There was a line I wasn't willing to cross," Zach Heckendorf declares. "And maybe I just can't write the kind of pop song they wanted," he goes on, speaking of his time with Aware Records, the Chicago-based imprint he was signed to for a little over a year. "They always wanted a huge chorus."
This was a tough demand for Heckendorf, a Denver-based singer-songwriter who built his compositional style listening to acts like Drake and Jack Johnson. "These guys don't have huge choruses," Heckendorf points out. "When I was having to write pop songs with other people, I always felt like I was being pushed out of the place where I felt like I was being honest."
Zach Heckendorf, with Hannah Samano, 9 p.m. Saturday, December 21, Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway, Englewood, $15-$20, 888-929-7849.
In the end, the creative strain proved too much for Heckendorf, and he ended up parting ways with the imprint last summer. "But," he says, "a lot of really good things happened with the label." Indeed, Heckendorf's time with Aware opened doors, allowed him to make connections, and gave him practical experience that the young musician, who isn't even old enough to drink yet, is looking to capitalize on as he works diligently to raise funds for his next album, which he plans to record at Colorado Sound in Westminster.
With less than a week to go before the fundraising deadline, Heckendorf and his band — which includes fellow songwriter and guitarist Curtis Halle (a precocious musician who's even younger than Heckendorf) and scene veterans Carl Sorensen and Casey Sidwell — still have a third of the $30,000 goal left to raise.
"I've been really vocal about it everywhere I go," says Heckendorf. "My parents have been really vocal about it everywhere they go. We don't have tour plans at the moment. We really want to get this record done so we have something to bring on tour."
Heckendorf has learned a lot in a short time. Just four years ago, he was a junior at Cherry Creek High School, penning tunes and playing guitar as a hobby. He recorded four songs on his own that quickly caught on. The tunes, which combined the singer-songwriter dynamic of artists like José González with the rapid-fire lyrical delivery of hip-hop giants such as Kanye and Jay Z, helped attract the attention of his current manager, Chris Tetzeli of Red Light Management.
Shortly thereafter, Heckendorf got the chance to showcase his sharp, melodic approach to harmonica and his strong baritone singing voice at high-profile gigs supporting acts like the John Butler Trio at the Fox Theatre in Boulder. "It just kind of spread from there," Heckendorf says casually. Making the most of his exposure, he later recorded a self-titled EP, which eventually led to the chance to record a full-length album, titled The Cool Down, in Los Angeles, with Brett Dennen as producer. That platter earned Heckendorf a deal with Aware, as well as the opportunity to tour with acts like Rodrigo y Gabriela and Michael Franti. It was the kind of success that convinced Heckendorf to pursue music as a career by the time he graduated from high school in 2011.
"When I was supposed to go to college, I decided I wanted to go for the music instead and give it a fair chance," Heckendorf recalls, adding that Colorado College gave him a few years off to decide. "Last year, I had to tell them I wasn't going to go back."
The road became Heckendorf's classroom instead. After a tour with Big Head Todd and the Monsters, he struck out last summer for a second stint with Rodrigo y Gabriela. On that outing, he brought along Halle, a fellow Cherry Creek alum whose dense picking style complemented Heckendorf's own approach to the guitar. "That was probably the best tour we've been on," he recalls. "We really got along with Rodrigo y Gabriela and their whole crew. It was really fun for us to have that community at every show."
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From playing for crowds of thousands in Chicago and Austin to selling hundreds of CDs at single shows to jamming on historic stages in opera houses, Heckendorf learned a lot on the road; he also grew as both a lyricist and a songwriter. "I think I'm a lot more confident these days than I was back then," he asserts, speaking of his high-school years. "I see it these days as more of a grind. I used to see it as just having a good time. I'm thinking, 'How can I make this show benefit me the best? How can I gain fans?'"
If it's somewhat surreal to hear a twenty-year-old speak in such assured terms, it's even more odd to consider that "back then" was a mere four years ago. If you ask Heckendorf, his progression has as much to do with his partnership with Halle as it does with his perspective. "Curtis is such a huge part of what I'm doing now," Heckendorf insists. "It's a duo. He helps a lot with the production. His learning curve is insane. I feel like I was two steps ahead of him, and now he's five steps ahead of me."
The pair already recorded and released an EP earlier this year, titled Water Brothers, that includes tunes that are slated to appear on the full-length album. While the songs still bear Heckendorf's signature style on lyrics and guitar, he notes how tracks like "Take Time" reflect a more mature approach to composition. "When I was younger," he recalls, "I'd throw words together if the cadence sounded good. I'm a little more thoughtful with my songs now. 'Take Time' is about how if you really want something, take more time, have more persistence. They're feelings that come from my music career."
In many ways, Heckendorf is still an average twenty-year-old. He's working a catering gig on the side, hoping to save enough money to move out of his parents' place. But as tunes like "Take Time" demonstrate, the young songwriter is already seasoned well beyond his years.