Ask most musicians about their creative process, and you’re likely to hear odes to their clamorous coffee habits, rhapsodies on the fickleness of the muse, and lots of hand-wringing around writer’s block and its many superstitious prophylaxes. But ask Milwaukee artist Zach Pietrini, frontman of The Zach Pietrini Band (and one of our Best Live Acts winners in Best of Milwaukee 2017), and you’ll get a much simpler answer: put in the work.
His mantra for artistic success? “Just care, and work hard.” His songwriting objective? “Finishing. You know, just finish a song.” And his band’s go-to tour prep trick? “We rehearse. And rehearse, and rehearse.” (He speaks from experience — the band embarks on a 9-stop tour on Jan. 18, kicking off at Good City Brewing.)
As the lead vocalist in an Americana band, Pietrini’s straightforward work ethic is very on brand. And it’s clear from talking to him that the genre’s ethos (he labels himself “Midwestern salt-of-the-earth Americana”) speaks to him in the same way his music speaks to his burgeoning fan base. Pietrini is almost unprecedentedly forthcoming about his struggles as an up-and-coming artist, his self-doubts and even his finances.
“I would love to say that I could just make art,” he says, “but the problem for me at the end of the day is that there are bills that have to get paid. I don’t really have the luxury of throwing myself at a hobby in hopes that it turns into something.”
These anxieties come through in his music, too, in lines like “I got miles to go/ I got mouths to feed/ and we ain’t got much time/ to make some money on these dreams,” from the introspective and melancholy ballad “Highway Life.” Pietrini’s brand of home-grown authenticity, sublimated through alternating foot-tapping and pensive steel-guitar-driven tracks situate him at the confluence of all that an urban Millennial audience finds relatable. Perhaps nothing in his oeuvre speaks more to the young urban creative’s plight than pre-chorus epigram “I got dreams/ but I’m running out of time,” also on “Highway Life.”
His latest album, Holding Onto Ghosts, contends with many familiar “ghosts” via the universality-through-specificity style of the great narrative songwriters. Gems include “We don’t forget/ we just learn to live with it,” on bluesy booze tribute “One Shot for Me,” which raises a glass to intoxication before pouring one out for lost love, and “Man, I learned the hard way/ Nothing gets better till I/ wreck things forever and cause all this pain,” on the resignedly doleful “Learning the Hard Way.”
“It’s been pretty cathartic to just say those things out loud on the album and in shows,” Pietrini says of the album. “I think any time you’re just honest about your ghosts it helps heal you.”
The Americana genre, defined as a musical melting pot of various American roots styles, including country, folk and blues, appeals to Pietrini as much for its diversity as for its commitment to narrative honesty. “You’re afforded the space in this genre to not have to cram some weird platitude or cliché into like two-and-a-half minutes,” he says. “You’re given some space to make it a story. You’re encouraged to be honest.”
Pietrini, who hails from Chicago, moved to Milwaukee several years ago for a job, intending to put his musical aspirations on the back-burner after failing to meet his own creative expectations. “I was hoping music would be more of a job for me. And, really, it wasn’t,” he says of his time in Chicago. “I was just pretty discouraged.”
But he didn’t stay away from music for long. Between Milwaukee’s welcoming music scene and a necessary ideological reframing, Pietrini was soon back on the mic (and the guitar, and the harmonica). One thing Pietrini had to reframe was his notion of success — how to achieve it, how to measure it — another of his many pet ghosts.
“There’s this old narrative of ‘you just gotta get in front of the right people,’” he says, a narrative that allowed him to question his credibility when success continued to elude him. “I just don’t think that’s true anymore.” The most successful musicians, he now understands, just “work really hard. They go out on the road for a long period of time. They have to work another job, probably. It’s not so pretty and glamorous. It’s a lot of, like, spreadsheets and emailing.”
And Pietrini walks the walk when it comes to spreadsheets and emailing. As the de facto manager and publicist for his eponymous band, he’s in charge of booking all tour stops, coordinating schedules between band members and orchestrating travel logistics. Many of the band’s performance and media opportunities come about because of Pietrini’s dogged determination behind the computer keyboard.
Pietrini’s songwriting philosophy is as straightforward as his blueprint for success: to connect with his fans through his lyrics. “Letting people know that they’re not alone is a big thing for me,” he says. This dedication to authenticity is the engine powering Pietrini’s entire persona, and the belief that glamorization, perhaps what led to his pre-Milwaukee disillusionment with the music industry, only serves to drive a wedge between fans and artists. “I think as soon as your art becomes dishonest, why even do it?” he says.
Catch the first stop of The Zach Pietrini Band’s winter tour (sponsored by Pilcrow Coffee and Twisted Path Distillery) at Good City Brewing on Thursday, Jan. 18. Tickets are $10.