Zane Carney has been many things: child TV star, young local guitar prodigy, lead guitarist in a band with a major label contract, lead guitarist for John Mayer, and now solo singer-songwriter. We chat to him ahead of his UK date at London’s Borderline on June 1.
Technically gifted, excitable, passionate, and outgoing, Carney is an incredibly engaging young man. We caught up with him as he prepared to tour in support of his new solo album, and even through the medium of Skype, his enthusiasm for doing what he loves was as infectious as it was obvious. Some artists clearly find talking to the press an imposition, but Carney appears to have boundless energy to talk about his art, as well as a sense of humble thankfulness to be able to practise it and get paid.
You started playing music at a young age. Can you tell us about how your adventures in music got started?
I had a brother who started playing guitar at 12; my dad was a commercial songwriter, making jingles and stuff, so he gave my brother a guitar, and four months later I had bagged one too. I was 10 years old, and I got it on my birthday through typical little brother behaviour. My dad being a songwriter, and my mum being a singer, we had the hilarious Partridge family jam sessions, harmonising in the car to whatever was on the CD player, just making music together, which sounds twee, but was actually incredibly fun, and makes a big difference. Actually, my first instrument was piano when I was seven, so I hadn’t thought of becoming a guitarist. What’s cool about my childhood is that my dad worked from home; he had his own studio setup, which was pretty unusual and advanced for the 90s. So I did get to hear his music pretty much every day; we were surrounded by art.
At 12, you were listening to and playing along with Wes Montgomery? That must have made discussing music at school interesting…
What’s funny is that my entire life I’ve been into things that aren’t cool, but my mom was also a model and a jewellery designer, and used to dress us up with crazy clothes, and hair gel, and bright colours, looking really awesome. Playing guitar, and having a mom who dressed me cool made me one of the cool kids, but when my friends were over, it was all geeky stuff: anime, comic books, video games. Everything I’ve been really passionate about, I’ve always wanted to take it to the highest level. I was on TV with a guy who was a famous magician, and so I was super into magic; and then when we couldn’t afford guitar lessons, it was Pokemon, and I wanted to have every single card, and complete every single game. I got lucky in that my high school experience was at performing arts school, athletes were ostracized, and musicians were stars. Our football team actually had a 67-game losing streak, which when you think about it means they didn’t win a single game for several seasons, so being a jock was really not the ticket to popularity in that school! I guess it was a good environment for a kid who was a bit out of the ordinary. I definitely got lucky.
You’ve been through a number of musical guises to come to this point. What did you learn through those stages?
The way my family is, I’ve always been really encouraged just to show up, and try, even if you fail. Just doing your best and trying stuff was rewarded and praised. Because of that, I’ve tended to say yes to every gig I can get, even if it’s something I know nothing about. I’d say yes to playing on a rap record, and then for the next couple of weeks, I’d immerse myself in that music, trying to understand everything about it, how the guitarists made it work, what I could do to replicate that, or to add something different. The benefit from that is that now, when I write songs, I have a whole vocabulary to draw from. It’s like being an author who has visited different countries, and can bring all of those ideas and structures to what they do now. So it’s really informed my writing style, knowing how in Germany they put the verb at the end of the sentence. Maybe I’m the guitarist who could have written Yoda’s dialogue!
Listening to your playing, whether it’s your own material, a solo with Mayer, or your solo guitar version of ‘Giant Steps’, melody seems central to everything that you do, which isn’t always the case with a lead guitarist. How does your melodic thinking differ from others?
Yeah, it’s been an uphill battle for me to incorporate melodies in my playing style. A lot of feedback from clinicians at jazz competitions when I was a kid would be, “Great, you’ve got the techniques, and you understand the harmonies. Now start playing music.” Then at about 23, someone said, “I love how you use melody” so I guess something changed. I can tell you that it did not come naturally to me; modes, scales, intervals, were all natural to me, but the melody was a long uphill battle, so it’s incredibly rewarding to me when people compliment the melody in my playing. On my debut guitar record, Amalgam, people were saying, “Why didn’t you just cut loose and really play” but I was just trying to step away from the technical. Next time, I might let loose a little bit more, be a bit more mind bending. I’m playing some of Amalgam alongside the songwriter stuff on this tour, because this is my first European tour, so I want people to get a flavour of all the things I do.
