Friday Feature: Vancouver Synth Pop Songwriter & Multi-Instrumentalist Zachary Toigo Talks New Music, Influences, & More

The idea of being a one-man band can be intimidating to musicians. Many might cower in fear at the idea of being responsible for the instrumentals, songwriting, and vocals all by themselves. Zachary Toigo, however, fills the position with ease.

Not only is the Vancouver-based artist a singer-songwriter, he also plays guitar, bass, and keys. The result is a display of a variety of musical talents that is seldom seen by solo acts in the music industry today. Toigo points to The Smiths and Prince as musical influences, and the result is obvious with his music’s 80’s flair. His other influences include The Beatles, Radiohead, and Pink Floyd, which would explain Togo’s ability to blend genre with ease. 

Toigo’s previous releases include his first full-length album, Leafyleeks in 2014 and Mmm… in 2018. His first album featured alt-rock instrumentation, while the latter took a more post-punk inspired approach in terms of production. Toigo’s voice maintained a distinctive folk timbre throughout both releases, a trait that is sure to attract listeners with its mellow warmth. 

Not letting the pandemic halt his creative process, Toigo is continuing to create new music. His latest singles are unmistakably synth pop, and are sure to attract older fans nostalgic of the 80’s, as well as young fans thirsty for new tunes. His first single “Miloš” dropped on August 28th. The track starts with a bare-bones percussion rhythm and a simple guitar riff. It builds with flourishing synths paving the way for Toigo’s James Taylor-esque vocals. The combination makes for a unique sound that can be compared to no other. 

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His latest single, “Perfectly Clear” features gated reverb percussion and synth lines that could be found in a track by The Psychedelic Furs. The single’s upbeat tempo and pop chord progression make it a perfect soundtrack for a party scene in a coming-of-age John Hughes film. Fans who fell in love with Toigo’s 80’s inspiration from his earlier releases are sure to be satisfied with the single, as it embraces everything it means to be a pure synth pop song. 

We interviewed Toigo to ask him about his growth as a synth-pop musician, what it takes to be a one-man band, what more to expect from him in the future.

Tell me about who or what made you first get into music in the first place.

I think I’ve always been overly fond of music. Even as a kid when I’d hear something on the radio I knew songs I loved, even if I didn’t pursue buying the CD of that artist. Even as a 5-year-old, I knew that when I’d hear the song again I would enjoy it. At that age as well, my sister would have been in high school, so I knew The Smashing Pumpkins, The Tragically Hip, Dave Matthews Band, Joan Osborne, etc. The real game-changers though, were when I was in high school and started to actively listen to music and I “discovered”, such as The Beatles. At that point, I was listening to the Greatest Hits of classic rock bands, but with The Beatles, the greatest hits can’t exist. Any attempt to do it has fallen flat. Every single song of theirs was life-changing. A fantastic band. Once I heard them, music became a real passion. I played piano at the time so I got a book of their sheet music and started learning their songs on the piano.

However, when I really took my deep dive into music, it was Radiohead on the other end, and that’s when I picked up the guitar and thought “I want to do that”. Not since I had listened to The Beatles had a band’s entire catalog of songs spoken to me. The Beatles were long gone, but Radiohead was still releasing music (LP10, Where Are You?). Avant-garde pop music had never sounded so perfect. The Beatles + Radiohead. You almost have to omit those two bands when it comes to making a list of the 100 greatest songs ever written, they could easily cover 50% of that list.

So you can play the bass, guitar, and keys. What was the first instrument you learned to play, and how has that influenced the way you create a song?

I learned piano first. I played for about seven years before I started playing guitar. Since I knew how the piano worked I understood the basics of the guitar from the beginning. It definitely made it easier to get into playing guitar since I knew theory from the piano. Those are my two main instruments. In a weird way, if I write a song on guitar, I know how to play it on piano and vice versa. I imagine anyone that can play both instruments gets that feeling. When I write a song on the piano, I do get an inkling of what the guitar part will be, and if I write a song on the piano, I will also get a feeling of what the key part should be. It is nice being able to go to both instruments when writing. Sometimes a song written on piano will become more of a guitar song, and sometimes a song written on guitar will become more of a piano song. If I didn’t play both instruments, I’d be stuck with playing the song on a single instrument. That isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s just nice to have some more variety.

And what’s the recording process like as one of the only instrumentalists on your records?

It’s probably close to what you might think. First, the song is written. When it comes time to start recording, I’ll record a rough demo with just guitar or piano and a scratch vocal track and then I will come up with some basic drum arrangement. It helps keep everything in time and recording becomes more exciting once there’s some sort of percussion going, rather than a click track.

Since I don’t always have access to a real drum kit, I will use samples and various drum programs for starters. From there you can pretty much start doing whatever to the song. Synths, bass, lead guitar, organ, strings, etc. It becomes a feeling thing at that point. The sky is the limit but a lot of cutting/copy and pasting/deleting and recreating will happen, and that is kind of the core to songwriting. However, on my most recent album, “Others”, we had more session musicians come in.

