A Few Minutes With… Zan & The Winter Folk

ALBANY – Uncertainty? Check. Anxiety and heartbreak, and a calming rebirth? Check, check and check. These are just some of the few vicissitudes of life that I discussed with one of this area’s favorite folk bands, Zan & the Winter Folk over the past weekend. Continue reading below as we dive right into what the band’s been up to prior to, during, and after the onslaught of the pandemic. They have a new album in the works that you’re definitely not going to want to sleep on, but for now, you can support their efforts by following the link at the end of this article!

Lucas Garrett: Thank you Zan & the Winter Folk for coming by and talking! How are things on your side of the world?

Zan Strumfeld: How have things been, guys? They’ve been good. We had a very quiet 2020. Do you guys think 2020 was quiet?

Michael Gregg: For us. We just played Dungeons and Dragons.

ZS: We had a pretty busy year planned for 2020 and we played quite a number of shows at the beginning of the year – like January and February – and then, like everyone else, a bunch of stuff got cancelled. We played a couple of gigs in 2020 and some online stuff, but we were pretty quiet, generally. In 2021 we played a lot, actually. Basically, the moment we got vaccinated; the two-week mark was of our first shows. In May. We played a lot all year to save money to record our first full-length album.

LG: Now, I heard a single that was released in November. Is that going to be on the album?

ZS: Oh, no, that’s not a single. We did a special recording with Ryan Slowey and the Albany Public Library. We wrote a murder ballad about a gruesome murder that happened in Troy. For Halloween, we recorded the song, but that’s not related to the album.

LG: You reminded me of the Decemberists a little bit.

ZS: Oh yeah?

LG: Do you like them?

ZS: Yeah, I used to be a big fan. Now, I’m just a small fan.

LG: Now you’re just a quasi-fan. So, tell me about the album.

ZS: Okay. I’ve been recording music for about ten years, but I’ve never recorded a full-length album. We’ve released two EP’s and we had hoped that 2020 would be the year we would record the album, but there was a great pause. So, right now we are gearing up to record for early 2022? Is that when next year is?

MG: I’m afraid so.

ZS: We think it’ll be our best work yet. I don’t know, what do you guys think?

MG: That was a good answer.

Will Brown: I agree.

ZS: Right now, we’re in the planning stage of figuring out the exact songs that we want to have on the record. But, also all the guests, you know? Normally, we are a quartet with sometimes a drummer as a quintet. We will be adding in several other musicians to add to a larger sounding record.

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Zan & The Winter Folk, from left-to-right: Michael Gregg, Will Brown, Zan Strumfeld, and Sean Fortune. Photo credit: Beth Mickalonis.

LG: For those that read this article, why don’t we go down the line and introduce yourselves?

ZS: Want to go in alphabetical order?

LG: Sure.

MG: Who’s first?

ZS: That’d be you.

MG: Alright, I’m Michael Gregg and I play banjo in the band. Sometimes my arm is twisted so I sing background vocals. Makes me nervous.

ZS: Ha.

Sean Fortune: Oh, am I next?

ZS: Yeah.

SF: Trying to do this alphabet math. My name is Sean Fortune and I play bass. Sometimes I sing backing vocals as well.

WB: I’m Will Brown. I play electric and acoustic guitar; most recently mandolin. But, mostly guitar and backup vocals.

ZS: I’m Zan Strumfeld, and I’m the singer-songwriter and “basic” guitar player, ha. Working on getting better.

MG: I think they call it rhythm guitar in the business.

LG: Will, going from the guitar, which is mainly in fourths, to the mandolin, how has that been for you?

WB: Oh, it’s been wild. It’s so fun and in my experience, playing other fretted instruments – like, ukulele, perhaps – you kind of treat it like, “I can play this ‘cause I’m a guitar player.” You think of it as a guitar in a way to help yourself kind of make some noise with it. That was kind of my initial approach with the mandolin; just to get started. Remembering some things from having played some back in the day. But, lately, that transition with the fifths and whatnot? I don’t know, you just kind of listen –the certain kind of music that we play – you just get a melody. Once you get the fingerings going, hopefully, you can hear it and play it. It’s been super fun.

