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

November 18, 2013
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Zane press 4

I find there’s a lyrical vulnerability and a theme of heartache and sadness in some these songs. And you said in an interview that you wrote them in a time when you took a break from dating. Do you find it difficult to sing them live when you put so much of a personal aspect of yourself into them?

I find it harder to listen to them than I do to sing them. I don’t know what that’s about. Listening back to them, especially if I’m playing them for people, there’s a little bit more judgement of being like, “Oh man.” If I’m having a day where I feel closed off emotionally, I go, “Why did I write that? That’s such a dumb lyric.” If I’m then having a day where I’m self-accepting, I’ll say, “Yeah! Freaking first lyrics of ‘Talk to Me Baby,’ I stand behind them.” So it kind of depends on my mood.

Whenever I get into performing them, it’s so easy to get in that state of mind because they are naturally written songs. All the lyrics have been extremely honest. Plus, having a background being raised in the entertainment industry as a child actor, I feel comfortable covering my own songs; here’s the song: I happened to write it, but whether it’s “Cry Me a River” or “Fade to Black,” I want to get inside of what it is that I’m trying to share with people. I’ve found that a lot of writers, directors, and actors have a similar struggle as a lot of singer/songwriters. Being that just because we’ve written the material doesn’t mean we know how to convey it in a way that’s meaningful. Such a great example of that is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” He does it so beautifully, but, Jeff Buckley, there’s something about the way that he covered that song where it’s like, “Man, I would love to do the best version of my songs out of anyone” [laughs]. Another is Ray LaMontagne. I can’t imagine someone doing a Ray LaMontagne song. I can’t personally imagine someone doing a better job than him. I’m just taking notes from artists like that who I admire and respect. So I can find tools and ways to make sure that I’m not just assuming that because I wrote a song that people will get it. I will say it’s been an unexpected blessing to be encouraged by people at my shows and people in the industry to consider myself a lead singer. I get to kind of fulfill all of my creative ambitions at once: I get to act, I get to sing, and I get to play the guitar [laughs]. So it’s like all three are happening whenever I do my solo shows.    

I know Reeve is no longer with Spider-Man on Broadway. Do you still play guitar in the pit for it, though? I feel like you’re way too busy.

Yeah, I’m unable right now just because of the commitments to John Mayer. If I’m not mistaken, we have a little bit of a break in the touring for a month or two at the beginning of 2014, so I’ll be back at Spider-Man for sure.

I know it’s been awhile now since it happened, but what was it like going from being in a full-time rock band with Carney to being in the band for a musical?

It was interesting. It’s funny. All the steps have been forward. The Spider-Man thing at times felt like a sidestep, but it actually was just a forward push. When I was 16, I started playing bar mitzvahs, cocktail events, blues clubs, and all these different gigs as a jazz, blues, and R&B guitarist in L.A. But as things progressed with Carney, there was a subtle shift that I had kind of taken myself off the market for being hired because Carney was what I was doing. So I didn’t get called for as many gigs because people assumed, “Well, you’re doing Carney. You’re on tour opening for the Black Crowes. You’re busy.” So when Spider-Man came along, it was actually kind of a comforting thing. It reminded me of when I was in my early twenties and I was fortunate to be hired, as I am right now with John Mayer. Where it’s like, “Oh, here’s a gig.” So I actually enjoy the comfort of that.

There’s a little bit of an unwritten sort of unexpressed thing in the music community. It’s that a lot of artists, singer/songwriters, and pop singers have these amazing and tangible gifts that allow them to be the faces of their music and to communicate with any human being in the world. The instrumentalists in their bands, though, oftentimes have just wildly impossibly gifted musical abilities that most artists would dream of having maybe a tenth of it. Some of the drummers who play for famous artists are some of the best musicians I have ever heard in my life and their names are never mentioned. So there’s something actually flattering when someone will say, “Hey, I want to have you play with me.” … So being hired by Spider-Man was a huge compliment. … Maybe people don’t know our names, but someone like Bono or The Edge is trusting three members of our band to never make a mistake and to sight read music. I actually kind of prefer that respect and admiration from other musicians. It is like, “Wow.” I’d rather have that than success, fame, and money. I rather have a community of musicians who trust me to create with them. That’s important to me.    

I watched this interview where you said that you were happy you went to college. I believe you were also a music teacher before, right?

Yeah, I’ve done a little bit of that.

I just wanted to discuss the importance of music education with you. Do you think you would be where you are now had you not gone to college?

