Interview with Jeff Zentner

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Hello Jeff! Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, music-related and otherwise, to do this interview with me. You released your third album, A Season Lost, this past July on Cities of the Plain Records, and it’s compelling, yet subdued, with songs steeped in reflective rumination and a foreboding frisson. A Season Lost was created after a tumultuous period in your life. Did the creative process of this album help you to move past, or make sense of, the tough times you went through?

I’m sort of an unusual songwriter, I gather, in that dark times in my life are not my creative periods. Rather, it’s the times after the dark periods, when I look back, from a place of relative safety. So I would say that A Season Lost is my effort to make sense of a dark period in my life. I wrote many of the songs on this album during this period, but they didn’t resonate for me at the time as what they were. It was only after my dark period that they acquired their meaning for me.

You’re a magnet for attracting collaborative talent, working with some of my favorite female artists like KatieJane Garside (on “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” from your second album), Rykarda Parasol, and Hannah Fury. Can you divulge some details about working with each of these artists? Were you in the studio with them, or did the collaborations happen online or by the post?

Those collaborations are some of my proudest musical accomplishments, by far. In every instance, they recorded their tracks separately, and sent them to me digitally. I have never met any of these women in person, although Rykarda and I are currently working on a video. Collaborations like this are one of the wonders of the digital age.

The roster of your collaborators doesn’t end there. For A Season Lost you worked with a passel of other artists like Elin Palmer and members of Arborea, and those who weren’t on my radar until now, like Josie Little, Susie Nagano, and Matt Bauer. What did they each contribute to your album? Were any of these artists acquaintances of yours before their album assist?

Elin Palmer contributed strings to almost every track on the album, and without question, this album would not have been the same without her contribution. She’s one of the best musicians on the planet. She would nail her parts so intuitively, it was like watching someone breathe. We even got to play a few shows together, since she lived in Nashville for a brief time. She’s one of the few collaborators I’ve had who I got to record with in person. She also happens to be one of my favorite songwriters.

Josie Little has one of the most pure and beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard. She’s far and away one of my favorite singers on earth. She lived up in Eastern Kentucky while I was working on this album, and traveled to Nashville to record her parts. Plus, Josie’s hilarious and generally awesome.

Matt Bauer is a great friend of mine, and I’ve been a fan of his music for several years. He contributed to a track on my second album while he was in town to play a show, and he contributed to this album while he was in town opening for Horsefeathers. He’s one of my favorite songwriters.

Arborea is Buck and Shanti Curran. These guys are also great friends of mine, and I’ve long admired what they do with musical textures. The song to which they contributed, “A Season Lost”, was a pure act of improvisation; lyrics and music. I just sat down and recorded it. And I knew immediately after recording it that Buck and Shanti would be the ideal collaborators for this song. I knew that they would add the perfect textures and harmonies, and I was correct.

Sumie Nagano is an amazing songwriter from Sweden. She is one of the most talented members of one of the most talented families I’ve ever known. Her father is an amazing visual artist, and her sister is the lead singer for Little Dragon. Her songs are absolutely gorgeous, as I’m sure you can tell from the song she sang on for A Season Lost.

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You’ve written that your geographical location informs the mood of your albums and you’ve lived in both woodland seclusion and metropolitan hustle ‘n’ bustle. Do you find one locale to be more conducive to songcraft than another?

I definitely need both. Unquestionably, I need to be near wild places, with thick forests and deer. I spend as much time outside as I humanly can. I’m an avid trail runner. But I also love the energy of cities. I love to think about so many humans—contained universes of memory and stories—living together and interacting. I like having access to the things cities provide. Great libraries and smart, energetic people who are drawn to cities. I love Indian and Ethiopian food a little too much to live far from a big city. Nashville is the perfect compromise in this regard. It’s one of those cities that’s so densely forested, you get this sense that if humans didn’t keep cutting things back, it’d take about 10 years for nature to reclaim Nashville.

A vespertine aura pervades all your albums. Do you find that you are at the peak of your creative powers as the day’s light wanes, or does the diurnal cycle not matter? I find that my mind runs best late morning to early afternoon – and late at night too, but then it’s difficult to shut off the creative tap!

I am at my creative peak in waning times, in times of fading. I love twilight. I love autumn. I love the margins of seasons. I love the hinterlands between seasons. There’s something about the times of fading that reminds me of the way that time wears things down. This is a frequent underlying theme in my songs, either implicitly or explicitly.

