’re done writing to critique your work?
ZAK SLOAN: The masses. I was talking to my wife about this last night. I pull up my Spotify analytics, and I’m looking at it, and I go, “Wow, I have …” Because once you verify your account, which as an artist is super easy to do, and if anybody wants to reach out to me about how to do that, I’m happy to help. Once you verify your account on Spotify, you can look to see what songs are getting played the most regularly. So I manufacture my set lists for live shows, because I was like I have one song on my record “Nowhere, New Mexico” that has about half as many plays as the rest of the record. Huh, that’s a song people probably aren’t enjoying. Cool. That’s good to know. But that’s in the post-production. That record’s out. If I’m trying to figure out what material to release, what I will do is I sort of start compiling … I stole this from Bruce Springsteen, by the way. This is not an original idea. I will write a bunch of material, and then I’ll look at what songs fit together in sort of a story, because not every song’s going to be a single or a hit or anything like that, but what songs sort of flow together naturally? From there I say, “What are the elements that a good record, in my opinion, needs to have?” You’d have, for me at least, one or two cool rock and roll songs, you’d have some mellow stuff, and everything in between. So then I get those ideas all laid out, and this is usually on three or four pieces of paper, I’ve got all this stuff. And then I will go to my wife, because she has to deal with me the most, and my bandmates sometimes, and I will just say, “Here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think of these songs? What do you think of these songs?” And I’ll bounce it off of them. My guitar player in my band is particularly blunt, and so if something’s bad, he’ll just be like, “I don’t like that.” That stings, but it’s cool. It’s good information to have. So I trust them. I don’t trust my mom, because she says everything I do is great. I do have a few musicians who I will ship stuff to. And then I use Twitter too. Like if I see people on Twitter who are into music that is in my area, I will reach out to them and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about releasing this single. Can I send you a demo, and you can tell me if it sucks?” Twitter people, they are very honest. They’ll tell you.
SWR: Yeah. That’s fantastic, because I just spoke to another musician, and she went her whole life thinking that she wasn’t good enough. Her parents didn’t like the music she was into, so it was kind of like, “Oh, you’re not good. Don’t do it.” But she sang in public just this one time, and somebody said, “Oh my God, you’re fantastic,” and that’s all it took. That’s all it took for her to say, “This is it, I’m going into music.” So that’s why I always wondered, before you release material, is there this, “Here are my five people I go to”? Give them a copy, “Get brutally honest, here’s my demo.” But you’re saying you actually go to the masses, and you may even pick random people off the Twitter and see what they like.
ZAK SLOAN: I think the most important thing is, is I trust my own ear. If I feel strongly about it, then I know I will produce it in such a way that it will help the song. And also, another good way, I think, for artists to figure out what material to release is to just gig with it a little bit, even if it’s an open mic. Go play at an open mic and see how people respond, because I released a single a couple months ago called “Porcelain” that I wrote, I really liked, but it was sort of outside my stylistic wheelhouse. I played it at a show, and I saw a woman in the crowd tearing up and having an emotional reaction to it, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I should release that song, because people, they’re like physically responding in a good way.” And I was like, “Okay.” And I don’t know if I would have released that song, and now it’s my most popular song on my Spotify streams. So Christina Stoner, if you see this, thank you. You’re dope.
SWR: That’s cool. Almost sort of like what standup comedians do, right? Test new material, go back. All right. Talking about that, what are you struggling with today? What would you like to change?
ZAK SLOAN: You know, running a business is not easy, and as much as I would like to be like, “Oh, it’s so great to be a indie musician,” I’m struggling to pay the mortgage. So it’s a matter of figuring out ways to get music out and do things that I enjoy, and find a way to make money from that and be self-sustaining. So for me, you know, that’s probably the biggest thing that I struggle with. And every now and then, I always struggle with “Am I not good enough? Maybe my music’s just bad. What if I’m just like that one dude who we’ve all met who thinks they’re the second coming of Bob Dylan, and then they’re just terrible?” So those are probably my two, is the financial piece and then that constant inner critic of like, “You’re not good enough.” I did a video with my friend Anne Luna, where she talked about her inner critic, about you’re writing a song and you think it’s crap, or you do a show, and people respond well, and you’re just like, “Oh yeah, but I missed that one thing and it was a bad show.” Those are the things that I struggle with quite a bit, and I don’t think it’s that unique amongst the musical community. I think we all sort of feel that in one way or another.
