New age for Local Historians

By Brian Dukerschein

Acoustic folk musician and Columbia senior Zach Harris, 22, knows how to make music with limited resources. In 2009 and 2010, he used borrowed microphones and his laptop to record two self-penned albums in his bedroom under the moniker Birds and Kings. In 2011, Harris released his third album, “Apartment Sessions I,” as Zachary Gunn & the Local Historians, which features his new wife and Columbia alumna, Elspeth Ryan, who now goes by Harris.

The Chronicle sat down with the interdisciplinary major to discuss his new creative name, the creative process and the direction his music career is headed in.

The Chronicle: Where did your first name, Birds and Kings, originate?

Zach Harris: That’s a funny question because I don’t remember for sure. I remember I have it written down in a notebook from high school, but I have no idea where the two words came from. But it has kind of evolved into a creative identity to work from, with the idea of freedom coming from the birds and authority, or a sort of structure coming from the king, and working from the conflict between the two.

The Chronicle: What prompted you to change the name?

ZH: I guess I’m trying to focus the work and also get a little more collaborative. Initially, the “Zachary Gunn” came from my wife’s middle name, and so that’s kind of a framework to work with her. Then “The Local Historians” is kind of something bigger, and I’ve started doing more exciting stuff with that by working with a couple other musicians to collaborate with and write totally new music that isn’t just my own work.

The Chronicle: What led you to start making albums?

ZH: It’s a creative impulse, I suppose. I guess I’ve always been a mixed media sort of artist, whether in my major or otherwise. There’s something about constructing a song from layered parts that just sort of came naturally. I had always been [a writer], and songwriting became the very focused way to tell a story.

The Chronicle: How would you describe the style of your music?

ZH: Oh boy, oh man, I don’t know. Something involving indie folk with a campfire sort of improvisation.

The Chronicle: Your songs are very lyrically driven. What is your process?

ZH: I’m always writing words down, whether I’m on the train, in class or in church. I’m always doodling ideas for imagery. Imagery is huge, and I’ll often just have a huge page full of random images or maybe something a little more structured. Then, I’ll take time and sit at home and just play chords and figure out something that would work, to find a melody for those words.

The Chronicle: Have you performed live?

ZH: Yeah, several times. Not as much as I would love to, just with still being in school. I’m still trying to get out there more. But I’ve done a few underground shows, a couple house shows and open mic nights.

The Chronicle: Have you noticed your music evolving in the course of your three albums?

ZH: It’s hard for me to summarize how, because I don’t spend as much time reflecting on my own stuff as I do making it. But it’s definitely shifted, and I hope it has gotten better, or at least found more of a structure and become more refined as I’ve learned new recording techniques, [become] a stronger guitar player and learned to vocalize better.

The Chronicle: How far do you want to go, musically?

ZH: It’s not something that I’m pressuring myself to do too much. It’s something that comes naturally rather than [my] seeking a career within music in and of itself. I want to go as far as it will take me, and that just matters as far as what people think of it—how it’s received and where the collaborations go. Because no matter how it is received, I’m going to keep doing it and keep trying to construct the perfect song.

To hear music from Birds and Kings and Zachary Gunn & the Local Historians, visit music.BirdsandKings.com and ZacharyGunn.bandcamp.com.

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