Interview with Scott Zuniga, Austin-based singer songwriter

scott put a bird on it

Scott Zuniga is an emerging songwriter who has just released his first demo recordings—a small set of impressive, mature indie/folk compositions. But Scott has been involved with music internationally for years as a director and producer, among other roles. We were lucky to catch this talented neophyte to learn about his runaway successful kickstarter campaign for the new album, how the Loch Ness monster helped him come back from a difficult period, what it’s like to direct a music video for an Arabic rap star, and how having a Scottish mom can influence your dreams.

 You’ve just released some of your first demos on your soundcloud page, but the recording for Isla’s Promise is quite developed: lush and polished. What’s the story of that recording?

That was the song behind what I call my musical re-birth so it made sense to record it first. A generous friend who is a big supporter gave me some money to record so I decided to book a three-day session at the nicest studio in town. I knew I was only going to be able to complete one song, so I wanted to make it count. I don’t have a band, I was just using session musicians and some friends, so I didn’t ever have the chance to practice with all the parts at the same time. It felt like stacking layers in Photoshop.  The whole thing kind of spiraled into this Phil Spector-like wall-of-sound session where we were calling in cellists, violinist, timpanists, you name it – though we toned it down a little in the mix. It turned out well, but I wouldn’t do it like that again now that I have a little more know-how.

My one requirement was that the song have bagpipes. Every time I mentioned it to someone they would chuckle, like, “bagpipes, that’s funny,” but I was actually serious. The first morning of the session, Doug Slauson, this real Texas cowboy, who also happens to be a world-class bagpiper, walked into the studio and started tuning his pipes at full force. I remember how they made the studio walls swell like a bubble. We had to cover our ears, but to me it felt like Christmas. I think my engineer Brad Bell realized at that point that I was serious about the bagpipes. He kind of paused for a second then looked at me and said, “Welp, let’s record some *expletive* bagpipes!”

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The first morning of the session a world-class bagpiper walked into the studio and started tuning his pipes at full force. They made the studio walls swell like a bubble. We had to cover our ears, but to me it felt like Christmas.

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 You’ve spent significant time traveling and working internationally including directing Arabic rap videos. How have these experiences influenced your song-writing?

Spain introduced me to flamenco and its rhythms, and in Syria and Egypt, it was the quarter-tone scale. I was never trained in these styles, and I don’t consider myself a world-musician, but somehow there are traces of their sounds in my work. Mostly, being in far-flung places among odd tongues and unfamiliar sites and smells kind of had a liberating effect on me as a composer, where I felt less caught in the rules and methods of songwriting and more interested in trying new and odd things. Traveling clears the mind. A friend of mine in their 60s once advised me, “Travel young so you’ll have those experiences with you your whole life.” More experiences mean more inspiration which I wouldn’t have if I didn’t travel.

Working with Stormtrap, a hip hop artist from Palestine, was an important project for me because it showed me that I could work anywhere in the world and that there are brilliant artists everywhere just waiting to collaborate. I love knowing that I could go anywhere in the world and have a friend to work with, or at least know how to make a friend to work with.

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Working with Stormtrap, a hip hop artist from Palestine, showed me that I could work anywhere in the world and that there are brilliant artists everywhere just waiting to collaborate.

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Did you go to Syria and Egypt for music & videography projects or was that something that just happened along the way?

My wife is a hyperpolyglot (someone who speaks more than five languages), which I was attracted to when we were dating. I wanted to learn more languages and I knew someone like that would want to travel with me to do it. She saw the same in me. Since traveling was a priority for both of us we worked to make it possible even though we didn’t have a lot of money. Mainly, her studies required her to travel to the middle east frequently and my job as a videographer has always been attractive to the programs that she has studied with or worked for. If they needed footage of the country or people speaking the language they would hire me to get it. It has been a blessing for us to be able to work, study languages, write and travel at the same time. I try to take advantage of collaborating with other artists abroad whenever I have the chance, even if the project never comes to light. I just like making like-minded friends.

 Tell us about your involvement in Austin music prior to recording and releasing your own songwriting.

Besides filming a couple of music videos, it hasn’t been very active. If you see my Kickstarter video, I talk about a tragic hard-drive crash that deleted years of my work and essentially derailed my musical aspirations. There was a period of about two years where I shut music off entirely. I didn’t touch my guitar, I hardly listened to music, and I stopped writing completely. It all just hurt too much. After that accident, directing music videos was a way to combine my passions of visual storytelling and music, even though the music wasn’t my own. That will all change now. With the success of this Kickstarter campaign, I’m planning on playing shows in Austin regularly. In theory, you can play a show at a new venue every night of the year in Austin, so I think it’s a great place for me to be right now. Then I hope to do a small tour to promote the album.

