Written by Dagmar Morgan-Sinclair
On a street in Stoney Creek, Ont., a tree-lined boulevard separates the quiet ebb and flow of traffic. Sitting quietly back from view is a small red brick bungalow. At the side of the house, stairs lead you down to the basement studio where Zac Tiessen is changing the face of progressive music today.
Sitting in a comfortable newly painted burgundy studio, Zac is disarming and intense all at once. He sits in front of his mixing interface flanked by his framed music credentials and lamps that look like the light up tentacles of an octopus.
We start talking about how he was born in Moscow to missionary parents. Zac leans forward as he recalls the first five years of his life and how Russia still influences him today.
ZT: In Russia we went to circuses and ballets, and the interesting part is they use full symphony orchestras accompanying every single event we went to. So there was always a big art influence throughout that culture. It played quite a big role for my brother (painter, Josh Tiessen) and I, growing up there.”
LIM: Is that where music began for you, at age five?
ZT: Well, from a young age my parents nicknamed me the happy hummer, as I would always sing any song that I’d hear on the radio or background music on commercials. But it wasn’t until I was 13 that I picked it up.
LIM: What was the turning point? You just changed your mind about music?
ZT: My parents always wanted me to get into different instruments or to take voice lessons, but during homeschool, it was my least favourite subject. When I was 13, I got a concussion that changed my personality quite a bit. I used to be a more extroverted and active kid, not sticking to any one thing. But at 13 I picked up the guitar and that became my first instrument.
LIM: Did having missionary parents influence you as a musician and a Christian?
ZT: Just to see their commitment to what they were doing over there. They are both more scholarly and were teachers. They had a real dedication to what they did, and they taught us from a young age to find your passion and to really go for what you believe. I think they gave us freedom at a young age to have that. It’s odd that my parents ended up with two sons in the arts as they are both scholars but they are very supportive.
As we continue to chat, the family dog Moe, a Boston terrier with a patchy white face, makes an entrance to chomp on his bone in the middle of the room. After Moe’s brief interjection and a laugh between us, it seems like a good time to shift deeper into our conversation.
LIM: How does God play a role in your music, as I wouldn’t classify it as typical Christian pop or worship music, it seems more contemporary than that. Do you agree?
ZT: To me, it’s about a beauty and complexity that is in and of itself truly a reflection of God’s intricate design of this world. For me, I get inspiration through different cultures, from different sights and sounds wherever I go. I feel that God is in that, and through my music I want to portray a positive image. Even though some songs may be bright and cheery and others may be darker or moody, there is always a positive takeaway. It is instrumental music, but I want people to be uplifted by it.
LIM: Some of your pieces are very large, sweeping landscapes. Do you have any interest in scoring films or expanding into pieces that include composing for more diverse instrumentation?
ZT: Already in my songs, I have implanted many different types of instruments and emulations of harps, like the [Japanese] Koto harp that I used in a song called Tsu. And another one called Rarefaction that is more of an orchestral etude. I actually have had a few opportunities with film and have been working toward projects of that sort in the past couple years. Although I just play the guitar, I can compose for a lot more than that. I can use brass, strings, woodwinds and piano thanks to the advancement of technology.
LIM: What has you really excited musically right now?
ZT: For me, the next step would be releasing my new album. It will be my third. The first being Courage and the second called Traverse. My upcoming CD will probably be out in the first half of 2018, and I hope to tour with it. I’ve played shows here and there, but I now have a band of friends that I know quite well. So, the next step would be to tour.
LIM: Where will you travel?
ZT: It’ll be a North American run, and we’ll see from there where it goes. Music is international and can take you anywhere in the world. I have fans writing me weekly from places where I’d never expect them to be listening to my music. It’s really neat that way. I’m just excited to see what happens with that.
LIM: Your music does seem to have a broad appeal. Why do you think that is?
ZT: There is so much inspiration to be found everywhere, not just looking here in the West. [My piece called] Tsu was inspired by Japan, and I have another inspired by the Sub Sahara with unique polyrhythms and scales that are very different from here. Being born somewhere else really brings the whole world aspect to my music. I want to choose a lot of different places to draw from because there is a lot that is unique to those regions.
LIM: You mentioned at one point that you’ve been producing as well. Can you tell me about that?
ZT: I just started doing that this past spring after Berklee finished.
Zac is referring to the Berklee College of Music where he received a celebrity scholarship. He is humble and doesn’t readily mention these accolades or that he has also received other scholarships to study with well-respected musicians in New York and Toronto. This travel to educate only added to his international approach to composing. Tiessen exudes admiration and excitement when he talks about his experience with Berklee and the doors it opened for him to connect and help other musicians.
ZT: People contact me from all over the world using the Net to mix or master songs for them. This year I’ve lost track, but I think somewhere between four to five hundred songs so far. It [Berklee] helped to give me a stamp of approval. People from over 30 different countries have contacted me, so it’s very international in that sense which is really cool.
LIM: How do you describe your music?
ZT: My music is a cross between jazz, ambient orchestral and metal. More in the sense of being melodic and not thrashy but it all comes under one umbrella called progressive. It’s highly harmonically advanced and rhythmically influenced by jazz but also very experimental as well.
Zac leans back in his chair holding an electric guitar he helped personally design. His hands are light on the fretboard, and the hints of his love for jazz are immediately apparent. As he riffs in and out of melodies, the piece is complex but easy to listen to and to soothing. At this moment it is easy to see God’s intricate design and the beauty that Zac is bringing to the world.
For more of Zac’s music visit www.zactiessen.com