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03.06 Globe-Trotting Musician Zac Galen

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Young Man, Old Soul
 
By Carl J. Tietze
 

In a pub on the other side of the world, a soulful voice originating from across the globe permeates the smoke laden air. Tonight behind the microphone, singing and playing an electric guitar, is a young man from the United States, singing his heart out in a language most people in that pub immediately wished they understood better. Not a stranger in a strange land, this is Zac Galen, singer, songwriter and purveyor of American roots, soul and rhythm and blues music ~ he is singing his heart out in, of all places, Berlin, Germany.
So how did Galen decide to hop a plane bound for Germany to turn the locals onto American music and to teach them English?  Purely by accident, that’s how. “It was an accident choosing Berlin, I have been blessed with two different academic fellowships, summer before last and this time. It may sound fancy but it really means that I get enough money to live by watching films and hanging out in art exhibits while trying to understand things through German philosophers…”
Born under the watchful eye of the last Amish midwife in the small town of Ephrata, Pennsylvania just over two decades ago, Zac Galen has come a long way since the days he and his father would tour the Northeast preaching at various churches. The fates landed him at Clark University and it is there that Galen made the conscious decision to devote himself to music and his studies. “I truly grew up in Worcester, it’s here that I went to school and it was at Clark (University) that I stopped being a little boy and vowed to be student-musician.”
Listening to Galen perform, it is easy to hear American music icon Stevie Wonder’s influence on songwriting, arrangement, and vocal tone. Galen’s voice is as soulful and deep as it is pure, and his ability to hit upper registers with ease makes it very obvious that this young man has a voice and knows how to use it. His vocal talent, coupled with his abilities as a first rate guitar player, puts this young man a cut, or two, above the rest.
“I was raised on Ray Charles, Rachmonivov and Raffi,” he says with a smile. “And I always sang in church and in chorus before that became so very not cool.” His mother often sang to Galen as a child and his father actually released an album, a feat that had a profound and lasting effect on Galen. After picking up the guitar while a sophomore in high school, his first musical experiences consisted mostly of jamming with his close friends and writing his own songs after “…having {my} heart broken a few times.” He likens the process to the quote attributed to James Joyce, “Mistakes are the portals to discovery.”
While Galen was a student at Clark University, his first music teacher and now good friend James Fidlon turned him onto Miles Davis and according to Galen, he’s been hooked on jazz music ever since.  And it was this musical epiphany that led to Galen choosing to seriously pursue music. “I was fortunate enough to study jazz guitar under James and that has been my music vocabulary ever since…I realized I didn’t want to be a student for the rest of my days.”
With the days of singing in the choir long behind him, it is clear that Galen is something of an old soul finding influence in the work of musicians that many of his peers may not keep in regular rotation on their Ipods. It is not uncommon to hear Galen speak with admiration about “masters” like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, folk artists like Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake, and contemporary artists like Kaki King and the Benevento/Russo Duo. “In many ways I think it is very ignorant…to reduce a musical texture to an ethnic group…Stevie (Wonder) is probably the biggest influence on my singing, what I try to sing is certainly soul music, traditionally an African/American style, no doubt about it…but music is a mode of expression that elevates and transcends above creeds and colors and categories and contexts.”
Galen has been playing to packed houses with People’s Republic of Monsters, sharing the stage with keyboard master Steve Mossberg, drummer Jeremy Gray, bassist Jess Hautala and “blues-harp thriller” Johnny Siever. As Galen headed off to Germany, the band was in the process of mixing a few more tracks from a recent recording session that will be released later in March. Also in March, Galen will re-team with friend and musician Tom Dixon to record as Old Man Benjamin, a band that originally featured Galen’s now deceased friend, John Lively. All proceeds from the sale of this album and from a Worcester arts festival scheduled for October will be donated to the foundation formed to honor Lively.
This extensive touring and performing schedule has been daunting, and the strain of performing so frequently has damaged Galen’s left arm.  However, through positive thinking and alternative practices like yoga, stretches, heating, icing, the cerebral Galen reinvented himself and is nowhere near quitting what he loves and does so well. “I have been really inspired by John Medeski, whose career was almost ended at my age by severe tendonitis, but he chose to reinvent his lifestyle through alterative therapies…I am entirely superstitious about positive rituals, from meditative visualizations of performances to reading inspirational Nietzsche on an afternoon before a show…and I’m hoping to learn Tai Chi very soon.”
So where does Zac Galen, the young man with the powerful voice, deft touch on the guitar, and gift for writing songs that connect with his audience, see himself in ten or twenty years? “On stage, because that’s always been the place where I’ve felt most alive. I’m passionate about what I am doing, as a kid I was described as being intense, and I’ve stayed true to form ever since. Just do what you do, that’s the most important thing, he says with a smile.
For more information on Zac Galen’s tour dates, head to www.myspace.com/peoplesrepublicofmonsters or
www.myspace.com/zacthelegomaniac
 

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