By BRUCE DENNILL
Brothers Luigi (vocals) and Salvatore (guitar and backing vocals) Zaca write, record and perform together as Zacas, telling lyrical stories based on experience, backed by intricate folk arrangements. They released their debut album, Corner House, in 2018.
A while ago, you found yourself having a musical version of the classic interview conundrum, where you couldn’t be hired – or in your case, write songs with the sort of meaning you were after – because of a lack of experience. But you couldn’t get that experience without giving up what you were doing, which was, ironically, trying to make a living out of music. How important is a wider experience of life – profoundly understanding something by living through it – in songwriting?
Luigi: I’d say it’s relatively important. We’re all connected as humans. To some extent, we all experience the same thing in the same ways, but at different times, and that’s how we come to understand each other. Music today is very superficial – there’s not much that will help someone. But writing from deep within yourself, you can reach more people. Just not necessarily quickly…
Salvatore: I think it’s the most important thing. You can be a technically good musician, but life experience is important. Sincerity is learned as you strive for a dream that might topple. Regardless of the success or the outcome of what you do, that’s worthwhile.
Your sacrifices included your established lifestyles, an old band, and even time together as family. How did all of that influence your perspectives in terms of what you put out as writers, or how you hear music now?
Salvatore: It changed everything.
Luigi: You put in a lot of effort up to a certain point and then you see that it doesn’t work. There not a lot of venues where there is a demand for actual musicians and actual playing, or any real admiration for those skills. People want to be entertained, and for the most part, that means voer versions, not original music. Leaving that and seeing what the world has to offer opens your eyes and shows you what you want to do if you want to make it. For us, that’s not the same as what’s happening in South Africa at the moment. We went to the South African Music Awards nominations event recently, and we didn’t fit in with the trends we saw there.
Salvatore: I was at peace when we left, though. We’re isolated by our style to some degree already.
Luigi: We were chasing a dream that was watertight in theory, but impossible in practice. That realisation comes along suddenly. You wake up one morning and feel like a failure. There’s a lot of hurt, frustration and anger – and this is months after the release of an album we’re very proud of.
Salvatore: It’s not our job to meet expectations that are outside of what we do. You can’t expect people who are on an electronica high to turn towards some guy standing there and being honest while picking a guitar. That does lead to disappointment, but this body of work – Corner House – is in existence because of what we’ve been through, and we can always build on it.
Luigi: It’s like that ex-girlfriend, where you can look back and learn the lessons you need to and see why things didn’t work out. These days, being signed to a label is not the same as it was in the past. The industry has changed. If a label could push for you as hard as you push for yourself, it might be different, but they have a lot to handle.
Salvatore: Yes – where the commitment to the art part of it is not the same as yours, values will be compromised.
Luigi: But the contacts a label has are so important. You need the balance.
Salvatore: When we wrote the album, there weren’t any guidelines. The outcome just was what it was, and the label took it like that, for which we were grateful.
Luigi: The next album won’t be soon. We want to find new perspectives again.
Salvatore: New experiences are the only way to progress. The purpose of doing all of this is so that the music will exist.
Luigi: I think our purpose as humans is to be there for other people, and that can be difficult to accept. Sometimes you experience hardship and heartache that allows you to be there for others down the line. As animals go, humans are actually pretty well-behaved. I don’t think there’s any shame in considering what-ifs; for example in the finding of beauty in all women, and all people. We feel regret about what we are told is wrong. My father always says: “Never apologise for how you feel, but always be careful about how you react.” Living a selfless life is a most difficult thing.
Salvatore: You have to be stupid to think life is all about you.
In terms of accessibility, all of these experiences let you into the lives of others. But given your close relationship as brothers as well as bandmates, is the same sort of access available to listeners?
Salvatore: Putting all our emotions into a body of work is a privilege, whether the work is good or bad. It’s an opportunity to discard; to free yourself of all these emotions. That makes space for others to reach you. It also allows you to be more sensitive. You’ll stay a little longer to listen to what others say, and to give them an opportunity for connection. People who don’t write or play or sing don’t have that opportunity for release, but you might be able to give it to them.
Folk music is an ancient way of telling stories. What part of that tradition are you most drawn to?
Salvatore: I think it’s the absolute devotion to your craft.
Luigi: Originality! I think folk music is largely misunderstood. Mentally and physically, you have to understand what you’re getting yourself into. In some ways, it’s like being a radio DJ – there are only a certain number of things you can say in your particular context. And you need to be real – hypocrisy is a tricky thing. Think of the example of going into the gospel arena. You might become hugely successful, but the scrutiny is crazy.
The technical aspects of your sound are simple, in that you’re a duo with no overdrive or drums or bass (when playing live), but intricate in terms of Salvatore’s guitar playing and in the structures and lyrical patterns of the songs. Do you feel a need to keep things relatively complex in order to differentiate yourselves, or to give yourselves the credit for your skills that you mention is sometimes difficult to come by elsewhere?
Luigi: We don’t write like that intentionally. We grew up in a musical household, and studied Bach and gypsy guitar, among other things. And my vocal influences come from Ella Fitzgerald, Andrea Bocelli and those sort of musicians. For today’s young songwriters, there are three chords and one strum pattern, because that’s what they grew up with. I sometimes think of it as that chart you see explaining evolution, from the ape to the man walking upright, but going the other way – music may have started as intelligent and gone downhill. Are we going to end up with people playing Guitar Hero on stage as a kind of concert? I hope not. I hope people will look for something real.
On the recorded versions of your songs, the arrangements are fuller. How did you make decisions about how much to put in? You can add richness, but that can obscure character…
Luigi: When we were recording the album, we didn’t have the luxury of a lot of time to produce the songs. Essentially, what you hear is still two brothers playing together, although Franx, who plays bass for us live sometimes as well, adds a great richness to our recorded sound. We asked, every time: what does this song ask for; does it want more, or less? The title track is a bit different, too – possibly the birth of the next phase of where we might go musically, slightly away from the acoustic sound.
Salvatore: A lot of what we do is improvised. We might have a rehearsal and try out an idea, and then the next time we play that “song”, it’s not the same. So we had to sit down and do some structuring a week before recording to come up with some material we agreed on. It’s all very natural, and I hope it will stay that way.
How do you feel about albums over singles? Corner House feels like a significant chapter rather than collected isolated ideas.
Luigi: We don’t really have singles…
Salvatore: I’d like to take that time of my life, put it in a box – or on an album, as we have – and heal. Singles don’t help you heal.
Luigi: Corner House is a definite chapter, and one we’d like to close. The next album might take ten years to put together, but that’s okay.
Salvatore: Writing is our rehab. Being well is more important than meeting a deadline.