20 Questions: Zachary Cale

He's one of America's most accomplished singer-songwriters, after only a decade of recorded output. But success hasn't changed Cale, who still loves cowboy boots, climbing trees, and swapping song titles, Robert Pollard-style.
Zachary Cale
No Quarter

Someone find Zachary Cale’s birthday candles, please.

No, it’s not for the fact that the Louisiana-bred, New York-based singer-songwriter is about to celebrate his 37th birthday here soon. It’s to commemorate a full decade since Outlander Sessions first arrived in the world, that scrappy little debut album that Zachary Cale famously recorded on a simple four-track with a guitar that actually wasn’t his. As great an origin story as it is, that 10-song wonder proved only to be a sign of things to come, as over the years, Cale’s own guitar mastery continued to grow, soon opening his albums up to more elaborate, flourishing productions, at one point even forming a full-band rock outfit called Illuminations just to take his songwriting to a different place.

Yet for all the finger-picked and quickly-strummed numbers that Cale began building his career on, nothing could have prepared him for the reception to 2013’s Blue Rider, his finest achievement and his undisputed breakthrough album. PopMatters’ own Matthew Fiander noted that Blue Rider “excels as a personal document, reflecting on the sweet and hard times, but it’s also more than that; it’s a document that perfectly represents the plight and joy of the independent musician, of the artist constantly knocking on those gates, hoping for that welcome noise on the other side.” Outside of his many positive notices, Cale managed to relentlessly tour, cover a song for his friend Will Stratton, and even, as he tell us, write a bit of a rag for Sesame Street.

Now, with the release of his anticipated fifth album Duskland (which we’ve already referred to as “Cale’s golden hour”), Cale took his time to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions, revealing penchants for cowboy boots, climbing trees, and swapping song titles, Robert Pollard-style.

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I take after my mother, I cry during the commercial breaks. I’ve also been known to cry watching crap movies on airplanes. Not sure why. I think it’s the combination of being away from home and defying gravity that makes the most mundane things intensely emotional.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I don’t know. Cool Hand Luke maybe? I can identify with that dude anyway. Here’s a great line from the movie. “Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.” Sounds like something I’d say.

3. The greatest album, ever?

I really couldn’t say. There’s so many greatest albums. Besides, rating art is pointless.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Yeah you know Star Wars was cool when I was eight. Trekkies unite!

5. Your ideal brain food?

Taking a walk helps me work through things. Just a stroll around the neighborhood or doing a simple errand on foot can get my brain moving.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

I composed an acoustic “rag” for a Sesame Street clip once. How many acorns in the tree or something. They paid me 100 bucks. But hey it was the first time my guitar was heard on national TV, so that’s something right?

7. You want to be remembered for …?

I’ve written a lot of songs. Hopefully I’ll be remembered for that. If not that probably my winning personality and devilish good looks.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Off the top of my head? Charlie Chaplin.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Toss up between Fountain by Marcel Duchamp or The Sistine Chapel.

10. Your hidden talents . . .?

I’m really good at climbing trees.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

If you commit yourself to something for ten years you’ll become a master at it. An eccentric friend of my father’s told me that. I was 13 I think. Just starting to play guitar. He was a back to land type person. Lived off the grid out in Eastern, WA. He had his own farm animals, mule, log cabin, no electricity, phone. He kept his goat milk cold in a mountain stream, and built his own hot tube with a fire place underneath it. He also had a Caboose from an old train that he lived in sometimes. He definitely left an impression.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

A guitar that I bought with borrowed money that was eventually stolen. I wrote roughly 300 songs with it. It was a good one.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

Cowboy boots.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Keith Richards ‘cos there’s just no way that could be boring.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

Anytime or place as long as it was before the Internet.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Time alone, a hammock by the sea, a surfboard, a good book, a guitar. A hit man for anybody that tries to contact me.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

“Music, sweet music” and the love of a good woman. Coffee is good too.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Hard to say. I like spending time in the country but I like living in cities. Countries: Galicia province of Spain, Southwest region of the US, Lombok or Bali in Indonesia, the Cascade Mountain range in Washington state. Cities: Rome, Katmandu, New Orleans, Lisbon, Bangkok, Prague.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

I guess you tried your hardest but I’m afraid you’re hardest wasn’t that hard.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

I’m about four albums behind schedule right now. I’m always writing, but recording is very slow for me. Maybe it’s because I don’t enjoy it that much and it’s expensive, I’d rather be playing live. I’m about to go on tour so I’m not really working on anything too intensely right now. I did just start a songwriting project with my friend Jonathan Byerley of the New York band, Plates of Cake. He came up with ten song titles and I came up with ten song titles and we swapped. The idea is to write songs from the titles. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices writes all his records that way. Thought it’d be a cool experiment.