Brazilian Vocalist Renan Zonta's Got Skills
The former The Voice Brazil contestant fronts an all-star band for new album, "Different Worlds."
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I know these newsletters typically reach your email on Thursdays, but this week was a bit of a scramble with some scheduling issues and even though (thankfully) no one canceled, there were several interviews that requested a reschedule.
My interview with Renan Zonta took place on its scheduled day and time but due to others moving around a bit, this one ended up moving up in the queue. I had a great discussion with Renan about his brand new endeavor, Skills, which is the latest ‘supergroup’ from Frontiers Music.
Let’s get to that story.
Brazilian vocalist Renan Zonta has had an interesting career. His popularity in his home country skyrocketed when he appeared on The Voice Brazil, where he reached the quarterfinals and was asked to sing at the final as a guest.
“It changed my whole life, because when I when I entered the show, I was just a farm boy singer from a small town in Brazil, and nobody knew me at all,” Zonta said. “And I came to the show and to the stage and I was like, ‘Okay, I'm gonna sing rock and roll music right now. My name is Renan, and I'm gonna sing some AC/DC for you. Thank you.’ You know, very shy, and I didn't know what to expect. But as soon as I was on the show, everybody sent me so much love and so much support that I wasn't expecting at all. And it changed my whole life and my whole perspective of what it is to be a professional artist, you know? And since then, I try my best to please people with my voice.”
Zonta’s band, Electric Mob, was looking for a record deal and, while finishing up the band’s second independently produced EP, they sent out songs, videos, and band information to various record companies. One of those was Frontiers Music. Electric Mob was quickly signed to a five-album deal on Frontiers and Zonta’s voice in particular drew the attention of Frontiers President and A&R Director Serafino Perugino.
Electric Mob released the first of those five albums, Discharged, in 2020
Perugino often likes to create new bands and projects among his stable of performers. Being a fan of Zonta’s voice, Perugino paired him up with fellow Brazilian vocalist Nando Fernandes to perform as a duet for a power metal project called Brother Against Brother, which Frontiers released in June of 2021. Zonta jumped at the chance to work with Fernandes, who is known as the “Brazilian Dio” in his country.
But that wasn’t the only project Perugino had for Zonta. In 2020 he asked Zonta if he was interested in singing in a hard rock supergroup. The timing wasn’t great for Zonta and he wasn’t sure about taking on another project at the time.
What Zonta didn’t know was the caliber of the musicians with whom Perugino was going to partner him. Guitarist Brad Gillis (Night Ranger), bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, Winery Dogs, Sons of Apollo), and David Huff (Giant) were chosen to round out the group that became known as Skills — a name chosen for obvious reasons.
“I was kind of skeptical and kind of hesitating a bit because I was in the beginning in the writing process for Electric Mob’s new album,” Zonta said. “I didn’t want to mix things and I didn’t want to spoil anything. I said, ‘Let me see what you’ve got and let's talk a bit more about it.’ And a few days later, he emailed me saying that Brad, Billy, and David were on board and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I gotta do it.’ And that was pretty much it.”
The band worked remotely through the pandemic and have still never all been in the same room together. Multi-instrumentalist, writer, and producer Alessandro Del Vecchio provided additional assistance in various capacities, including backing vocals and keyboards. He also wrote much of the material for the debut album, Different Worlds, which came out on May 13.
Night Ranger fans will likely enjoy the album, although the songs don’t sound much like Night Ranger. Gillis uses some of his signature sounds on the album but for the most part, he plays a bit different tonally on Different Worlds. Sheehan and Huff combine to create a killer rhythm section.
In addition to Del Vecchio and Zonta, Martin Jepsen Andersen, Pete Alpenborg, Gui Oliver and other writers worked on the 11 songs that ended up on Different Worlds. Despite so many writers working on the record, the result sounds cohesive and the songs hold together snugly with one another, giving the album a consistent feel throughout.
“We collaborated a lot,” Zonta said. “Alessandro — he's a fucking machine. He writes so much stuff, and so much great stuff. And he sent me a lot of demos with lyrics and melodies and everything, and some of them weren't finished. So, I gave my input and wrote melodies and lyrics for, I think, three songs on the album. Yeah, a lot of songwriters involved. Lots of very talented people. And you're gonna see the result with the album.”
The entire album came together in about six months from start to finish. After the songwriting process, the band members recorded their parts in their home studios. Zonta got the music files so he could add his vocals and he admits he was feeling some pressure.
“I was very, very nervous because I had to deliver,” he said. “You know, all eyes on me because I'm the nobody in this band. So, I had to do my best to fill these shoes, you know, as a frontman for such big names. But I'm very happy with what I did. And I was very true to myself, to my singing, and to my soul. So, I'm all about that — the real thing, you know, real voice and real rock'n'roll, real representation of what I am, and I just did it.”
That he did.
Zonta’s contributions to the record are outstanding and he doesn’t stick out as the so-called ‘nobody’ of the group. Rather, he makes Skills his own band throughout the record with his range, power, and emotion, depending on what the song requires — sometimes all at the same time.
