I was fortunate enough to be able to have a lengthy interview with Andy Zipf over email. We discuss everything from why he has changed his name to The Cowards Choir and his song writing process to whether or not Deckard from Blade Runner is a replicant. We had a great conversation, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I’m also happy to announce that his latest album is great as well, you can check out my review of his Reunion EP here.
Josh :Thanks for talking with me, Andy, I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. So most listeners will know you as an artist by your own name, Andy Zipf, but you’ve recently changed your moniker to The Cowards Choir, and I’d like to talk to you about that change. I remember your acoustic EP The Cowards Choir from 2009 – it’s still easily one of my favourite and most listened to records since then. What prompted you to continue the name, from the title of the EP to now being your new name as an artist?
Andy: I’ve been performing and recording as Andy Zipf for ten years. Of course I don’t have it all figured out, but I have grown a bit since 2003, and I felt now was the right time for a change to express that growth.
I think I found a more creative space in 2009 when I released The Cowards Choir EP. I’m proud of those tunes, and they had their moments, but they still missed something… (Though I appreciate your admiration for those songs very much!) That being said, I really liked the imagery created by those two words together, so I kept the concept in the back of my mind.
Two years later I released, Jealous Hands and finally settled into myself… my sound… For that reason, I consider it my first record.
When I was writing the Reunion EP, I realized it was the right moment to become The Cowards Choir. I had found my artistic direction, so I wanted to make a statement. A new beginning, built on ten years of development and foundation.
Josh: There’s definitely a memorable ring to the imagery of a Cowards Choir – and the alliteration doesn’t hurt it either. So, just to build on what you’ve said, is there a particular significance to the title of your EP being Reunion? One way that I saw it at first, was a literal reunion of your new post-Jealous Hands sound and, as you said, “ten years of development and foundation.” I’ve always associated your music, especially The Cowards Choir EP, with themes of doubt and searching for meaning. Not themes of a faith lost so much as a search for a renewal of a faith perhaps forgotten. Would you say that there are some similar themes on Reunion? Or perhaps a better way of phrasing it: have you consciously written songs around those themes, or do you just write what happens to hit you at the moment, and they happen to crop up in your work?
Andy: I took the title “Reunion” from the last track on the EP, “This Will Be Our Reunion”. Again, imagery comes into play. When you think of a gathering with friends and family you haven’t seen for years – the togetherness, the community, that feeling – that’s what music is to me.
Yes. I reunited with the Jealous Hands sound. I worked with Jeremy Griffith again, who produced JH. We’ve become good friends and Jeremy always brings something to the table that helps push my creativity further. When we began working on these songs, we talked about capturing each performance. As live as possible. No piecing together track by track. We wanted people to hear the humanity in the music.
I would say I have always tried to write my own story, or the story that is going on around me. We’re all searching for something. That theme is universal.
Josh: That live sound definitely comes through on the album. It’s not just a group of songs stitched together haphazardly, there’s a flow in and between the songs that feels full bodied – more than just sounds coming in through speakers. Okay, so you mention the community of music, how it’s able to draw people together. So I think its safe to assume that you enjoy touring with a group of musicians? I know that you’ve often gone on tour with other musicians in the past, but now that you have more of a traditional “band” name as opposed to a name associated with a solo act, is your songwriting influenced by a group of musicians in your life who have a say in your music?
Andy: Most of my touring up until the last couple years has been solo, but I’ve always wanted a core group of musicians to go on the road with. Not hired guns. A band. I love the camaraderie…the hang. It shows up in the music.
The Cowards Choir will be touring the east coast in September and October with a full line up. Some friends of mine in the DC area have become the backbone of the live show. I wrote the songs for Reunion myself, but we’re playing some new unrecorded tunes in the set that we’ve arranged together, and I look forward to more collaboration. It’s exciting.
Josh: Well, now I’ve got some more great songs to look forward to! Now, a while back you did an innovate concert called “Pfriends on Pfilm” where you and your bandmates projected a film on a screen behind you while you played – a live soundtrack, what was the reception from the audience for something so unique in the scene? And have you considered doing that with your current band, or any other nifty touring tricks up your sleeve?
Andy: The response to Pfriends On Pfilm was very positive. Brad Wolf, who designed all the visuals for that tour, designed the Reunion EP artwork. We’ve done a couple more Pfriends On Pfilm performances in the DC area, but there are no plans to do another tour with that set up yet. Right now, I’m focused on introducing the band and these new songs to the folks across the country that are used to seeing me solo. I would like to incorporate that kind of visual element in the show again when it makes sense logistically.
