Sometimes, a piece of art emerges out of nowhere and catches you by surprise. For some of us, indie artist Zane Vickery’s debut Breezewood is that kind of record. Built on sweeping piano-pop melodies, heartfelt songwriting, and a deep love for stories (particularly Narnia in this case), these songs feel like the first hints of springtime in the dead of winter, an earnest wrestling with the broken pieces of the past and a longing hope for the future.
Breezewood is a record realized in community, partially crowdfunded in 18 days by his circle of friends and lovingly crafted in Nashville with producer Brendan St. Gelais. We are so excited to introduce Zane and his songs to you. I had a chance to talk with him a couple weeks ago about his experience of life, songwriting, and making his musical dream a reality.
Thanks for taking the time to chat… I’m excited to introduce you to The Rabbit Room community! First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself and your story. What would you like everyone to know about you?
Well, I’m 29. I’ve been married for six years to my wife, Rebecca. We have three kids. I’m a stay at home dad, and my wife works third shift week on, week off. So yeah, for a week I’m riding the parent train solo, and then I get my wife for a whole week. So that is the majority of who I am these days.
I live down in Beaufort, South Carolina, which is a great little small coastal community. I grew up in the upstate of South Carolina, outside of the city about 5 to 10 miles on a country road, and lived a very isolated kind of lifestyle out there. You hear a lot of that alluded to in my record. “Breezewood” specifically is the road that I grew up on.
It kind of sounds like much of your life has been spent around South Carolina?
Starting in 2013, it’s actually quite the opposite. I moved to Washington, DC for a new start, and it went terribly because I didn’t really plan that out, and I didn’t have a ton of support. I really hit just like a rock bottom place of my life—I ended up sleeping in my car and staying in shelters for a little bit. I didn’t have a lot of opportunities in front of me and didn’t really know where my life was headed or what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be.
Shortly after that, I moved to Arizona for a short stint. And then after being in Arizona for three months, I got an opportunity to go work for The Navigators, a para-Christian organization based out of Colorado Springs. They run a summer program called Eagle Lake. It’s 12 weeks of kids rotating through week-long stays in cabins, and that was my first exposure to vocational ministry of any kind.
Eagle Lake holds a very special place in my heart, so I wanted to feed off of that. I moved back to South Carolina and started working for a church as a student minister for a launching student ministry, and I did that for two years… I worked in law enforcement for two years after that… and during that time my wife and I had our first kid, and she graduated pharmacy school and got her first job here in Beaufort. So I’ve devoted my time to becoming a stay at home dad ever since. I also came to the conclusion that I wanted to write a record, and I knew that that would take a lot of time as well.
So that’s the abbreviated version of the last 10 years.
Wow, that’s a lot!
It’s worse. (laughs)
I feel like there’s an interesting conversation to be had about all the different places and vocations you experienced in those 10 years… moving to DC, and going to Arizona, and then ending up in ministry and law enforcement. And I feel like there might be something in there about how all that informs your art. So here’s the question: Where did music fit into this?
My first introduction to music other than listening to CDs on my CD player was my 7th grade chorus class. I didn’t get the elective that I wanted, and they threw me in chorus and dance. I was not happy at all.
But something really cool happened in chorus. There was a piano there. And also my music teacher taught us to read sheet music and play xylophones. So I went to my parents and I asked if I could get a keyboard because I’d been going to the chorus room and fiddling around with the piano. So they bought me like the standard edition Walmart Yamaha keyboard. No weighted keys or anything, but here’s the really cool part: it had this display screen for a chord dictionary. And if I hit a C note, it would display what a C chord was, and so on up the scale, showing you every chord in the book.
I started to realize—because I had no teacher, I had no lessons—that this is all guitar players do. They play chords and they sing to it. And so over the next 5 years, I started doing show choir, and started playing at church in my senior year with the worship band, and I did that into my freshman year of college and throughout college.
Throughout the stint in DC, I kept my keyboard in my car, and I never got rid of it. Never pawned it. I never could. Throughout Eagle Lake, I led worship every week. Throughout law enforcement, I’d go play here and there at local coffee shops and venues. Music was always there in the background and it was always calling to me.
So Breezewood is your debut album, and I understand it was a long time in the making. What led you to this moment of releasing your own songs into the world?
