2019 was quite a year for Zach Neil. The fourth single of his career, “When She Drinks Whiskey,” stormed out of the gate, and has continued to perform to the tune of nearly 200,000 streams on Spotify and several messages from fans about how relatable the song is for them.
Neil’s stock has been on the rise since his 2016 debut single “Horses to Ride” exceeded even his own expectations, and two singles that followed before “When She Drinks Whiskey” solidified Neil’s place as a consistent producer of solid, real country tunes.
We talked with Zach about how his early love for music translated into his career, all about “When She Drinks Whiskey” and its connection with listeners, how he is spending his newfound down time and much more!
Pro Country: Who are some of your biggest musical influences that have shaped your sound?
Zach Neil: I’m a huge Randy Travis fan. Of course there was also George Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Keith Whitley. Going back, I found that all of those guys that I loved also loved Merle Haggard and George Jones. When I went back and started diving into Merle Haggard music, I dug it so much. As I was growing up, it was Randy Travis, Mark Chesnutt, some Garth, Joe Diffie and Daryle Singletary. The real, traditional country sound is the stuff that appealed to me.
PC: Your bio talks about begging your parents for a guitar at 12 years-old so you could play along with Randy Travis, Keith Whitley and George Strait songs. What was it about music that connected with you so early in your life?
ZN: I’m the youngest of four, and my parents had all of us kids take piano lessons. I started taking them when I was six, and honestly, I didn’t enjoy it a whole lot of [laughs]. I found that when I was listening to the radio, I wanted to be able to play along with the radio. That’s really what it was; it wasn’t that I wanted to be a superstar or anything like that, I just love listening to music, and I couldn’t play along to what I was hearing on the radio on my piano. I thought if I had a guitar and could learn a couple chords, I could play along with it. When I got my guitar, I couldn’t put it down. I fell in love with it immediately.
PC: How did that interest in music and wanting to play along with the radio translate into you wanting to pursue music as a career?
ZN: I just loved music. I formed a band in high school. We thought that it would be something fun to do because we were all friends. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and there were no young guys playing country music. We put a band together, we thought we might be able to have some fun and make some money, and next thing you know, we got booked on some pretty big gigs. We got to open for Kenny Rogers and Diamond Rio, and then we did a battle of the bands competition. One of the guest judges of the battle of the bands competition worked at a big studio in Vancouver. He had just finished engineering a Red Hot Chili Peppers record, and he pulled me aside after we won the competition and asked if music was something I wanted to do as a career. I was 16 at the time, and I just said “Sure!” [laughs]. The original plan was to farm. I grew up on a family farm, and I thought that’s what I was going to do. He said he wanted to introduce me to people that he knew, and next thing I knew, within a year, I made a trip to Nashville, and I knew music is what I wanted to do. I got bitten by the bug, and I haven’t looked back since!
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your debut single “Horses to Ride”?
ZN: There was some excitement, and there were also nerves. You’re just never sure how it’s going to be received. It was probably more exciting than anything just to get music out there and say, “Hey, this is me.” I wanted to see what the reaction was going to be, and thankfully, the reaction was great! I had a number in mind of what we wanted to sell, and we blew through that. For somebody like me who was doing it all on their own at the time, it exceeded my expectations.
PC: “Something Going on in the Stars” was quite different sonically than “Horses to Ride.” Was it at all important to come out of the gate showcasing that sonic versatility?
ZN: Absolutely. You don’t want to release two things that sound exactly the same. I didn’t write that song. The guy that was producing my music at the time played the song for me, and it was one of those songs that from the moment I heard it, I wasn’t thinking it was going to differentiate me, I just loved the song. I thought it was such a unique song, and I knew I had to record it. Next thing I knew, I was playing it live. People were saying, “Man, I really love ‘Horses to Ride,’ but I really love ‘Something Going on in the Stars’ too!” We figured it would be a good idea to put that out [laughs].
PC: “Baby’s Gone” is a song that talks about love being “gone” before it is really gone. Was that song written about personal experience or was that a story that was crafted?
ZN: It was a bit crafted. Of course, being a musician, you go through some relationships [laughs]. All of us who were writers on that song had experienced somebody having enough of the musician lifestyle numerous times. I had the idea for the intro, and I just heard it was a really straight-ahead country kind of song. Within about an hour, the song was finished!
PC: Your newest single “When She Drinks Whiskey” was released last year, and has quickly become your signature song so far. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that song? Was it written about a specific person?
ZN: That song came out of my years of playing clubs and bars. Obviously when you’re playing, you want people to have a good time, but you do see people who are not having such a great time for whatever reason. One of the things I noticed is that when people are having a good time, they’re drinking beer or doing shots. When people are not having such a good time or they’re hurting, it seems like whiskey is their go to drink. People don’t say, “Let’s do a bunch of tequila shots because my girlfriend just left me,” [laughs]. Originally, the idea was “When They Drink Whiskey,” and it described when someone was sad. However, I woke up in bed in the middle of the night one night, and it just hit me; “When She Drinks Whiskey,” that sounded a lot more interesting. A couple days later, I had a co-write with a good friend of mine, and by the time I got to write, I had the chorus already written. I asked what he thought about it, and he said he loved it! We probably finished it in an hour and a half or two hours.
PC: In just over a year since its release, “When She Drinks Whiskey” has amassed more than 190,000 streams on Spotify. Do you think it is that relatability that is allowing it to connect with listeners?
ZN: I really do. I get so many messages from people that say, “That’s my song, I totally get this!” If I go through the comments that I’ve gotten in the time since I put it out, that’s what I’m seeing. I definitely think it’s relatable in that sense.
PC: Is there a certain level of validation that comes with the success you’ve had with “When She Drinks Whiskey”?
ZN: Definitely, because I think that lets you know that you’re connecting with them. Sometimes, you wonder if you’re connecting with people. You see it live, and that’s the nice thing about the live setting, you know immediately if you’re connecting with people or not. When you’re in a studio and you’re trying to make something that you think is something people might enjoy listening to, you never really know until you put it out. When you get the feedback and see the amount of people that are streaming and downloading it, and seeing the numbers continue to go up, it’s really cool!
PC: Is there a level of pressure you’re feeling to match or surpass the success of “When She Drinks Whiskey” with your next releases?
ZN: There is a little bit, but to be honest, I don’t worry about that stuff a whole lot. I’ve always felt that if I make music that I enjoy and music that speaks to me, there’s probably other people that are going to relate to it as well. When I go in to record music, I go in to do it the only way I know how to do it; I try not to overthink anything or do things because statistics show people like a certain thing. I like to make music the way I like it, and I feel like if I like it, other people might like it too.
PC: 2020 has thrown a wrench into the plans of most artists. Of the things you can control, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
ZN: Whenever we’re given the go-ahead to go out and play shows again, we want to do that. That’s obviously something that we want to do, and I desperately miss doing it. Until then, I’m doing a lot of interviews and page takeovers for radio stations. Those have been going fantastic! It’s a way to reach people that you wouldn’t normally reach. Most of those stations are already playing “When She Drinks Whiskey,” so that allows their listeners to have an idea of who I am. We’ve got quite a few more of those scheduled over the next couple months. In the meantime, I’m trying to make the most of the down time. I’m writing a bunch. I’ve got about four or five new songs that I’ve got started, and I’m really happy with what we’ve got so far. I think if that continues, we might have a whole album done before this is all said and done [laughs].
*Images courtesy of Zach Neil Facebook Page*