Josh: So going along with that, a friend of mine had a question about how you view narrative through your music. Because you obviously care not only about what you write in your music but how you deliver your music to people. You experimented a little bit with delivery where you released one song at a time, each subsequent song being generated by the revenue from the preceding song, rather than a traditional album (and those songs made it onto Reunion), so do you enjoy the confined expression in one singular song in getting your message across, or the more expansive narrative and voice of an album? Where do you see the music industry heading in that regard?
Andy: I think one song can have as much impact on a listener as an album. That’s possible. Though, I suppose it depends on the song, album and listener.
I’ve never written an album in one night. It’s usually one tune at a time. So the song series seemed pretty natural to me. Although, I do love creating albums. All the preparation. The meditation. My favorite records each have an underlining feeling. Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. Take one song off of each of those records and it will feel like its part of the whole. If you only ever heard that one track, I think it could still give you the message of the record in its own way.
I enjoy musical expression period. One song or twenty.
As far as the future, we shall see. I don’t think the album is finished as an art form, but the perception has changed. There is certainly a lot out there for people to wade through and find the songs that connect with them. More artists are releasing a couple at a time to stay fresh on the minds of their listeners.
When folks need a melody to say what words can’t. There will be one there for them. That’s what music is for. That won’t fade.
Josh: You mention two fantastic records there, I particularly enjoyed The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. I’m wondering, how much of an influence does other art have in your own music and song writing process? You said previously that “I have always tried to write my own story, or the story that is going on around me. We’re all searching for something. That theme is universal.” But do you find yourself, consciously or subconsciously, writing something that you’ve experienced through someone else’s medium? Almost as if you’re writing through osmosis. I know for myself that when I read something like a noir by Raymond Chandler I start to write in short, staccato sentences and make a lot of wisecracks.
So I’d love it if you’d share what other music, books and movies, or anything else, that you’ve found to be inspiring and helped shape the way that you either write or think in your approach to song writing.
Andy: I recently wrote a song inspired by an Orson Scott Card book, Speaker For The Dead. The bridge to “Gracious Woman” off of Jealous Hands “We carry the fire…” was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Before finishing “A Better Lie” off the Reunion EP, I listened to Tommy Janes’ “Draggin The Line” to let the triplet feel in the rhythm section sink in. Sometimes, when I’m working on a song, I’ll put the TV on mute and watch one of my favorite movies with subtitles : Blade Runner, Shawshank Redemption, There Will Be Blood… So much shapes what I create, subconsciously and consciously.
Josh: Well, I don’t think anyone can dispute your taste in books and movies, and I’m definitely going to go reread The Road and listen to “Gracious Woman” again now. You’ve mentioned some pretty heavy thematic material here: each books and film you mention grapple with serious emotional, philosophical, and even theological issues. What is it about them that draws you in? And a couple of quick, fun questions: Which one do you prefer, Ender’s Game, or Speaker For the Dead? And, in your viewing, is Deckard a replicant?
Andy: The power of those stories draw me in. Their depth. Their portrayal of the human condition, with all its flaws and wonder.
I’d have to say I like Ender’s Game just a little more than Speaker For The Dead. I heard an interview with Scott Card in which he said Speaker For The Dead was going to be the first book. His publisher, or editor I don’t remember, said there had to be some back story in order for it to work. So he wrote Ender’s Game, in order to write Speaker For The Dead. Pretty interesting.
Is Deckard a replicant? I’m always torn on that one. I’ve seen Blade Runner too many times to count and I still haven’t made my mind up about him. I think the writer and director wanted to leave things open ended for the viewer.
Josh: The flaws and wonder of the human condition indeed. I’m constantly amazed at the power of stories. There Will Be Blood reverberated within me for weeks after I saw it.
I’ve heard the same thing about Scott Card’s books. Most people I know prefer Ender’s Game, but I’m the opposite, I prefer Speaker For the Dead just a little bit more – I love how it can hook you without as action packed a story as Ender’s Game. And I still have no idea on Deckard either – I keep thinking I’ve made up my mind but then I think about it just a little bit more and I’m undecided again.
So, back on track to “serious” questions again, I’m wondering how your faith has impacted your music. There isn’t often an explicitly spiritual bent to your lyrics, but at times it comes across strongly, as in “I’d Sing,” “Find You,” and “Your Fire.” What role do you think your faith does have in your music? How do you straddle the line between letting your beliefs come out through your music, and also trying to write universal themes that anyone could listen to?