I started working on this half-heartedly in 2012, but I didn’t move on turning it into something tangible for a very long time. It was just always that thing that I was going to do one day. But last year, I went through a big shift around fall of 2019, and I read [Andrew Peterson’s book] Adorning the Dark. I’m not trying to be sentimental, but it really did go down like this: I read the George McDonald quote, “As the fir tree lifts up a far different need than that of the palm tree, so does each human offer up a different need to the common Father.” And then it ends with: “This is that for which each man is responsible, to reveal the secret things of the Father.” I would say that up until that moment, I had never really received a word of conviction to really act on starting the project as I did in that.
You have described Breezewood as a “story of stories… inspired by points of intersection between your life and Lewis’ mythic Narnia.” Can you say more about that?
Hope looks very different for different people, but I think jadedness and bitterness always look the same. So my hope is that Breezewood will move people out of circles of bitterness and jadedness and help them begin to explore what their hope may be.Zane Vickery
I grew up particularly isolated, but I had no lack of literature. Most of my moral framework came from the books that I read. That has always stuck with me, but it became even more alive when I became a dad. My first child, my daughter, came five and a half weeks early, and she was four pounds and perfectly healthy, but we lived in the hospital for three weeks. She was tiny. And I’m a dad for the first time, but my kid lives in a box, and she’s small and fragile and I’m washing my hands for three minutes before I go see her. It was just such a hard time.
What I started to do was I would just take Narnia into the NICU and start reading. I went to every feeding throughout the night, would sleep for three hours and come back for the next feeding… that’s really where the official lyric writing began.
I’d always wanted to do a loose Narnia concept record. In 2012, my roommate did a series of pictures for one of our friends, a photography student. She gave him this lion mask and put him in a tweed suit with suspenders and made him go run around in the woods. And she got this picture. I remember I saw the picture and thought the Narnia record I’m going to make one day is going to have that photo. I don’t know if this guy is running in delight or if he’s scared and the best thing he can do is put on a mask of a lion. Maybe it’s both.
I wrote all of the music first, because if it didn’t sound like the Narnia thing I had living in my head, the words would be useless. Take for example the piano and the intro in the song “Veins.” I was like, I have to find how it feels to be there at the dawn of time with Aslan singing into the void and flowers shooting up from the ground—what does that sound like? I honestly don’t care if anyone else out there gets this, but for me personally, I want to listen to this track and remember this is what it sounded like when the lion began singing into the void.
“Amphibian” is my blend of doubt and Puddleglum. At the end of the day, I think Puddleglum is one of the most consistent characters that I’ve ever read, not just in his, you know, doubt, but also in his conviction. So “Amphibian” is this repeating progression. It’s a heartbeat, steady. “Holidays” is my Last Battle song. If we do confront doubt, we have to have a turn because we can’t be there too long. How do I compose the song that feels like a funeral, but doesn’t turn in a cheesy way? For “7×70,” what does Edmund’s regret sound like?
As for recording them, I really would love to mention my producer, Brendan St. Gelais. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing here, but working with Brendan was a dream. I really felt like I was making a friend in the process, and he worked so hard on these songs. Like there’s so much you heard that I can’t take credit for because he sat there and came up with these particular parts that made it sound like the way that it did. It wouldn’t be what it is without Brendan and I’m eternally grateful for him.
There’s something in the music that feels like hope. It’s the kind of the music we need now in this season of weariness. So I guess my last question is what do you hope people experience and receive from your music?
There’s always been the line from Les Mis that sticks in my head, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” The next layer beneath that that I was trying to paint is yes, we are all suffering and it feels hopeless, but there is this joy being found in suffering that I really think true.
So much of this album was about closure. In the past there’s a ton of things that are regrettable and misfortunate and sad and awful. And you may be in a place where you’re going to therapy, and you’re exercising, and you’re eating right, and you’re going to church, and you’re checking all these boxes, and life is still a struggle. That is completely normal. Existing and living is very hard, especially if you are transparent with yourself and you love others unreservedly. It is still very hard. But I am a bleeding optimist and hopeful to the fact that all of that stuff comes together for a very unique and beautiful kaleidoscope of things. Hope looks very different for different people, but I think jadedness and bitterness always look the same. So my hope is that Breezewood will move people out of circles of bitterness and jadedness and help them begin to explore what their hope may be.
Jen Rose Yokel is a poet, freelance writer, and spiritual director. Her words have appeared at She Reads Truth, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms in 2015. Originally from Central Florida, she now makes her home in Fall River, Massachusetts with her husband Chris, where you can find her enjoying used bookstores and good coffee.