Zak Waters is a singer/songwriter who got a big break when he was spotlighted late last year on Late Call with Carson Daly. Among his other accomplishments, Waters released a remix alongside Pharrell and Benny Benassi for the newest Adam Lambert re-release, Trespassing, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 charts. (Exploring his oeuvre, Waters does a stirring rendition of "Gimme Little Sign," which Brendon Wood originally covered.)
Odds are that you'll hear of Waters, an LGBT ally, in the near future.
Windy City Times: I came across you when I was channel-surfing one night, and I saw Carson Daly's show. How has the feedback been since then?
Zak Waters: It's been awesome. I've gotten a lot of Facebook likes and [great feedback] on YouTube, all that stuff. The second time they aired it, I was working in the studio and I got, like, 40 new emails at two in the morning. [The airing] helped so much; people like you found me, and it was always a dream of mine to be on that show. I used to watch it all the timethat and Jimmy Fallon.
WCT: Can you give me a little background about yourselfwhere you grew up, etc.?
Zak Waters: Oh, yeah. I grew up in L.A.born and raised. When I was 13, we moved to Toronto for a while; I lived there for two years. My grandfather there played country music, for himself, and he was amazing. He taught me to play guitar.
My first year of high school there I didn't have a lot of friends so I just stayed home and sang along to my favorite [musicians], like Musiq Soulchild or Usher or Maxwell.
WCT: I also read that you grew up on [classic soul singers] like Al Green.
Zak Waters: Yes. All the Motown greats, and Teddy Pendergrass was a big one. It was funny; being a young kid, people would ask me, "How do you know this shit?" [Interviewer laughs.] I wasn't exposed to the Beatles; I didn't really hear their music until I was 20. I grew up on Color Me Badd.
WCT: I forgot about Color Me Badd!
Zak Waters: [Laughs] Yeahlooking back, they were kind of a novelty act. That whole era, there was Jodeci."
WCT: Yes. I listened to Jodeci and [the group's song] "Get On Up," but I also liked groups like KLF.
Zak Waters: Yes! My first concert was Brian McKnight and Tyrese. I would sing their records for hours.
WCT: When did you know you could actually sing?
Zak Waters: I think it was because my stepdad's uncle knew I loved to sing, and he's the best singer. I was too embarrassed, so I made everyone stand in the kitchen and sang [McKnight's song] "Back at One." After that, I didn't really sing in front of people until high school. I then started recording myself. But even listening back to stuff I did four years ago, my voice was a lot different. I sang from my throat a lot more; it was kind of Kermit-y. I'm so glad it's changed. The first time I sang in public was when I asked a girl to the prom by singing to her in front of the whole school.
WCT: How would you describe your music to someone who's never heard it?
Zak Waters: I would say my music is pop-soul-funk. You know how there's the neo-soul genre? I would say I'm neo-funk.
WCT: I actually termed your musicand please feel free to disagree"dance soul."
Zak Waters: That's great! When people say things like I'm an "electro Jamiroquai" or an "electro Earth, Wind and Fire," that's such a huge compliment.
WCT: What's your dream collaboration?
Zak Waters: One would probably be D'Angelo; I think he's insanely talented.
WCT: Are you going to do a video like he did with "Untitled" [where he's nude the entire time]?
Zak Waters: [Laughs] If I can get that buff, yes, I will. You caught me with that one. Another dream collaboration would be with Timbaland or one of those dudes; Usher is one of my favorites. If Michael Jackson were still alive, that'd be my number-one. Maybe Prince as well … and most of the members of Tower of Power are still around; I'd like to work with them.
WCT: I saw the video for your song, "Skinny Dipping in the Deep End." I had two questions as soon as the video started: I wondered if the elderly couple was going to skinny-dip [Waters laughs] and I wondered, "What kind of parties does Zak have?"
Zak Waters: [Laughs] Yeah, that's the kind I have. Actually, the people were great; we got them from an extras website. There were also a couple of models we hired, but everybody else were friends. We shot it in my friend's backyard. We brought a shitload of alcohol and told everyone where they needed to be. It was the biggest mess of my life. Making that video was stressful.
Zak Waters: We had about 60 extrasall of whom were drunkand it was cold out, too. We shot that video in one night. The people in that video had the best time.
WCT: Were the people actually nude? I don't know how free they were, especially with the alcohol.
Zak Waters: Uh, no. Things didn't get creepy or weird. They were wearing nude-colored underwear.
WCT: I have to give a shout-out to "Gimme Little Sign."
Zak Waters: I love that song. It's a classic, and the chorus is so catchy. But it's almost like no one remembers it until they hear the chorus. I think that's the best kind of cover to do because people get so happy when they hear it.
WCT: Had you ever thought of competing on a show like American Idol?
Zak Waters: I have, when I was a lot younger. I auditioned when I was 16 and again when I was 17. I got past a few rounds and then [producer] Simon Fuller said I sounded like Kermit the Frog. [Laughs] I don't blame him because I did, but I needed that to get past that middle point.
WCT: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?
Zak Waters: One thing, huh? [Laughs] I wish that the business wasn't so singles-driven. It's all about Top 40 singles. Being a writer, I'm put in camps where you're told people want hits. I get it: From the record company's standpoint, people don't buy albums anymore; they download songs. Everything is so instant. It sucks, though, because there are so many incredible artists out there who don't have a hit single. In the '80s and '90s, there were tons of eclectic music out there; songs didn't have to be hits.
It's scary because my little brother, who's 11, only listens to KISS-FM; it's the only music he knows. So he's listening to, like, Nicki Minaj.
WCT: I did live through the '80sand, yes, the scene has changed.
Zak Waters: Yes. The cool thing is that it allows artists like me to build a career in a slow wayslowly gaining fans. Someone like you found my music super-organically, and as long as I keep releasing music that's on par with what I have released, you'll keep being a fan. Otherwise, if I had a radio hit tomorrow and was exposed to millions to people, those people might be excited for the next hit to come along. I can have a slow build, gaining fans who really appreciate me for my music.
WCT: It's interesting you mention radio hits because I've also been listening to Rihanna's "Diamonds."
Zak Waters: I love that song, too. That video is incredible.
WCT: By the way, what do you think of Frank Ocean?
Zak Waters: I love his music, and I think he's so brave to be a Black R&B singer and come out. I thought that was awesome. But, more and more, it's like no one cares; I think it's a sign of the times.
Waters' newest single, "Runnin' Around," is out on iTunes; check out www.zakwatersmusic.com .