ZACH SCHMIDT MADE HIS WAY TO NASHVILLE, BY WAY OF PENNSYLVANIA AND A WITH A FEW STOPS ALONG THE WAY. THESE PIT STOPS CULMINATED IN THE RELEASE OF HIS DEBUT FULL-LENGTH ALBUM THE DAY WE LOST THE WAR, WHICH CAME OUT LAST FALL AND FEATURED THE 10 BEST SONGS HE HAD WRITTEN UP UNTIL THEN. WE FILMED A VIDEO WITH HIM AT SANTA’S PUB, A KARAOKE, DIVE BAR NEAR THE FAIRGROUNDS, WHERE HE PERFORMS EVERY SUNDAY NIGHT. FROM THE WAY THE BARTENDERS GREETED HIM, IT WAS CLEAR THE HE HAS FOUND A HOME IN NASHVILLE, IN SOMEWHAT OF AN UNLIKELY PLACE, AS SCHMIDT SEEMS TO DO.
SCHMIDT TALKED TO US ABOUT NEEDING A CHANGE FROM SMALL-TOWN PENNSYLVANIA, SINGING ON STAGE WITH JOHN PRINE AT NEWPORT FOLK, AND HIS FIRST NIGHT IN NASHVILLE GOING TO TWO DOLLAR TUESDAY AT THE 5 SPOT.
Can you tell me about the song that you did for the video?
Yeah, the song I did was called “The Favors That You Ask” and it’s on a record that I put out last October called The Day We Lost The War and it was the first song that I wrote when I moved to Nashville. I was living on the floor of a friend’s office that was connected to his bedroom and I wrote it kind of about being new to town and having a different friend that would just ask things of me because she knew I didn’t have any other friends.
Can you tell me about the whole concept of the album?
I recorded at Ronnie Milsap’s old studio on music circle. We did it in two days and recorded it with a bunch of friends of mine that rehearsed a crap ton in the few weeks leading up to it and then just went in and recorded it in two days, live, pretty much as raw as it can possibly be. There was really no concept to it other than songs I had written over my life being a songwriter. They were just kinda like the 10 best songs I felt like I had at that time. And I was just like cool, I have no idea what it’s like to make a record for real, so let’s just do it.
What is the day we lost the war? Why did you decide to title the album that?
Well the first song on the album is called “The Day We Lost the War.” It was a combination of a few things that have nothing to do with each other. The first is that the song and the album is kind of reflecting a relationship and the war is a conflict within that relationship - that’s the first part The second part is, I remember being younger and watching President Bush 2 on the aircraft carrier saying that we had won the War in Iraq then everything just going terribly wrong after that, and it was a very vivid memory in my mind. After he declared this big win for the United States, and so many things going wrong after that, I feel like that’s the day we lost the war.
Where are you from?
Is that more rural or more urban?
Because you have an accent.
Pittsburgh’s a funny place because it’s 20 minutes away from West Virginia, 20 minutes away from Ohio, very blue collar, kind of a weird place. So you kinda have a lot of people who live in that area, have varying accents. But if you grew up in the city of Pittsburgh there’s a very distinct accent, kind of a melting together of New England, meets southern, meets uneducated and it’s just kind of a weird thing. They say “yins”, “Yins” is a Pittsburgh thing.
What prompted you to move to Nashville?
A combination of a lot of things. But, I was playing music nearly every night of the week in Pittsburgh, waking up early working a full time job that I hated, not really having too many friends around Pittsburgh anymore, seeing a girl that i didn’t really like… kind of everything in my life was kind of going to shit. I just needed a change. Anywhere would have worked, but I was touring some, living in Pittsburgh, playing a ton, writing a ton, but I wanted to take my music career a little more seriously than I was and not have it be a side project to my job that I had. So it was either here or Austin in my mind, and Austin was a little farther from my family so Nashville was a logical choice. I knew one friend here, the guy that let me sleep on the floor of his office until I found a place, so it just seemed like it would work.
