Like the rest of life, music shouldn’t make you feel like you’re just punching the clock or spinning your wheels. It should be a journey. One in which the artist weaves together his or her experiences into impeccably performed songs that not only appeal to the ear with strong hooks and addictive melodies, but also resonate deeply on an emotional level. Tunes that have the power to directly move the listener to their very core, and perhaps even serve as reassuring beacons during difficult times. Such a skill is, of course, a rare gift for any artist, and one that takes most of them decades to attain, if at all. And yet it’s a skill that Zach Maxwell, still only in his mid twenties, already has—in abundance.
“I write songs to tell stories, about life, about humans and how interesting and unique they are,” says Zach, whose powerful, soul-infused, near four-octave voice and virtuosic guitar playing make his narratives impossible to ignore. “What moves people, and has always moved people, are good songs and good stories.”
Eight of those exceptionally moving story-songs make up Silent Bear, Zach’s newest release. There’s the fragile, acoustic “Unknown Roads,” a motivational reminder of the fleeting impermanence of life, and “All Over This Land,” an uplifting—but non-religious—gospel-toned celebration. And then there’s “Big Bear,” a playful, image-rich romp that the songwriter created as a humorous but sincere expression of pure, unbounded joy. His sophomore effort, the collection is a striking distillation of Zach’s mature and exquisitely crafted style, a sound that sets his woody, resonant baritone against a warm relief of modern folk guitar and contemporary pop rock.
“I started playing piano when I was three, but I didn’t become a professional singer until I was twenty-one,” says Zach, who was born and raised in New York City and began playing guitar in high school. The son of a Broadway producer, he grew up in a Fellini-esque setting of flamboyant theater folk, privileged Upper East Side well-to-dos, and colorful East Village alternative types—personalities that would do much to shape his own. He got a taste of the world beyond Gotham, however, when he attended Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he majored in composition, penning a piece that was performed by the prestigious Meridian Arts Ensemble, and performing for President Bill Clinton at his graduation. While at college, he began singing in an a capella group mentored by Grammy winner Francois Clemmons.
Zach made his first CD, On The Day I Leave The Battlefield, with acclaimed drummer Steven Wolf (Annie Lennox, Rufus Wainwright), appeared with a gospel choir on NBC’s “The Today Show,” toured Canada and played on Canadian TV, put together a kickin’ live band, and was even elected into the esteemed New York Songwriters Circle. But somehow things still weren’t quite right.
And so in the fall of 2008 he split for Colorado, where he lived the life of a ski bum, enjoying nature, gathering his thoughts, and going deep into soul-searching self-examination. When he returned to New York the following year, he was fully energized, hitting the city’s bars and clubs with a vengeance as a solo acoustic act and releasing Silent Bear to glowing accolades. What might’ve been career suicide for many artists for Zach was an enriching detour in his ever-unfolding creative quest.
“My music is a real-time story,” Zach says. “I want to give people a spiritual experience, one of cleansing awe. Writing great songs is my personal challenge to myself.” A challenge lovers of profound, heartfelt music and great, emotive singing will enjoy taking again and again.