The Cool Down

Offstage, up-and-coming singer, songwriter, and guitarist Zach Heckendorf appears to be an ordinary teenager: a hip-hop-loving, T-shirt and jeans-wearing, shaggy-haired kid with a shy smile and modest demeanor. But when Heckendorf grabs a guitar and jumps on a stage, the 18-year-old Denver native is transformed. Gone is the shyness. Gone is the reluctance to draw attention to himself. In their place is a natural-born entertainer deploying rapid-fire lyrics and jittery acoustic grooves with all the confidence, charisma, and innate musicality of performers twice his age. During shows in New York and Los Angeles in December, Heckendorf mesmerized crowds with original songs like “All The Right Places,” the first single from his debut album The Cool Down, and silenced the hold-outs chattering in the back with an astonishing cover of Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre,” spitting every line with impressive intensity and speed.

“Entertainers have the power to make someone’s day or ruin it,” Heckendorf says. “So I do everything I possibly can to bring people raw joy, which means setting an example by shedding all my insecurities and going as hard as I possibly can when I’m onstage. That’s the only way there can be a real give and take between the audience and me.”

The duality in Heckendorf’s personality is reflected on The Cool Down, which Heckendorf released independently in November 2011. On songs like “One of Them,” “17 Circles,” “Traffic,” “Tie Dye March,” as well as the title track, Heckendorf wraps his considered themes — the pursuit of freedom, the interconnectedness of human beings and nature, and a dismay for the environmental destruction that previous generations have wrought — in a rich, acoustic-driven sound, one that takes its cues more from hip-hop than from the traditional troubadours Heckendorf has already been compared to. Nothing is delivered with overt anger, but rather with a deliberate ambiguity that leaves the words open to interpretation. Heckendorf isn’t being cagey, he just appreciates the power of mystery.

“Lyrically, hip-hop has shown me that mystery is cool,” he says. “Rappers frequently use lines that can be understood in a billion different ways because each person will internalize it differently. My favorite rapper of all time is Aesop Rock. He is so profound and intricate and I study his words as I would any other poet’s. The difference though is that rappers make their messages more accessible by spitting them on top of beats that make you nod your head. I will be forever in love with hip-hop because when I listen to it, it transforms me, a white suburban kid, into something of a superhero.”

The transformative quality of music has always been a strong lure for Heckendorf, who knew he wanted to be a performer at age nine after picking up his dad’s acoustic guitar for the first time. He began taking lessons and writing songs immediately. “I remember making this really simple riff with a simple melody and playing it for my parents,” he says. “I was so amazed that something so mysterious actually came out of me. I still feel like that when I write something new.” As a kid, Heckendorf was enamored with pop-punk bands like blink-182 and Green Day, but his taste began to shift after a new student from Canada joined his sixth-grade class. “He introduced me to Aesop Rock and all these other indie acts like Broken Social Scene, Dilated Peoples, Modest Mouse, and Postal Service,” Heckendorf recalls. “It was the first time I heard music that wasn’t easily accessible, and the hunt for it became just as exciting as the tunes themselves. I felt like we were in some kind of club where only we understood the power of real, thoughtful music.”

Heckendorf began writing the songs on The Cool Down as a freshman in high school and making a name for himself locally around Denver as a live performer. He played to thousands at Colorado’s legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre and has shared stages with John Butler Trio, Brandi Carlile, Guster, Mat Kearney, Barenaked Ladies, and Jakob Dylan. In February 2011, Heckendorf entered a studio in Los Angeles to record The Cool Down with fellow singer-songwriter Brett Dennen.

“Working with Brett was incredible,” he says. “He has become my mentor in everything music-related whether it’s songwriting or how to build a healthy career. We started off just tweaking some of my finished songs and building a strong musical relationship. As a producer, Brett had recorded four of his own albums and had learned plenty of tricks. He also had close relationships with the musicians who played on the album, which made the process that much more comfortable.”

Though still evolving as a songwriter and recording artist, Heckendorf has come out of the gate with a charming debut that flaunts his distinctive voice, jaw-dropping guitar talent, and knack for crafting sophisticated melodies and rhythms. The Cool Down reveals him to be a serious up-and-comer who not only nails a contemporary-yet-timeless sound on his first try, but also someone who brings a much-needed youthful perspective on the state of the world during these times of economic, societal, and environmental upheaval. “Though the album, lyrically, is an exploration of myself, I am profoundly influenced by nature and learning to make myself a part of it so a lot of the lyrics are my observations on how we humans have learned to distance ourselves from nature and ways to reconnect ourselves with it,” he says.

As he travels the U.S. on tour in 2012 to support The Cool Down, Heckendorf is motivated by purpose at two ends of the spectrum: “Sometimes I am out to change opinions or reveal flaws that I observe,” he says, “and other times I just want to write a song that makes you feel a deep yet simple happiness that doesn’t need to be analyzed, just enjoyed.”

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[December 2011]