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Rural Russack: How Your Surroundings Affect Your Songwriting

Zach Russack is a singer-songwriter from Hackettstown New Jersey, painting stories with his lyrics, and creating songs that are reminiscent of his hometown. This week, Stef from The MIC was able to sit down and ask a few questions about songwriting, his latest single, "Bedford Oak," and what's next for Russack. SJ: Hey Zach, very excited to finally sit down and chat. Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself. What is your story, and how does music fit into it?

ZR: Stefani! Nice to chat with you as well, and I am glad we could make this work. Since the age of 6, I found myself formulating chords and playing scales on a little keyboard in my home, making my parents’ heads turn a little and say, “What is up with this kid?”. I have always kept that ability in the back of my head while I continued to grow older and pursue other activities like playing different sports / actively playing outdoors with neighborhood friends. One of my old friends had a rock duo with his brother, and after looking at how cool music could be, I asked for a Fender starter pack that very Christmas/my Birthday. Best Christmas / Birthday ever! I then asked to join in on my friend’s band after hearing he needed a bassist and rhythm guitarist, and from that point on, I was hooked. We took lessons together at School of Rock in Hackensack (about an hour drive from where we were living in Hackettstown), which helped boost our skills and knowledge in theory, along with strengthening our stage presence and confidence. We were about 13 at the time. Ever since that pivotal period in my life, I have played in a few different rock / indie-rock bands through my sophomore year of college. In 2013 I decided to start writing songs on my own. Since then, I have kept music, songwriting, and production in my life that remains relevant and personal to me.

SJ: Who are your biggest musical influences, and how have they shaped your indie, folk-rock sound?

ZR: Elliott Smith is my king. To me, he provides such a level of sophistication, taste, writing production, talent, emotion, etc., that is unmatched. His inspiration has helped formulate some of my favorite written originals in my repertoire. He opened up my eyes to how cool being a singer-songwriter can be and that it doesn’t immediately equal a Simon & Garfunkel sound. Another big influence as of late has been Andy Shauf. He inspires me every time I listen to any of his records. His production choices, his talent on all the instruments he plays (all parts except for violin/strings, I believe?) leave me in awe over how such a simple-sounding song can contain such complexity. In short: Elliott and Andy are my automatic go-to’s for musical writing inspiration.

SJ: Your music is said to be a reflection of your rural New Jersey countryside upbringing. How do you feel you were most impacted by the landscape of where you grew up?

ZR: The accessibility to woods, open fields, mountains, hillsides, busy small-town liveliness, and big-city adventures has molded me into a strongly balanced individual containing both high energy and tranquility. Hackettstown brought me the insight of small hometown comradery where everyone knows your name, along with the chance to escape in the woods to find that magical lost portal to other worlds. Living here in Hackettstown (still living here), enveloped in the land that I have grown up with since I was young, tends to provoke the sadness of how my innocence is lost and will always remain imprinted in the fields and woods for good. That theme alone drives a core chunk of my written material.

SJ: Your last release is your single, “Bedford Oak,” which was a collaborative track by yourself (NJ), Mike Johnson (NC), and Josh Welshman (WA). Do you prefer to collaborate or to write independently?

ZR: I prefer writing alone initially, but I have admitted to myself that I have limitations when it comes to the production of other instruments. For my first album release in 2016, I was hyper-focused with the notion that all writing, production, and performance should be done by myself, which I followed through with. When I listen back, I am satisfied with the release, but with the realization that certain songs could have been opened up so much more if I went outside my box and worked with others. That is what I did with the latest single, “Bedford Oak,” and will do going forward when necessary. My great friend Josh Welshman is my main engineer, who I use full-time for all mixing and ideas when it comes to texture, layers, tonality, etc., with my music. Mike Johnson, who I met when I was 18, is an incredible talent ranging from guitar to synthesizers and production (and more). With the few production ideas I gave Mike for synth, I let him roll with his gut. What he came back with turned out to be some great atmospheric blends that really added to the single.

SJ: Released on April 21, 2021, how was this track impacted by the pandemic, if at all? Is this a new creative direction you will explore further in more tracks to come?

ZR: The pandemic pushed me to write something new out of boredom, haha. I have been sitting on many unreleased originals (that I am looking to put out soon), but this one-shot out quickly, and it felt like it did not belong with the rest of my unreleased collection. I knew it had to be separated out for its own release. We will see what happens with some of the future songs, but I am definitely looking to incorporate wider sounds than what I am capable of doing alone, absolutely. It’s all about what the song needs.

SJ: How would you describe your writing process? Studio or DIY?

ZR: Slow, haha. I tend to second, or triple guess the song’s potential, even if it has only a few starting chords. If I can’t initially figure out where I want the song to go, I typically let it go. Writing still to this day starts with the acoustic guitar for me. Most of the time, I write a series of chords, after which I have a melody built on top of that in my head. Whether that melody turns into the main vocal line, a repetitive riff/theme, or any other entity, it is the second and core piece in my writing formula. I record the demo onto my phone first, and then re-record the song onto my computer if it has potential and then builds from there. A majority of the time, lyrics come last, which is looked at oddly for most singer/songwriters I know, who are heavy lyricists and typically work in the opposite direction I work in. When I replay the version I demo out on my phone, I spam it on repeat with the melody in mind and think about what setting the chord choices, and song potential has put me in. Is it close to home? Is it a far-fetched story with no personal attachment? The lyrics will be up to the song, not the opposite!

SJ: What is Zach Russack working on right now?

ZR: For a few years now (since late 2018), I have been in the works of finalizing my sophomore album (name TBD). I am eagerly looking to put the record out in late 2022 and promote it as efficiently as I can. Between the life I live today with my beautiful wife and her children and my busy career, the songwriting and music grind has slowed down significantly, sadly. At this pace, it is hard to determine what will come after this second LP of mine. That being said, I want to make sure this album gets the attention that I truly believe it deserves. A lot of work has gone into it from myself and many collaborators, and it may be the best work I will possibly ever put out. Not to sign off on any future songs I write, but it is hard to tell how much of a future Zach Russack will have with releasing new originals to the masses. Keep an eye out for it! I am sure there is a song on there that everyone can bop with!

SJ: Thank you so much for talking to The MIC. Excited to hear what’s next for Zach Russack!

ZR: Thank you for this once more. It has been a pleasure :)


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