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Interview with Zach Mayer

Nat Seelen

October 5, 2021

Zach Mayer has been one of my favorite musicians for many years. When I first met him, he was living in New York City, playing baritone sax and singing with many of my klezmer music idols - Frank London, John Zorn, Deborah Strauss, Zion80, and the like. I even heard a rumor that he was laying down sax lines for Bobby McFerrin, QuestLove, and BigBoi.

So imagine my joy when Zach decided to move to Boston to study in the department of Contemporary Improvisation at New England Conservatory. For those who don’t know the CI program, it’s essentially the beating heart of the past 40 years of klezmer education. Headed by the inimitable Hankus Netsky, CI has turned out some star after star in the klezmer world: Frank London, Jeff Warschauer, Judith Berkson, Rachel Lemisch, Michael Winograd, Dan Blacksberg, Abigale Reisman, Kirsten Lamb, not to mention the many amazing folks working across a host of other styles of music.

And so, Zach Mayer moved to Boston. We are lucky enough to have him join for the inaugural concert of the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music to perform the music from his new album, Zamru.

I sat down with Zach for a few minutes last week to chat about his upcoming performance, where his music comes from, and more. Here’s a bit of that interview, lightly edited for grammar, clarity, and me not sounding like an idiot when asking questions.


Nat: Hey Zach! How are you?

Zach: Yay! Hi Nat. Good, how are you?

Nat: All right! Where are you?

Zach: At home, in my Boston living room. I just got back from a Simchat Torah gig in DC with my brother, Aaron. He lives in Maui, so it was basically a giant reunion for the two of us.

Nat: That sounds awesome. Well, why don't we start off with just a little bit about you. Could you just tell us a little bit more about how you got your start in music, and your path from being a young person who loved music to being a professional musician who's writing your own material and recording it in your closet during a pandemic?

Zach: So, I grew up in a family of klezmorim and from a very young age I had this exposure to amazing Jewish music. I started going to KlezKamp when I was seven, I started playing the saxophone at age nine, and I never really needed much motivation for my parents to practice.

I remember my mom saying, “Did you practice before your teacher comes this week?” And sometimes I maybe hadn't as much as I should have, but I wound up finding my own real spark.

At age 14 or 15 I was at KlezKanada when my mom said, “See that guy over there sitting in the dining hall? That's Hankus. Hankus Netsky. Go over to him and ask him for a lesson. Just trust me.”

And so I said okay, sure, why not? I like lessons, and he seems like a cool guy. So I go over and we set up a time to meet on shabbos, and it was the most mind blowing lesson that I'd ever received. He was able somehow - and it was like magic - but he was somehow able to listen to me solo, notice what I had listened to in my past, and then guide what I should listen to and transcribe in order to get somewhere in the future. And I still consider myself a dear student of his.

It began with jazz; I was focused on jazz more strongly than klezmer. Klezmer was always a big part of it. Just basically going to KlezKanada when I was a kid, I had amassed a fair amount of klezmer style. And then when I was out of Jewish settings, I found that’s where the klezmer really shined the most, when I would take this gem out of its context. Playing with Swedish folk musicians, playing with smooth jazz musicians - I did that for a while, you know - and also just regular jazz, it was always cool to have some of these Jewish music influences.

I like, I love, learning new klezmer melodies and transcribing new niggunim. I've always been able to compose songs. My mom told me that I used to say, “I have a bag of songs in my head. And sometimes one just falls out.

And I frankly think it's the same situation that happens. Now maybe the songs are already there, maybe a better way to say it is that there are already millions of songs every moment, they’re already in the universe. And if I tune myself into that stream of abundance, then maybe I could catch on to one of these new melodies of the moment and bring it to people.

Nat: Beautiful. It's a really good segue to this particular album, because the genesis of this album is kind of unique, right? Tell us a little bit more about where the songs come from and how you came to be the proprietor of them, if you will.

