This Thursday, August 27, gravel-voiced Ottawa singer-songwriter Brock Zeman is in town releasing Pulling Your Sword Out Of The Devil’s Back, his eleventh album. I recently spoke to Zeman about recording, playing live, and why songwriting can hurt so much.
You know those coffee-shop-discovery artists? Those sweet lost souls who you only find by accidentally stumbling into some tiny local coffee shop on a Tuesday night. The guy playing to a rapt audience of six, looking like this is the millionth half-empty coffee shop they’ve played on this tour alone. The guy who everyone in the coffee shop is convinced is a god, and everyone outside just asks, “Wait… who?”
Brock Zeman is one of those guys. In the last dozen years, this tireless and fiercely independent songwriter has self-produced eleven albums featuring a distinctive mix of folk, country, and rock, and toured the country damn near endlessly.
With his rough-and-ready recording style, his tendency towards dramatic lyrics (the title track refers to the joy of songwriting as “pulling your sword out of the devil’s back”), and his haggard, whiskey-soaked voice, comparisons to Tom Waits come easy. But underneath the scrappy exterior is a surprising vulnerability and sensitivity, with sweet songs about the joys of love and the pain of loneliness.
In the past few years, Zeman has been getting more ambitious. In 2011, he founded his own record label, Busted Flat Records, which has supported the likes of Matt Andersen, Ginger St James, and Jay Semko. And in his own music, the normally minimalist Zeman has been exploring a wider-reaching, more polished sound. At times, Pulling Your Sword Out Of The Devil’s Back even feels like a radio-friendly pop record, with a clean sound and even some radio-friendly tracks.
Now, Zeman is on tour supporting the new record. Before his stop in Peterborough, I spoke with Zeman. I sent him some questions, and here’s what he sent back.
The first song on your new album variously refers to the songwriting process as “a thorn in your guts,” living in “a house full of ghosts,” and “pulling your sword out of the devil’s back.” Do you find writing a struggle? A chore? A compulsion?
All three and many more. I don’t sit down and force myself to write anymore. I find it’s an all of a sudden sort of thing. The struggle comes from wanting to write something different. Always tricky and necessary.
Pulling Your Sword Out Of the Devil’s Back is your eleventh album. It seems like you’re moving towards a bigger, almost orchestral sound in some of your songs. Is that intentional? How has your music evolved over the years?
The music started to evolve when I started recording my records myself with Blair Hogan. Very intentional, and it keep the music interesting and fun for us.
There’s a good deal of heartbreak on this album, a lot of post-breakup songs. Is that a reaction to something in your life? Are your songs in general personal stories or fictions? Or both?
Most all of them are embellished vignettes of real life. Real life is plenty interesting if your eyes and ears are opened.
What’s a Brock Zeman live show like? What can audiences expect from your show at The Garnet on August 27?
They can expect to see two guys working their tails off to make you smile/dance. Trying to keep up with the production of the new record live has been a bit of a challenge, especially with just two people. I’ve taken up the bass pedals and Blair os playing kick and snare with his feet. I think we might be maxed out.
And finally, a question I ask all touring musicians coming through town: please name the top 5 things you know about Peterborough. (If you run out of things, please feel free to start making stuff up.)
1. The Gilmour Street Music Hall
2. The Night Kitchen
3. The Weber Bros.
4. The Mayhemingways
5. Diamond Dave
See Brock Zeman live in Peterborough this Thursday, August 27 at The Garnet (more info).
Photos by Jamie Kronick.