Six years ago, Zach DuBois came to a fork in the road: medical school or music. Both are equally unknown and come with their own unique set of obstacles, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, but, you know, in real life. Upon graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he looked around him, and many of his classmates either decided to go to medical school or law school or landed jobs at major accounting firms. He was a tumbleweed, though, with an itch for the open road. “I decided to take my guitar and write songs and travel around the country,” he says. He then found his personal truth in his guitar strings, as he muses on “Life on the Road,” a plucky, restless ode to feeling uncertain about his choices but living in the moment enough to carry that weight.
“I started writing this song on my buddy’s couch in Chicago. I was playing Joe’s Bar a couple years ago. He’s a finance guy doing really well and has a great apartment on the North side,” DuBois tells B-Sides & Badlands. “Every time I play there, he lets me stay at his place. “There’s a line in the song that goes ‘I sleep on my friend’s couches that make more money than me / Sometimes, I’m jealous of their houses, and they’re jealous that I’m free.’” Unwavering sorrow swells in his vocal and production choices, glimmering with hope that one day it’ll all pay off.
“It’s been fun to follow their journey and look at my career and see the things I’ve been able to accomplish. It depends what lens you look through and how you define success in life. It’s different for every person. It’s also about grappling with everything I’ve been going through,” he stops. “You make sacrifices with whatever decision you make, whether it’s to go to medical school or to be a touring singer/songwriter. There’s going to be good or bad associated with both.”
The next lyric rumbles from his fingertips: “I’m no good at one night stands, so I’ll lie awake alone reflecting on the path I chose and pray about the unknown.” He takes a moment, reflecting on that profound image, “You always try to do well in life. Sometimes, you make mistakes…”
Those mistakes often cost you everything ⎯⎯ but you place your bets, take those risks and sacrifice all you have. It might work out, but it might not. And that’s OK. Life’s allure is embedded in the would haves, should haves and could haves. Has it all been worth it? DuBois struggles daily on the decisions he’s made. “Some days, I do [think it has been worth it]. Some days, I question it. Going to medical school, you can do so much good as a doctor. It’s such a noble profession. Music is a noble endeavor, as well,” he says. His forthcoming album, titled Flâneur, a French term meaning a person who observes, rose out of that dichotomy, needling together the grueling life of a musician and his simple but insightful portrays of heartache, yearning for a better life and acceptance of the darkest hours.
“The reason I recorded this album is because I did want to make the sacrifice worth it. About two or three years ago, I was really deep into the songwriting community of Nashville. A lot of the stuff you hear on the radio is stuff I’m not passionate about but I was trying to write to that,” he concedes. “I took a step back and realized I didn’t think the sacrifice was worth it at the time. I was trying to chase fads. Right now, I do think the sacrifice has been worth it.”
Flâneur arrives this Friday (Sept. 22).
Below, DuBois details several other new songs, including “Proverbs to Peter,” how he arrived on the album’s title and John Mellencamp.
Last month, you released a moving song called “Bleed Red” which came in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests. When did you actually write it?
I probably wrote it about a year ago now. The election was going on at the time. It seemed that every time you turned on the news, it was talking about how divided our country was. It was just a barrage of negativity. When I’ve traveled around the country and most of Europe, everybody is the same. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is or what your sexual orientation is or your religion. We’re all trying to figure it out as we go along. It was my intention to release that song first. It just so happened the Charlottesville thing happened. Sadly, it’s the narrative, too, when you turn on the news now. It hasn’t changed much since the time I actually wrote it. Hopefully, the song helps people realize “yeah, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on but if you walk out your front door and talk to your neighbor, you’re probably going to talk to a pretty good person.”
Is music even more important than ever?
It’s always been important. I’ve always been someone who has been drawn to artists and songwriters that use their platform or art to deliver some kind of message to further the agenda of things they’re passionate about. Going back to someone I grew up listening to all the time, my dad was a huge John Denver fan. He’s the perfect example of that. If you listen to his catalog, he was someone who was a huge proponent of environmentalism and nuclear disarmament and the refugee crisis that was facing the world in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He certainly used his platform to further those causes. Whether you agree with people or not, it’s always good to see someone standing up for something that they believe in. I didn’t want to make an album that was about girls and trucks and drinking beer. There’s nothing wrong with songs like that, but I’m someone who’d rather try to deliver a broader message.