Zach: The songs, they all came about during the meditating sessions that I have outside my house in the park, after a nice long session of singing one note for a very long time, putting me into a meditative musical state. I will tune in to that source of melodies. Often I'll arm myself with a little text that I've been interested in - I'll say, “Oh, I wonder what happens if I bring the Eli Atah text from Hallel outside with me this morning?” And then when it comes time for the composition section, my brain latches on to that text. If I ever have a commission or someone asks me to write a song for them, I'll write to its specific text. I'll do that same method - I'll carry the text with me, and then meditate, then bring that text out and the melody usually sings itself, to some degree based on the flow of the words in the text. And then I just kind of edit it and sculpt it a little bit, let it go where it wants to go. It is a very intuitive process.

I have composed with more methodical compositional strategies and structures that I developed more deeply at the Conservatory. But this process in particular, maybe it's kind of an amalgam of those skills, I don't know, but it's very intuitive, this music on Zamru.

The album is very much designed to be sung in community. So I would repeat the songs over and over again on my own they're out in the woods and I would sometimes imagine what it would be like to sing them in the community. When COVID came about, there was nobody to sing these songs with, so I just decided, well, I want to get them out in the world and share them, and the best way I thought to do that was to record them on my own. I couldn't even go to a studio and I didn't know how to do this all myself, so I just buckled down and got a little modest but streamlined and effective studio setup in my house, then went down the YouTube tutorial rabbit hole and taught myself how to use Logic, recorded a whole album of songs and I'm really proud of it.

Nat: That’s beautiful, Zach. In this particular album, where do all the words come from, where are the texts coming from?

Zach:The texts come from the Siddur mostly. There are a few songs that come from just my own mind. For example, one of the songs, “V’tein Refuah,” the fourth track of the album is kind of a mantra. V’tein refuah schleimah v’kol ha olam: and grant complete healing to the whole world. A very simple message but very powerful for me when I'm singing it over and over again. Perhaps it might manifest some sort of healing, at least within myself, that gets transmitted by positive energy to someone else. It's a prayer, that's it. It's a prayer

Nat: Are all of these songs prayers?

Zach: They can be prayers, but because of their repetitiousness, I associate them more with mantras than prayers. I don't have any training in music that typically uses mantra as its basis, but I do know the power of repeating. Hebrew chant is very old, and I also have been recently studying with Rabbi Shefa Gold, who, through private one on one, spiritual coaching sessions has been cluing me into and validating my work in Jewish chant, Hebrew chant, how you can really unlock something deeper within your soul through repeating these words and texts. But for me the words are always just a vehicle to get the melody out. It's nice to sing words sometimes.

Nat: So, I really liked the image that you had of carrying around a bag of songs and sometimes one of them drops out. Do you find that when you find a song, you find it in its completeness, or do you find a bit of it and you have to kind of dig away and sculpt it to get to the gem?

Zach: That's a great question. The way I think of it is like an organism, a little plant. The seed is kind of this little melodic fragment and then the repeating, the singing over and over again is like the equivalent of watering it. You water it by just repeating over and over again. Eventually a little tendril or a shoot will begin to emerge. Eventually that little shoot grows into a second one or branches out. And so the melody arrives in very short sections. And then I know it's done when the plant reaches its full height, when it's full glory, beautiful. When I can look at it and say “wow, that's a nice song”. Wow, it has left me and becomes its own thing that I could appreciate for its own beauty. Yeah.

Nat: So on the record, it’s all you, but for the live performance there’s going to be a group of people playing with you. Tell us a little bit more about just the process of translating this work into something that people can play.

Zach: Yeah, as good as the music is, it can't quite get there, fully, unless other people are there to play it, and to sing it. And so the musicians that are going to play on this concert, Mat Muntz on bass and Utsav Lal on piano, they're really my dream players, and Grant Smith playing percussion. I haven’t recorded with him ever but I just love his playing and he can play anything so he's gonna be great.

I did my first Jewish music album with Utsav and Mat in New York and I feel like they just understand the intentions behind my music, they really just get it. You know, we have not played the songs yet together, live from this album, but I just have not a single doubt that they're gonna play it perfectly. And unbelievably, just right the first time.

The music happens to be a little simpler on this album, more accessible than my first album. The first one I was experimenting with odd phrase lengths, bizarre forms. This one is really, as I said, meant to be sung in community. And I think that they will translate the music, exactly as I intend, and I just love the spark and beauty that they add to it. Every time.