There’s an analogy that I actually heard from the doctor that looked at my voice that I think best expresses how I feel about it. He said that there’s a guy who goes to a mechanic and the mechanic asks him, “What’s wrong?” The guy says, “Well, my car’s been sputtering.” So the mechanic looks at the car, sort of slides his hand across it, and gives it just a little hit with the back of his fist. The car starts working. The guy says, “Wow! That’s amazing! Thank you! How much do I owe you?” The mechanic answers, “That will be $1001, sir.” The guy replies, “$1001? All you did was hit it with your fist! I could have done that.” The mechanic says, “No, no, no. It’s only one dollar for the hit that I did with my hand. It’s $1000 because I knew where to do it” [laughs].

So that’s kind of how I experience music myself. More important to me than all the scales are the fundamental reasons why and how music creates feelings that I feel when I listen to it. So getting educated about why a G Minor 7 chord makes me feel similarly to a B Flat Major chord but different [laughs], and why those two chords share three notes and how that can help affect it. The little things like that kind of allow me to make the choices that I make when I play music. So I love sharing the things that I’ve learned from kind of slowing down, literally sitting down with a song that’s seemingly simple, and just analyzing to death what’s going on inside of it. So that when I want to recreate that feeling, I can with a slight difference. I’ve been given a gift of patient teachers who’ve seen a desire in me to learn those things. So what I do is give Master Classes every now and then. They’re called Master Classes, but I wouldn’t call myself a master. I do these things where I can offer perspectives that maybe a student hasn’t thought of before just like how it was done for me. It feels like an important part of why I make music. It’s kind of the understanding of how music works, so that’s why I’ve done that.             

You recently played a solo show with Reeve, right? He came and filled in vocals for you.

Yeah, thank goodness, man [laughs].

[Laughs] I feel like there isn’t, but is there any chance of Mr. Green Volume 2 [the follow-up to Carney’s debut album] ever?  

Oh, there’s totally a chance of it! Oh man, I mean, absolutely. I wonder if it might be a few years from now. I think that if and when Carney reforms, it would be a different look than it used to be. I think it would be less hard hitting sort of rock and roll. I think it would come back to songs like “Looking Glass” and “Amelie.” I think it would kind of be more in that territory. I think Reeve and I might sing together and/or do lead vocals on different songs. Our sister, Paris, might join the fold like she used to. So I don’t know if Carney as it was with the four members, the sound it was before, will reform. But I’ll tell ya what. If it does, I will absolutely be on board, but I don’t know if it’s my call. It’s really kind of Reeve’s call at this point, so we’ll see.  

You mentioned you were a child actor. You were acting before you even played guitar.

Oh, yeah!

And you still act. You’re on the web series, Big City, playing the character of Dan. Tell me about how that came to be.

Yeah, well, I got a text from a friend. She explained that she was writing this web series and using it as a way to be creative. She’s basically just doing with it what I’m doing with Confluence. So instead of reading other people’s words, she figured, “I have certain things that I want to say, so why don’t I write the episodes and act in them?” So I got a text from her saying, “This is what I’m doing. Someone told me that you used to act in a sitcom when you were a kid? Do you want to do this?” I wrote her back saying, “Wow, that’s a pretty sweet audition process” [laughs]. She wasn’t even sure if I had anything, but she was willing to offer me a role. I said, “Well, yeah, I’ll show you some stuff that I had done. I mean, it’s been a long time.” Maybe since I was 14, the only acting opportunity I had was six months of drama in high school where we did three shows. I remember coming to that thinking [cockily], “Oh, well, I’m a pro, man. I used to get paid and everyone will see how good I am.” No, I was freaking terrible [laughs].

Big City was a great opportunity to be creative, which, again, is kind of the theme I think in this interview. Some ways all the stuff that’s happening is being born out of a desire to create my own words, my own sound, and be part of the writing process, as opposed to being a player in someone else’s vision. So it was great when she offered for me to sit in on writing sessions, brainstorm funny ideas, and produce certain episodes. We also discovered that a lot of our friends who are successful actors and musicians were super on board too. They feel the same way. They don’t want to have their own expression of themselves to be on a big budget where the writer makes them say every word that they wrote. Actors often times want a say. So we’re getting friends to join in just because they want to help us write and they want to adlib, so it’s blossomed into something spectacular. The next season is starting in a few months and we have Fran Drescher in an episode, we have Katelyn Tarver from the show Big Time Rush, we have Caitlin Crosby, and half the cast of Dave’s World guest star too. So it’s really starting to pick up. I also get to write the music for the show so that’s pretty cool, too.      

Yeah, that’s awesome. In a recent interview, you said that you don’t drink or do drugs. How do you manage to avoid and stay away from the excess which seems to cause the downfall of so many musicians, actors and just any celebrities in the spotlight? And you’ve been in this industry since you were a kid, so how do you stay away from it?