“Bleed Red” has a similar sentiment as Ronnie Dunn’s song of the same name.
You know, when we were writing it with my buddy Eli Rhodes and Christian Rada, we were all cognizant that there was a song already with that title. We thought it was different enough that it could stand on its own and add value.
What are some other messages on the album?
There’s song called “Pray for Rain,” which we just filmed the music video for. It’s really relevant right now. I was reading “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck last year, and I wanted to tell a modern-day version of that story. There’s a guy who I met at the same time I was reading that book. His name is Lupe, who lives just outside of Nashville. He has crossed the border twice, illegally, and he’s now here, legally. I wanted to tell that story, instead of Okies moving from the Mid-west to California in the Dust Bowl. There are huge parallels to people coming from Mexico and Central and South America to the U.S. to make a better life for their family. It’s a message people born here can relate to, as well.
The video actually features Lupe and a day in his life. He works construction and is also a farmhand for some friends of mine. You hear all this politically-charged rhetoric about immigration. It’s certainly a difficult topic, and there’s no easy answer. With this song, I wanted to humanize the situation. So often, you hear people demonize immigrants. If you put yourself in their shoes and imagine trying to come to this country, I think we’d all take that risk.
There’s another song called “Proverbs to Peter,” which was inspired by my time volunteering at a food pantry here in Nashville called The Little Pantry That Could. During my time there, I met a guy who was telling me about his life. He actually has a Masters in Business Administration, and he had all these things going for him. But he really struggled with alcoholism. He’s now homeless. He was telling me about how he used to cut a hole in his Bible to hide is flask from people. This song tells that story, a riff on “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” both literally and metaphorically.
I also have fun songs like “Paris is for Lovers.” I was with my girlfriend two years ago in Paris. We got into a disagreement after dinner and after having a little too much wine. She left me at a corner cafe. I took the opportunity to write down in my phone “write a breakup song about Paris.” When I got back to the states, I ended up writing the breakup song about Paris. The real-life story has a better ending than the narrator’s. We didn’t breakup in Paris. We returned the next year and got engaged and are now happily married.
I’m a big fan of story songs. That’s what country music is predicated upon and has perhaps been lost in the past decade or so. There is no shortage of things to write about.
What inspired the album title, Flâneur?
Well, I was Anthony Bourdain’s show ‘The Layover.’ I was in the process of recording the album and trying to think of a title. If I could trade lives with anyone in the world, it’d be Bourdain’s. He used to travel and tell these incredible stories and document everything. In the show, they were in Paris, and they were interviewing a bunch of people about the essence of Flâneur. I thought that was the perfect encapsulation of the spirit of this record. All the songs on this album came from the past six years of my life, of traveling around the country and parts of Europe and playing music for people and eating and drinking and talking to locals and trying to throw myself headfirst into the culture.
How did you decide what you wanted to write about?
It depended. Some days, I had writing days scheduled. There’s a song called “Steel Trap,” and I just had a line which I brought into the session. “Your memory is like a daisy breaking through the concrete.” I wanted to write something about that. It was just a random thing, but a lot of the other songs can about more organically. There’s another song called “Galway Regret.” Three or four years ago, I traveled to Ireland where I was literally trying to run away from my problems. I was dating this girl, and she broke up with me. I was trying to put as much distance between us as possible. I found a really cheap flight to Ireland, and I was sitting at a pub in Galway, Ireland and started writing this song there over a pint of Guinness.
You’ve spoke about how the music on this album is a blend of John Denver and John Mellencamp. Was that always the mission?
No. Being from Indiana, I’ve always been drawn to the Mid-west, roots-rock sound that Mellencamp perfected. I grew up on John Denver. Just naturally, there’s where I fell as far as trying to create a sound that was unique to me. There was nothing I was trying to force. It just happened. It made sense that I would be influenced by both those guys.