Jed Zarb has had a long, successful career in music – but he’s only just started to release his original work. His latest single is the infectious ‘Hillbilly Cider’, and recently asked Zarb about the song, its video and that long career.
A note: this interview mentions Glen Hannah and was conducted before Glen died recently. Glen was an essential part of the fabric of Australian country music and it is undeniable that without him the shape of that music and the industry will change.
So you’re in the Blue Mountains.
Yes, I’m in Bilpin.
That’s hard to take!
[Laughs] I was just talking about that with a mate this morning. It was just such a beautiful, crisp morning with a beautiful breeze and a few birds singing – could you be anywhere else?
Particularly from the look of your video for ‘Hillbilly Cider’, it just looks beautiful. You had a great location next to home, but also you didn’t have to go very far so it must’ve been quite a convenient video to make.
Yes, and everybody was a local, apart from Pixie Jenkins coming down from Tamworth at that time and Dani Young coming in – so apart from the guys in the band coming from everywhere. But all the extras and the director and the cameraman were all locals.
And it looked like they were having a good time
It was just organically a good time. We turned up, we had an idea of what we wanted it to look like and then we made a few phone calls and got a few people and then, about lunchtime, we didn’t really have enough people to make it look like a party. So one of the camera fellows put out a thing on the Bilpin group – ‘free apple cider’, I think’s what got them there. Next thing we ended up with 50 or 60 people and actually it was just an organic party. People turned up, the bar was set up, the bar was flowing, the music was going and people were just dancing and drinking and jumping off a Tarzan swing into the dam and having a grand old time. I think they forgot there were cameras there.
It does show in the video, that people were relaxed, and it matches the tone of the song, which is of course a lovely upbeat, celebratory song in many ways.
Thank you. Well, that’s what it’s meant to be. It’s meant to be a snapshot of the local farms here and the local people, that’s really what the song is about. I moved into the area and just made observations and, and wrote about them in a romantic sort of way, as you do.
Of course, the song has gone further than your local area. It got the number one spot on debut on the iTunes country chart, it’s popped up all over the place. Have you been pleased with the reception?
Blown away – I can’t believe it, really. I put out ‘Mountain Man’ in October last year and that didn’t have a video clip, and that went really well and I thought, That was far beyond expectations. Then ‘Hillybilly Cider’ has come out and absolutely eclipsed it. So I’m just going with it and very excited that people like it. I’ll just go with that and be happy about it.
It is a big undertaking to do a video when you’re an independent artist. It’s not like someone’s there with a budget saying, ‘Off you go’. I guess for you, because it was local it was a manageable project, but I always think for artists there has to be that point where you think, Is it worth it to do it?In this case it seems it was because it’s helped the song travel further.
Well, yes. Once you put visuals to an audience, it gives a song a little bit more power, I guess, and a little bit more longevity. But I was lucky. It’s not something an independent artist can afford to do. I certainly couldn’t. I was just very lucky to be in the right place in the right time with a loving bunch of locals who just wanted to see it fly and wanted to help. It started out with the guys from Hillbilly Cider, the brewing company, saying, ‘This is awesome’, and then their friend [actor] Aaron Jeffery wanders in and says, ‘What’s going on? Can I help?’ And we said, ‘Sure.’ Then he said, ‘I’ve got a mate living up here that has all the camera equipment and does all this stuff for us in the city’ and so on. And next thing we’ve got a camera crew, we’ve got a director and we’ve got as much location in Bilpin as we’d want. And all I had to do, really, was get the gang together. But there’s no way on God’s earth that I would have been able to pay for a video directed by Aaron Jeffery – not in my wildest dreams [laughs].
Part of that gang you mentioned is Dani Young, who’s a co writer of the song. She’s also a terrific artist with her own songs. Had you done much co-writing before you wrote with her or was that an organic development?
I had the path. I’ve always written songs just on my own, over the years. I write a lot of poetry sometimes that doesn’t have music. And other times I’ve lent my music skills to people who have written poetry. So only in little bits of pieces. I wrote a song a little while back with Drew McAlister. That was a song that was poetry, and I just sat with Drew – because he’s another mountains local.
And a prolific co-writer. Drew’s name pops up so regularly. I think he’s got a particular talent for it.
Oh, he’s a renowned songwriter. So I went to Drew – who’s a mate, really – and said, ‘Hey, I’ve written this thing.’ So co-writing I’ve done a little bit over the time with different people. I wrote a song with Paul from Simply Bushed once … but not a lot. So the Dani Young thing: I manage Warren H Williams and the project of Desert Water– which was Warren H Williams and Dani Young – that album, which was an absolute smash hit, was finished, so Dani was moving onto her solo career. I invited her up home to talk about that, help her with any direction that she might want to take and help clarify her own business plan moving forward. I was already writing the ‘Hillbilly Cider’ song and when she arrived she was really intrigued by the operation, and went down and did the tasting and the whole thing. Then I showed her the song that I’d been writing and I brought her in on that. It was a really cool thing because not only does she have a talent for songwriting but she has that beautiful voice to lend to the song once we got to recording it.
