Derek Zanetti, aka The Homeless Gospel Choir embodies everything that makes punk great. He is a punk musician to the core who embodies a D.I.Y punk aesthetic where every song drips with authenticity and truth. He is that rare artist who can deliver a more affecting, relatable message in one single line than most bands manage on an entire album. His vulnerable lyrics and almost painful honesty often deal with his own mental health issues yet he can also be almost cruelly self-deprecating and uproariously funny. Similarly, his music is overtly political, following a proud tradition of folk-punk musicians such as Billy Bragg, Frank Turner, Davey Dynamite etc who use their voice to address the injustices, inequalities and general intolerance that sadly infects modern society.
Since releasing his 2010 debut album “Some People Never Go Anywhere”, Zanetti has built a dedicated following both in his native Pittsburgh and further afield. 2014’s “I Used To Be So Young” garnered him a degree of critical acclaim as well as some famous fans in the shape of Frank Turner and former My Chemical Romance guitarist Frank Iero. New album, “Normal” features the same poignant, soul-stirring lyrical nous you would expect but also showcases a greater mastery of song craft as songs move from folk-punk to Americana to anthemic pop punk in the form of “Crazy”, “1983” and the defining and triumphant “Normal”. A beautifully succinct statement to the world about what it means to suddenly find yourself part of the all encompassing, life-changing scene that is punk rock.
Before Zanetti embarks on a huge tour with Beach Slang and Frank Iero and the Patience, Dying Scene had the chance to talk with the always gracious and engaging Zanetti about the “Normal” album, the influence of folk-punk great Frank Turner, working with Frank Iero as well as why the very ideals that punk embodies still coarse through his veins.
Check out the interview below.
What was the first album you fell head over heels in love with?
In 1994 I was in 6th grade. I can remember a classmate of mine who always wore cool skateboarding shoes could tell I was having a real rough time fitting in. Most of my clothes were hand me downs, and not like cool vintage stuff that you used to find for $1.50 at the thrift store, just like just regular old dweebie square shit. I was short and chubby, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Like I was lost. Well one day my friend slips me his copy of Green Day dookie, on cassette and says, “I know you’ve been feeling weird, I’ve been feeling weird too.” That album was my first ever exposure to any form of counter cultural, underground, rebellious, music. I was 11. I heard green day, I was never the same.
How did you start making music for yourself?
It just kinda happened one day on accident. I picked up a guitar and started strumming and thinking out loud. It’s still currently happens on accident every time I played since then.
Was it easy for you to let people hear your writing initially?
In Pittsburgh, yes. We were very fortunate to have a wonderful DIY music scene and music space available to play our own shows, and open for bands as frequently as you wanted to. An awesome house venue called 222 Ormsby was really where I started to play shows with more national touring acts when they would come through. It was an amazing time to play punk rock in front of people who wanted to hear punk rock songs. It was imperfect, it was unorganized, the freedom it provided was often abused, but it was the punkest thing I’d ever been to, and it taught me a lot about myself and others.
Is that still the case?
I don’t know if I have a fair way to answer that question. The Internet makes it possible for people all over the place to hear new music. However I don’t know how to connect with people I don’t know in regards to the music that I made. Touring helps. But it’s been difficult to know if I’m connecting with people or just a commercial on their news feed.
At what point do you know you’re ready to make an album? Is there one key idea that starts the whole process off?
As soon as I was done recording I Used To Be So Young I started working on Normal. It took a lot longer than I thought. I’ve never written anything like this before. I started with a picture frame of what I wanted the picture to look like. And then I just had to create the picture of what I had in side of my mind. Chris #2 deserves a lot of thanks for how he was able to take some of these crazy noises and crazy sounds that I was hearing inside of my mind and making them with guitars and pianos. I wanted to create a vibe that made you feel like you were a part of it. Like you were in the desk at school with me, or getting baptized at youth camp. It was a long process. I used a poem I wrote in 6th grade about my science teacher as the leading track, so I guess you could say I’ve been working on this record since before I could play guitar. Haha
Did the songs come quickly or take more time to mould and shape?
I’m always writing. Whether it’s for a book that I’m working on, or THGC songs, or songs for my other weird bands or projects. This record took a lot more patience because I had to be more mindful of the details, and I’m shit at details and being patient.
What did you learn about yourself as a musician and as a person on the making of this album?
What did I learn about myself while making this record.— that’s a wonderful question. I think I’m still in the middle of learning it.
Is lyric writing a cathartic experience for you? Were there any lyrics that felt a little too personal?
Lyrics for the songs for the most part are just a fancy way to tell the story. The story for the most part is usually always already written, I just have to church it up.
Do you ever find yourself going to places you’d prefer not to go?
I have a fair about of anxiety most of the time. I try to practice being present, and sometimes it works. But it’s easy to access those odd weird feelings when you’re always feeling odd and weird.
Were you wary about addressing politics and the current state of American society in your lyrics or is it something you felt you had a responsibility to do?
THE HOMELESS GOSPEL CHOIR has always been a political accompaniment. Every song is a protest song.
In terms of production this album seems like a big step up from “I Used to be so Young”. Did you have a bigger budget and what were you able to do differently on this album?
Yeah sure there was some of that I guess. I just wanted to see if we could make this one feel different, I think we did a pretty ok job.
The song “Normal” is a beautifully succinct summary of what it means to be introduced to punk. Can you tell me a little about the story behind it?
Normal- I was a young kid scared, and often lonely. I was troubled with the weight of Hell, and salvation. Afraid of death. I found PUNK as a way to say it’s ok to be a fucking scared weirdo, we are all scared and weird.
Songs like “1983” and “Sometimes” suggest you have a somewhat complicated relationship with “punk”. How has that relationship changed and how would you define that relationship at this point in your career/life?
Punk for me is a constantly changing and evolving revolving door, that grows and changes us. when it works right, makes us better, more kind and assertive people.
Frank Turner is a vocal supporter of yours. Is he someone you would class as a major influence?
Turner is the fucking best. I was writing this record as we were doing some short tours together. He’s one of the hardest working dedicated and honest people I know. He’s a bit too skinny for my taste, but you can’t win them all. I sent him this track he liked it pretty good and that is that. I’m sure it comes as no surprise but frank turner has exquisite taste in music, he heard the songs and he thinks I’m the best! Some just get all the luck.
What was working with him and Frank Iero like?
Frank Iero and I worked on a few songs together backstage in Idaho I believe. We worked on crazy, and a song of his. He’s the best pal, it’s nice having someone almost as good looking as me out on tour to keep me humble.
What did you learn from them?
I’ve learned an oceans worth of experience and knowledge from both of them, and I feel I owe them a debt of gratitude.
You’ve got a huge tour coming up. Is it going to be you and a guitar or have you got some people playing with you?
Just be in acoustic telling the stories saying the words, and playing the songs, it’s going to sound fine I suppose.