J Hacha De Zola: John Steinbeck, James Dean and Me

On East of Eden, the Jersey City Songwriter tips his hat to the past while facing our troubling present 

J Hacha De Zola (Art: Ron Hart)

J Hacha De Zola created a new sonic landscape for the songs he wrote for East of Eden, his fifth album.

With the help of his producer and multi-instrumentalist, Jerry Ramos, De Zola expanded his musical vision, facing the problem of making an album during a pandemic with a positive outlook and a heart full of song. His warm baritone is at the center of the mix, and the comforting harmonies that grace the tracks suggest the cheery vocals of the soul and doo-wop hits that provided his inspiration.   

East of Eden by J Hacha De Zola (Image: BandCamp)

“This album does sound different from previous ones,” De Zola said. “During the lockdown, I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do. I’m not usually political, but ‘A Viral Spring’ is about the lockdown. It was my way of trying to cope with what was going on. On ‘Which Way,’ I’m taking inventory on the horrors. Some folks are like, ‘I’m not gonna make a pandemic record,’ but I’m not made of stone. I couldn’t help but be influenced by what’s going on. 

“The bozo formerly in the White House normalized the despicable and ugly undercurrents of America. With the pandemic and insane political atmosphere – the war on facts and truth – it feels like America turned a corner toward chaos. There’s been a rise in fanaticism and violence, particularly against people of color. The album’s title, East of Eden, refers to this sense that perhaps we’ve been cast out of the proverbial garden. The conceit of America as a land of opportunity has kind of dissolved, bringing forth all of the ugliness beneath the surface. The themes on the album reflect that. It’s also a reference to a great John Steinbeck novel, the Bible, and that classic James Dean movie.”  

 

VIDEO: East of Eden film trailer

The lyrics of East of Eden confront mortality, alienation, loneliness and the search for love, with a deft combination of poetic lyrics and uplifting melodies. On “Faded,” street  corner harmonies wash over De Zola’s voice as he croons his devotion to a love that’s dissolving in the mist. His pleading vocal is complimented by the ornamentations of sideman Stefan Zeniuk’s sax.

“When you ask people, ‘What’s the most rock and roll instrument there is?,’ most of ‘em go straight to the guitar,” De Zola muses.  “I’d argue that what made the music of the 50s and 60s stand out is the sax solos. It’s an integral part of early rock hits like the Coasters’ ‘Yakety Yak.’ There’s a lot of sax on this album.” 

“Shadows on Glass” is a lament featuring girl group harmonies, washes of ambient keyboards and De Zola’s smoothing mid-range. “That Pleading Tone” blends twangy surf guitar, a mid-tempo R&B backbeat and tasty sax fills to augment the soulful vocals. The album strikes a precise balance between the feel of the ‘50s and early 60s and the modern polish of producer Jerry Ramos.

“Jerry’s been with me on my whole musical journey,” De Zola said. “He has a modest studio with great gear. He’s a technical wiz and great musician. He played most of the instruments on this record. I sometimes joke and say, ‘I’m not good enough to play on my records anymore.’ On my early albums, I played most things. Now I step out of the way and let the pros do it.”

 

VIDEO: J Hacha De Zola “Blue Sky”

For De Zola, East of Eden also finds him more at ease with his own vocal stylings. 

“I’ve never been comfortable with my singing voice, so I usually hid behind a wall of instrumentation,” he explains. “This time, I wanted to project a little more soul, give my interpretation of what a modern Motown, R&B or doo-wop song might sound like. I challenged myself by putting the vocals up front. It forced me to give the best performance I could. Being from New Jersey, across the water from New York, there was a long vocal group tradition to draw on, hence the doo-wop aura on a lot of the tunes.

“I worked with Jerry to get a perfect vibe, without a lot of instruments. I wanted each song to get straight to the point. Sometimes, that’s the hardest thing to do. You can have all these convoluted ideas about what you want to do, but you have to sacrifice them to make an effective song.”

 

 

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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