It was obviously a very good match. But moving on from your songwriting, I read about your background as a musician as well. It seems as though you have been playing music for a very long time –perhaps starting with saxophone, but I thought I’d check with you. What was your first instrument and when did you start playing music?
Mum and Dad had me in piano lessons from preschool and I think I reached about third grade when I was about eight years old and then didn’t want to play piano anymore. I took up clarinet. It was because I wanted to play saxophone. I’d seen Wilbur Wilde on [TV show] Hey Hey It’s Saturday. I was a young kid and I just wanted to play saxophone. Dad was in a Maltese marching band at the time and the guy who ran the band was a clarinet teacher, so they said, ‘Look, we can’t get you in sax but we’ll get you in clarinet. Same thing.’ I had to play this bloody clarinet that I didn’t want to play for years. but I’m so glad I did – thanks, Mum and Dad. I bought my own saxophone at 15 and taught myself to play it after being able to play clarinet. It wasn’t too hard.
I love the fact you were inspired by Wilbur Wilde. I wonder how many other saxophonists have been inspired by him.
Of our generation he was probably the most visible. He was out there on telly every Saturday when Hey Heywas on Saturday and then all the way through to the eighties. I could always play a little bit of guitar because two of my brothers were guitar players at that stage and I was interested in guitar. I guess I’ve been a sax player and an average guitar player for my career.
So what do you write songs on – guitar or piano?
I write songs on guitar, and then get other people who can really play to record it [laughs]. I can play enough guitar to accompany myself to do a live show. I’ve done two and a half thousand of those kind of guitar, vocal pub gigs.
You’re probably underestimating your skills. If you can play those shows, play your songs, play chords, entertain people, you are good. And you may not be doing fancy ‘Stairway to Heaven’ stuff, but it’s all relative.
I think what happens after you’ve been around for a while, you end up watching and hanging out and playing with some real guitar players. and they’re the ones who make you feel like you just can’t play. I was in Tamworth working with Warren H at the opening concert, as his backing vocalist for the main stage, and I was onstage with guys like Glen Hannah and Sam Hawksley playing guitar. You know what I mean? You just don’t want to touch one when one of those guys is around. And you see guys like Stuie French and Lawrie Minson play. So when I say I’m a bit shabby, it’s in comparison to those guys.
It seems that since early on, since you were a child, music has been a big part of your life. Was there ever a conscious decision as you became an adult to make it your life? Or has it just always been there?
It’s always been there. And I remember saying to Mum and Dad when I was about 13 or 14 that I wanted to be a singer and an actor. And I remember that didn’t go down too well. I was angling for that for Year Nine, Year Ten – I didn’t want to go to high school. I’d been doing musical theatre. I’d been playing in the Maltese marching band as a clarinet player. I’d been doing little gigs with a couple of mates – we’d been jamming as a rock ‘n’ roll band, as you do when you’re a teenager, and all those kinds of stuff. That’s all I wanted to do. But I think the wisdom of the time was that you go and get a trade and you get something to fall back on. I had the aptitude to be a mechanic because when I wasn’t playing music I was stripping mower engines or motorbike engines and rebuilding them, and as a 12- or 13-year-old I was doing all that as well. So I joined the air force as an aircraft mechanic to appease Mum and Dad and try to get that trade and do the right thing by my folks. But while in the air force, while I was studying, I was playing in bands the whole time. I did my time and in 1994 I got out of the air force and moved straight into full-time music and I really have done that since. There’s been some really good times and there have been some really hard times in that period. My wife left me in 2001, and left me with three young children. And then from about 2001 to 2017 I was a single parent raising three kids on my own till my last one left.
There’s earning a living –as you were doing, to support your children –and then there’s having a creative life. Were you able to balance creativity with parenthood?
In those 17 years I probably only wrote about 20 or 30 songs. I didn’t have time to stay awake all night and see a song through, because you’ve got to be up in the morning, you’re got to get kids off to school. And then for money, for work, I was playing five nights a week in pubs, on average. I was playing at the Coogee Bay Hotel every week, at The Orient in The Rocks every week, and all of these residencies in the city. Playing every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday night, pretty much, for all those years that the kids were in school.
So you’re doing day shift running the household and night shift at work.
