Zen Anton is a songwriter who cuts straight to the marrow. His music carries an honesty that shrugs in the face of vulnerability, bearing all for the listener–who might struggle to disentangle the bones from guitar strings. It’s clear that this form of storytelling is a part of him, and that there is nothing else he would rather choose.
There’s a little bit of something for everyone in Anton’s eclectic leanings, whether it’s the gentler nudges of sentimental folk, the bouncy pop of a tune like “Sea Monkeys,” or darker and more reflective pools of thought.
Anton shares with BTR some insights into his love for music and what it means to be a songwriter.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): Tell me a little bit about your self-discovery as an artist. You started off singing at a young age, but when did you realize you wanted to write your own music?
Zen Anton (ZA): I was around 10 years old driving with my mom and the Red Hot Chili Peppers song “By The Way” was playing on the radio. She was rocking a convertible, and when the guitar riff in the intro came on, it blew my mind up and out of the car’s open roof. I was fascinated by how something so simple could feel so gigantic. Immediate love.
It’s the same feeling I’d get as a tween when I’d fall in love with all my friends’ older sisters–except I stood a better chance with the guitar than getting a kiss from all of those 17-year-olds.
BTR: How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you before–without using genre distinctions?
ZA: A listener once described it as, “Prince and Iron & Wine mud wrestling on Bobby Brown’s condo.”
BTR: Why are you reluctant to call yourself a singer-songwriter? Do you think there are too many stigmas attached to the label?
ZA: The stigma of “sad sack with a guitar who thinks The Dave Matthews Band is the second coming” is dying fast so I care less. However, I will choke you with my high E string if you say I remind you of the Goo Goo Dolls.
BTR: What about your songwriting process? Is it something concrete, or is it always changing?
ZA: My main process has remained the same over the years: a small riff or rhythm will affect me on a visceral level and become lodged in my brain. Months or years go by. I almost forget the pattern. Then it comes back when the song is ready to be written.
Overall, it’s a pretty terrible process time-wise [laughs].
BTR: As a lyricist, your influences are eclectic, ranging from Samuel Beckett to Outkast. Do you ever find yourself returning to recurring themes or personal memories in your writing?
ZA: All the scarily specific details that go along with an honest experience. I’m not interested in the “confessional diary entry” song, but just honesty for whatever the emotion is. My goal is to one day write a song as genuine as Tupac’s “Hit Em Up.”
BTR: What’s your favorite song that you’ve written so far, and why?
ZA: “Sea Monkeys.” I wrote that song with my old friend Tommy Lisa when we were stupid teens and I had started to really dedicate myself to music. It’s the only song I’ve written that captures the feeling of, “OH MY GOD WE’RE WRITING A SONG AND IT DOESN’T SUCK AND THERE ARE CHORD CHANGES THAT I DON’T UNDERSTAND BUT I’M GONNA STRUM REALLY FAST ANYWAY.”
We then played it over and over until his parents hated us.
BTR: How about your recording process?
ZA: It changes. I spent all of being 19 holed up in dark rooms till 5:00am learning how to record, mix, and master. I went sufficiently crazy but I came out of that experience with knowledge and strength I couldn’t have gained otherwise. I now split my time between recording my own stuff and some of my favorite studios. Both options give different vibes, but what matters to me is that I have full control over the end product.
BTR: What’s in store for the rest of 2015?
ZA: I’m looking forward to my upcoming gig in the MOI’M Musicology Festival at Gramercy Theatre. Most of my shows are solo, but for this I’m playing alongside the killer musicians who I made my first music video with.
Also, early [in] 2016 my group Caesura with Oscar Hallas will be dropping its debut EP. It’s a little different from my solo work. It’s more like David Bowie getting mugged by Kanye West.
To hear more from Zen Anton, check out his site or tune into BTR’s very own In the Den.