Did it feel liberating like you were finally doing what you wanted to do? Or was it more terrifying and you had no idea…
No, it was extremely liberating. I was incredibly depressed living in Pittsburgh, drinking way too much, and overall in a terrible mood about everything. So when I put the two weeks in at my job and knew that I was gonna move, it felt like a million pounds were lifted off my shoulders.
It’s always nice when you have that feeling when you quit something.
Yeah, I think about that period of time a lot. You know one of the main things that prompted me to do it was, my sister was getting married, leading up to the Fall of 2013, so I thought, ‘She’s starting a new life for herself, I might as well too. I need to get the fuck out of Pittsburgh.’ So that’s what happened.
Did you think it was easy to meet people in Nashville?
I had an acquaintance at the time, now a good friend of mine. My last show that I played in Pittsburgh was a Saturday night. I was moving to Nashville on Monday and I met Joshua Black Wilkins. I don’t know if you know him or not but he’s a guy that plays around town and he’s a great photographer as well. And we talked for a while and I told him I was moving to Nashville on Monday and he said, “Cool, do you have plans Tuesday night?” And I didn’t because I didn’t really know anyone or anything to do and so he told me to meet him at the Five Spot at nine o’clock and I did and I walked in the room and he was there waiting for me with a beer. And we’ve been friends ever since, and he introduced me to - that’s back when two dollar Tuesday was the only thing to do on a Tuesday night so everybody in town was at two dollar Tuesday and he introduced me to pretty much all the friends that I still have, at least that were in town at that point.
So you’ve been on the road for a little bit. You were at Wildwood Revival and Newport Folk. Can you tell me about those?
Sure, I didn’t really do too much at Newport Folk. I went up and did some after parties that were related to the festival and the Family Tent which is a small little tent up there. But the first time I went up to Newport I kinda vowed to not miss it unless I really had something big going on in my life. It was an incredible year, I got to sing on stage with John Prine, which was very cool. Wildwood was really great too. I had my whole band down there and it’s just such a special festival. They can really pull big acts because it’s catered to that but it really has a small festival vibe to it. I think it’s like a thousand people or something like that. So if you’re there throughout the day you can see anyone ranging from us to Shakey Graves. It’s just the experience really, it’s a cool hang.
I feel like that’s becoming more of a thing - these smaller more boutique-like festivals that still have really incredible artists and really famous artists, for headliners at least, but they’re kinda more catered towards a specific audience. In this case more towards the Americana world, but what do you think that says about what’s happening in music right now and what the audience is wanting?
I have a lot of opinions on this but I’ll try to keep it short. I think that the general audience is wanting more substance than what they’ve been given. You look at mainstream country radio, at least, and think about people like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, and Margo, and you see, in my mind, a shift to substance and narrative in songs instead of calculated country songs that are written for the lowest common denominator. And I think with the festivals and things kind of turning to a special audience, people just kinda realize what people want. People want to have that experience of, I’m here with only maybe a couple hundred other people, and I’m seeing an artist that would normally play for ten thousand. I think people just want to have any sort of connection they can, one to the music, to the experience, to whatever they can grasp their hands to that feels special.
I feel like as an artist that has to also be more fulfilling.
It makes a difference to an artist when you get a response from your audience and you’re doing something and you can really just open your eyes for a second look out at everybody and everybody’s dancing along and having a good time and singing along. Wildwood was the first time that I really looked out and I could see people singing along to my music and that was kind of a crazy feeling for me.
Well it seems like Nashville has worked out for you. What are your plans next?
I’m planning a new record in November. I’m playing AmericanaFest and have some tour dates throughout the Fall but I’m really just focusing on writing up until the second weekend in November.
What do you anticipate the vibe of this album to be?
I don’t know that we’ve quite figured it out yet. I’m going in with an actual producer for the first time in my life. Once we get songs to a place that I feel comfortable with, I think we’ll kinda sort that out as it comes. I’m trying not to think too much about that because I want it to be kinda loose and open to whatever some other musicians might bring to the table but I think it will be fun and I think it will be a good point in my life, where I’m starting to feel the best about the songs I’ve been writing over anything else I’ve written in my entire life. So they’re just kinda flowing out easy.