It took visiting the West Coast for J Hacha De Zola to realize just how much his native New Jersey has impacted his life.
“I have very conflicted feelings about where I live, and I think that’s a component of my writing perhaps,” explains Hacha De Zola, who was born and raised in Hudson County. “Where I grew up, there was a high density of people in the area, folks living on top of each other. There’s always a touch of anxiety in there. The diversity of cultures, people and ideas in my little corner of Jersey has played a huge role in how I think about music.”
Studios on both sides of the country played a big part in Picaro Obscuro, due Aug. 12. Not only is it Hacha De Zola’s second full-length solo album, it’s also the second of 2016 by the genre-blending musician with a voice — brawny, devious and devilish — that gives him a presence like that of Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
“I want to produce as much as I can right now, while I still can,” says Hacha De Zola when asked why he released Picaro Obscuro so close to his debut, Escape From Fat Kat City. “To me, it’s more important to leave behind ‘artifacts.’ It may seem like a rather delusional or egotistical desire to want to be remembered for something, anything. Ultimately, I had the rather rare opportunity to record with some truly amazing and wonderful souls, so I took my chance.”
Hacha De Zola credits a “perfect storm of consequences and situations” that led him to Portland, Ore., for sessions at Troy Boiler Room, a small studio (built inside an actual boiler room) where a friend was working.
“It was important to capture the sound of the room and all the people in it,” says Hacha De Zola. In addition to musicians from New Jersey and Seattle, he worked at Troy Boiler Room with Portland-based players, among them saxophonist Ralph Carney, an uncle of Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney and a veteran of sessions with Waits, among others.
‘Moments of chaos and panic’
“I wanted to capture a moment in time with all of us together and didn’t care about anything being perfect,” Hacha De Zola adds. “There were definitely moments of chaos and panic, but we were able to grab sounds that wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else. There was a certain purity and rawness in those sessions that I wanted to capture and bring back home to Jersey.”
Picaro Obscuro was also tracked in Rahway, N.J., at Mercury Recording Studio. A few years ago, following Hacha De Zola’s bad experience making an EP in New York as a member of a neo-soul group, a friend recommended he give Mercury a shot.
“I loved the fact that Rahway is a good distance from New York City,” Hacha De Zola says. (It’s about 25 miles away from Manhattan.) “I had worked in Rahway and knew the city well; it felt like my own turf.”
He credits engineer-musician Jerry Ramos, who runs Mercury, for allowing him “to get away with so much” during the Picaro Obscuro sessions. “I could get as unhinged or as weird as I wanted. He really cared about what I was trying to accomplish, and he was with me every step of the way.”
Hacha De Zola isn’t waiting around to take the next step in his career.
“I am in a strange point in my life where I feel so driven to create things,” he says. “I have been experiencing a torrent of creative thoughts and aspirations, I guess. I am already staring down the barrel of album No. 3.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo by Miguel Peralta