Nat: I know it's getting a little bit late. Just curious. After this year and a half of very weird times, especially being a musician, what gets you excited today about being a musician, why were you excited to put this music out into the world?

Zach: That's a beautiful question. It's a deep one and it's something that I think we all have to ask ourselves. Why we do what we do, to check in with ourselves, about our alignment with our purpose. For me, the music is when people are together, playing music in a room, or anywhere. I just think it's real, it's so engaging, that's what it’s about.

I'm very blessed to have such a loving family. And I think that my family and friends, engaging with them is such a life affirming practice. And music is right up there in my category of most important elements of life. For me it's really love and music, and the combination of those exists in the live performance or in the live collective community concert like this will be.

You know, getting a group together where there's professional musicians, family members, friends, and also people who just love music and want to participate, to jump into something new. To me that's what, that's a celebration. And that's why I do what I do.

I mean, sure I like practicing, I like recording, and I like learning new instruments, new exciting ways to make sounds and you know, ways to honk and to be loud and to be quiet. But it all comes down to the live event, to that special concert where folks are brought together for a holy magical fun, just for the hell of it.

Why are we doing it? Just to celebrate our humanity. We're gonna celebrate our humanity. And come together for a moment of peace, even though it's just going to be an hour or so. In that moment, we're gonna do our best to experience peace. And that's the way that I feel like I contribute to the world the most, is through providing these moments of peace for people.

Nat: What are you listening to right now, and do you have any recommendations for music that isn't yours that might just blow our minds?

Zach: Sure, well if you don't know, Jacob Collier. That is my first recommendation. I'm kind of in an obsession phase with him. I'm even one of his patrons on Patreon. I go to his monthly Zoom hangouts and, you know where you just pick his brain about amazing stuff that he's doing. To me, he's like the Stevie Wonder of our time, the newest model of the Stevie Wonder brain.

Oh, the other thing, and this is something I come back to over and over again, it is mind blowing every single time, it's the band Väsen, which is a Swedish trio. In particular their album Mindset. Oh my god, I just, every single time every little note that this band plays together. It's a trio of three amazing Swedish musicians, they’re masters on their instruments and master listeners and they create this unified sound that is just breathtaking. And I just love their melodies, too, from a composition standpoint. I've written many a polska based on their melodies.

Let me give you one more. Pete Seeger, in particular the album, The Goofing-Off Suite, which is an album where he does not only originals but also covers on the banjo of classical pieces. Like, he puts in some Beethoven, some Grieg. It's kind of this magical album and actually very inspirational and similar in spirit to Zamru, I think.That album really has this joy of playing solo, and exploring the fun, the beauty and the depths, and the whimsical, the whimsy of playing music in a solo setting. And so while Zamru has many more tracks, and I think his album is just him, a microphone, and his banjo, they are very related. Everything Pete Seeger does, did, is an inspiration to me.

Nat: That's really cool. I love the idea of Zamru being the new Goofing-Off Suite. I never would have made that connection.

Zach: Yeah, I don't know if it's an exact analogy, but if the two should be compared by someone, I would be flattered. I just did - I flattered myself there, I guess.

Nat: Okay, one last question for you, because this is the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music. You've been in Boston actually for a number of years now. What's your favorite thing about Boston?

Zach: I love Boston. In particular, Jamaica Plain is just my dream spot. It's got urban, it's got community, and it's got green space. And a great Jewish scene too, that I didn't even know about when I moved here. It was actually Abigale Reisman who recommended JP to me and didn't even mention the Jewish scene, but I love it. I kind of stumbled in and it was a lucky extra.

So, yeah, I just think it's a great friendly vibrant place to be, and I really love this festival mission because I want there to be even more of a hopping Jewish music scene. I want there to be epic Jewish klezmer jams or festivals like this one, so I really support this mission and want to do whatever I can to help and make it happen. Let's make Boston the new center for Jewish music!


First, join Zach on Wednesday, October 6th at 7pm for the release concert for Zamru, live at the Boston Synagogue and streaming everywhere. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-boston-festival-of-new-jewish-music-11-zach-mayer-tickets-161963927467

Then, buy the album at https://zachmayermusic.bandcamp.com/album/zamru and join Zach’s community at https://www.patreon.com/zachmayer.