Andy: My life and my experiences come out in my music. Those are the pieces I use to build songs.
As far as straddling a line? There is no line. No compartmentalization.
I will admit to being careful with my words, in the way that a wood worker would be careful with his measurements.
Words have power. Even more so with a melody.
Like these from “City With No Children” by Arcade Fire:
“You never trust a millionaire quoting the sermon on the mount
I used to think I was not like them,
but I’m beginning to have my doubts, my doubts about it”
Or these from Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe”:
“Take a baby to the river, Kyle William they call him
wash the baby in the water, take away little Kyle’s sin
whitewash shotgun shack, an old man passes away
take the body to the grave yard and over him
they pray Lord won’t you tell us, tell us what does it mean
At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe”
Josh: Undoubtedly, words have immense power. I’ve always loved G.K Chesterton’s dialogue from his novel The Ball and the Cross:
“What is the good of words if they aren’t important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn’t any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn’t there be a quarrel about a word? If you’re not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears?”
Of course, he doesn’t mention the power of music there, but regardless, your point stands.
So, when you say no compartmentalization, do you mean that what you write is simply your experience in this world, you don’t try to explicitly write about a certain subject or another, you just write, period? Would you be able to elaborate when you say you’re careful with your words – are there songs that you’ve written that you regret how you said something, or during the writing process second thought the impact that your words could potentially have and changed them?
And then, because those questions aren’t loaded enough, I was wondering what your opinion of the music industry is right now, in relation to the words and melodies which are resonating with people. You cite “City With No Children” from Arcade Fire’s Grammy winning The Suburbs – do you think that music with that kind of thought put into the songs is paving the way for more artists to follow in their footsteps, or is that approach (and your approach) still only resonating with a niche audience?And, how do you personally relate to those lyrics you mentioned from “City With No Children”? (Except for the millionaire part, of course)
Andy: Yes. I just write.
Songs start with an emotion. Then the melody. (Often the melody and emotion arrive together). Then I figure out what I’m trying to say. What story to tell.
As far as regrets, I would say there are some things I wrote a few years back that seem silly, or trite, or just not good, but I needed to write them then, in order to be where I am now…and, I’m still learning. Still chipping away. I can’t change those old songs, but I can learn from those lessons and be better with the next tune.
I think art that is truly, unquestionably extraordinary will find an audience. When we hear, or see something that reaches down and pulls at our guts, makes us really feel, we want to experience it again, and we tell everybody around us about it.
People have been saying meaningful, beautiful things in music for a long long time. Every songwriter who wants to follow in that tradition is traveling on the road of those that came before them, and picking up the next hitch hiker around the corner.
A lot my songs wrestle with questions like “City With No Children” does. That’s why I relate to it. The reason I started making music in the first place, was because a melody can say more than words alone.
Josh: So, you’ve mentioned numerous times how much of what you write is your story, your experience – you write things from the heart that are true to your life.
So with that in mind, do you tend to write about other people, such as family members and friends?
Because some of the lines in your music, especially in “A Better Lie,” have a startling honesty to them, lyrics like “Don’t believe you when you said “We tried.”/ Doubt drippin on the white of your eyes / We’re breakin cause you can’t decide /to speak the truth, or tell a better lie.”
What kind of responses/support have you gotten from people close to you when you write from shared experiences?
Andy: I do write about those around me.
“A Better Lie” is pretty brutal I guess.
It’s inspired by several people, all rolled into the two characters in the song. One is trying to save the relationship. The other won’t admit it needs saving.
A few folks have commented on it. They’ve heard themselves in it, or people they know.
That is what every songwriter hopes for. That people will relate to the song.
My friends and family, the people close to me, know that I am best when I am honest in my music.
Josh: Well, Andy, it’s been a pleasure talking with you, thanks so much for giving your time to me and to IVM. I’ve just got some final questions for you: If there is just one thing that you want listeners to find in your music, what would that be? And what’s next for you? You’re going on tour, but are you working on a new record, or perhaps a collaboration, such as with The Lost Chorus?
Andy: I just want people to hear the songs. Really listen. I think that each person will take away something different, but hopefully, they will find something to connect to.
The Cowards Choir is heading out on your this fall. What’s next? I would like to record some the newer, unreleased songs. We’ll see if it turns into a record. The Lost Chorus was a fun side project. I will probably do things like that from time to time, but my main focus will be what’s it’s always been: Telling my story, one song at a time.