Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Capital Hip Hop Soul: Music Man Zach Cutler (@zachcutler)

If you are a nightlife purveyor of soul in Washington DC, you most likely have enjoyed an artist or two or three who is accompanied by musician extraordinaire Zachary Cutler. Zach is probably the most well-known soul guitarist in the Nation's Capital, not only known for his amazing skills as an accompanist, able to rock an acoustic or full band set-up-- but also appreciated for his studio work as a musician, writer and creative collaborator with many of our favorite acts. Check out this recent Q & A with him as part of our Capital Hip Hop Soul blog series.

Liberated Muse: Hi Zach! You are one of the more well-known musicians in the nation's capital who is often seen accompanying some of the more popular singers getting stage time around town. Tell us about how you got started performing with some of the talented folk here in the DMV.

Zach Cutler: Being able to work with so many amazing artists in the DC area is a blessing! We are such a talented city, and the soul scene has come so far in the years I've been here. When I graduated from Oberlin College with a music degree in 1999, I moved to DC because my brother lived here at the time, and I dug the vibe of the city. I was directing an after-school program, and needing to play some music, so I answered an ad in the City Paper for a band who were looking for a guitarist that could play blues, soul, rock, and funk. That band ended up being Moya, which was Mikuak Rai's project. Mikuak was hosting BarNun back then, and the U street scene had a great vibe of young artists really inspired to take back the city. During those years in Moya, I worked with a lot of folks who were still coming up, and we really all saw how important it was to build a musical family.

One of my favorite stories from that era happened when a group of young students from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts booked us to come up with Raheem DeVaughn and perform, and we all piled into a van and drove up 95, played the show, and had a blast. It wasn't until years later, when I was in her band, that I realized that Alison Carney was the student who had booked the show!
One of the greatest things about DC is that we musicians really look out for each other and act as a large musical clan. We make it a point to even book cover band bar gigs so that we can just have some fun times jamming together while making a few bucks. The Sound of the City crew, Section 8, and the rest of us musical mercenaries (especially Mr. Turner on Bass, Aaron Hardin on keys, Robbie McDonald on guitar, Duane Payne on drums, Boogie Greer on percussion) keep each other working, and I count them all as good friends as well.

I wish I could list every artist that I have worked with, because they have all been such great talents. I know I would leave some people out, though....I'm gonna get an angry phone call from someone! But locally I work a lot with Alison Carney, Green Tea, Tamika Jones, Kenny Wesley, W. Ellington Felton, J. Hill, Midian, Jay Hayden....I also have worked as a writer/producer/creative partner with Teisha Marie, Ne'a Posey, Tamara this list is getting out of hand. Sorry y'all! Nationally I have been blessed to work with some great vocalists...people like Yahzarah, N'Dambi, Melanie Fiona, Russell Taylor, Abby Dobson, Geno Young....These are people for whom I have serious respect. Not only are they amazing singers, but their grind and hustle is inspiring!

Liberated Muse: Wow! That list is incredible. What is your musical muse? What inspires you to keep working within the industry?

Zach Cutler: Whew. Well, every time I play feels like my birthday. I always tell people that when you are a professional musician, the pay you earn is really for the time you spend driving and waiting around for sound check. Once you're on stage, it's all pleasure in my book. But the long term satisfaction comes from putting on a great record and feeling that bliss that only good music can provide....the kind where you find yourself cranking your car stereo and playing air drums! I hope somewhere someone plays some air guitar to one of my tunes!

Musically, I've always been a hardcore funkateer. My favorite three musical forces are P-Funk, The Meters, and James Brown. Put them on and I'm a happy dude. But I listen to a bit of everything. As a guitar teacher, my students expose me to new stuff all the time, and it makes me want to dig deeper to see what makes them feel that musical passion. So I find myself listening to these metal bands, or Taylor Swift, and people look at me like I'm crazy!

Liberated Muse: If you couldn't play music tomorrow and you had to change careers, what would you turn your efforts toward?

Zach Cutler: Well, I taught kindergarten and directed an after-school program for almost 8 years, so I do love teaching. In fact, it was a hard choice to give it up to become a full-time musician, but I was struggling being in the clubs at a gig until 3 am, and then facing a room of 25 six-year olds at 7am the next morning! I still give guitar lessons every day, and some of my students are former kindergarteners of mine. It's nice to stay in touch with the kid in me, too.

Liberated Muse: Name three artists you would love to work with and tell us why.
Zach Cutler: I think every soul music sideman would say Prince. He's the only one of my musical heroes who is still at the top of his game 25 years after making the hits that made him famous, and the musicianship in his live show is downright bananas.

The most recent artist who has blown me away is Janelle Monae. I think she's unique and phenomenal, and Nate Wonder produced the hell out of that record with some really organic sounds. I love that the album is impossible to categorize...I couldn't find it in the soul section in the record store; they had filed it under rock. It confuses and challenges people, and I think that's wonderful. Actually, my third choice is the guy whose musical spirit I think most encompasses what I love about music: Maceo Parker. Whenever her plays his alto sax, his tone, phrasing, and energy just overflow with pure *delight*. I mean, anyone who was the major icing on the cake for James Brown, P-Funk, and Prince obviously knows a special secret to soulfulness!

Liberated Muse: How do you think music can change the world for the better?

Zach Cutler: Music is superbly subversive in the best of ways. It can infiltrate a part of our psyche through our ears that we cannot control willingly. There is an awesome book written by a record producer-turned-neuroscientist called This is Your Brain On Music, that essentially states that there are aspects of how our brain processes music that have deep connections to other parts of our brain we associate with our "soul." That makes it a very powerful tool; so powerful I don't quite always understand how it effects me. I will tell you this: music has been an instrumental agent in helping me through every difficult time in my life, and that makes me want to understand it as much as possible. If I can help heal others the way music has healed me, then I will be a happy man.

Liberated Muse: Tell us something that probably few people know about you.

Zach Cutler: Hmmmm. Don't want to expose too many of my secrets! Let's see...When I was in college, I DJ'd an all-funk radio program at a community radio station, and I got to interview several of my heroes then, including Rick James! Rick actually gave a pretty hysterical interview (which I still have on cassette and need to digitally convert...), but he had a stroke only 5 hours after we hung up the phone! He lived for another 5 years after that, but I always felt guilty and responsible for asking the tough question. Don't worry Khadijah....I'm in good health! You won't do me like I did Rick!

Stay up with Zach:

on Twitter @zachcutler
on Gmail
on Facebook

-Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Khadijah is a writer based in the Washington DC metro area. Visit her online at

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