I got in touch with Derek Zanetti, aka The Homeless Gospel Choir, on Thursday, towards the end of his drive from Salt Lake City to Spokane. Our conversation was peppered with driving directions as he was making his way towards The Big Dipper for his show that night. Itʻs been a big week for Derek: heʻs in the middle of a successful tour with ’68 and Listener, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Finals and, oh yeah, the video for his new single “Normal” just premiered on NPR music.
“That was a dream come true for me,” he gushed, when I asked how it felt, “I’ve been a long time listener of NPR and I was utterly humbled.” The song—punky, vibrant, and anthemic with its chorus of “Youʻre never gonna be normal, ʻcause youʻre a punk”—was recorded with a full band, a departure from the solo acoustic material found in his live shows and previous two albums.
The change in style was deliberate. “I wanted to have it sound like it does in my head,” he noted. He played his songs for Chris Dos of Anti-Flag, who produced the record, and Chris Stowe of A-F Records, and they agreed. Much of the new record is also done with a full band. He explains, “I shared my vision with friends and we came together collaboratively to make something beautiful.”
One person he considers a friend is Kris from Listener (“he also does Red Sweater Lullaby, you should check it out. Itʻs emo, itʻs really sad… itʻs beautiful, youʻll love it.”), who is the one providing directions on the drive. This is his third time partnering up with the band, and the familiarity this provides makes for a fun and relatively effortless tour. “Itʻs like a traveling punk rock circus,” Zanetti says. Although they’ve had to slog through some long drives along the way, they’ve also had a number of sold out shows, including Pittsburgh, Manhattan, and Boston.
The day after his current tour finishes, he will turn around and head back out again with Zach Quinn from PEARS. The two met after Zanetti hosted the band in his Hazelwood home. “Itʻs way too big for two people,” he notes, “so I let bands stay here and I make them breakfast in the morning.” Heʻs looking forward to getting to know Quinn better during the nine days theyʻre touring together.
While weʻre talking touring, I asked if he has a dream band or musician that heʻd love to tour with. His response is instantaneous: Green Day. The choice is unsurprising, considering Zanetti often mentions during his shows the profound impact that their record “Dookie” has had on him. In his song “Normal” he notes, “I found my escape in that Green Day tape / when the songs would end weʻd just rewind them.”
In the song, Zanetti sings about growing up feeling like an outsider. Most of the songs he writes are deeply personal, with many focusing on his political beliefs or struggles with mental illness. “The only way I can have power over my own struggle is to openly talk about it,” he explains. He notes that he is often approached after shows by audience members, many teenagers, who want to share their own issues with him. “I would much rather just be honest about it and be forthright; thereʻs a lot of healing to be had in that.”
While Zanetti typically is involved with additional projects—he draws, paints, and has published two books—he is currently devoted to getting his record out and touring in support of it. “I feel like the luckiest person in the whole world to make music and to be content with my involvement in punk music,” he says. He encourages younger musicians, those just starting out, to keep the path, donʻt water, and stick to their morals and values. He sums it up, “Punk is like a title to me, like being a doctor or a lawyer. Itʻs a badge I wear with pride.”
Of course, this being Punksburgh, I also had to throw in a few Pittsburgh specific questions—
Favorite Local Artists/Businesses: Seth LeDonne (“they make amazing art and theyʻre always putting their best foot forward.”); City Paperʻs Meg Fair (“her journalism is exceptional, and Iʻm not just saying that because she did a piece on me.”); and Ink Division (“those guys are great.”).