Every Wednesday, WERS presents Wicked Local Wednesday, our program dedicated to bringing you music and interviews with artists in the Boston/New England area. Tune in at 9 p.m. every Wednesday night to hear songs from these local bands looking to share their music with the world! To learn more about the artists you hear on the program, check here on our WERS Music Blog for weekly Wicked Local Wednesday interviews.
In this interview, Boston artist and Berklee alumna Zoe Sparks talks with staff writer Sophie Severs about the Boston music scene, dealing with both internal and external criticism, and the sheer importance of friendship.
I FIRST WANT TO GET A BETTER SENSE OF WHERE YOU GOT YOUR MUSICAL START… HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTO PLAYING MUSIC?
Zoe Sparks: I've been playing music ever since I was really little. I started playing the drums when I was in third grade. My dad is also a musician, so I grew up watching him play in his bands. He said, 'You have to learn an instrument.' And I was like, 'Okay, well, I'm not going to learn the bass, because he plays bass—obviously I can't do that.' So I started playing drums. I was okay at it, but I wasn't that great. When I started playing guitar and bass, I realized that string instruments are more my thing. I grew up singing in choir, so I always knew that I wanted to go to school for music. That's how I ended up at Berklee.
WHAT DREW YOU TO THE BASS ORIGINALLY? I KNOW YOU SAID YOUR DAD PLAYED IT, SO YOU WERE LIKE ‘THAT'S KIND OF LAME.’ WHAT SEALED IN THE BASS BEING YOUR PRINCIPAL INSTRUMENT?
ZS: Since I've always sang I always wanted some way to accompany myself. I always thought that whenever I played guitar and accompanied myself with that, [...] I look like every other singer-songwriter. I want to do something different.
It's so cool to do something completely different with your hands than what you're doing with your voice. [Bassists] are always doing this thing where they go in different directions — it creates this really cool contrast. I’ve also always loved genres of music with bass-heavy songs, like funk and disco. It has always been my favorite thing to listen to. It just kind of made sense.
YOU JUST GRADUATED FROM BERKLEE— CONGRATULATIONS! THAT'S AWESOME. ARE YOU STAYING IN BOSTON FOR A WHILE, OR PLANNING TO MOVE SOMEWHERE ELSE?
ZS: I'm gonna stay here for a little while, definitely until the end of the year. My whole band is here and we're playing a bunch of shows over the summer. I don't think I'm ready to let such a good thing go. Maybe I’ll move back to California, where I'm from, but for now I'm gonna stay in Boston.
HOW HAS THE BOSTON MUSIC SCENE TREATED YOU SO FAR?
ZS: I really like it. Berklee is a huge part of the Boston music scene. If you are a musician here, it's likely that you either go to Berklee or know someone that goes to Berklee. It's very much a network.
I started getting gigs in Boston through Berklee. I never would have even gotten my first off-campus gig if I didn't go to school with the people that I did or have the professors that I did.
Outside of Berklee, there's a lot of really cool venues. Because it's a college town, there's always young people out looking to go see live music, so it’s a really good place to play. I've been lucky to play at a lot of the really cool venues around the area.
THE SCENE IS REALLY GREAT. EVERYONE IS SO OPEN TO HEARING NEW MUSIC—AND SPEAKING OF NEW MUSIC, YOUR NEW SINGLE, "ALL THE THINGS YOU'RE NOT" HAS ALREADY BEEN HEARD BY SOME LIVE, AND YOU SUBMITTED IT FOR YOUR TINY DESK CONCERT SUBMISSION. COULD YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE TRACK?
ZS: We have been playing it live since the fall, and it has really developed as a live song. I originally wrote the bass line just by itself… that was the first building block before I came up with the concept. I wanted to take inspiration from old, almost funkadelic riff bass lines. Then I came up with this concept to write about. The whole thing is ironic, I'm describing myself in this really bad light. If people are saying these things about you, they're the ones that are all of these things. I'm taking the power back—I'm calling myself these things. So if you call me these things, it's not that bad.
HOW WAS THE RECORDING PROCESS FOR THAT TRACK?
ZS: The recording process is always so much fun, because I record with my friend Tucker. He lives right up the street from me, and we record everything for the most part in his living room. That's where we recorded all the vocals and the background vocals.
For this track specifically, we wanted it to have this huge sound. We used a big professional studio. We recorded the rhythm section all together, and then the whole horn section.We got the energy as if we were playing it live. That's a really cool thing to have encapsulated into the recording
SO MANY OF YOUR SONGS DEAL WITH THESE HARDER TOPICS, SUCH AS SOBRIETY AND UNREQUITED LOVE. YET THOSE THEMES ARE REALLY IN CONTRAST WITH THE SPUNKY, UPBEAT MELODIES THAT YOU WERE SAYING YOU WRITE. IS THERE A METHOD TO PAIRING THESE LIKE SLIGHTLY DARKER THEMES TO THE FUNKY UPBEAT TUNES?
ZS: I don't know if there's a method. I like being able to deal with things that make me upset, or things I've gone through and turn them into upbeat fun songs. I don't ever want anyone to take it that I'm talking lightly about these bad topics. It happens, we all go through it, so we might as well find a way to express it in a way that's fun.
YOU DO MAKE THESE HARD EMOTIONS MORE PALATABLE—PEOPLE DON'T NOTICE THEY'RE DANCING ABOUT NOT WANTING TO BE FRIENDS WITH SOMEONE, OR SOBRIETY. IT'S A REALLY CLEVER THING THAT YOU'RE DOING. WHO WOULD YOU SAY YOU PULL INSPIRATION FROM? I HEAR SOME EMILY KING AND MAYBE A LITTLE LIKE HIATUS KAIYOTE—WHO WOULD YOU SAY?
