Zane Carney interview – John Mayer’s guitarist talks in-depth about his debut EP

November 18, 2013
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Zane press 3
Back in September, Zane Carney released his much anticipated solo debut, Confluence. It combines his influences as a world class jazz guitarist and the dark, mysterious sound that he created with his brother, Reeve, for their bluesy rock band, Carney. Confluence not only introduces Zane as a captivating lead singer, but also a diverse songwriter.

Zane’s passionate, energetic, show-stopping guitar playing style has attracted the attention of some of the finest in the industry. He is currently playing guitar for John Mayer on his “Born and Raised” tour, as well as for Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. When music is not keeping Zane busy, he spends his time being creative in another way: acting. He is truly a jack of all trades and a master of all of them.

After the European leg of the Mayer tour finished, Zane took the time to speak over the phone with Music Vice writer, Laura Antonelli. They discussed the unexpected setback caused by vocal problems, the excitement and buzz surrounding him as a solo artist, and how he has survived being in the entertainment industry for two decades.    

You recently had to cancel all your solo shows for the rest of the year due to some vocal problems. You seemed to be battling it for a while now judging from the blog you wrote about it. What’s happening now? Are you okay? Any updates there?

Yeah, oh man, really good updates. I guess I gave all the background in that post, but I’ve been given some different advice this time around that’s proving helpful. They basically just said speaking in quiet environments in a healthy way is better for a recovery than pure vocal rest. It’s astonishing. Every day I’ll do a little siren which is a vocal exercise to warm up your voice. I keep adding notes to my range even though I haven’t had surgery yet, so it’s going real well. I have a feeling that when I go to the doctor again, they’re going to say either that I don’t need surgery or it’s much less invasive than they originally thought. Not speaking loudly or singing is healing things though, so that’s the update.

So you’re feeling pretty good about it now then?                                           

I am. I was just looking at our schedule on John Mayer’s website and we’re playing in Australia in April. I’ve been given an offer to perform at the Byron Bay Bluesfest the same day that John plays, but just on a smaller stage doing my own thing. So that’s the day I’m looking to be all better. I want to get recovered by mid-February, do some gigs, and get ready for that April Byron Bay Bluesfest show. So I’ll have an exciting come back [laughs].   

Yeah, you just got back from Europe playing guitar for John Mayer. How was that experience?

Yeah, it was great. We’ve been doing a lot of world travelling in the past two months. We’ve gone to South America, Denmark, Amsterdam, Norway. Every audience has such a different character and quality. It’s just nice to get to know how to perform for different cultures. It’s a great learning experience.

What has changed the most for you? It seems like your fan base has grown a great deal since you’ve been working with John Mayer?

Yeah, absolutely … John Mayer’s fans are music nerds and I mean that in the best way possible because I consider myself one too. It’s been cool to have guitar players who are just so passionate about the way that they play and they’re asking me questions. They want me to sign my guitar pics for them. It’s just an honour to have up and coming guitar players say that they’re looking up to me. I’m like, “What the heck?” I’m not old enough to be looked up to yet. [laughs] I’m just lucky to be playing with John, so it’s special.         

Well, you’ve been playing guitar since you were 10 years old, so why did you decide to debut as a singer/songwriter now?

I guess it felt like a necessity because Reeve has been given so many great opportunities to act. He was the star of Spider-Man [on Broadway], he’s been cast as Jeff Buckley in an upcoming biopic, and now he’s playing this character in a Showtime television program [Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful.] The offers and opportunities have just been too salivating. Is that the right word? They just seem too good for him to turn down. Over the past three years, Carney has sort of been halted, and it’s all been for good stuff for both him and me. There came a point about a year and a half ago when I was talking to Reeve and said, “When do you think we will be able to get back to creating?” I realized that I didn’t want to put any pressure on him to stop his creative train. I also knew deep down that I wanted to create my own music as opposed to being hired by someone else to play their parts. I thought that there was one of two things that I could do: I could just play guitar music and do an instrumental album like Jeff Beck or Wes Montgomery would do. Or I thought, “Well, I spent so much time and energy in learning how to sing background vocals for Carney. Let’s see if there’s anything there.” So, I contacted my vocal teacher and said that I might want to work on lead vocals now. I obviously should have taken more lessons because I wouldn’t have blown out my voice like I did last month [laughs], but I had enough confidence to see what was there.

Once I wrote a song or two and heard the feedback from people, it seemed like it might be something worth investigating. It suddenly then just snowballed once John Mayer called me. It was just something about him calling me. It kind of lit a fire underneath me. I basically said to myself, “Okay, here’s an opportunity to play guitar for someone. Do you really want to try to write your own songs because people are continuing to ask you to play their songs?” I kind of answered the question and said to myself, “Yeah, I do want to write my own material.” So being hired by John actually made me work even harder on my stuff. Here we are now and the album’s been released. It’s wild.   

