Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Zak Trojano talks about his new album, Wolf Trees, out now.
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Zak Trojano finds inspiration in the quiet moments. An introvert by nature, he gets musical ideas while patiently waiting for a fish in a stream, resting on an old worn stool at the bar with an ice-cold beer, or taking in the rich narrative of his birthplace in New Hampshire. Regardless of the place, his music flows with heart and soul.
Trojano’s most recent endeavor, Wolf Trees, captivates listeners with poetic lyrics, impressive musicianship, and original sounds.
Recently, we talked with Trojano about his life, his music, and how he’s evolved as an artist.
Cowboys & Indians: You recently released Wolf Trees. What do you hope your fans will get out of the new album?
Zak Trojano: As far as something new that they might get out of it, I think on this record in particular, I sort of found my voice as a lyricist, meaning that I seem to be comfortable with myself and writing from where I’m at in my life and where I grew up. I feel like there’s a lot of New England in this record.
C&I: So your upbringing in New Hampshire inspired the album?
Trojano: Yeah, I think it inspires all of them, but this one in particular really felt more comfortable using imagery and my voice and all of that from stuff that I grew up with, rather than something that might seem on the surface to be more worldly.
C&I: Were there any memorable moments between the production process of this album — from writing it, to mixing it — and the release?
Trojano: Tons. There are always. I think this was the longest album I’ve done. The time between writing songs, recording it, and releasing it was the greatest length of time, compared to all the other albums that I’ve done, which is actually pretty nice because it allowed me to revisit the songs when it came time to play them all live through the release shows. Just the recording process in and of itself was pretty memorable. It was just me in the studio and so I played all the notes on the record and sang everything. That was a really different studio experience for me.
C&I: Was it a studio you had recorded in before, or was it a completely new environment?
Trojano: It was a studio out in East Hampton. It’s called Sonelab. I’ve done a lot of recording there and I also recorded with a producer there named David M. Goodrich. I’ve done a lot of recording with him through other projects. I did a Chris Smither project with him and a bunch of things over the years. So the team was really cool because it was just the three of us and we’re all really comfortable working together.
And then it was set up in the studio so that I could just go in and play however I needed to or wanted to and improvise and figure out the songs. ... I didn’t have anybody to worry about, like I didn’t have to impress anybody. Those guys have already seen me play as bad as I can play and I didn’t have a band to worry about, so it was really kind of a freeing experience. I’d go in there in the morning and usually do, like, a half-an-hour, 45-minute warmup, which we ended up recording and will probably put in an album. We got enough good stuff out of that for an instrumental album.
That was really nice. And then starting the songs, I could just start them whenever I wanted to because they would just keep the tape rolling. And so I could start and stop as I pleased and mess with tempos and forms and all that stuff, so it was, really very improvisation and free kind of session. Lots of fun.
C&I: Do you have a particular musical style that you like to play more than others? Was there a song that you enjoyed playing more than another?
Trojano: No, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed a particular song more. One thing I like about this record is, even though the record, in itself, was written as a complete piece, instead of just writing songs all over the place and cobbling them together, I wrote them in order as parts of a larger movement. You know, like an old Pink Floyd album or something like that, where everything kind of fits together.
To me, playing them, they are almost parts to a puzzle. I enjoy them in that and in my mind, it’s like I’m always just serving the larger form of the record. Now that I’m playing them live, which is really cool, I’ve been just playing it straight through, live. That works really great. There’s a couple tunes, like the “99 Ways” one that I play on the Weissenborn lap steel, that just rock. It’s so fun to play. I could almost do that one two or three times a night, I think.
C&I: You come from a musical family: Your dad had a regular gig as a drummer and kind of taught you the basics of guitar. How do you feel your upbringing in that environment influenced your music?
Trojano: Oh, hugely. The drums, in particular, from the age of 10 or 11, when I started really playing drums, right through college and beyond, those early days, my dad would come home from work and kind of loosen up his tie and head up the stairs. We’d go over whatever I was working on that day, and, yeah, that foundation of having it in the family and also the rhythmic foundation, is just invaluable as a musician. I’m lucky that I had somebody to instill all of those things in me at a young age.
