Paul Zach Interview

After recently featuring his video 'our god is a friend of silence' on our channel, We spoke to Paul zach about his life of music, liz vice's incredible voice and people walking out of church when he talks about racism.

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Paul, I’ll let you introduce yourself!

Paul Zach: Great, I’m Paul Zach, I’m 33, been married for 12 years, we have 3 kids and I’ve been playing music all my life. I work at Portico Church in Charlottesville, Virginia and I write songs for the church to sing together.

So you’ve done music your whole life, but what’s your journey been with that, where did the passion begin?

Paul Zach: I come from a family of 6 kids and my parents made me take piano lessons as a kid, which would have been fine except they hired my older brother to teach me so I would cry every week! But eventually I got into guitar and drums in junior high and then toured in a band right after high school for about 9 years full time. I haven’t really had many other jobs, it’s just been music my whole life because about 6 years ago I stopped touring full time and started working at the church. 

How did you find going from touring with a rock band to working in a church? Obviously you had a lot of experience and musical ability from touring, so how did you take all that from one part of your life into this new setting?

Paul Zach: I used to describe myself as having a pretty big allergy to a lot of church music. By that I mean I felt like a lot of songs were making me say things to God that I didn’t want to say, or didn’t believe, so I think early on I perhaps spent time writing songs and picking songs for the church with a real chip on my shoulder. But I’ve gotten over a lot of that now, and actually since working for a church I feel much more creatively fulfilled than I ever did touring with a rock band, I think there’s something fun about writing songs that are meant to be sung together and if people aren’t singing with you then you aren’t doing your job right. It’s grounded me in a different way that’s really helpful for me. I’ve found that through seasons of doubt and facing those fears, songwriting for me has actually been one of my main ways to commune with God.

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Yeah, I was really caught by the title of the EP ‘God Is The Friend Of Silence’, and somewhere else I noticed a quote from yourself saying that “prayer has always been difficult for me”. I found it interesting because the record sounds less like a typical worship record and more personal, like these songs came out of that place of communing with God like you mentioned, is that how these songs were written?

Paul Zach: For me I try to write about the things I’m dealing with, I think if you try to write a song that’s too broad, no one cares about it because no one can relate. So I’ll always write from my personal experiences and journey, and these songs definitely came out of trying to learn this discipline of silence and prayer. I feel like myself and our culture is so driven by what we accomplish and what we do that if we’re not grounded in a deep connection to God first, then we’re just throwing sand up into the wind, it’s not going anywhere. That EP title is a quote from Mother Theresa, I feel like that helps ground the statement, it’s not just coming from anyone, because if anyone did something with their life, it’s Mother Theresa, she served thousands of people and her faith was so real, but she was grounded in a place of silence, and personal communion with God first, before she served others. That quote actually goes on to say something like ‘words that do not spread the light of Christ, only increase the darkness’ which I also found really interesting.

You recorded the whole EP live, and worked with a number of people on it, but it’s not obvious it’s a live EP because you don’t have the sounds of a congregation or anything, was that an intentional decision to record it that way?

Paul Zach:Yeah there was a couple reasons, personally I like to challenge myself and that was something that I knew would be really scary to do, and it was! You hit record and then you get whatever you get! My friend Isaac produced the EP and I worked with him last year on The Porter’s Gate project, and recording live like that is just his vibe. He really believes in just capturing what happens and there’s definitely a magic that comes from a group of people just playing together. I’ve worked on a lot of projects over the years and with this I tried to go as opposite to what I normally do as possible, and just do the bare bones, the minimum required, all live. And you know I had Liz Vice join me and sing on it, so I was thinking that whatever happens it’s going to sound incredible because she’s singing on it! I just try to surround myself with people that are much more talented than I am, and I think I really succeeded with that on this EP, the amazing strings players, Liz singing, and my friend Isaac producing it. It was just a great mix of talented people.

Amazing, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that - “surround yourself with people who are more talented than you”. I definitely find that I’m inspired when I’m around people like that, and you end up pushing yourself more as a result.

Paul Zach: Yeah, I love co-writing, I remember in my early 20s I would go to Nashville and co-write with these amazing songwriters, all very successful people, I was always amazed that they actually cared about my opinion. I slowly realised that every successful person I’ve met is much more interested in my ideas than I would think. I find that successful people know how to bring the best out of other people, and that’s why they’re successful. So I really just try to surround myself with other creative, talented people, and not do all the heavy lifting myself.

Definitely, I think there’s something really unique and special about the work that comes from collaborating that we often overlook, but really I see so many artists and musicians held back because they try so hard not to include anyone else just so that they can say “I did this all by myself”. 

Paul Zach: Yeah, I mean people talk about Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash as being those kind of artists that we only see by themselves, but a lot of these guys all had regular co-writing sessions with teams of great people. It’s really just a romantic idea, the lone artist. I mean I never thought I’d do a solo record myself but even with this it includes so many other people.

Yeah so you had Liz Vice join you on the record, how did that come about?

