Track-by-Track: Zack Foley’s “A Bird in the Hand”

A Bird in the Hand was my first introduction to Zack Foley’s work but from the first moments of “Nooch Lady,” it stuck. The San Antonio-based improvising vocalist began exploring the use of fuzz pedals with his voice during the height of the pandemic. “My sophomore record A Bird in the Hand is the fruit of joyful experimentation with voice and fuzz that took place against the backdrop of burning out as a social worker during the pandemic and moving from Brooklyn to Texas to care for my father, which in turn triggered generational trauma with my mother,” Foley shares. “A Bird in the Hand documents a personal journey of transformation and healing.”

A Bird in the Hand is out now. Zack Foley can be reached via his website HERE.

The music on “A Bird in the Hand” comes from a year’s worth of happy accidents/experimentation with voice and fuzz pedals. Just before the pandemic hit, I started messing with guitar-based effects after visiting Ryan Ferreira’s music studio in Brooklyn. I was riveted by the spiritual depth of Ryan’s guitar sound which he achieved through ingenious application of modulation and processing. For years I’d been trying to make the ‘instrumental’ sound I was hearing in my head with my ‘acoustic’ voice. With encouragement from Ryan and other guitar-playing buddies (Frank & Matt), I started with delay and reverb and eventually got obsessed ‘chasing tone’ with overdrive and fuzz pedals. Fuzz was the game changer. After much trial and error, I was united with the infamous Fuzz Face pedal (Jimi Hendrix’s first fuzz circuit) via Analogman’s glorious Sunface pedal with germanium TIUK transistors. The mojo here is in the germanium which imbues my voice with the dopest characteristics of fuzz while retaining my core vocal sound. Once I fell in love with this sound, melodies began emerging out of open-ended improvisations and eventually, I had enough material to make a record. I sing wordlessly throughout.

Nooch Lady is dedicated to a dear friend who loves to put nutritional yeast on her popcorn. The melody arrived fully formed at the end of a long free improvisation with fuzz and granular delays. Luckily I was recording the improvisation. I remember singing the melody for the first time as if I was singing it from memory… it was already there. The chords were there too. This melody reminds me of the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays melodies that I grew up with. 

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush started off as two riffs that felt similar enough to put together in one song. When I started plugging into fuzz pedals I felt like a teenager with their first electric guitar. I spent months singing riffs inspired by my childhood heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Eventually, I found a sweet spot with riffs/ shapes that danced tonally between grungy electric guitar sustain and intimations of breathy voice. The same week these riffs arrived, my boss randomly quoted the proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” I dug the saying, having never heard it before… and the two riffs became “bird in the hand” and “two in the bush”. When I made the demo for Ryan and Chris, I was like “Y’all let me know if you hear a way to fit these together.” Ryan came up with the track fully realized: a gorgeous ambient intro into the Bird melody, space for my vocal solo, a sweet transition into the Bush melody, and a zen translation of the Bush form. Chris added incredible texture and deep roots throughout. I was going to solo again after I stated the last Bush melody but Ryan and Chris played the vibe so beautifully, there was nothing I could add to it. The last two minutes of this track (sans vox) are profoundly cinematic.

Inward/Outward After recording had wrapped I took a trip to NYC to visit friends and see a few bands (namely Sun of Goldfinger with David Torn, Tim Berne, and Ches Smith; my fuzz vocals are heavily influenced by fuzz maestro David Torn). I stayed with Ryan and brought my pedal board in hopes of improvising together. Sure enough, we had a little time for it and we were able to record about 15 minutes of freely improvised sounds. Instead of playing guitar, Ryan ran my fuzz rig into his Eventide H9000 processor, and using a midi interface he ‘played off of’ the sounds I made. It was very much a duet in spirit, as I responded to his processing in real time, exploring the otherworldly landscapes he conjured with mastery. The recording was not intended to appear on the record, but after repeated listening, I felt that it belonged. We split the performance into two pieces, later titled accordingly. 

Flavor Heat began with the initial phrase of the song which revealed itself one day when I was improvising with an awesome Mk2 tonebender fuzz pedal handmade by Stephen Douglass. The MK2 has three Germanium transistors (the Fuzz Face has two) and blends very musically with my voice. I remember the first part of the melody coming through in a trance-like way; I recognized it and began repeating it so I wouldn’t forget it. I gradually realized that the first melody wanted a response, some kind of foil to offer balance. So I kept singing the first phrase until the second melody began to appear as a natural reaction. When I felt the song was “finished” I posted a video of me singing it on Instagram and lo and behold one of my music heroes, pianist Jason Moran, commented on the post with two words- “Flavor Heat” – and that was instantly the name of the song. 

Photo by Tommy Jennings

Bodo Beya came about in 2018 when Chris, Ryan, and I were performing as a trio in NYC. The three of us have been playing together in various iterations since 2010. As a trio, we played a handful of shows in 2018-2019 as ‘Heavy Lettuce’. When we first performed “Bodo Beya” I sang the opening phrase with the words “Ooh-weyah-bodo-beya.” As a singer trained in the lineage of Black American Music, I always squirmed a bit listening to what some folks call ‘scat’ singing. I came to recognize that it was the random and often silly consonant sounds that pervade much ‘scat’ singing that made me uncomfortable. Spending a year improvising with fuzz, I developed a way to sing lines without consonants that felt true for me. And when I do use consonants with the fuzz for articulation of fast lines, the distortion and compression of the fuzz smooths the edges of the consonants in a musical way. So when we came to record Bodo Beya, I wasn’t singing “bodo beya” anymore. The consonants gave way to what I connect with as a more pleasant and open sound. I love how this track came out. The sound I’m getting with my Fuzz Face and Fryette GPDI tube amp makes me happy. There is a balanced group dynamic here that expresses our camaraderie. 

Analog Sun is a melody that emerged fully formed on the day of a duet show I had with Ryan in 2019. I had been hoping to write something new for us and this melody appeared last minute. I remember feeling that it was not me, not mine, more like a gift that was delivered. The harmony was implied by the melody. This song was the first demo I made for the record and the first track that Ryan and Chris recorded their parts on. I remember feeling like we were getting into something special. When all recording had wrapped and Ryan was mixing the record, he determined that Chris’s bass part was unusable due to unforeseen sonic issues. We were pleasantly surprised to hear how well the voice and guitar parts held up without the bass. Rather than having Chris record a new part, we decided to leave out the bass altogether for this track. 

Last words:
“A Bird in the Hand” is a foray into the possibilities open to the human voice as an instrument. It is the first record I have released featuring entirely original material. My fuzz sound is inspired by guitarist/ composer David Torn, a true sound pioneer who has influenced generations of musicians. David continues to make riveting works of art and has always been generous in sharing his process. I consider my music to be in the lineage of Houston pianist Dave Catney, who died tragically in 1994 at age 33. Dave showed me the way, and I wish for my music to be a continuation for him. This record is dedicated to my parents, teachers, friends, and numerical beings who give guidance and support along the path. 

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