Touching on what you just mentioned, recurring themes of your albums include the changing seasons, the passage of time, the transience of relationships, the cycle of life and death, and the persistence of memories. Your lyrics are sometimes bleak, or at least candidly realistic, like on “The Motion of the Earth”, where you state “We have so little time.” Along those temporal lines, I think Geoff Tate of Queensryche summed it up best on “Eyes of a Stranger”, when he declares “All I want is the same as everyone / Why am I here / and for how long?” Do thoughts like these haunt you frequently or are they diminished by the distractions of daily life?

These thoughts haunt me daily. I think a lot about how short life is. I think a lot about all the things I want to see, say, sing, read, and learn before I die.

Moving on to a lighter topic, I hope, if I were to say that vocally and lyrics-wise you seem like a cross between Mark Kozelek and Mark Lanegan, how would you take that?

I would take that very well, because I think both are brilliant lyricists and vocalists.

I must profess that of all the fine songs on A Season Lost, I am most partial to “Fire in My Bones” where you sing with Rykarda Parasol. You’ve mentioned that this is a direction you will be going in with future songs. Is your next album taking shape or is it too soon to be contemplating this?

My next album is indeed taking shape. It’s exciting, because I’ve never completed an album with a more complete idea of what I want to do as on my next album. My next album will definitely be taking a turn for the darker and heavier; lots of primal drums and serpentine electric guitars. It will occupy the same universe as the music I used to make with Creech Holler, but with a lyrical content more along the lines of my solo work. I feel like, for now, I’ve said all I have to say with the quiet, introspective, acoustic stuff. I’ll return to it someday, without a doubt, but for now, I want to make some noise. I’m working with my friend Clark Simmons, who did the drum parts on A Season Lost, and is a tremendous drummer.

I read the lyrics to “The Motion of the Earth” before actually listening to the song, and I find your lyrics read like stark, evocative poetry. Have you thought of publishing your lyrics in poetry book format? Are all your song lyrics available somewhere online?

I’ve never thought of publishing my lyrics, but I make a very concerted effort to write lyrics that can stand on their own as poetry. If a line looks ridiculous without music set to it, it gets cut. That’s why I still make the effort to release a physical copy of my albums with lyrics in the album liner. For now, that’s the only place that they’re published. But now that you mention it, maybe I should post them on my website.

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You took up the guitar at the ripe old age of 21, if I’m not mistaken. Why did you wait that long?

Fear. The reason anybody doesn’t do anything. I was busy doing other things in the years from ages 15-18 when most people take up guitar. Then, from 18-21, I fretted about the fact that I was really starting to feel the ache to play guitar, but I was afraid to start climbing that mountain, and be a 21-year-old beginner. I didn’t want to do it halfway. Finally, one day I’d had enough, and decided that I would regret it forever if I let fear rule me. So I started playing the guitar with the sole goal of someday, clumsily playing the guitar in front of an audience. I thought that’s all that I could hope for. I had this poignant scene in my head of me as a white-haired old man, painfully ascending the stage at an open-mic and playing a few chords while the audience cheered my courage.

Of all the instruments you play, which is your favorite one, or does it depend upon the song?

I love to play slide guitar. I love the way it feels to play it; I love the way it sounds, that singing tone. But I don’t play it too much, because if you do, you get pigeonholed as a blues artist, which I don’t consider myself.

You’re based in and have played gigs in Nashville, which has quite a vibrant music scene. What have your experiences been like?

Playing in Nashville is difficult because everyone gets 12 invitations a night to come see friends play in bands. You learn humility very quickly playing in Nashville. You learn that you’re not a special diamond by virtue of the fact that you’re a musician. But I love playing in Nashville. I’ve never enjoyed playing anywhere as much.

You mentioned earlier that before going solo, you whooped it up as a member of the Southern Gothic band Creech Holler. Are you still a part of this band?

Creech Holler is on an indefinite hiatus. We had a great time and made music of which we’re all quite proud. We’ve all kind of become occupied with life and doing different things. We’re all friends.

I noticed that the song “Devil’s Eyes” which appears on Creech Holler’s The Shovel and the Gun from four years ago is also represented on A Season Lost. Why did you salvage this specific Creech Holler track, which you make your own to menacing effect?