Paul Zach: So I’ve been a fan of hers since her first album ‘There’s A Light’ came out, I think it’s just amazing stuff. I met her about a year ago, a bunch of artists met in Virginia to co-write a bunch of songs for The Porter’s Gate album, and she was one of the artists’ there, I sung a bunch of songs with her, and cowrote many of them. It’s funny co-writing with someone like Liz though, because you can’t tell if you wrote a terrible melody that she’s just singing really wonderfully, or if it’s actually a good melody. As soon she sings anything you’re like “wow that’ amazing!”. So, yeah we really connected working on that album together and she was just kind enough to want to sing on this thing too.

How do you find criticism, or comments on your music because as a creative you put your heart into a project, and it’s real personal and then you share that and people can just take it or leave it?

Paul Zach: For me I write a lot of songs for my church, and I’ve written a lot of songs about particularly America and the systemic racism and white supremacy that is so a part of a culture here. There’s been people who have walked out of our service because they’re so bothered by the idea that we’re talking about racism in a church. I find that to be pretty strange to deal with.

Wow, race is a huge issue though, and a pretty controversial one, especially in America right now. Do you find it difficult bringing that into your music, because typically when I think of musicians talking about these subjects, I wouldn’t think of worship leaders. So, how do you do that as a worship songwriter whilst still keeping your music for the context of church?

Paul Zach: Yeah, I think there’s way too much apathy with this. I’d love to see more artists’ write songs for the church to sing that are about some of our deepest struggles, and this seems like one of the biggest ones we face on a daily basis. Racism and systemic injustice on a deep level really affects our country. I feel like if we’re only singing songs about God being Holy and we’re not singing songs of lament or songs of asking God for help then we’re not really doing our job as songwriters or as worship leaders and it means we don’t have a full view of prayer and worship. For me, I have a lot of African American friends who when they walk in a church they feel like their brothers and sisters aren’t weeping with them, they aren’t mourning with them, because many people are actually clueless, apathetic or even sarcastic about the kind of hardship that an African American still goes through on a daily basis in America. For me I’m more concerned about weeping with the oppressed and the afflicted than trying to appease the comfortable.

Wow, I really admire that! I feel like I come across a lot of the things you're describing. I see many people completely oblivious to issues of race simply because they don’t have to worry about it, but instead they get really behind lots of other causes because they find them more comfortable to confront. I actually recently read an article by a worship leader who said that he felt “worship music is too male and too pale” which I found super interesting. Because for me, as a white male, I could easily read that, take offence and think “oh ok so as a white guy I won’t bother making music or worshipping, I’ll just opt out” but I think that actually the better response is to say “if I’m in this, how can I engage in these issues going on, and make sure I’m part of a solution to a more varied, and inclusive church culture and worship culture”. What started that passion for yourself? 

Well me and my wife are foster parents, we’ve adopted our kids and they’re biracial. So for me it’s very personal, I’d love to see my kids grow up in a world where the church cares for the oppressed the way Jesus does. I guess for me, I grew up in a culture that’s really based in white supremacy to be completely blunt, and I think we really don’t see how deep the thread goes and how difficult it is for our African American brothers and sisters. I think as well having a lot of friends who encounter these issues has made me care about it in a new way. The third track on the EP, ‘I Will Never Leave You Alone’, was inspired by reading Martin Luther King’s autobiography, and that’s a quote from one of his sermons where he actually quotes an old hymn ‘No, Never Alone’.

That’s super interesting that these issues are weaved into this EP, because I was really captured by the heart and soul of the record the first time I heard it. I hear a lot of music and there’s a couple things I’m always looking for. Firstly, I want to hear the heart behind the music, something that grabs me. Then I want to hear something different, something new, I want to feel like this record could only have been made by this artist. Ultimately I ask myself is this music going to reach people in a way that other music doesn’t?

Paul Zach: Yeah I feel like a lot of Christian music is more about being safe, than being good. But there shouldn’t be anything safe about being a Christian, if you’re living a very safe and comfortable life you’re probably not living a particularly Christ-like life. Definitely, in America, the main word people use when talking about Christian music is that it’s safe!

I couldn’t agree more! Do you find as a independent artist you have more space to be creative like that, to not play it safe?

Paul Zach: Yeah, I think I find more creative freedom though in being older, I’ve done music for many years but I feel like I’m now starting to find my voice in just the last few years. I was speaking to my friend the other day and he said “Now I’m in my 30s I feel like I write songs that I still like a few years later”. I think for some artists’ that maybe comes a lot sooner but for me it’s definitely taken a while. So for me, I don’t think it’s about being on a label or not, but just having the time to learn to be creative.

We’ve covered a lot, but what do you hope people come away with after listening to the record?

Really I think thatmany people are probably like me in that they find prayer difficult, and this EP has really just been my attempt to continue with the discipline of prayer even though it’s difficult, Just continue with silence and make room for God to enter in to a busy life. So I hope these songs encourage people continue searching for God in those quiet moments, even if most times they feel distance more than that close feeling you hope for.

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