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Below Tommi Zender’s name on the homepage of his website are the words “Multi-instrumentalist • Music Coach • Production/Arranging • Music Transcription.” It is pretty safe to say, then, that music is Tommi Zender’s life.
An Evanston native who returned to town 30 years ago after living away in the early part of the 1980s, Mr. Zender has been a longtime presence on the area music scene, performing at various regional music venues and putting out a handful of albums over the course of the last 20 years. His latest 2019 release, “More Songs About Time” (tommizender.com), which he considers to be his best, has been met with acclaim.
The RoundTable recently spoke with Mr. Zender about his life and his music.
Gregg Shapiro: Tommi, when did you move to Evanston?
Tommi Zender: I grew up here in the early to mid-to-late ’70s. I went through first to sixth grade at Oakton and Chute, and then I moved to California and Phoenix. I went to high school in Arizona rather than at Evanston Township High School. I’ve been back here essentially since 1989.
GS: What brought you back here?
TZ: Initially, my parents’ divorce. When I moved back in 1989 from Arizona, it was to attend Columbia College for music.
GS: Have you always lived in the same Evanston neighborhood?
TZ: Mostly southeast Evanston. I lived three to four years in Rogers Park in the early ’90s, and one year in a very unique north Evanston log cabin coach house. I bought my current home in southeast Evanston in 2004.
GS: What do you like best about your neighborhood?
TZ: I’m a couple blocks from the beach, located close enough to work in Chicago. I live by the largest undeveloped plot of land on the North Shore: the cemetery. So, it’s pretty quiet – give or take a few spirits.
GS: What do you like best about living in Evanston?
TZ: My home. After moving a record collection 13 out of 14 years back when I was renting, I’m blessed that for the past 15 years I haven’t had to do it again. It almost justifies the property taxes.
GS: At what age did you first pick up a guitar?
TZ: Age 8 1/2 in 1975. I started listening to music straight out of the womb. My parents used to put headphones on me in the crib to keep me from crying.
GS: Did you take lessons, or are you self-taught?
TZ: I took my first guitar lesson at Old Town School of Folk Music in 1975.
It was group lessons for a couple months, at a satellite location in Skokie on Main Street. I’ve had the best teachers in the world since then; many of them can be found in that record collection I mentioned.
GS: Speaking of lessons, you are a music coach. What can you tell me about that?
TZ: I have taught privately in Evanston and the surrounding area for a couple decades; guitar, and previously, drums as well. I’ve taught adult ensemble classes at Old Town School of Folk Music since 2011. For a few years I taught hobby guitar classes at Norris at Northwestern. I like helping others make music, and ultimately to help make it feel good, whether as a player or as a teacher. I do just as much performing and recording now as I do teaching, which is good for my musical growth.
GS: When did you start writing your own songs?
TZ: I began “making up” music at a very early age. I’d say I’ve been a “songwriter” for the last 20 years or so. I am arguably not prolific. I joke to people that they could put a comma or ellipsis marks in the middle of the title of my new record, “More Songs About Time.” I took 15 years between the last couple records. Part of that is because the songs had to ripen; the other part is I had to as well, so to speak.
GS: What is your opinion of the music scene and community in Evanston?
TZ: We often refer to it as a “bedroom community.” People don’t always go out for live music, and when they do, it’s often to Chicago. For a long time, there were no live music establishments. The ones that did pop up in the late ’90s/early 2000s didn’t make it very long. SPACE is the first truly special concert listening room since Amazing Grace. Jake Samuels, Kristen Mitchell and the others who run it are doing it right. I’m lucky I’ve been able to see really great shows near home, and present music at SPACE, including the release show for my new record last month. There are now many great restaurants in Evanston that serve beer, wine & cocktails, and some where you can hear live music. I’ll be playing at Wine Goddess in September, walking distance from my home. Squeezebox is a great independent record and book shop right down the street. Guitar Works is in the same block. Overall, the people in Evanston are nice people. It’s taken quite a while to live down the stigma of its being a “dry town” for so long. That’s changing, and that’s not to suggest everything is alcohol related—it’s not. The city, as a whole, is a nice place to live first; everything else is finally lightening up a bit.
GS: I can hear all sorts of power pop influences in the songs on your new solo album “More Songs About Time.” Would you mind naming some of the ones who have inspired you the most?
TZ: I kind of cringe at the term “power pop”, but I know what you mean. Some of our favorite music artists probably fall into the category of “unpopular pop.” I listen to so much music. Soul/R&B, jazz, rock/pop of both the hard and soft variety. Ambient music, classical, so-called world music, etc. I love many singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists. At this point in my musical life I’ve heard so much music that throwing out names of influences is stultifying. It gives too much weight to too few artists. It might sound cliché, but some of my favorite artists are people with whom I am lucky to play music and record. I hope after doing music for over four decades I’ve formed some distilled amalgamation of all my influences that is uniquely “me.”
GS: More Songs About Time received a rave review in a recent issue of Illinois Entertainer. What does that kind of reaction mean to you?
TZ: I’m always glad when a music fan really gets what I do. I feel like this new album is the best work I’ve done, so I’ll cherish it! The fact it’s right next to a review of a Paul McCartney record and the reviewer gave me a slightly higher rating is very flattering. As far as some Beatles-superfan friends of mine go, I may never live it down [laughs].
GS: I love the Capitol Records homage of the More Songs About Time label. Is Capitol your favorite label?
TZ: That came about more by accident. My art designer presented a black label option of which I mostly liked the typography and layout. I said “Wait, we can’t just have a black label against black vinyl…it needs a border to break it up, with a color.” Since the CD cover and the vinyl LP cover are different (purple haze versus green haze), she suggested melting the two colors together, and that ended up being suggestive of the classic Capitol Records label. The designer is in her mid-20s and doesn’t even have a record collection. So it wasn’t initially intentional, but I like it. I think growing up I always fantasized about being on Warner Brothers or A&M.
Tommi Zender will perform on Aug. 1 at Hyatt Centric on St. Clair in Chicago, Aug. 8 at Wishbone North in Chicago, and on Sept. 21 at Wine Goddess in Evanston.