We interviewed Zach Benson prior to his performance on WXJM Live Online. Zach Benson is a JMU alumnus and musician based in New York City.
Interview conducted by Katie Weaver
Katie: How's life been since graduating back in 2019?
Zach: It’s been up and down. I did an internship in Virginia and then I kinda just moved to New York without anything going on. I was just like, “You know what? I've wanted to do this since I was 15. I'm going to go up.” It was the perfect situation because one of my friends needed someone to sublet for 3 months and I had enough to work with for 3 months. It ended up working out, I found a job and made friends. It was really good. And then Coronavirus happened and we all know how that went. [laughs] So I went back home and reevaluated and decided Richmond would be better than Brooklyn to be closer to family. That’s where I’m at now, and my personal life is good too. I’ve made a lot of music!
K: So to follow up on that, I know you started touring your senior year of college. Was that stressful academically or in general trying to balance both of them?
Z: No, not really. Let me try to put myself back in my senior year time frame… No, it wasn’t stressful. I really focused on school my sophomore and junior year, so senior year I was able to take a step back. I think I took 12 credits my last semester which was the biggest “Ahh, relief” situation. So in terms of balancing academics and touring and shows, it wasn’t too bad. I would really only play on weekends. Over spring break I did a week long tour and stuff would only be in DC or Virginia. It wasn’t super bad, it was a fun little situation.
K: How did you originally get into making music and what is your creative process for it all?
Z: So I have been playing music, singing, performing in a bunch of different capacities, whether it was musical theatre or drums in a band, since I was in 5th grade. Then when I got to JMU, I was sort of like, “I want to focus on school. I want to get a degree and I'll just put that all to the side real fast.” By the time second semester sophomore year hit, I was like, “Wow, I am sad.” [laughs] I was really sad I gave all that up. So I started slowly teaching myself music production. I was just doing covers and mashups at first. And then sophomore year I started writing my own songs. When I had a few that I really enjoyed, I decided to put them out on Spotify and iTunes which was a lot cheaper to do than I thought it would be. I put those out, I played a few open mics, and then it just kind of snowballed to where now I have 3 new songs and I have 3 new shows. That just went on through junior year until I realized I really wanted to do this. Now I'm in New York producing for other artists and making my own music. So it’s cool!
K: The true dream. Even though you’ve been making music lately, did COVID affect your music-making process?
Z: Oh yeah. COVID and being locked down really took away my motivation, especially at the beginning [of lockdown]. We had been talking about putting out an album since last summer and the goal was honestly to do it in March or April. And then obviously everything started happening. Even though I did find myself with a lot of free time, I was also just not in the right headspace to do work. I still kept my nine to five which I'm super lucky about. But yeah, it kind of took away my motivation. It wasn't until probably June or July that I was really like, “Okay, let's get back into the swing of things. Let's really nail something out and put together an album.”
K: Yeah, I feel like it was for a lot of people. It kind of varies since for some people, quarantine was a great time for them because they had all this time to just do whatever. But I feel like it takes the biggest hit on your mental health. I feel that would definitely affect any kind of creative process.
Z: Yeah, the beginning was definitely the biggest uncertainty. I was worried about my roommates too, there was just lots of stress. I wanted to focus on figuring out everything before I could focus on music and everything else. Now I think things are a little bit more aligned.
K: Agreed. Okay, so if you had to describe the type of music you make to someone who's never listened to you before, what would you say?
Z: Ooh. I would say my music is pop music for people who don't like to go out and party, if that makes sense. It's fun and dancey but kind of introspective. Good music to lay in your bedroom and stare at the ceiling or have a little dance party with your roommates or something. I think that's where my music kind of fits in.
K: Totally! So you've been a very influential person when it comes to the LGBTQ community, obviously, like performing at pride events, and like donating proceeds to orgs like the Trevor Project. Was that always a super important factor for you as you became a musician?