SWR: How do you overcome that internal struggle of good enough?
ZAK SLOAN: Oh, you know, this sounds bad, and I don’t it to be bad, but get out there in your music scene, and go find the people who are doing better than you. And take a hard look and say, “Are they better than me, or maybe have they just progressed their career in a way that I just haven’t got to yet?” Because there are some acts out there in the Denver scene who are, air quotes, “doing better than me,” but they come to me and ask for help with songwriting or production or how to put together a live show. It’s like, “Oh, maybe they have been doing it longer than me. Maybe they’ve done X, Y, and Z, and I haven’t done it yet.” That really helps. It’s not that they’re bad or I’m better or they’re worse, it’s just that we’re sort of equal but for where they’re at in their career. That helps me, because it’s like, “Okay, I don’t suck, because these people I respect and admire are asking for my opinion, so I must not be terrible.”
SWR: I totally get what you’re saying. I went to a show once, a band I love, and there was an opening act. This guy messed up timing and stuff, but he just kept going. Like you said, it sounds terrible, but for a moment I was like, “Hey, he’s actually making it, and he kind of sort of messed up.”
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah, that’s the thing. When you play a lot, especially in the live context, you don’t have to be perfect, you have to be entertaining. That’s what people care about. My biggest flaw as a live musician is I forget lyrics all the time, even my own songs, but I’ve never once had somebody in a live setting be like, “Man, I can’t believe you forgot the blah, blah, blah words.” Like, “Yeah, I just mumbled through it.” Half the time, bar sound is so bad they can’t tell anyway. It’s fun. And I don’t mean that in a negative way, like go looking for people who aren’t good. We should all support each other, but also go see that you don’t have to be Prince. There are those people who are up here, but there’s a whole lot of room for the rest of us to do well together.
SWR: I think it’s okay to be a lot less critical about ourselves.
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. You don’t have to be perfect. And I also feel that way … and this is just like me as a producer … It drives me nuts, and I don’t work with some people because of this, they get overly perfectionist. It’s like, “Oh, I want it to be perfect,” and they want to line everything up exactly on the beat, and I’m like, “You know, if that’s what you’re into, that’s cool. You should just do that with somebody else, because that does not resonate with me at all.” It’s sometimes the imperfections and the mistakes that are cool, and I dig it. And if you don’t, we’re probably not going to be a good fit, so you should find somebody else to work with.
SWR: But you think that’s part of what’s happening today, right? And I discussed this with an earlier interview I had. I keep forgetting the title of that book, but David Byrne’s book, he talks about recording and how opera singers back in the days, they were asked to do vibrato, because the recording technology really sucked. So it was a lot easier for them to do vibrato and then leave the real pitch correction to the listener. Apparently our brains can listen to vibrato and pick the right pitch.
ZAK SLOAN: Interesting.
SWR: Yeah, but it was done so often that everybody after that figured out, okay, if I am an opera singer, I need to have a very good vibrato.
ZAK SLOAN: Interesting. So the recording limitations built the technique.
SWR: Yeah, and now that’s what everybody does, so is that what’s happening today? You have Auto-Tune and perfect pitch, and everything is absolutely perfect on the record. Everything’s recorded at high intensity. Is that what people assume? Children will assume this is what it is to be a singer. I have to hit these marks.
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. Well, I think another thing with that too is … Funny that you bring up the recording technology, because when I work with, say, people who are based in the hip-hop world or electronic world, the equipment will freak out sometimes if you don’t have something snapped to the grid perfectly. And so then, it makes sense in that context, but then they’re like … One example is, I was recording guitars for somebody doing an electronic kind of thing, and they’re like, “Oh, but the guitars have got to be snapped to the grid.” I’m like, “No, they actually don’t. It’s not going to sound weird, it’s going to sound human, like it’s cool.” Finally I just let them do whatever they wanted to do with editing, because I was like, “I’m not winning this fight. It’s their record, so whatever.” But what becomes commonplace for one thing sort of gets pushed across everything else. Like I’m terrified for the day that people start putting Auto-Tune on guitars. It’s going to happen. It hurts me inside.