This is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever not really written. This song would have never come into existence, but for my wife waking up one day and telling me about a dream she had, where she watched a woman walk down a river levee singing “you’ve got the devil’s eyes, I can see you every time it rains.” She said it was the most beautiful and haunting singing she’d ever heard. So I tried to preserve it. I got the first line for free, which is always the hardest.

We’ve already gathered that you’re no stranger to collaboration, which can be further evinced by your contributions to the album We Are Only Riders – The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, a tribute to the late The Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce. You contributed to its sequel, The Journey is Long, as well. How did get involved in this project?

Cypress Grove, the gentleman who organized this project, reached out and contacted me. This is still one of the coolest bits of musical fortuity that has ever struck me.

The list of musical luminaries is long for We Are Only Riders and The Journey is Long. From what I understand, you contributed your instrumental prowess to songs that featured Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, and Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell. Were you actually in the studio working with these artists? Any stories you’re at liberty to tell?

I wish. These were all collaborations from a distance. For now, the improbability of me being on an album with Nick Cave and Debbie Harry will have to be story enough.

Speaking of Nick Cave, you’ve said that certain songwriters, like Nick Cave, and novelists like Cormac McCarthy, Townes Van Zandt, and Leonard Cohen have greatly influenced you. I’ve been listening to Henry’s Dream by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds recently and my fave track by far is “John Finn’s Wife”. What is your most fave Nick Cave song at the moment or for always?

I love “Into My Arms”. But some of my favorite work of Nick Cave’s, by far, has been his soundtrack work with Warren Ellis on The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Road.

Jeff Zentner - A Season Lost

Jeff Zentner – A Season Lost

It’s just hit me that your latest album was released on Cities of the Plain Records, which is also the title of a Cormac McCarthy book. I suspect this is not a coincidence… LOL Is Cities of the Plain Records your own record label? I can’t find any details about it online…

Cities of the Plain is indeed my own record label. I got the phrase from the same place Cormac McCarthy did—the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. I love Genesis. I love its stark poetry and the majesty of its language. But it doesn’t hurt that McCarthy’s book by the same name is one of my favorites.

I’m more into British classic literature by the likes of Thomas Hardy, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf, but there are certain American writers that have struck me soundly, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. D. Salinger, and Flannery O’Connor. I’ll never forget reading Good Country People way back in High School… I’m thinking you might be a Flannery O’Connor fan. If so, what story has stuck with you the most?

A Good Man is Hard to Find is probably my favorite of hers. I really need to read more of her. I have not explored her work as fully as I need to.

As far as ‘work’ is concerned, you’ve got so much going on in your life, and music is just one aspect of it. You have a family and a day job, volunteered as a guitar instructor and technician, been an adjunct professor at a university, and given inspirational lectures at certain events. How do you balance it all?

With great determination. By remembering how short life is, and how important it is to create something beautiful before I die. I eke out time wherever I can.

You gave a talk  last year that was titled ‘A Walled Garden: Keeping a Sacred Creative Space in Your Life’, which I listened to and viewed online. The long title and possible religious connotations made me leery at first, as I don’t like being ‘preached to’, but your edifying speech was all about the creative spark and the survival of the human spirit. Can you go over the main point(s) here?

That was a talk I gave for a TEDx conference. My thesis was that the existence of primitive cave art is evidence of a fundamental drive to create that exists in all people, and that we are neglecting a drive as fundamental as the drive for physical survival. So we have to preserve a creative space in our lives to feed this drive. I conceptualize this space as a “walled garden,” that we protect from the incursions and demands of the world. I believe, and convey in this talk, that the drive to create is an instinct for the survival of our spirits, just like the drive to eat is an instinct for the survival of our physical being.

Lest we think that your life is all ponderous thought and grave regret, what do you do to let loose, besides getting a prominent tattoo of a tree on your arm?

I have a number of tattoos, all symbolizing chapters in my life. This new tattoo is a symbol of this past year, which was a very good year. I recorded with Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Mark Lanegan, and Isobel Campbell, I put out a new album, I gave a TED talk. This was a good year that I want to remember.

You’ve posted some acoustic guitar ‘n’ vocals covers at your YouTube profile. At this moment, what song or songs do you crave to cover? I think you mentioned wanting to do “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode… That would be cool!

I want to cover “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen. I’m working on a heavy cover of “Personal Jesus”by Depeche Mode. That’s one of those songs that sounds way heavier and darker in my memory than in actuality. My drummer and I are going to try to cover it with the same heaviness and intensity that it has when I hear it in my head.

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