Z: A hundred percent, yeah. One of the main things that I wanted to do when I started writing songs was to sort of be the person that I needed when I was like fifteen or sixteen. That was sort of the main inspiration for when I first started writing. I thought, “What would fifteen or sixteen-year-old, Tumblr-era me be obsessed with and wanna idolize?” Side note, I logged into my Tumblr the other day just to be like, “Does this still work?” Seeing the dashboard and everything sent me somewhere. But to get back to it, yeah, it's my number one thing to always try to reach out to especially the younger LGBT kids. When I did the first Harrisonburg pride that I did which I think was 2018, there were so many young people in the crowd. Middle schoolers, early high schoolers... When I was performing, I could imagine myself seeing that and that would have been so important to me. So yeah, the goal has always just been to make my identity as part of the music scene as possible. Which I was scared to do at the beginning for the first year. I would play these house shows and there would be two rappers on the show, and then me, and I'd be like, “No, no…”
K: One of these is not like the other. [laughs]
Z: The first year or so of performing, I might have changed lyrics onstage. [I was] looking out into the crowd and thinking, “Oh, I don't know how accepting this crowd will be.” But then I got to a point where I was just like, “Oh no, I need to be authentic. I need to be myself.” So I started just dancing around and being hella queer on stage. And people really gravitated to that more than a timid and shy kind of person. Which was great.
K: I love that answer. I also feel like there's not a lot of queer representation in music. So slightly different question, how is this new album different from other music you released in the past?
Z: Ooh. I think this album has a narrative and a story which I don't think anything else I've put out has had. I mean I've pretty much just done short EPs and singles. And so it's a little bit harder to put a full narrative of something in a project like that that's like four or five songs. So when I was like, “If I'm going to put out an album, I want people to have a reason to listen to the full thing.” From track one to track eight. I want people to not just save one or two songs on Spotify and then move on. I want people to sit down with it and feel something if they listen to it from the beginning to the end. So I think that's what I'm most proud of. Like songs reference back to one another, some of the instrumentals repeat over songs. There's characters that you can pick out from the first track to the last track. So in that way, it's super different from everything else. But musically and sonically, I feel like it's just a little bit of a progression from where I started in terms of how tight and cohesive and professional everything sounds, which I'm also super duper proud of.
K: Yeah, I was about to say a lot of the music still very much feels like your brand I guess. But when I listened to it and “When You Leave” started playing since it's like the first song I was like, “Wait a minute, hold up. We got something different here and I really kind of like it.”
Z: Yeah, that first song. I had written that I think my sophomore or junior year at JMU, and then just kind of had it for a while. And then when I was putting together everything and starting to think about an album, I was like, “Wouldn't it be kind of iconic if the first song on this like pop/dancy kind of album is a sad ass piano ballad?” Like that would be a moment.
K: Also this is like a totally irrelevant question, but what's your sign?
Z: Oh, I'm a Scorpio.
K: Okay, I have one last question. Are there any upcoming plans for the future that you would be willing to dish out? Like what's the tea, what are you gonna spill?
Z: So as of right now, the things that I have planned are things that I've produced for other people or things that I've co-wrote with other people which is really cool. And I think I'm really obsessed with doing the more behind the scenes stuff, like producing for someone else or mixing someone else's song or writing with other people. I've really fallen into that over the last year or so. And it's just something that I have really enjoyed. So it's solidified that things that I've produced are going to be coming out in the next few months or so. But in terms of my own music, I mean I have things that I'm like writing and producing now. And I think I have two ideas in my mind of what I want the next project to be. One of them is like a Charlie XCX pop moment where every song has like three collaborators. And it's all just features on features on features on features. So that could be a moment and then the other moment is like a mid 2000s full pop punk experience. So those are my two ideas that I have. Neither of them have come into fruition at all. And that's just me spitballing but my goal is to be 40 years old and in a dad rock cover band. And by that time, classic rock is gonna be like Paramore and Blink 182. So that's just the goal.
K: Alright, great. Well it was great talking to you. Hopefully once COVID kind of eases up with restrictions we can have house shows again and you can come back to good ol’ Harrisonburg.
Z: I literally miss it so much. Yeah, the plan for me is l want to tour more full time and I realized that that requires things like a car and living in Brooklyn, New York and paying a lot of money for an apartment [makes it hard]. So I think my goal is to once this lease is up [I’ll] go live at home for a month or two and then move over to Richmond, Virginia and just like tour full time, so sounds great.
K: Well good luck with that!
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