Zane Carney Confluence coverYeah, let’s talk about your EP. It’s called Confluence. I think the title matches well with what’s happening musically on it. Because it’s like a merging of all your different musical styles such as jazz, blues, pop, and rock and roll. So was that your intention with the title too?

Yeah, well, that’s great that you picked up on that. That’s cool. I mean, it’s funny. You even worded it more simplistically. My goal was kind of to express that I’ve had a message verbally that I’ve wanted to share every day that I wake up. I just love communicating what I’m feeling, experiencing, and learning. The confluence for me personally was that music was finally linking up with my thoughts [laughs] or my words. The things that I maybe couldn’t express as succinctly with the guitar, I could now say with the lyrics. So that was kind of the merge that I was excited about. It’s still a challenging merge for me. I’ve been so grateful to have the guitar be a natural upward movement since I started playing. But with singing, I’ve just had all these setbacks with my voice kind of breaking down. So it’s been a struggle, but I’m so excited that they finally found out what is actually going on with my voice, and they are going to fix it for the first time ever. I have the EP out, though. People are hearing what I sound like when I do sing and what I’m interested in writing about, so I guess it’s all happening in a pace that it’s supposed to be. It’s exciting.          

Yeah, you mentioned Carney earlier. The song that reminds me the most of Carney’s music on the EP is “Fade to Black” —

Oh, absolutely [laughs]. I was actually nervous about doing that song a little bit because I thought people would think that I was trying to jack my actual band’s style [laughs]. I guess you can’t really jack your own band’s style? I guess that’s just how you are. When I was writing the song and hadn’t finished all the lyrics, I thought, “What the heck? This sounds a little bit like ‘Testify’ but this is exciting, I have to finish it.” I mean, in my live set, “Fade to Black” is a moment when the song could be six minutes or it could be 13 [laughs]. I kind of take my time with it, but it’s cool that you noticed that.

So what was the inspiration behind it?     

Well, to be honest, I was talking to Gabrielle Aplin. She opened for John Mayer on the Europe tour. I found out that she’s a huge T.S. Eliot fan. I shared with her what I will share with you right now being that I was reading a bunch of T.S. Eliot. I was looking through the pages and thinking, “Man, I wish that I could write a song that had lyrics somewhat like this freaking amazing poetry.” There was one page of a poem. I think it was T.S. Eliot. To be honest, it might have been in a collected works book, so it might not have been him for this line. It said, “See how it weeps,” something like that. Something about that lyric, I don’t know why that line hit me. So I threw the beginning of it into “Fade to Black.” I then said, “What the heck? Why don’t I just write a whole song that has these overtly poetic sounding lines?” I’d been listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, so I thought, “What if I do poetic lines with a story behind it?” I was also actually listening to some Wes Montgomery and he has a recording called, “Willow Weep For Me.” Something about the word “willow” came to my mind. I started writing the whole second verse surrounded in this area in my mind where there were these willow trees. It was in a period of two days that all this inspiration just came in at once.

The night before I had a gig in New York City at The Bitter End to do my debut show about a year and a half ago … I finished that song in the taxi on the way to the gig [laughs]. I was just writing stuff hoping it rhymed. Reeve actually came up to me after the show and said, “I knew the other songs but that new one, I really like the lyrics.” I was like, “Well, that’s funny because I finished it 20 minutes ago in the cab and I don’t even know what I sang.”

I know there are people who enjoy digging deep and methodically fine tuning things, but, for me, I think the stuff I’m most happy with musically has been stuff that I haven’t judged and I just let it be. “Fade to Black” lyrically is one of those songs.

I noticed that there are two different versions of “Talk to Me Baby.” There’s a version on your EP that’s just your voice and then on YouTube there’s that acoustic duet version that you do with Raffaella Meloni —

Yes! Oh yeah!

Tell me about the evolution of that song.

I met Raffaella because I was cast in a short film called The Mermaid Complex. About two years ago, I was getting back into acting again [Zane was a child actor on the sitcom, Dave’s World] as part of that whole thing with Carney being on a halt. I realized that the [guitar-playing] jobs I was being offered were the same jobs I was offered seven or eight years ago when I was only interested in playing guitar for other people. It didn’t exactly feel like it was a backwards step, but I had gotten to a place with Carney where I was allowed to create whatever I wanted. I didn’t want to go back to just playing guitar for people. I wanted to create. So I figured, “Well, maybe I’ll get back into acting.”

I auditioned in the spring and got the part. They found out that I wrote songs so they said, “Wow, this could be a real interesting thing. How about we have one of your songs in the movie?” I basically had just finished “Talk to Me Baby.” I hadn’t even recorded a demo of it yet. I said, “Well, I have this tune that describes the energy of the movie.” It’s about a girl who stutters and falls in love with this guy who is accepting of that, and he kind of encourages her to sing. I said, “I wrote these lyrics before I read the script but it’s pretty much about this movie.” They agreed and were like, “Let’s do a music video for it and use it to promote the screenings,” and so that’s how that happened. Once it was finished, I thought, “Well, it works as a duet, but I enjoy this song and want to do it on my EP on my own.” So the version you hear on Confluence is actually the second recorded version of it, so it came after the fact.  