That isn’t to say the musicians Zonta recorded with aren’t leaving their marks. Different Worlds is simultaneously a great guitar, bass, and drum record. Del Vecchio’s piano and synth work are also huge parts of the sound, as well as the layered backing vocals. The whole thing holds together as cohesively as if the band had holed up in a studio for months, writing and recording the album together.
Renan, who grew up listening to albums like Iron Maiden’s Killers and MTV Unplugged by KISS, is leaving his mark on the melodic hard rock world while playing with guys who produced some of the best music of that genre.
The album delivers, right from the pulsating opener, “Escape Machine,” driven by Sheehan’s bass and Huff’s drumming, with Zonta belting out the lyrics with the confidence of a young David Coverdale. In fact, if you mixed Coverdale’s voice together with Steven Tyler’s, you might get a sound that’s something like Zonta’s voice.
Fans of hard, melodic rock will have plenty to keep them happy across these 11 songs.
“Blame It on the Night,” one of the three singles released so far from Different Worlds, ratchets up the energy to 11. Gillis provides some gritty guitar runs and plays along with Zonta’s vocal melody near the end in this breathless, three-minute dash of a song. It’s the first of two songs that stand out on the album in Zonta’s mind.
“I think it’s a kick-ass tune,” he said.
The classic rock-style title track follows, giving listeners the chance to catch their breath. The song begins as a mid-tempo song but picks up the pace a bit — not quite to the level of “Blame It on the Night.”
“Losing the Track,” the second of Zonta’s two favorites on the album, starts with a deeper vocal line, keyboards from Del Vecchio, and guitar flourishes from Gillis. It settles into a mid-tempo song. Zonta turns in one of his better performances and the backing vocals provide a richer depth to the song.
”I think it's so, so, so powerful and meaningful,” Zonta said. “The lyrics are great and the melodies are killer.”
“Writings on the Wall” features perhaps Gillis’ best solo on the record, as well as plenty of catchy hooks.
The song “Show Me the Way” provides a little variation in that it starts out with a wonderful acoustic guitar part before kicking into another standout Gillis electric guitar section. A lot of intricate things are going on below the surface in what is otherwise a fairly standard melodic rock song. It’s those little, intricate bits sprinkled throughout that set Skills apart from other bands exploring the same musical space.
No melodic rock album is complete without a power ballad. “Just When I Needed You” fits the bill nicely. One of the album’s singles, it includes some of Gillis’ patented guitar wizardry, some low-end crunch, and additional layers of depth and atmosphere provided by Del Vecchio’s keyboard work. If I’m picking a favorite performance from Zonta and maybe a favorite track, “Just When I Needed You” might be the one.
The best song intro on the album might belong to “Need to Fall.” Gillis is a ridiculously good player but always seems to provide something more catchy than flashy. Those unfamiliar with Giant’s music might be caught off guard by how good Huff’s drumming is, and this song provides a good example of his playing.
“Stop the World” is another of the album’s singles with its accessible opening riffs. It’s a melodic whirl of top-notch vocals (lead and backing), keyboard chords, and crunchy guitar beneath highlighted flourishes, all on top of a driving bass and drum bed.
Keyboards that sound like a cross between Boston and Deep Purple are my favorite sound at the beginning of “Hearts of Stone,” but that quickly gives way to Gillis’ stellar guitar work. Listeners will either bob their head or tap their foot to this one, according to their usual way of expressing satisfaction.
The album closes with “Don’t Break My Heart,” which begins with an incredible wailing vocal by Zonta. That in-your-face opening gives way to an atmospheric verse section before the band kicks in fully for the chorus.
The songs on the album provide enough variety to avoid the ‘sameyness’ that can plague this kind of music. The parts are considerable, yet they meld together so well that the seams don’t show. The hooks reveal themselves more on repeat listens, which is the sign of a good album.
Skills is both the name of the band and what the individual players show — but not just individual skill. That’s in there, of course, but no one really showboats on Different Worlds. The songs are served well by the parts the musicians play. If Gillis provides a little more flair at times, it’s only because he’s called upon to provide the solos. He never shows off for showing off’s sake.
I recommend this album to melodic hard rock fans without reservation. This is sure to be one I revisit all year long and a good bet to make many end-of-year “best of” lists in 2022.
Different Worlds is available at all the usual digital download sites, on CD at major retailers, and on limited-edition white marble vinyl LP exclusively at the Frontiers webshop).
Blame It On The Night
Losing The Track
Writings On The Wall
Show Me The Way
Just When I Needed You
Need To Fall
Stop The World
Hearts Of Stone
Don't Break My Heart
For my complete conversation with Renan, check out the video below. In addition to Skills, he discusses his time on The Voice Brazil, his background, the making of Different Worlds, and a whole lot more.
Thanks again for your time. Please consider sharing this issue of the newsletter with the first button below, or sharing Michael’s Record Collection with the second. And be sure to check out the podcast version at your favorite podcast dispensary. Feel free to visit michaelsrecordcollection.com and my Patreon site at patreon.com/michaelsrecordcollection to find out how you can support independent writing and podcasting for as little as $2 per month.