Yes, running the house and getting kids off to school, and then Dial an Angel or grab a cousin or an auntie or someone at different times to take care of kids in the evenings if I had to leave, especially when they were little-little. Doing beer gardens on a Sunday with kids sitting around my feet colouring in with headphones on to block out the sound [laughs]. A little six-year-old at my feet colouring in at my Sunday residency because I could take him to work. Other gigs putting the kids down to sleep in green rooms and behind curtains in those foamy road-case lids. Chuck them behind the curtains with a set of headphones on and lie in that road case lid and when the gig’s over I’ll throw them all back in the car and go home.
That is a heavy schedule, to be playing that many nights in a row. Did that change your relationship to music? Did it change your relationship to how you performed? How you sang, what you thought of music in general? Or did you still maintain that love for it?
I always maintained that love for it, and I’ll tell you what, it’s a bit of a head thing to get through. I think military training was a bit to do with it. The discipline side of putting your head down and getting your job done to the best of your ability is just one thing. If you can play music and you find that a chore, what are your alternatives? I was just grateful that I could do those things and make a living from it. The way I did it in my head, I split up being an artist into the songwriting/performing-my-own-songs arena. And then playing in pubs as a cover artist, I made myself a tradesman. In my head I was a tradesman and a hospitality worker. So I’d walk into a pub to ply my trade and make people happy and be hospitable, and create an atmosphere and environment. So if they were my goals in that atmosphere, I wasn’t seeing myself as an artist or someone who needed to be able to get the joy out of. And then while you’re doing that, you’re honing your skills the whole time. So I was grateful for those opportunities to hone my skills as a performer, as an entertainer and as a musician, even though I was singing other people’s songs.
You’ve also moved into the management side of things. That’s a different facet again to the music industry. What prompted that?
I was bored at some stages during the day while the kids were at school. I had my own gigs to look after. My own gigs kind of got to a high -demand area and I was having to spill gigs to other people. So I formalised my network of fellow artists, and formalised the stuff that I was doing and just turned it into a business, basically. And then it kind of turned into country music when Nicki Gillis came over from Perth and needed to get into the scene here in Sydney. She was a country music artist – still is – but at the time she hadn’t appeared in any main-stage festivals, and that was my goal as a manager and that was my first management job, and I made that all happen for her. Then it kind of just organically grew up. It was something I could do during my days that kept me in touch with the artistic side and the country music side of the industry that I wasn’t able to work in as an artist at that point in time.
Earlier you mentioned being able to be pull motors apart and things like that. Have you ever thought about making instruments?
I have, but timber’s not one of my strengths. So things made of metal and welding and mechanical things, yes, and I’m fascinated by instrument building. You look at a saxophone, for instance, and look at the way they built and the engineering behind that – it’s just incredible. So, from an engineer’s perspective I really appreciate it. From a woodworker’s perspective I’d be bloody hopeless [laughs]. I do appreciate instrument building. As a matter of fact on Instagram I follow a lot of guitar builders, violin builders, that sort of stuff, just because I just love the craft of it.
You’ve had these two singles out, obviously they’ve obviously done really well. I imagine there’s a certain amount of pressure that you might put on yourself to follow up –or perhaps not. So what are you working on?
Just using this organic process of single by single – a business model that started in the late 1940s was to go and record a song and then run it up to the radio station and they’d play it. Then if other people liked it, you’d run back to the record bar and do it all over again. I think that organic process is something that could work now with the prevalence of social media and how that works. I don’t think we need to run out and make albums now like they did in the sixties, seventies and eighties: make these albums first and then release a single at a time off that album. There was a reason for that and that business model worked in those times, but that business model isn’t necessary with social media, I find. I think that we can go back to this organic process of making a single at a time and taking it to radio. And if radio I love it and punters love it, great, we’ll go back and repeat the process. And there is pressure in that, because I haven’t written and recorded 12 songs. and I’m not pulling songs that I’ve written from the past either in this journey. I want to take an audience with me. So each song needs to be written in chronological order because otherwise there’s no journey to be had. So I have written and recorded a song post ‘Hillbilly Cider’, and I’ve written a song post that. So there’s at least four singles. Two have been released and there’s still definitely two rippers to come, and I’m really excited about those and they’ll just be part of the chronological journey that I’ve taken people with me on.
It seems exciting and liberating in a lot of ways, to be able to do that. You don’t know what’s coming next. And as someone who is creative and has explored a lot of your musical options, that’s a big blue sky.
Correct. And not worrying about what I should be writing or what’s trending at the moment in rhythms and beats and melodies, or who’s popular and who’s not, who’s playing what. It’s just completely liberating and you’re right, it’s a big blue sky. And the next part of my journey will be what I write, what I’m looking at at that point in time or what I’m feeling or what I’m observing at that point in time living in the country and moving amongst country people doing country things.