Zak Trojano carries a warm baritone supported by an old Martin guitar and low tuned Weissenborn lap steel. His third album, Wolf Trees (out August 10th) is a move towards high definition from a songwriter whose pictorial lyrics are lauded for their cinematic imagery. From the driving notes of album opener “Kid’s Got Heart”, Trojano draws the curtain, with scene setting lines (the poets take it on the chin for the bells that ring right through you), on a production that provides shape and motion to the screenshot temperament of life in the modern world.
Trojano’s complex fingerstyle technique was born out of the country blues tradition through years of immersion in the work of players as diverse as John Fahey, Chet Atkins, and Merle Travis. It was the exploration of solo performance that led to the guiding aesthetic of Wolf Trees. The songs were written as movements in a larger piece, with textures and themes resurfacing in longer arcs to bind the whole together. A wolf tree is a stoic figure – a passed over remnant of a distant, wilder world, where there was more space between things. Trojano has woven nine songs into an album that’s very form calls attention to the thin rapidity of modern life. Like admiring the forest view from atop a white pine cell tower, or losing yourself in the colors of a flat-screen sunset, Wolf Trees dares us to hold tight to current beauty while we remember a different time.
Trojano opted to leave behind the lush string and horn arrangements of his last record (Yesterday’s Sun) in favor of a true solo album on which he plays and sings every note. All guitars were tuned to a low C modal tuning, and sent through various amplifiers to combine their acoustic and electric properties into a large, dark, and open sound. With the help of longtime friend and producer David Goodrich (Chris Smither, Jeffrey Foucault), and engineer Justin Pizzoferratto (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth) they captured a record delicately balanced between the acoustic intimacy of a coffeehouse and the wild volume of a midnight rock club.
“Nowhere Shuffle” is a dark, minor, ballad with a halftime groove reminiscent of a lost 70’s acoustic Pink Floyd album. It’s an oblique commentary on the modern addiction to electronic devices (Bowed heads and praying hands/nowhere with everyone at once) through the eyes of someone witnessing a Zombie apocalypse. The playful introspection of “My Room” deals with the ups and downs of solitude; the vacillation of the hermitic spirit between feeling safe and feeling alone (I’ll be fine here in my room while the roses bloom outside/how come they never come to me unless they’re cut down in their prime? I’ll bide my time). “Everyone Knows You” is epic by nature – a telescopic view of a world where everybody is famous and the worst among us have risen to the top – a rock anthem with an unusual form propelled by a rising vibrato and half-smiling social commentary (It’s the march of the egg man/boiled and white/pale as a junkie at noon watch him roll).
The title track is a reconciliation of dreams with reality with an adventurous melody that holds the listener through the trials of finding an anchor in the world (How could I begin to tell you how/easy it would be to find a place for now/in the soft light of the almost dark/where the wolf trees howl through the park for you).
In recent years, Trojano’s solo work has found the spotlight with discerning listeners everywhere. Stage by stage, in clubs, music halls, bars, and coffeehouses across the country, he has honed a live show that keeps audiences glued to the stage – like a rare conversation with an old friend who doesn’t usually say much, but plays a mean guitar.
He’s spent over a decade writing, recording and performing music professionally with Rusty Belle, the band he co-founded, and supporting touring acts like Chris Smither, Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault and Peter Mulvey. The guitar shares the spotlight on Wolf Trees, shining through simple arrangements that coalesce around Trojano’s lyrics for music that, “is made from a whole cloth, it’s from a long time ago that feels like yesterday” (Peter Mulvey). From the old records, and the trading stories over many miles and sequestered greenrooms with greats like Smither and Foucault, Trojano has found that illusive voice that can produce a record that looks forward as much as it looks back.
Glide recently had the chance to talk to Trojano about his guitar work and new album…
Can you please explain the idea behind the album title and where do you see this album in your creative timeline? Is this album your apex or do you see this as the middle of your trajectory of where you want to go creatively with your studio records?