I think “Doesn’t Matter Where We Go” is a fun song. It makes you want to dance and the lyrics are cute and sweet. I think out of all the songs on the EP, it has the happiest vibe. Tell me about what influenced it.

Yeah, something about a song like “Doesn’t Matter Where We Go” is that it’s a tune that never would have worked in Carney, but it is a part of things that I want to share based on my experiences. I couldn’t be able to express them in a dark, carnival environment where I’m the dude that has the long hair and kind of scares you [laughs]. … I remember when Carney started working at Spider-Man, I can only speak for myself, but I was extremely intimidated by the female dancers because they’re so talented, graceful, and beautiful. It turned out they were intimidated by us and especially by me because my role in Carney was sort of a little bit mysterious. … And the way that Reeve and I like to dress kind of looks a little bit like, “What’s going on with you, dude?” [laughs] Once they got to know me, they were like, “You’re like the happiest person. You’re positive. … I thought you’d be this womanizing, egotistical, rock and roll dude, but you’re not.” I said, “Wow, interesting!”

So when I finally started writing songs, I thought, “Well, let me just write as I actually am” instead of playing a role. I mean, I loved playing that character in Carney. It is a part of me, but there’s a whole other part of me too that I wanted to share. So “Doesn’t Matter Where We Go” just allowed me to do that. I had that melody and the riff on the guitar, and thought, “Man, this song makes me feel good, but I don’t know what the words should be yet.” I tried writing it about maybe something spiritual. I then stumbled upon the idea of it being fun if it was not a love song, but a courting song. The idea got into my mind that this was an art that is in some ways struggling to survive in this culture. The idea of courting someone [laughs]. … It’s a lot more about instant gratification now. I thought, “Oh man, it’d be fun to write a song, not from a different time, but from this time.” It’s just allowing me to experience that the possibility of courting is still a possibility in my life today. … So I guess it’s sort of a hopeful song for me to sing.           

What is it about “Cry Me a River” that made you want to cover it on this EP and at your solo shows?

Oh man. Well, one of my favourite movies of all time is V for Vendetta. I love that film. I watched it five times in the theatre. Now, to be fair, I did have a crush on Natalie Portman before she was married, so it wasn’t weird.

Who doesn’t have a crush on her?

I know, right? Girls and guys alike. I saw the movie and “Cry Me a River” came on when she’s cut her hair and the guy is standing there wearing his mask. I said, “Oh yeah, I forgot about this song” because it wasn’t a standard that I heard as a jazz guitarist. Most of the songs jazz guitarists learn, there are about 300 of them, and “Cry Me a River” oftentimes is not on that list. So I heard it and thought, “Man, these chord changes are great.” Barney Kessel, the guitar player, has an amazing intro in the song. So I went home and was just playing around with it. We ended up covering it with Carney at a show at Molly Malone’s [a venue in Los Angeles.] Arthur Hamilton, the songwriter himself, actually came to the gig to hear us do it. He was like 80-something at the time and it was special.

About two and a half years ago, before I realized that singing was going to be the way that I wanted to communicate as an artist and a creator, I was just dabbling with guitar stuff at my shows. … I would play a whole jazz guitar set with originals and covers, and then I’d say, “Hey guys, I’m going to sing a song too.” I’d see, as I think they should have reacted, that the audience would be like, “Why? You’re playing guitar. We don’t need to hear you sing.” So I sang the song and there was an overwhelming response at the three shows that I played in a row. They were like, “You need to stop just playing guitar. You should only be singing in your set. Why are you only singing one song?” So I said, “Oh, ‘Cry Me a River’? I’m just messing around.” They were like, “No, you should do it.” So, I guess “Cry Me a River” was the bridge to me believing in myself as a singer, so that’s why I put it on the EP. I mean, I had no idea that I even had anything there. I thought singing backup vocals was kind of going to be the most of what I did. “Cry Me a River” would just be for fun, but turns out people like hearing singing more than fast guitar riffs [laughs]. You know what? I’m happy to oblige, so that I can actually give people an experience that makes them feel better when they leave, not confused from all the notes that they just heard [laughs].    

Continued – Read on to page 2.

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Laura Antonelli

Writer, Music Vice Magazine. She drinks root beer in a wine glass and laughs a lot.

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2 Responses to Zane Carney interview – John Mayer’s guitarist talks in-depth about his debut EP

  1. BarbaraA on November 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Excellent interview. Thanks for posting!

  2. Sergio Marroquin on November 20, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    I went to high school with all member of Carney… Zane is an awesome person and an incredible musician . From our jazz band days to now great to see them all be so successful… Even as teenagers Zane, Reeve, and Paris have been very humble and amazing people it makes me happy to know that they haven’t changed a bit… And I will for as long as possible be telling all the people I know I’m proud to have known them along side Jon and JD and to have been friends with them. May you have a wonderful career Zane!!!

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