SWR: I believe so. The way technology’s going in AI, I’m pretty sure you could pitch-correct a bad bend or anything, right?
ZAK SLOAN: Totally. Just to see what would happen, I messed around with it, and I’ll admit, it sounds interesting. I don’t like it, but I can see somebody who’s really creative doing something cool with it. Because my bending technique … that’s the exact reason that I thought of it, is it like I had a bend that was off. I was like, “Can I just fix that?” And it was like, “No.” I just re-recorded it.
SWR: That’s funny. How do you get into production, because that’s part of your business also, right?
ZAK SLOAN: I, out of necessity … Well, that’s not entirely true. Now it’s out of necessity. Initially, when I went to music school, when I first got out of high school, I went to this two-year college in Levelland, Texas called South Plains College, which I highly recommend. I wish I’d finished. I didn’t. I took an audio engineering class where it was just the basics of here are the different types of microphone, here’s how you set it up to get sound. The whole point of that course was getting sound to tape and mic’ing up instruments properly. That was it. I took that course, and at the time, I was like, “I’m going to be the band. I’m always just going to hire studio engineers for that stuff. I’m never going to do it.” Then I became a teacher, I had written all these songs, and I’d always had kind of cassette, four-track recorder that I’d demo songs on. Then I got an eight-track, because I wanted to do a little bit more with my demos. And then I got a 12, and then a 16, and then I started doing my own records. I got to the point where, when I was releasing “Nowhere, New Mexico”, it was cost prohibitive, even though I had a job at the time. I couldn’t afford to go into a studio, and so I started making that record, and I found … what’s the name of it? Ohm Studio, because I had … what’s it? Steam, where you can download software video games and stuff. I just typed in “free DAW”, and this free DAW came up. And so I learned how to use it, and then I went, “Oh, this is not as hard as I remember.” Because I had learned on tape, where everything was very complicated. You were like, you know. And I never had to do it, thank God, but you would take a razor blade and cut the tape and tape it back together. But then I was like, “Oh, this digital stuff’s not too bad, you know. I should …” From there, I upgraded from Ohm, and I bought a nicer DAW, and I use Reaper now. I was doing it initially with just the plan to do my own records, and then I had a couple people who listened to my music, and they liked it, and they’re like, “Hey, could you do an album for me?” I’m like, “Sure.” So I did Dan Manly’s album, “Write The Book” We did an EP in a couple of months, just like right here in this space that you see. We set up his keyboard, and he did his vocals here. We cut everything right here. And it just became this thing where the more I did it, the better I got at it. And then after I did Dan’s record, I had another person reach out to me, and then another person, and then I did Jeremy Facknitz’s record, which was a really cool album to do. And it just sort of snowballed. But really, it was just because I couldn’t afford a studio. I don’t know personally, are you familiar with the RecordingRevolution.com?
ZAK SLOAN: It’s probably the website I credit the most with A, giving me the confidence and B, giving me the skillset. It’s mostly free. There’s a little bit of paid stuff, but it’s mostly free. It’s just this dude who makes a really good, convincing argument that … because he’s a professional engineer and a mixing engineer, and he’s like, “You know, the cheapest stuff you can buy in 2017 or 2018 now, is like the top of the line stuff from 1997. And they made really good records in 1997.” As long as I’ve been making music, I always say to myself, like whenever I’m like, “I need to buy more gear. I need this compressor, or I need blah,” I’m like, “Dude, you have more than The Beatles ever had. Shut up. Write better songs.” That’s the thing. None of it matters if you don’t have a good song. He does a good job-
SWR: Can’t blame his tools.
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah. You can have a Ferrari, but if you don’t know how to drive, it doesn’t really matter. So yeah, that’s sort of the long answer. It was necessity, and then technology allows us to do it. There’s not barrier to entry to make an album anymore.
SWR: Yeah. It’s definitely not elite anymore, and you don’t really need a studio, right?