ZS: I grew up listening to a lot of old blues. I love James Brown and Larry Graham. I also like D'Angelo. All of that stuff is definitely what I want the roots to sound like. As for more modern stuff, I really love Allen Stone and Anderson .Paak. I draw inspiration from hip-hop and soul as well.
YOU HAVE AN AWESOME BAND LINEUP AS YOU'RE SAYING. HOW HAS COLLABORATION WITH THESE FOLKS HELPED YOU GROW AS A MUSICIAN AND ALSO A PERSON?
ZS: They are all such good friends of mine. It's so much fun to work with them, because it's like we're just hanging out. They're not only my friends, but some of the best musicians I've ever gotten to play with. I'm lucky that they keep wanting to play with me. I learn a lot from all of them every single time we play together. We definitely like to have fun.
IN ONE OF YOUR INSTAGRAM POSTS A WHILE BACK, YOU TOLD YOUR FOLLOWERS THAT AN ARTIST YOU LOOKED UP TO SAID THE ONLY THING INTERESTING ABOUT YOU AND YOUR MUSIC WAS YOUR BASS, AND THAT WITHOUT IT YOU WERE NOTHING SPECIAL. YOU EVIDENTLY HAVE NOT LET THAT HAMPER YOUR MUSIC AS YOU ARE CURRENTLY SMASHING IT, BUT HOW HAS IT BEEN JUST OVERCOMING EXTERNAL AND ALSO INTERNAL CRITICISM AS AN ARTIST?
ZS: Internal criticism is the hardest thing for most artists, especially at this age. We're in college surrounded by so many people that are seemingly doing the same thing but better. It's really hard, and I will never finish learning to accept myself and not take everything I'm able to do for granted.
Just be yourself. It's just doing exactly what you want to do, and not letting other people influence what you want to do because they think you could be doing it better if you were doing something different.
It's really hard, especially when people you look up to are telling you that you're doing something wrong. It is important to step back and know that those people — though you may look up to them — are also wrong sometimes. I had a bad experience where a celebrity told me that I sucked, and I was like 'Well, he's right.' It's a whole generational thing too. I'm 21 years old — this guy's in his 50s. Maybe he doesn't get it, but that doesn't mean that people my age aren't going to love what I'm doing.
THERE'S AN AUDIENCE OUT THERE FOR EVERYTHING. ONE PERSON DOESN'T HAVE THE POWER TO DEFINE WHETHER EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD IS GONNA LIKE IT.
WHAT HOBBIES DO YOU HAVE OUTSIDE OF MUSIC THAT YOU LIKE TO DO?
ZS: I love spending time with my friends. I live with my best friend, and we always have all of our friends over here. I like spending time outside. Roller skating and biking and things like that. I just like creative things in general — I really like painting and drawing. I'm always making something.
WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR FANS TO GET OUT OF YOUR MUSIC?
ZS: I have always made music in the hopes that people will perceive it in the way that I receive music from my favorite artists. Everybody has favorite artists and albums and songs for different reasons. I can’t say, 'Oh, I want people to listen to this and be happy.' Maybe they're gonna listen to it and be really sad. Maybe that's a good thing for them—maybe that's what they need. Just appreciating it for whatever kind of headspace you're in. There's obviously different music and different artists for different moods, so take something out of it that they need or want.
With songwriting too—I like writing songs that could mean whatever the listener wants it to mean. That's really cool especially when I'm listening to songs, and I'm like, 'I have no idea what this is about, but I think it's about this and someone else listening to it probably would never have thought of that, they'd think of something completely different.'
WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE PART ABOUT BEING AN ARTIST? DO YOU LIKE THE WRITING PART, THE RECORDING PART, OR THE PERFORMING PART BETTER?
ZS: I love all of it. Performing has always been my favorite and always probably will be. I just love being on stage. Obviously the preparation for that is important, and you can't do it without the recording and the rehearsing and the writing. It is just such a wonderful culmination of all of those things, it's what makes every hour of work worth it.
TO CLOSE OUT THE INTERVIEW, WE'RE GONNA HAVE A QUICK LIGHTNING ROUND OF A COUPLE QUESTIONS. IF YOU WERE TO COLLABORATE WITH ANY OTHER MUSICIAN OR BAND, DEAD OR ALIVE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
ZS: Allen Stone!
FAVORITE BASS LINE TO PLAY THAT YOU DIDN'T WRITE?
ZS: I keep talking about Larry Graham, but "Hair" by Graham Central Station.
WHAT WOULD BE THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING MUSICIANS?
ZS: Just keep trying things. If you try something and it doesn't work, or you don't like it, try something else until you do. Eventually you'll find something.
DO YOU HAVE ANY BERKLEE ARTISTS OR ANY OTHER ARTISTS IN GENERAL THAT YOU WANT TO SHOUT OUT?
ZS: Oh my gosh, so many. I have so many talented friends. There are some people in my band that release and write their own music as well. Eli [Torgersen], my guitar player, is in this band called Thumber. My friend Josh Watson releases the most beautiful music no one ever listens to because he doesn't tell anyone about it. There are so many people at Berklee that are doing such cool things and people don't even know about it.
MY LAST QUESTION IS: WHAT'S NEXT FOR ZOE SPARKS?
ZS: We're gonna release this song one way or another, and we're playing a release show in New York. Then we're playing a bunch of stuff over the summer. We're traveling to a bunch of places we've never been, like Maine, Chicago, and Asbury Park in New Jersey. This summer is gonna be fun, a lot of new experiences. Hopefully a lot of new faces too.
Catch Zoe Spark’s concert tonight on Wicked Local Wednesday! Every Wednesday at 9 p.m. we play music from Boston-based bands you won't hear anywhere else.