My producer, Jamey Koch, has always offered a helping hand when it comes to playing a part that isn’t quite all there. Pat Steward, of Odds, played drums (just like he played drums on my first two albums “Leafyleeks” and “Mmm…”), Steve Hillium played Saxophone, Derry Byrne played Trumpet, Norm Fisher played Bass on a couple of songs, and Keith Scott played lead guitar on a couple of tracks too. Keith is Bryan Adams lead guitar player, and at one point or another Pat and Norm have played for Bryan, so it was cool to have musicians like them contribute to the album.

Your single, “Miloš” sounds like it was straight out of the ’80s. What are some of the sources of inspiration behind the track?

As much as I like The Beatles and Radiohead, I love 80s pop hits. “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds. “Dance Hall Days” by Wang Chung. “Take On Me” by A-Ha. “In A Big Country” by Big Country. “Head Over Heals” by Tears For Fears. “True” by Spandau Ballet. Every Prince song. The list goes on. I guess the ultimate goal is to write a song with all of that in mind, at this time in my life anyway. I really try to make it my own though, and modern sounding, while having classic elements. I missed the 80’s, so I think that just because I missed the 80’s doesn’t mean I can’t write music that sounds like it could be from that time. I get the modern stuff, but I am still stuck in the ’80s, and I still have the 90’s to look forward to.

What were the songwriting and production processes like for the single?

I downloaded all these virtual instruments to my computer. I was looking for more sounds and was wanting to use MIDI more. So from the beginning of production, I was experimenting with these virtual instruments, which were all produced in the ’80s. Like I said with adding drums as soon as possible, I added a drum machine, some samples, and acoustic drums. With all those going, and the guitar part, the song became this rhythm machine. It’s a great feeling when you’re writing or recording and something just clicks. It’s one of my favorite feelings. I can’t even describe it. Once the main elements of the songs were there, I was experimenting with time. Work on the song for a couple of hours, move to the next song, come back to it later, or the next day. I don’t spend too much time on a song in a day when there are others to work on.

It helps keep it fresh, and I can work on a few really good ideas, put it to bed, and then when more ideas come I can apply them then, rather than having to force ideas (which isn’t too bad of an idea either!).

Your latest releases “Miloš” and “Perfectly Clear” have been synth-pop tracks, while most of your earlier music is more folk-inspired. How do the two genres compare for you, and which do you see yourself creating more of in the future?

I like many genres of music, but I like to keep the pop sensibility. As long as that is there, I like to explore the sub-genres. Whether it’s folk, alternative, synth-pop, progressive, or indie, if I think it has some sort of pop sensibility, I am usually happy. It’s hard to say the route I’ll go right now. Synths and drum machines are my bread and butter at the moment, but I’d like to make a more stripped back album at some point.

I write a lot of songs, and lots of songs haven’t been recorded, and in that group of unrecorded songs are solo acoustic/solo piano songs that I don’t hear being recorded with many other accompanying instruments, and I often don’t record those songs since I enjoy pumping songs up. I think they’re great songs, but I haven’t really been ready to make that album yet. Sometimes shoehorning instruments can be obvious and compromises what the song could truly be (and sometimes it makes the songs, there really are no rules). The stripped-back album will happen, just piano/guitar and vocals. It could be the next album, or maybe I double down on the synths and drum machines, I can’t say right now.

How has life during the pandemic inspired your creative process?

The funny thing is I do spend a lot of time by myself, so not a lot changed once the pandemic happened. I try to stay busy though. I’ve recorded about 200 different ideas on my phone’s sound memos app since the pandemic started. A lot of good ideas. If 10 work there’s an album there. I’m starting to demo new songs so the direction of the new music will begin to reveal itself soon.

Tell me about how the Vancouver music scene influenced your sound. Can you name some specific artists or groups from the area you can’t get enough of?

I’m sort of an outsider when it comes to that. There are some great Vancouver bands whose CDs/vinyl I’ve bought. The Binz is a great modern punk/rock band. They have this 5-song EP that is self-titled and is so tight and great and it goes to show what you can do with music in less than 15 minutes. It’s one of my favorite EPs. OK Vancouver OK is another favorite of mine. Awesome lo-fi band. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to their album “Escape the Common People”. It brings me back to when I lived alone on the beach in Tsawwassen (a suburb of Vancouver). Of course, classic bands like Chilliwack or Mother Mother and Odds are staples of Vancouver music that I listen to often. The Binz, OK Vancouver OK, Chilliwack, Odds, and Mother Mother…check them out!

What has been one of the proudest moments of your career so far?

That is kind of a personal question at this time. A lot of great things have happened since I became a musician. Even breaking my ankle was a somewhat proud moment I suppose, because I wrote most of my second album with a broken ankle. If I didn’t break my ankle I’m not sure what Mmm… would have been.

Lastly, can fans expect more releases from you soon? Perhaps an EP or a full-length album?

Yes, of course! My third album “Others” (the quotations are part of the spelling) comes out this fall. No release date set at the moment, but it will be out before Christmas. The next single will be out on November 6th, so be sure to check out both when they’re released!

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