Soulful pop artist and former Josh Groban sideman Zach Provost returns to Casa del Mar
By Bliss Bowen
“Walk that road because it’s just the only way to go
Keep that light that wakes you up
Sometimes it’s hard to see when fear
is in its way
Stay on that road and know it’s just
the only way to go”
Listening to Zach Provost sing original songs like “Five Medallions” or “Look Up” from his forthcoming album “Walk That Road,” there are discernible echoes of Marc Cohn, Amos Lee and Bruce Hornsby — and a bit of Josh Groban, for whom Provost worked as keyboardist and musical director for five years.
The native Angeleno got the gig on the recommendation of producer David Foster, with whom he’d worked after graduating college. Provost, who says he was “pretty much glued to a piano from an early age,” had already finished his first album, 2002’s “Alive.” He was gearing up for a promotional tour when he made the pivotal decision to join Groban’s first US tour.
“I really had to think about that decision,” Provost acknowledges. “I think I made the right one, in hindsight, by staying with Josh for a few more years, because I did learn a lot. I was so fortunate to get to work with him, and have that be really my first big road experience.”
Since refocusing on his own music and life, Provost says a number of Groban’s fans (“really sweet people”) have continued to keep tabs on his solo career. He’s stayed in touch with his “band of brothers,” some of whom appear on “Walk That Road,” which he hopes to release in January.
In addition to recording and performing at local venues like Casa del Mar, where he returns Friday, Provost keeps busy raising his 10-year-old son and teaching music. Last weekend he conducted his first vocal workshop with singer/kundalini yoga instructor Bonnie LaVallo. (They’re planning another for January at Santa Monica’s Breath of Life Studios.) During the week he teaches music at an elementary school in the Valley, where he works to get kids singing with him and “feeling music in their bodies” before he asks them to pick up instruments.
Occasionally the Carl Orff-inspired curriculum inspires his muse. “Stand Up,” one of the most stirring tracks on “Walk That Road,” grew out of an exercise Provost gave to kindergarten and first-grade students when he was teaching at Pasadena’s Sequoyah School a couple of years ago.
“They were doing a play based on a book,” he recalls, “and the concept was standing up for somebody else. I ended up writing ‘Stand Up’ for that, and it came to fruition right away and had a simple pop appeal. The kids really enjoyed it, the parents got into it, and teachers were excited about the song. I got excited about the song once I saw it take that kind of life.
“A songwriter friend told me recently, ‘I notice when you write for these kids it brings out a lot more of the pop in your writing, because you’re purposely simplifying the melody so that they can sing it.’ I thought that was an interesting observation. I remember hearing Greg Kurstin, one of Rihanna’s producers, at an ASCAP workshop; he said a simple, three-minute pop song is like an American version of haiku. It’s easy to knock, an easy target, but can you do it? Can you be short and sweet and simple in three-and-a-half minutes in a way that’s infectious for a lot of people? That, in and of itself, is a cool challenge.”
On the strong hook and hummable melody of “Stand Up,” Provost hangs a positive message that feels particularly relevant now:
“Stand up for the people who need you
Stand up for somebody that needs
There’s only so long you can keep waiting there
When the need for justice calls you
Stand up, stand up”
“I rarely do songs about the world or politics; my songs tend to be more personal,” Provost says. But he acknowledges that “the state of things” can get to him, and says music he listened to during his formative years stayed with him.
“Think about the music that came out during the Reagan administration, in terms of its creative potency,” he says. “You had ‘Synchronicity’ [by the Police], ‘So’ [Peter Gabriel], ‘Graceland’ [Paul Simon], a bunch of Springsteen albums, ‘Joshua Tree’ [U2]. Bonnie Raitt talking about it at one point during that time; ‘soul-stirring music of conscience,’ she called it. That was a rich period, just for output. Music really washed over me in a deep and profound way.”
At Casa del Mar, he’s charged with boosting the lounge’s living-room vibe, which means lots of Jackson Browne, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen covers, plus instrumental versions of Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran hits and, increasingly, his own soul- and gospel-threaded songs. And continually keeping an eye out for opportunities to interact with people through music.
“When you see that they’re listening and paying attention, and they want to hear you — I always find it a good, healthy challenge to make that spark happen,” he says. “If I put all my heart into what I’m doing and it looks like I’m connecting with people who are there, that’s great. … That really is my life’s purpose. It always feels good to connect. And we need it. We need it badly. That heart-to-heart thing is a necessary lifeblood.”
Zach Provost performs at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25, at Casa del Mar, 1910 Ocean Way, Santa Monica. Call (310) 581-5533 or visit facebook.com/Zachary-Provost.