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.”
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.”
You probably haven’t heard of Husky before now. That’s because compared to most young musicians operating in this era of uninterrupted connectivity and non-stop self-promotion, the Australian quartet might as well have crafted their debut full-length somewhere atop the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. With its warm, acoustic timbres and carefully crafted songs, Forever So is the sound of a band that from its inception cared more about making one sublime album than acquiring a million followers on Twitter.
Front man Husky Gawenda and keyboard player Gideon Preiss are cousins who grew up together and discovered their love of music, together. Though the four band members have disparate tastes, their shared passion for classic sounds, rich harmonies, and artful songwriting points back to the artists they grew up on: Crosby Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Beach Boys. Yet while Gideon took easily to the life of the performing musician, playing in myriad bands throughout his teenage years, Gawenda, who spent years writing songs alone in his bedroom, shied away from the spotlight. “I was actually terrified of performing,” he admits. “It took a lot of will power to start singing my own songs in front of anybody, but I was determined to do it, because I always had the dream of playing music as my way of life.”
Augmented by bassist Evan Tweedie and drummer Luke Collins, whom Preiss met on the Melbourne music scene, the foursome began playing small local shows in late 2008. From the outset, the band’s primary goal was making a record that would bring their songs to full fruition. In a junk-filled bungalow behind Gawenda’s rented house, using borrowed equipment and siphoned electricity, they cobbled together a studio. “We ran all the cables through the garden and into a window,” says the singer. They used every corner of the little cottage—bathroom, kitchen, corridors—sometimes all at once; whatever it took to preserve the vibe of that unique time and place. That attention to ambience is audible in the judicious use of space throughout Forever So, allowing instruments and voices room to breath, echo and resonate.
The final result is a full-realized, long-playing album that holds up start-to-finish, from catchy opener “Tidal Wave,” with its hum-along harmonies and surprise psychedelic midsection, to the understated, intertwined brass parts that conclude “Farewell (in 3 Parts).” In the syncopated rhythms of “Hundred Dollar Suit” or the reverberating piano strings and laid back bass that underpin “The Woods,” you can sense fingers moving over instruments and lungs giving breath to voices, the unfolding of ephemeral ideas into fresh yet fully realized songs taking forth before your very ears.