I was reading somewhere about wolf trees. There are different definitions, but the one I like best is: An old growth tree (usually deciduous) that has been left behind when a field has been cleared for farm or pasture. They tend to grow wide rather than tall because they have the space. It’s unclear why they’ve been left standing, maybe for shade or aesthetics, maybe they were just too big to bother cutting. Somehow they made it through, gnarled and cut with lightning as they are, to keep growing wild while everything around them has succumbed to the shining teeth of “progress.” I know some people that feel that way.
Every album, if it’s any good, should be your apex as an artist. Hopefully you’ve got the guts to reach just beyond what is comfortable, and find yourself and your work stretching to accommodate. If you’re working hard, and keeping an open mind, the next album will always have the potential to be more essential than the last. I don’t tend to think of things that way though. Peaks and lines are for chumps! Go circular if you know what’s good for ya!
Your press release notes that Wolf Trees dares us to hold tight to current beauty while we remember a different time. How much does nostalgia play in your mind when songwriting and what eras are most profound and creatively nurturing to you?
When I was ten or eleven, we rode bikes. We just rode them to pass the time, to nowhere in particular, and to just keep moving and see things. One day we were riding aimlessly down the road and we noticed something on the ground next to a telephone pole. We dismounted, kicked the kick stands, and checked it out. It was some kind of girlie magazine (a Hustler if I remember right) that someone threw out the window of their car. It blew our minds! We’d never seen anything like that. You can bet for months after that we stopped to check every time we passed that pole – hell I glanced at it last week when I drove by. These were pre internet (mostly) and pre cell phone years when we made things up and didn’t know too much. We didn’t know what any of the bands looked like. There were just mix tapes floating around school. I listened to Ginger Baker for years before I saw a picture of him on a CD or something… it was better before I saw the picture.
You are noted for your accomplished finger-style technique, one that seems to be under-served in today’s music climate. Why do you think its rare to find tried and true guitarists today and where did you develop your chops? Who are you primary guitar influences?
I think there are plenty of great guitarists out there. No one knows about them, but they’re out there! A couple I like in the finger-style idiom are Lyle Brewer, and Daniel Bachman. I don’t know why it’s not in style right now. It’s good that Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, and Merle Travis were born when they were or we might not have their records with us today.
It seems like popular music is primarily focused on vocal trapeze artists accompanied by some variation of a familiar beat. Maybe we’re stoned on American Idol or The Voice or whatever. One thing for sure is that artistic subtlety is rarely rewarded in todays climate, and finger-style guitar tends to be a fairly subtle art. I developed my chops by listening to Chet Atkins, Chris Smither, John Fahey, Tommy Emmanuel, Merle Travis, Kelly Joe Phelps…etc. and practicing as much as I can.
You spent over a decade writing, recording and performing music professionally with Rusty Belle, what does recording music as as solo artist most provide and fulfill you vs a band? What do you miss most about the band setting?
I loved my time with Rusty Belle. Matt Lorenz (The Suitcase Junket) and Kate Lorenz are brother and sister, great singers, and wildly creative. Making music with people like that is very constructive. A good band is greater than the sum of it’s parts because there is a constant push-pull of direction, and if there is a willingness to improvise and explore, you end up with something that no one could have come up with on their own. Working solo is different in that you have to create that push-pull all on your own. If you stay comfortable (which is easy to do) than you’re probably not making anything worth your time. One thing I like about playing and recording solo is that you aren’t restricted by time or form. You can speed up, slow down, extend, shorten, whatever you feel you should do in the moment. The only one who has to respond to your curveballs is you, though that can be harder than it sounds.
In terms of other artists who have made a career out of being true to their voice and living by keeping it real- who do you most admire?
John Prine, Chris Smither, Jeffrey Foucault, Peter Mulvey, Kris Delmhorst, to name a few.