C&I: What’s your writing style? Do you start with the lyrics or your music first?
Trojano: It’s a little bit different all the time for me. This project was different because I was really writing, based on what came last and what I wanted to come next, so I was really writing, almost, puzzle pieces for this one.
I usually start with a melody or little fragments of melodies or grooves or something that I record on my phone when I’m driving around or when I wake up late at night and some sort of spark that happens when I’m not expecting it. Then I develop it and see what I might think the song is about, either some lyrics that come out subconsciously or if I have a song in mind, seeing if the vibe of it kind of fits.
Then it’s just who knows how it comes together after that. It’s just a lot of push and pull and fixing and changing things and then writing. I did a lot of story writing on this album. So once I got an idea, I would write little prose stories about what the song was about and then derive a lot of the lyrics from that so I had a narrative all built.
C&I: What do you think helps a song or a sound resonate with your audience? How do you try to make your music connect with them?
Trojano: To be honest, that’s pretty new territory for me in my thought process. Maybe it’s my age or maturity level or something, but I’ve only recently started thinking about how whatever songs I’m writing affect other people. I’m so happy that people get whatever they get out of it, but I do this job because it’s what I love to do. I can’t really do anything else. It’s my job. The fact that it makes people happy or inspired or engaged or whatever the case may be has always been kind of a bonus. Now that I’m getting a little older and thinking about that kind of connection a little more, I think it’s almost easier and I don’t want to think about it. Because everyone is so different that I think I almost do better just making the stuff and letting people figure it out on their own.
C&I: How do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist since your debut album, Two Lines?
Trojano: When I made that album, I was just getting into really becoming serious as a songwriter and a guitar player. Prior to that and during that, I was in a trio called Rusty Belle and I’d made the transition from being the drummer in that band to me being more of the lead guitar player and one of the songwriters. So there was this whole transition going on from me playing drums for all these singer-songwriters that I admired, like Jeffrey Foucault and Christ Smither and Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst and all these people. I was playing drums and seeing how they did the other side of the work. And so from Two Lines to this record, it’s like I feel like I’m just starting to zero in on having something to really say. It’s not just writing songs and seeing what comes out, but it’s like, What is my identity as the songwriting artist. This album is as close as I’ve gotten to having a good answer to that.
C&I: Are there any tracks that didn’t make it onto Wolf Trees that we can expect later on down the road?
Trojano: Nope, because I wrote it and each song was really purposeful. I wrote all the nine tunes right in order and we recorded them just the way they were. It was really planned out. What is going to come out of it is all of this instrumental takes that we got. Those are all just spontaneous studio moments that ended up sounding really cool. A lot of those are on the lap steel, Weissenborn guitar. I sort of lucked into this texture of playing the lines on that and harmonizing with my voice, so it’s almost like I have two singers when I’m playing the fingerstyle Weissenborn. So there’ll be a lot of that instrumental stuff coming out whenever we can hash it all out and get it together.
C&I: When you’re back home in New Hampshire, what are some of the best places to perform?
Trojano: In the state of New Hampshire? Oh, man. Where I’ve been performing recently. I just did a show at the Riverwalk Café in Nashua and that’s a fairly new place. It’s awesome. If you jammed them in, you might be able to get 80 people in there. Sound is great. Stage is beautiful and people are just all in it for the right reasons, so that’s kind of my new hot spot on the New Hampshire scene. Other than that, I do small shows and I’m still trying to seek out other good New Hampshire spots because they’re kind of few and far between, as far as I know. So if anyone has any bright ideas, I’d love to hear about it.
C&I: What’s something people might not know about you?
Trojano: They may or may not know this about me, but my other action, other than playing music, is I’m an avid fly-fisherman. That’s part of the reason I live out here in western Massachusetts — because there’s a lot of good fishing around here. My dream is to develop a tour that I can route so that all the gigs are close to the good fly-fishing rivers, so I can play the show and then go fishing the next morning. I think once I really get it together, that’s where I’ll be.
For more information on Zak Trojano, his new album, and upcoming tour dates, visit his website. Photography: Courtesy Anja Schutz.