Zach Condon was the odd-one-out in his hometown but success with his band Beirut has helped him to become happy in his own skin. Scott Kara reports.
Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Zach Condon used to get weird, sometimes disdainful looks. Though a talented musician, who recorded songs in his bedroom from age 15, he was, you might say, one of the stranger kids around town.
These days, when he goes back to see his parents a couple of times a year, the 25-year-old still gets the odd evil look.
"I see kids from high school and they give me disapproving glares now that they know who I am," he says on the phone from his new home town of New York.
He's done pretty well for himself as the leader of Beirut, the gypsy folk band whose music resounds with everything from brass and strings to wurlitzer and ukulele.
On Beirut's third and latest album, The Rip Tide, Condon writes a sunny, slightly smart-arse ode to his old home town. Santa Fe is a lovely little tune and probably one of the most lively and light tracks he has written with the lines like "sign me up, Santa Fe, on the cross, Santa Fe".
"I've always seen Santa Fe as this city where I was born and raised, and it's like there's always this cultural void and [growing up] I was always trying to fill it with movies, music, and, wanderlust," he laughs. "It's funny, and I guess I can talk shit about it because you're in New Zealand, but [Santa Fe] still has the same attitude and thing going on."
That's not to say Condon has anything against the city, because despite what he says, he loves going back there to unwind after touring.
And besides, says Condon, the self-confessed contrary youth of old has undergone a personal and musical evolution which comes through on Santa Fe and The Rip Tide in general.
"It's in the vein of coming to terms and getting comfortable in your own skin, that kind of thing," he says. "As a youth I fought what I was given so often. Anything, like the location I was in, and any sense of authority, I fought it all the time. And being so contrary was exhausting," he chuckles. "So I'm trying to find a way not to do that any more."
On his previous albums - the Balkan-folk influenced 2006 debut Gulag Orkestar and the French inspired The Flying Club Cup from 2007 - there was a mix of melancholy and then moments of celebration. The Rip Tide, while still reflective is also more stripped-back, beautifully understated, and less "grandiose", as Condon puts it.
So though his songs are still rooted in gypsy folk, and with a wondrous and exotic mix of influences from Eastern Europe, France, Mexico, and indie-rock akin to Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, there is also a more straightforward pop sensibility that creeps in on The Rip Tide.
"It's hard to explain but I was trying to write it to be exactly what the songs felt like being. And not be embarrassed if it came out poppy, or if it came out simple. Because I've always been about these grandiose musical statements, and this time round I was trying to rein it in."
Condon jokes that listening to his first album is like being hit over the head with a wall of trumpets. "Which is a lot of fun, and I kind of needed to get that stuff out of my system, there's a certain type of youthful desperation in that, but [on The Rip Tide] I was trying to step out of that a little bit and take a little bit more of a measured approach."
The title track was the first song he wrote for the album - "it was a breakthrough," he says about the relief of hitting upon it - and it's one of those intensely sad songs that makes you well up. But there is a majesty and beauty to it that is uplifting.
"I love the way it wraps around and loops and it's very hypnotic in this kind of lovely, flowing way. And with the lyrics I remember being just really brutally honest about that exact moment in time, and that's when I thought, 'You know what? It's not so bad to be honest', which is something I try to work on as much as possible.
"Well, maybe. Maybe," he laughs. "But I just really got swept up in that song and that's why I called it The Rip Tide - it kind of felt like a larger force."
Who: Beirut, led by multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Zach Condon
What: Folk music with gypsy, Balkan, European, and indie influences
New album: The Rip Tide, out now
See also: The Flying Club Cup (2007)