LG: I feel like melody would be easier to tackle than the chords at first?

WB: It’s funny that you say that. There are things – like playing harmony and melody on the guitar is so much easier. I’ve tried to do that sometimes on the mandolin and sometimes it really works? But, certainly, to play the melody; the high-pitched nature of it, and even the percussive element from it just being super high pitched with a good amount of tension, it’s been super fun to experiment with. What that instrument can add. It’s funny: I feel like my mind, musically, is faster than my ability, at the moment. So, it’s trying to merge my mind and my actual facilities of it.

LG: I tried learning mandolin – being a guitarist for fifteen, sixteen years now – and I gave it about a week and then I sold it.

WB: Yeah. I have tried mandolin in the past. This time, it’s the best mandolin I’ve owned. It’s a great intermediate mandolin. I find, in my experience, that if it’s not sort of a reasonable quality instrument, it’s just discouraging.

LG: What type of music can we expect, because you’re adding additional musicians? Will the genre be similar to what we know or will it be different?

ZS: I think over the last, four years now as a band, we’ve evolved a lot musically, every year. Feeling comfortable with the sound. I write the songs and I come to the band with the base of the song and everyone builds it from there. I think we have established ourselves as a Folk-Americana band. I won’t dare say the word, “bluegrass.”

MG: We’re not a bluegrass band.

ZS: And we’re not a bluegrass band but when it’s been said that we are, Michael has his moments about it. Haha. But, I think when we add drums it already changes the sound a little bit to a more Americana with an indie twist. I’m not really sure. Does it just create a little bit more of a sound and a little bit less intimate? But, there’s something nice on the record about having a fuller sound, and when they hear us live it can be different. I like the ability to be able to offer different tastes of what we’ll sound like. I don’t think it’s a big surprise to say we’ll have cello and hopefully fiddle and other background vocals. So, like classic us with more volume.

MG: Yeah, exactly. Us but fuller. A grand vision of what we bring to the live stage, usually.

Zan & The Winter Folk, from left-to-right: Michael Gregg, Sean Fortune, Zan Strumfeld, and Will Brown. Photo credit: Beth Mickalonis.

LG: Do you know how many will be on the record, yet?

ZS: Ten to twelve? To eighteen? I’m just kidding.

LG: Just put thirty songs on the record.

ZS: We want to put the songs that we haven’t recorded before and we want to release and bring out. When it comes to the actual songs, I’ve felt myself evolve as a songwriter. When I first started writing songs it was strictly breakup material. I almost loved being heartbroken because I would write a lot of songs from it, but now I feel as I’m getting older and evolving on my own, the songs are stepping away from that. I wrote a lot of songs during the pandemic about rethinking time and how we spend our time. I’m kind of excited to not just be the “heartbreak sad writer girl.” I’m pretty bored of that anyway, and I think everyone else is, too.

LG: There is this theory that art is often born – some of the best art is born in pain, and that it can be harder to write when you’re in a better place. Do you find that to be true? The kind of cliché that is romanticized that art lives in pain.

ZS: I think for me, the cliché fits. I’ve always felt that when I’m in a better place, I don’t really sit with my guitar or want to write. When I’m in a darker spot that’s where I feel the space. One of the songs that I’m very excited about that’ll be on the record is called, “New Morse Code.” I wrote it two days after finding out someone close to me had died. That was my way of processing that death. I think that’s when my art has thrived. Everybody here has written songs. Do you guys think that about your own stuff?

WB: A lot of us write for ourselves to express ourselves and sometimes it can be of a pretty deeply personal nature. I know I’ve written some songs that were very much reflective of a painful time. If you have an emotional song from… to look at it from a different lens like, “Yes, this was a time. This song is a glimpse of this chapter of my life.” I definitely do find truth to that statement, in a sense. It’s been interesting as a band to figure out old songs of Zan’s that were from a heartbroken time or from a loving time.