ZAK SLOAN: No.
SWR: What have you learned so far, that if you had another go at it, you’d be like, “Okay, I’m not going to repeat this again”?
ZAK SLOAN: Oh, like a mistake that I really … You know what? When I started doing “Nowhere, New Mexico” … I kick myself for this all the time … what I did is I took my initial batch of songs that I recorded in Ohm Studio, and I had those, and I put those on the record, but then in the middle of that I swapped over and changed DAWs. And so that first batch of songs sort of got lost in the ether. I bet if I spent enough time, I might be able to track them down. But every now and then I need instrumental parts from some of those songs, and I just can’t get to them. I should have re-recorded all of that in my new DAW, which had a slightly better sound, because it wasn’t … It’s not because it was free that was better, but I understood how to use it better, the paid one. I should have re-recorded everything, and make sure that everything was consistent, because there is a quality drop-off, and I don’t have the capacity to go back. If somebody asks for an instrumental cue from my song “Whiskey Kiss”, I would just to re-record it now instead of just going in and stripping the vocals. So that’s a big one for me. And the other one is I that I spent so many years not finishing songs. I can’t imagine how many songs that I left unfinished, where I should have just done what I do now and just bang it out.
SWR: Yeah, that’s a big one. All right, this is our last question. What kind of advice would you have for someone who’s starting out today as a songwriter?
ZAK SLOAN: Hyper-creation. I think that the modern music industry is skewed towards the hyper-creators. What I mean is, I think the days of going two or three years between albums are gone. The audience will generally forget about you. And so if you’re a new songwriter, get yourself a YouTube channel, just make one, and just release all the music you can. Who cares if it sucks? You put it on YouTube, somebody’s going to say something nasty anyway, so who cares? Just start creating, and get it out there. People will let you know what resonates with them, and so I would say if you’re a new songwriter, just do it as much as you can, get your music in front of people as much as you can. That doesn’t mean work, necessarily, for free a lot. You’re going to play some free gigs, but don’t let yourself be taken advantage of at the expense of getting music out there. But get it out there as much as possible, because I think that’s the direction the industry’s going to go, or is already going. Yeah, just do it. It’s like anything, though, you’ve just got to do it. I didn’t get good at engineering and production till I did it. And I get better because I do it more. Just write a lot of songs, man. There, that’s the advice. Write a lot of songs. Just do it. It’s cool.
SWR: Be creating. I love it. Okay, maybe I lied. I got one more question. What would you want to ask another songwriter?
ZAK SLOAN: Oh, that’s a fantastic question. You know what, whenever I listen to John Cougar Mellencamp albums … or John Mellencamp, he probably hates the “Cougar” thing now … John Mellencamp or Springsteen or Joni Mitchell, or any of those songwriters, or Dylan, those classic songwriters who write story songs. I was listening to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Springsteen the other day, and I was like, “How do you write a song that is this detached from who you are?” When Springsteen wrote that, he was a megastar, but then you listen to that record and he’s got songs about people who are coming to California as migrant workers, and how The Man is oppressing them, and it’s like, “How do you … How?” And Dylan did that too. He was a rich, famous dude, and he was still writing some legitimate protest music. I always find myself sort of in my own world. How do you get yourself out of your own world and writing about others in a meaningful way that is not contrived? That always blows my mind that people can do that and do it well. So I would want to know how they do that.
SWR: Okay, cool. Thanks for joining me today and telling me about your process and the things you do, and I hope to hear more of your music.
ZAK SLOAN: Hey, you know, I’ve been enjoying some of your stuff too, man, and thank you for having me. This is a lot of fun. I’m sure you … I mean, you’re doing it, you know. It’s fun to chat with songwriters about songwriting. It’s cool.
SWR: Yeah. This is the best thing I’ve been doing lately.
ZAK SLOAN: Yeah, it’s a good time, and I’ve been enjoying, whenever I see your stuff up on Instagram and things like that, I really enjoy it.
SWR: Thanks so much, man.
ZAK SLOAN: Keep cranking away, man. I’ll see you soon.
SWR: See ya.
ZAK SLOAN: All right. Take care.