BROCK ZEMAN BRINGS CARNIVAL TO TOWN,
Brock Zeman read a lot as a kid. The Ottawa-based singer/songwriter/ guitarist says he learned to write by reading, listening, then “marking it down.”
“I love (Jack) Kerouac, Harry Crews and lot of Southern writers. I like the understatement,” he says. “That’s why I gel with Hemingway a little more. I read a lot, but I take notes like crazy. People say the greatest things that get skipped over a lot.”
Zeman also does a lot of driving, which helps with his writing process.
“I get a lot of the painstaking thought process out in that. It eats up the time and you can really bat around the ideas,” he says
“You have to think crazy first and then you get a little more reeled in. The second part, though not as cool, is more important. You need that editing piece as well. Or you can fall into the trap of not thinking at all,” Zeman notes.
“I write everything down and when I’ve got it I go through it again to a fault, and do it a line at a time. I think about the line for 20 minutes, then I think of a better way to say it.”
Zeman has the same gritty vocal essence as Tom Waits and David Johansen, and a punk poet’s heart-smarts.
He began as a punk singer and evolved into a Canadiana/Americana roots artist. But he has always maintained that raw deep-charged emotional punk bent through his work.
With 12 albums to his credit, he has shared stages throughout Canada and U.S. with many alt-country root artists including Steve Earle, Blue Rodeo, Corb Lund, Toby Keith, Lynn Miles and Fred Eaglesmith.
Zeman says the band and song that “changed his deal” for good was “Welcome to The Jungle” by Gun and Roses.
“That was the first cassette I ever got and the first song I ever listened to — it was something that I asked for,” he recalls. “I put it in my tape deck, listened to it and the first thing you hear besides the guitar is that blood-curdling scream. That ‘Wahhhhhhh’ and I lost my mind!”
“That was it. It was over. Then the next time I heard that sort of scream was listening to punk bands like Misfits, Subhumans, Crass, basically everything punk had to offer,” he says.
“That is why punk was so helpful. It could be seen as violent, dangerous, lots of things. It is first and foremost emotional. You do not have to be really good. You just have to be willing to do your best,” says Zeman with a mischievous laugh like one of the many characters from his latest selfproduced album “The Carnival is Over.”
“Carnival” is a roller-coaster passion play based on characters in a travelling show. It exudes a dark, gothic, sensual allure. Each song is like a character itself, and the music fits every track like a persona.
“Every song has a theme,” says Zeman. “Even the song ‘Little Mac’ — the one about the little fella — that sounds Celtic. Because he is into the drinking. It is the little things like that I try to pay the most attention to.”
Tracks include Klezmer-infused “The Juggler,” and beats and squeezebox tango “Bloodshot Sadie.” Sonic dazzlers “Come One, Come All,” and “Freak Show” showcase Zeman’s cinematic lens on life mixed with colourful carny lingo. “Percy Jones” takes its inspiration from his literary hero Harry Crews.
Zeman met Mark Logan of Kitchener’s Busted Flat records through old pal and former stage-mate, roots music veteran Dan Walsh.
“I was looking for a record to come out and Mark decided to take it on,” says Zeman. “We have been working together ever since. It has been a long relationship.”
In addition to 10 years with Busted Flat Zeman also produces artists through his own label Mud Records and studio The Big Muddy.
Zeman performs with longtime collaborator multi-instrumentalist Blair Hogan of the band Silver Creek. He met Hogan through an ad when he was looking for a bass player.
“Blair just wanted to go out and be in as many places as he could possibly be,” notes Zeman. “That is the trip I am on. Let’s go out, figure it out and play every single place we can. Where we are going to go … where we are going to fit … So he has done that with me for 10 years and we are still doing it!”
Brock Zeman performs Thursday, Dec. 14, at The Boathouse.