Arvada musician Joel Zigman
was finally afforded the opportunity to fully produce his own music with his four-track album Down
, which drops today, April 12. Zigman, who also owns and operates Arvada’s Deeply Rooted Music School
, says he worked on the songs in meticulous detail during the pandemic, bringing them to life by adding layers of sound and “building out the worlds instrumentally.”
“Before, I didn’t feel like I had the equipment or knowledge or experience to do my songs at this quality of recording,” he says. “Studio time is expensive, and I also wanted to have more creative control.”
He covers a lot of ground on Down
: how he met his wife, a tribute to a transgender friend who passed away, COVID lockdown-associated domestic madness, and a song about a cat that might be a song about a boy. The songs, though they vary widely in lyrical content, are tied together by Zigman’s whimsical sonic proclivities and unique vocals.
Zigman, like so many other musicians, found himself with a lot of time on his hands during the pandemic lockdown. At the time, he and his wife were living at his parents' house. “There was a bunch of us,” he recalls, “and you could hear everything. I was trying to write music, and it felt like the walls were closing in.”
Yes, creativity can spring from unpleasant circumstances, but the boredom and depression induced by cabin fever is no laughing matter. The situation directly inspired “Walls Are Too Thin.”
Another track, “Max!,” concerns a friend’s cat, the titular Max, though the lyrics are ambiguous and might be about a cute boy. It’s up to the listener to decide. The title track details how Zigman met his wife.
The track “TDOR,” pays tribute to a friends of Zigman's who died tragically a few years back under questionable circumstances. The song was the most difficult for him to write and the one with the heaviest subject matter on the album.
“I have a complicated relationship to it,” he says. “I don’t want to sensationalize this thing that happened, but I also wanted to honor him and keep him alive.”
Zigman takes inspiration from artists like Sufjan Stevens, Imogen Heap, Owen Pallett, JD Samson, Sleater Kinney, Matt Mahaffey and Tori Amos. Going forward, he’d love to do more falsetto singing on songs, similar to Adam Levine. However he proceeds, his singing voice defies easy classification. He chalks it up in part to being a transgender person whose voice changed as he transitioned several years ago. Learning to accept the changes to his voice, he says, adds to the vulnerability that permeates his music.
“It’s been a process of owning that,” Zigman says. “My voice changed much later in adulthood, after I had done a lot of singing in choirs and on my own music and general music school training. I had trained a lot on my old voice, and I had to totally relearn to sing when I was 25.”
He notes that many trans-masculine people fear losing their singing voices when they transition, and it’s a question he fields frequently from people who are beginning the process. It can be a source of anxiety, one that is fueled by bad information.
“There’s a lot of misconception that you won’t be able to sing, that your voice is never going to be the same,” he says. “It helped me a lot to talk to professional singers and some of my friends who are classical vocalists and have the perspective that voices always change.”
He adds that people’s voices will change throughout their lives for a variety of reasons — pregnancy, the mere passage of time, etc. Voices, like people, get kind of shoved into gender binary boxes that don’t work for everyone anyway.
“There are all these ways our voices are constantly changed,” he says. “You know, it’s that self-help bullshit. I can love my voice how it is. And own it.”
Zigman’s primary instrument is the piano, and as he looks to play more live shows — he hasn’t done too many in recent years because of COVID — he’s pondering ways to make playing the keyboard more stage-friendly. He plays more guitar on this album than usual, but he still considers it a secondary instrument. It’s a tall order to look cool behind a piano for most people. Tori Amos pulls it off with two pianos. Zigman says that doesn’t work for him, but it’s definitely a look. Nine Inch Nails will mount synths on harnesses that can be thrown across the stage, but Zigman wants to avoid getting bogged down in gear land.
“Before, I was very much behind my keyboard,” he says. “I started doing this thing where I would hold my synthesizer like a keytar and walk and play it. I didn’t love feeling like I was behind the piano the whole time.”
He’s also trying to find his place in the live-music scene. His music is a tad difficult to classify. A dream show for Zigman is to play on a lineup of queer punk bands, even if that’s not the style of music he plays.
“I’m still figuring out who I sit with,” he says.
In any case, Zigman says that one of his favorite activities as a music teacher has been helping his students write their own compositions and songs. It’s important, he says, to get back to writing and performing for himself. He wants to be open and vulnerable with his music and have his music embody who he is as a person.
“It’s me on stage, and it’s my voice and my words and my composition,” he says. “It’s fully me.”
Down premieres on Tuesday, April 12, and will be available to stream on Spotify and all major platforms. Check out joelzigman.com for more details.