Your current tour sees you as lead vocalist and songwriter; that’s a big change from being the sideman in all your previous roles. What new challenges does that bring you?
Well, actually, I’m thankful that I had a sort of grey zone period, when I was playing with my brother in Carney, and we opened for all sorts of people – U2 and others – and did a lot of big festivals. In that band, I was the lead guitar player, not the singer, and doing a bit of co-writing, which took me from straight sideman to being an artist; really being in the spotlight. When I started writing songs for this album about four years ago, I drew upon the Carney experience to remind myself that I can do it. It’s really lucky to be able to play music for a living, and it’s scary to knock back sideman or session gigs in order to do my own thing, but that’s what I really want to do. I’m still doing gigs with other people, but I’m just so grateful that I get to play, and to do my own thing, and I just hope I can write songs that speak to people.
You play both acoustic and electric guitar; what do you look for in an instrument?
I just look for it to sound like my Telecaster, man! I’m less of a guitar nerd, and more of a music theory nerd. I know what I like, but I’m less of a historian; if I was in college, I’d be less of a history major, more of a science major, so I’m not the guy who knows every guitar ever. In a guitar, I’m looking for a bit of a quirky balance, harmonically. Like the guitar that Hofner is making for me, the very bottom end is really aggressive, but the mids aren’t, so I like that. I loved listening to guys like Pat Metheny, who said that he just wanted to low notes and the high notes to sound the same, and even though I love to listen to that, I don’t play well with that kind of thing. I have a lot of different guitars, and at the moment I have a Hofner Zane Carney Jazzica, my signature model archtop, which at the moment is the only one there is, but will soon be manufactured and sold. When I was 10, I got a bass first, because my brother wanted me to be the bass player in our band, and I actually think that’s influenced the guitars I choose; maybe I’m looking for something a little different than most guitarists. I have a 50 year plan, and by the time I get there, I’d like my full time job to be film scoring. The music industry is really suffering in some ways, but film and TV music can still be game changing, and it’s hard to see that changing. Then at 75, I want to retire and become a theory professor. I love written music and counterpoint and so on, but my forte is really ear training, and the logic behind theory. So I want kids to come in and say, “I don’t want to use this minor fourth chord, but I want to have that same feel” and to be able to help with that stuff, like thinking through the harmonic progressions and helping them find things which would fit. Maybe I just don’t approach things like the average player!
Our readers may well want to hear the music you’re talking about; where can they catch you on this tour, and, given your varied background, what can they expect to hear?
Well, right now we have 10 cities; we might add one more show in Paris, but we’re doing Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, Paris, and six cities in Germany. One of the tour dates is actually a guitar theory masterclass, in Paris, and the tickets are selling better than I expected. I’m playing purely solo, with the Hofner signature guitar, and they have sponsored the tour because of that. It really is an acoustic too, an archtop with a Buscarino jazz pickup. On the tour I’m going stop in the factory, and play the prototype of the production model, and then it should come out in September 2015. It’s really meaningful to me that I’m doing what I want to do, taking the path of being an artist, and I feel like I’m being really rewarded for that with things like this signature model. I’m also playing my Taylor 810CE on this tour, which I use for the straight up strumming stuff, and for Joni Mitchell-style fingerstyle stuff, but for the improvisational stuff, I’m using the Hofner. I’m using a lot of pedals to create soundscapes that I can improvise over. I could use a loop pedal to do some of this stuff, but because of my background, I like to really be doing it in the moment; I’m not like Ed Sheeran, it’s a different type of guitar and vocals thing. I try to go as deep as my favourite jazz artists, but then to sing pop songs over the top, so if you’re coming for jazz, you hopefully won’t be disappointed, and if you’re coming for a pop concert, you won’t be disappointed.
Carney is so musically inventive – and such an engaging character – that it’s hard to imagine that you could be disappointed. Zane’s Amalgam and Confluence are out now. See Zane Carney live on June 1 at London’s Borderline with support from Tom Crouch. Tickets are available here.