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My biggest influences have always been Radiohead and Paul McCartney. Always have been, always will be.

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 I think I hear influences like Sufjan Stevens, Elliott Smith, and maybe even a little Bee Gees influence on your vocals. Who do you consider your musical forbearers?

The Bee Gees were never an influence, singing in falsetto just kind of happened. I think it has more to do with my crooner influences like Roy Orbison and Chris Isaac. They’ll hit a falsetto note at certain points in a song then come back down. I thought one day, “what if it were the other way around?” as in, most of the song was in falsetto, and you only come down every now and then. That’s what happened with Isla’s Promise.

Sufjan Stevens – yes, Elliot Smith – definitely, but my biggest influences have always been Radiohead and Paul McCartney. Always have been, always will be. Other influences include The Shins, Blonde Redhead and Donovan to name a few.

 Who is Isla and how did she get so smart?

If I give you that answer it would only take away from the song. I know who she is, or shall I say, what she is. It’s better if the listener has their own Isla.

 Who is your band and how did you meet each other? In recording and touring, will you use a consistent backing band or will you have a rotating cast supporting you? Will you ever perform live with the bagpipes?

A consistent backing band is in the works but up until now it has just been myself and Emilie, my wife. So in that sense, my band is great! People tell us our voices go well together.

As a teen, whenever I would practice with the guitar up too loud my mom would yell across the house in her Scottish accent, “Turn it down! Yer no playin’ in the Caird Hall!” The Caird Hall is the main concert hall in Dundee, Scotland where she is from. My dream would be to perform there with an entire pipe band, not because it’s grand like the Carnegie Hall or anything, but just because I heard about it every day of my adolescent life.

scott emilie bike

 Do you consider songwriting a spiritual or religious activity or does that seem to be a separate domain?

Your spirit is who you are, it’s your creative source and it carries your story. The art you create is a product of your spirit. This is why I was able to write again after the hard-drive incident; my source never left me, I just had to mourn my loss, so I closed it for a while.

Is Scott Zuniga a touring, recording, live musical act or are you thinking more about bedroom/hobby recordings for now?

I’m definitely taking my music out of the bedroom and into the Universe. My Kickstarter campaign was the manifestation of that. I will begin playing small shows in Austin this fall and then I plan on touring to some extent to support my album.

 What’s your day job and where would like things to go next?

I’m a videographer by trade. It’s a craft that marries well with music, and I hope to use it to get my music in front of new listeners by making music videos for myself and by collaborating with filmmaking friends who have offered to make music videos for me. Right now the focus is on finishing my debut album. From there I plan on focusing on music full-time.

Your music sometimes has an ethereal and dreamy quality, which is appropriate given your Loch Ness Monster dream and your new start as a musician. What else has inspired you in addition to other musicians, traveling, and dreams?

I studied directing and screenwriting in school so I think filmmaking influences what I write. Not any particular movie, but rather filmmaking itself. Some have told me that my songs are visual. When directing something you have to think of the mise en scène, which is a French term for everything you see and hear on screen at any given time. A songwriter has to act like a movie director when their song is being produced and communicate their creative vision with the players, the producers, the technicians to make sure everyone knows their part and executes it well. Hopefully in the end you have a product that resembles the vision of the director, or in this case, the composer. When it comes to writing, I like to tell stories from the perspective of interesting characters. I like lines that create subtext, but I’ll also use a cliché lyric if it helps move my story forward.

Apart from cinema, I draw on my childhood a lot for inspiration. I had a unique childhood that most don’t know about that really shaped who I am. But that would take a separate interview. I’ll just say that I feel my childhood alone could inspire a thousand songs.

 Your kickstarter campaign has been so successful so quickly that you’ve had to set several extra stretch goals. Many of our readers are also musicians–can you share any of the secrets of your success?

 A lot of people have asked me this question so I have decided to write an article on my Kickstarter experience. I spent a lot of time researching and planning and it seems to have all paid off. I’ll detail everything that I did in my article. I hope to publish it soon, in the meantime you can sign up for my newsletter at my facebook page or on my website to receive it.

Check out Scott’s ongoing successful Kickstarter campaign by clicking this link.

Scott Zuniga Facebook page

Scott Zuniga Website (currently redirects to the Kickstarter page but will soon revert to the regular Scott Zuniga site.)

Scott Zuniga Soundcloud

Check out Scott’s videography page (including the Stormtrap video and his director reel) on Vimeo

 

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