Make it electric: Brandy Zdan brings her guitar-centric pop rock to Winston-Salem
Brandy Zdan isn’t crazy about the acoustic guitar. The singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer loves guitars. It’s just that she prefers an electric, with its more varied range of tonal possibilities, sustain and attack.
“I honestly avoid playing acoustic guitar,” said Zdan when we spoke by phone from her home in Nashville last week. Zdan plays Winston-Salem’s Ramkat on April 17.
Her attitude about acoustic guitars might have something to do with the fact that she lives in Music City, where it’s probably hard to not bump into people playing acoustic guitars at cafés, bars and even on the sidewalks. And Zdan, who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, is proud of the grand tradition of Canadian singer/songwriters — Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot and others — many of whom used acoustics often. But Zdan is more inclined to rock. Sweat and volume are her friends. Her Twitter feed features some loving photos of a recently acquired set of Fender amps.
Zdan released Secretear last year, her second solo full-length studio record. It’s an album with plenty of attitude and swagger, with lots of textures, ranging from scratchy and nasty to powdered-sugar sweet and bubble-gum bouncy. For the most recent record, Zdan worked with guitarist Carl Broemel and bassist Tom Blankenship, from the band My Morning Jacket. Zdan is married to the drummer Aaron Haynes, who also plays on the record. Zdan said she puts a lot into what she calls “casting the band,” getting players whose work she admires and who she can trust to bring interesting ideas and perspectives to a recording project.
“It’s actually one of my favorite parts about making music — creating the sonic vision for a record,” Zdan said.
Secretear has a particular sound, balancing plenty of raw, strutting riff-rock energy, with layers of pedal steel and slide adding atmosphere, sturdy bass lines, neon-tinged synth and muscular stripped-down drumming that never hits a crash cymbal or executes a tom fill unless it’s absolutely necessary. Listen to the subsonic Mini-Moog bass line on “I Want Your Trouble,” a tune that would fit right in on a Cheap Trick or Joan Jett record. Elsewhere, like on “Navigator,” Zdan might bring to mind the pop of Haim or Tegan & Sara, with wispy vocal harmonies and bubbling keyboard arpeggiations. She can also evoke a smoky, late-night country vibe, like on “Be the One.”
Many of the songs are built on the idea that love has a power and force that’s almost dangerous. Something that can be heavenly or hellish, depending on how it plays out. “You could really hurt me if you wanted to,” goes the refrain on “Navigator.”
Zdan’s records sound contemporary, particularly in their pairing of trebly guitars and moody soundscapes with clouds of synth and pedal steel, but they also hint back to early no-frills rock. She can make you think of those Lindsey Buckingham songs off of classic Fleetwood Mac records, tunes that conjure Roy Orbison while chugging along with a twitchy energy.
The appeal of rock fundamentals makes sense in terms of the elements that Zdan punches up in her music.
“There’s a simplicity to [old rock’n’roll], and it’s all just about groove and melody,” she said. “I don’t shy away from hooks and from catchiness.”
Underneath the melodies and the riffs, there’s a lot happening with what seems minimal at first. If you listen closely to a song like “Wild Fire,” off the new record, with headphones, you hear all kinds of elements that lurk in the background, howling guitars, jet-plane sounds, vocal echoes and smears.
“I like to hear a record that has layers,” Zdan said. “When I listen to records, I don’t want things to all be the same.”
One of the ways that Zdan mixes things up is playing solo shows, with just her, her versatile voice, her electric guitars and those Fender amps. She’ll be solo when she plays Winston-Salem.
You might think that converting some of these big-sounding songs to just guitar-and-vocals would be a challenge, but Zdan makes the set-up fill a lot of space.
“I love the sustain,” she said of her devotion to electric guitar. “It can be super intense and loud, but it can also be the most delicate thing, with reverb.”
Zdan is a dynamic performer, with or without a backing band. Rolling Stone magazine included her in a list of the 30 most exciting artists they saw at South By Southwest in 2019.
Rather than using the solo setting as a way to tease out more subdued material, Zdan views it as an opportunity to cut loose.
“I’m still doing all the rockers,” she said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Brandy Zdon at the Ramkat, 170 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem, on Wednesday, April 17, with Will Hoge. 336-754-9714, theramkat.com