Well, yeah, first of all, I have to give credit to my Mom because she was not interested in having any of her kids act. Something about the genetics that she and my father produced in us three kids, it was kind of inevitable that we would be in the entertainment industry, just something about our makeup. We just love performing, we love creating. The onslaught of managers and agents kind of approaching the three of us on the street and all this weird stuff, she was eventually like, “Ahhh, I guess I’ll let them do it.” So that would be number one, she wasn’t a stage mother.

I mean, I drink a little bit. I don’t want to paint myself as too much of a saint, but I don’t often do it. I’ve probably been drunk less than seven times in my life. I don’t know. It’s not something that I get much out of it. Plus, I think playing guitar in a non-rock environment as a studied jazz guitarist helped. I think discipline is maybe a little more part of my life than most “rock and roll” guitarists or even actors. So to me when I have repercussions, I’m a little bit quicker to say, “Oh man! Feeling drunk was terrible! I’m not going to drink for the next six months” [laughs]. It’s enough for me to stay away.

That being said, there are a lot of other temptations in this industry that are outside of the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. I think greed, the pride, and ego: those are all things that I succumb to pretty much on a daily basis. I’m not even trying to paint those things as a sort of consolation prize. I think those things are more deadly and detrimental than some hit of a drug. I mean, it’s the lifestyle of chaos. So that’s sort of what I want to write about in my songs once I do a full album, the underlying things that led me to kind of stay small, stay bitter, stay greedy, stay confused, and stay angry. I think that in some ways I envy someone who isn’t sort of controlled by a lot of darkness, but they get drunk every now and then. It’s almost like that to me is the right place to be than trying to have so much ambition to make some meaning out of this life. I think that’s more treacherous and more ingrained in the entertainment culture than the surface distractions.

I don’t know. That’s just my opinion, but I have been around it for awhile. I’ve been lucky to learn from people who have done it in a way that’s made their lives feel whole. I’ve also seen adults when I was a kid whose lives were clearly not whole and were falling apart based on decisions. So I guess I’ve been given some great learning lessons.  

I noticed that you’re very active on social media and I just wanted to get your opinion —

Yeah, oh man, I can’t wait to not be [laughs]. I’m actually a private person. … I purely do it to help allow my creative dreams come true. It’s the main reason why I do it. … The only thing I enjoy is communicating with other human beings in a hope that whatever is happening creatively with the music can also maybe happen by connecting with people to share what I’m learning and learn from them. Other than that, though, as far as sharing what’s going on and, “Hey, isn’t this cool, isn’t that cool,” it’s just such an unnatural thing for me. … Putting up photos of where I am, I don’t like sharing that stuff. I kind of want to stay private. If someone asks a question, “Hey, why did you do this?” I’ll answer them back. Or, “Hey, do you think you can help me figure out why G 7 Thirteenth Sharp One chord is a better way to end a song than a B Minor?” I’ll write them back. But if it’s like, “Hey! Where are you?” For me it’s just not a natural thing I want to share. I want to share my whereabouts with three people in my life, not three million.     

So last question, any full-length album plans? You’ve said that people in the industry have been approaching you, so what’s going on there?

Yeah, it’s cool. Playing with John has definitely allowed a lot of casual conversations to happen with people who have the power to help spread the music. I’m just kind of taking it slow and keeping my ears open. The real goal to me is to make sure I give 110% to John for the length of this tour and then see what happens after. So I’m kind of not acting on any sort of approach until probably September 2014. So I wouldn’t think a full-length would come out in 2014. I think in 2015, I will be signed to some label, if I’m lucky by someone that believes in me, and then releasing a full-length in 2015. But, you know, this journey, it ain’t happening on my clock, I’ll tell ya that much [laughs]. My voice shutting down was definitely not part of the picture for me. I’ll try to have as much patience as possible, though. I definitely have new songs. I’ve almost entered back into the song writing phase now that the chaos and creation in the backyard, to quote Paul McCartney, has happened, so we’ll see where this thing takes me. I’m just flattered and honoured that people come to my shows and don’t think, “Oh, wow, you’re a guitar player who sings” but they come to me saying after, “Oh man, how come you never sang? You’re a singer.” It’s crazy that people who are casual listeners and music industry people are saying that to me. It just doesn’t make sense to me yet. I’m not sure I even believe in myself yet, so it’s cool that they do.     

© Laura Antonelli, Music Vice

Confluence is available worldwide on iTunes and Amazon Mp3.

Internet links:
Zane Carney’s Website
Zane Carney’s Facebook
Zane Carney’s Twitter

Tour dates with John Mayer can be found at johnmayer.com.

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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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