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Song Premiere: "Zephyr" by JJ Slater

12 September 2023

Photo Credit: Caterina Kenworthy

With the recent death of Jimmy Buffet, there’s bound to be a resurgence of psychedelia-tinged folk rock. In the midst of an over-industrialized and chaotic world, acoustic guitars and mellow rhythms can help ease the overwhelming sense of dread each new day brings. We could all use a gentle wind in our lives. JJ Slater’s newest single, “Zephyr” provides a reprieve from the noise of a crowded world.

Slater lives among the mountains of Western Massachusetts, and his version of Americana music draws influence from the landscape. Rather than focusing on stylistic decisions or genre-confirming tropes, Slater’s folk-rock takes the mythological elements of American music and reinterprets folk’s long and storied history for a modern world.

“Zephyr” doesn’t sound like an ocean breeze. Rather, its sonic palette resembles the green wind of a mountain lake. Pine needles and freshwater leak through the backdrop of gently-strummed acoustic guitars and auxiliary percussion. Father John Misty meets Jimmy Buffet in this meditation on escapism. Slater’s voice is smooth and beautiful, with touring partner Lexi Weege’s harmonies dancing around Slater’s wistful melody. He sings, “It’s a racing, racing undertow / to be caught up in the show, no matter how many tricks you know / Let that Zephyr blow.” It’s a reminder that the natural world carries on as we warp and twist ourselves to find meaning. Bluesy guitar leads poke in between the branches of this song’s tree, almost providing an auditory representation of the wind.

Slater understands not only how to write a song, but how to arrange instruments around a theme. “Zephyr” might sound like a simple folk song on first listen, but it doesn’t take long to understand exactly what Slater means. Amidst the crashing waves of white noise and advertisement, Slater offers us a weekend on the lake. This single reminds us to spend time with the beautiful flora and fauna of this planet. A gentle breeze is still worth feeling. Listen to “Zephyr” below, and stick around for an interview with the artist.

“Zephyr” is part of a new batch of songs, and you’ve mentioned that this one is the closest to your previous work in style and sound. How does this song reinterpret the paths you’ve already tread?

There’s no full drums on this one, and it’s more of a “sound-painting” sort of production, but using old acoustic instruments, percussion, and a Lowry organ. I wanted to set a scene with the music, rather than the other way around.

Do you think the wind is a character in the song? What inspired you to write this tune?

I wrote this song in 2021, after a very stressful year. A lot of songs on the new record take a look at “silver lining” as a concept, and this one sort of was me saying “thanks” for having a minute to pause, and not have to be hustling music.

How do you define your version of folk rock?

I don’t really call what I do “folk rock”, moreso “roots music” or “roots rock”. I think “roots” is a more universal sonic term, and less acoustic guitar-focused than folk rock, at least to the average listener. For me it’s all about the groove, and how it supports the general mood of the song. I like for there to be a little humor in it, too, both musically and lyrically. If it’s a sad song, there should be some genuine “aw shucks” to it, and not just wallowing boo-hooing.

How do you feel your music fits in with the MA scene?

I have no idea about the MA scene, I do my own thing and travel a lot. All my friends make music with elements of trippiness and funk, so I suppose that’s always going to seep in.

When can we expect to hear more of the recordings from the sessions that brought us “Zephyr?”

The full EP will be out 10/27!

“Zephyr is the most similar to my previous releases, dreamy and folky. Me and Dan sat across from one another and grooved on acoustic instruments, then I ran around the studio adding tiny touches of psychedelia. Lexi and I recorded the vocals as a duet just before I left for a months-long artist residency, making it one of the first songs started and the last songs finished for the record. I wanted to convey a sense of relief in the lyrics that, yes, your life has changed, if a bit slowly and incrementally. It’s about when life takes a pause for you, and you realize that not only you need the rest, but it’s perhaps time to stop and reflect on all the changes, good and bad, that maybe you hadn’t noticed.” JJ Slater