Rural Russack: How Your Surroundings Affect Your Songwriting

Zach Russack is a singer-songwriter from Hackettstown New Jersey, painting stories with his lyrics, and creating songs that are reminiscent of his hometown. This week, Stef from The MIC was able to sit down and ask a few questions about songwriting, his latest single, "Bedford Oak," and what's next for Russack. SJ: Hey Zach, very excited to finally sit down and chat. Let’s start with you telling us a little bit about yourself. What is your story, and how does music fit into it?

ZR: Stefani! Nice to chat with you as well, and I am glad we could make this work. Since the age of 6, I found myself formulating chords and playing scales on a little keyboard in my home, making my parents’ heads turn a little and say, “What is up with this kid?”. I have always kept that ability in the back of my head while I continued to grow older and pursue other activities like playing different sports / actively playing outdoors with neighborhood friends. One of my old friends had a rock duo with his brother, and after looking at how cool music could be, I asked for a Fender starter pack that very Christmas/my Birthday. Best Christmas / Birthday ever! I then asked to join in on my friend’s band after hearing he needed a bassist and rhythm guitarist, and from that point on, I was hooked. We took lessons together at School of Rock in Hackensack (about an hour drive from where we were living in Hackettstown), which helped boost our skills and knowledge in theory, along with strengthening our stage presence and confidence. We were about 13 at the time. Ever since that pivotal period in my life, I have played in a few different rock / indie-rock bands through my sophomore year of college. In 2013 I decided to start writing songs on my own. Since then, I have kept music, songwriting, and production in my life that remains relevant and personal to me.

SJ: Who are your biggest musical influences, and how have they shaped your indie, folk-rock sound?

ZR: Elliott Smith is my king. To me, he provides such a level of sophistication, taste, writing production, talent, emotion, etc., that is unmatched. His inspiration has helped formulate some of my favorite written originals in my repertoire. He opened up my eyes to how cool being a singer-songwriter can be and that it doesn’t immediately equal a Simon & Garfunkel sound. Another big influence as of late has been Andy Shauf. He inspires me every time I listen to any of his records. His production choices, his talent on all the instruments he plays (all parts except for violin/strings, I believe?) leave me in awe over how such a simple-sounding song can contain such complexity. In short: Elliott and Andy are my automatic go-to’s for musical writing inspiration.

SJ: Your music is said to be a reflection of your rural New Jersey countryside upbringing. How do you feel you were most impacted by the landscape of where you grew up?

ZR: The accessibility to woods, open fields, mountains, hillsides, busy small-town liveliness, and big-city adventures has molded me into a strongly balanced individual containing both high energy and tranquility. Hackettstown brought me the insight of small hometown comradery where everyone knows your name, along with the chance to escape in the woods to find that magical lost portal to other worlds. Living here in Hackettstown (still living here), enveloped in the land that I have grown up with since I was young, tends to provoke the sadness of how my innocence is lost and will always remain imprinted in the fields and woods for good. That theme alone drives a core chunk of my written material.

SJ: Your last release is your single, “Bedford Oak,” which was a collaborative track by yourself (NJ), Mike Johnson (NC), and Josh Welshman (WA). Do you prefer to collaborate or to write independently?