If music is a look into an artist’s personality, shaped by instinct, inheritance, and environment, Zack Joseph has proven his music-making to be a culmination of a life well-lived and yet steeped in tradition. He — a Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist, cellist and singer — has grown to create a strikingly fresh, unparalleled sound that resonates with generations.
Born along the Niagara River in rural Youngstown, NY, Joseph was immersed in a meld of history and cultures from an early age. As a child, he picked up the cello and engrossed himself in his practice. Joseph was 16 when he was first introduced to folk music by his great aunt. Falling in love with early country and 60s folk lyrical styles, he picked up guitar and taught himself the “Carter Scratch” style. Weekends were spent on his aunt’s farm devouring folk traditions and learning to play mandolin, fiddle and tenor guitar while developing his own unique voice. His first performances were in his church for Sunday community services, playing circles around the choir. All the while, Joseph continued to play cello, becoming a member of the Junior Buffalo Philharmonic and ranking among the top 10 youth cellists in New York State before going on to study cello performance at SUNY Fredonia. Realizing that the conservatory approach conflicted with his own, Joseph shifted his major to music business and his focus solely to folk music, but it would still be a few years before he packed his 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit convertible to make the trek down to Nashville to pursue his solo career.
Once in Nashville, Joseph jumped between bartending jobs while raising the funds needed to record his first studio album. His debut release, All in Time (2014), was the product of many late night studio sessions. The project introduced Joseph as a sonically-rich, melodically savvy musician who pays subtle homage to times past in his songwriting, and yet remains utterly in touch with the nuances of contemporary folk. After the release, Joseph set off on a national tour. His touring continued for the next several years as he continued to work intermittently as a server in restaurants during his pitstops back home.
It was during this time that Joseph navigated another life pivot: his struggle to understand his own sexuality. Torn between rights and wrongs, the faith he was raised with, and the heaviness of this realization, Joseph spiraled. Unfulfilled and feeling astray on his musical and life paths alike, he decided to stop performing and creating music for the next several years to come. “I kept feeling like I was drowning and failing, and I didn’t know how to get out of that hole,” explains Joesph. “It was like everything I had planned, had dreamed, and had thought was important for being a ‘good’ human being was turned upside down.”
After a three year musical hiatus and a lifetime of soul searching, Joseph returned to his musical roots with a stronger sense of self-identity within the queer community. A reflection of authenticity and the freedom that comes with it, his latest, Keeping Me Sane, is a reflection on life, love and the never-ending search for self. It’s the product of navigating relationships, embracing sexuality, and learning acceptance — an illumination of the human condition that leaves us hopeful for more. As Joseph says, “This music is about feeling acceptance, regardless of your walk of life, and knowing that everything will be okay. The process of creating this album was just that for me.” The result is collection of songs that embrace every inch of life, and capture Joseph’s realizations along the way. “I don’t have it all figured out in any sense, but I’ve stayed true to myself and am ready for what comes next.” Keeping Me Sane reminds us all to embrace the freedom in letting go.