We’re all older and many years removed and have been around Zan while she’s… I’ll have a new relationship and have these different feelings and be there to be her springboard for new things that are out of a place of certainly not pain, you know? Or, heartbreak, but still so for lack of a better term, “on brand for Zan.” We’ve been a band for four, four and a half years in total. And Sean at this point, sneakily for two and a half years? It’s definitely evolved from a point of when pain was a big influence – we certainly won’t forget that part of the band or ever stop playing those songs – but, it’s been great to be at the benefit of hearing these great ideas that Zan comes up with as she experiences everything else in a day-to-day. You know?

ZS: I mean I definitely write from a personal space. That murder ballad was very fun. I’ve written a few murder ballads along with the other band members here. That’s fun because it has nothing to do with my personal life, but all of my songs do come from a personal space. I think 2020, specifically, though we’re fully still in COVID now, when COVID… the lockdown was incredibly challenging, for me. I felt like early 2020 was a time where a lot of things were coming into my life and coming to fruition that I’d been working towards. Then, all of it just sort of stopped.

LG: Overnight.

ZS: I think some of the songs that will be on the record will be reflective of that; realizing the pause and knowing that it’ll come back and recognizing that.

LG: Before we wrap this interview up, would you like to talk about anything else?

MG: I just want to say for the record, I don’t think you have to be sad to write good songs.

WB: Definitely not.

ZS: Definitely not! I’m just saying for me…

MG: I’ve never written anything of a personal nature, mind your business!

(everyone laughs).

LG: The reason why I asked is that, during the pandemic, a lot of us were like, “Holy crap, it’s over.” I think some of the best work came out because of that. We ended up releasing an album even though there was no one to release it to!

MG: Right.

LG: Now that things are good, I’m having a hell of a time writing new material.

MG: That’s interesting.

LG: I was wondering if you had that same problem.

ZS: This year feels like a rebirth in a way. I also found a lot of good that came out of last year in a lot of ways; I feel closer with people that I want to be close with. I did a lot of self-reflection. I don’t know, did you guys do self-reflection last year, besides myself?

MG: Yeah, that’s not my bag either.

ZS: Sean?

SF: No, definitely not.

ZS: One thing we had brought up briefly, Lucas, earlier, we weren’t able to practice during this year, you know? During 2020. We struggled to practice like we usually do. Sean is a dungeon master for Dungeon and Dragons, so we actually did D&D every week on Zoom, so that was like our ritual, which was really amazing.

MG: Pretty soon we’re gonna have our fantasy lyric space. Put out a Led Zeppelin record…

ZS: I can’t believe we haven’t written a song for D&D.

SF: Hey, while you guys are all here, do you think we can get a game going right now?

WB: I have my dice somewhere right here.

LG: I don’t think I’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons.

WB: It was absolutely crazy, though; the height of the pandemic, March 2020. The uncertainty and you’re just used to getting together once a week and the routine of it. We quickly pivoted because Sean had been wanting us to play at the tail-end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. It was really great to be able to pivot and virtually see you guys until the weather got nice and we tried to do a little bit here and there. It’s important during these crazy times that you do what you can to get by. It does seem so much better now – obviously not being totally through – but, I’m just happy that we can get together and prepare for this album. It feels good like it’s going to happen. Whereas in 2020, it was just like, “Oh, my god, all these plans…”

LG: Right. I think it gave the majority of us a renewed appreciation for the art, you know?

WB: Yeah, definitely.

LG: There’s a lot about music – not the music, itself – but there is a lot that is terrible.

ZS: Hahaha.

LG: We won’t go into that! But, I found myself even missing that.

ZS: Ha! I think Michael and I were together for the first show post-COVID, at Caffe Lena. Just being in the room and hearing music; I felt like I was reborn, I missed it so much. Even the bad stuff I missed, that’s a good point.

LG: Thank you, guys, for doing this tonight!

MG: Thank you!

SF: Thanks, Lucas.

ZS: Thank you. We’ll keep you updated. I think March or April is when we’ll be recording. We hope to release not too long after that. We’re excited to bring it to the world!


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