Dennis DeYoung Guitarist August Zadra Charts His Own Course
"Guiding Star" by Zadra brings classic rock to a modern audience.
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It’s easy to root for a musician who has the courage to step out of the relative comfort of a group or band situation in order to put their own musical ideas out there. Putting one’s own name front and center on a collection of songs requires a great deal of nerve, because there’s no hiding from that spotlight. While there can be great satisfaction in releasing a solo album — and potentially great reward as well — the musician who goes it alone is taking a risk. They are risking their reputation, their standing with a record company, and the harsh criticism that no longer must be diffused among a group.
One musician who recently took that risk is guitarist/vocalist August Zadra, an Alaska native now based in Los Angeles, who just released his first solo album in February. The album, Guiding Star, came out under the project name Zadra, and it’s a record that will appeal to those who grew up listening to the classic rock bands of the mid to late 1970s.
Zadra was playing in a Styx tribute band when Dennis DeYoung was looking to make a change to his live band. Much like Journey guitarist Neil Schon found lead singer Arnel Pineda by watching YouTube videos of Journey tribute bands, DeYoung’s son Matt similarly came across Zadra’s Styx tribute band on YouTube while up late one night in December of 2009, just before Christmas. He had Dennis watch the video and that piqued his interest. Now Zadra plays the Tommy Shaw role when DeYoung performs Styx material, as he has for the last 12 years.
“That was December 22nd. On the 23rd I talked to Dennis’ manager for about 45 minutes. We had a great conversation,” Zadra said. “I said, ‘Well, what’s next?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll talk to Dennis. If he’s interested, you’ll hear from him.’ Next morning, he calls, and it was pretty exciting.”
Zadra had plans for New Year’s and was unavailable until January 2. DeYoung sent a plane ticket for the next day and the guitarist flew to meet the rock legend. DeYoung wanted to be sure the man he saw playing guitar in the video and singing Shaw’s lead vocal parts would be a good fit.
“He said, ‘I want to make sure that that guy I'm seeing is actually you, and you can make that sound, and between the two of us, we sound good together,’” Zadra said. “And so, we sat down at his piano bench, and I choked famously on the first two attempts on ‘Lady.’ It was 10:30 in the morning, 8:30 L.A. time. Nobody sings that early except Dennis. And the first two were terrible, and he was looking like, ‘God I made a mistake flying this kid out here.’ And the third time it was nice, and it just took off from there. And, you know, 12 years later, here we are. And the last 10 years, before COVID, we were doing anywhere from 45 to 65 shows a year, and it’s been an amazing experience for me.”
In 2018, Zadra was contacted by Frontiers Music about doing a solo record with multi-instrumentalist and Frontiers in-house producer Alessandro Del Vecchio. The Italian label casts a wide net when it comes to musicians who specialize in hard rock, AOR, and power, symphonic, and progressive metal. It signs a lot of artists, puts out the best product it can, and then pours more resources — such as touring funding — behind those artists who do well.
At that time, Zadra wasn’t ready to commit to going solo just yet.
“I felt like at that point, I still wasn't really sure what I wanted to do as an artist, especially specifically with singing,” he said. “I couldn't decide who I wanted to be yet. And I didn't want to come out as a Tommy Shaw clone on record. I'm in that role. I'm doing a job. I love Tommy's voice, and he's got a better, cleaner, higher voice than me. I'm just trying to do a job with just the most respect and passion that I can bring to that that gig. But I wanted to have my own voice and (was) trying to come up with what that actually meant to me.”
Around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Zadra took Frontiers up on the offer. He had a Zoom call with Del Vecchio to discuss what songs and pieces of songs he had already written as a starting point for what eventually became Guiding Star.
“I told Frontiers originally, I’ll never tell you that I’m a great songwriter that will give you an idea from start to finish, done. I have several of those. But, like a lot of guitar players, I’m more of a ‘well, here’s a riff I have. I’ve got this great intro and I don’t know what to do with it. Can you help me piece these together?’ And that’s where Alessandro was instrumental — bad pun. He’s a prolific writer. He’s got a knack for knowing what works best for different artists. He brought some things to me that then we ended up collaborating on and changing around, and it was a great process.”
In addition to producing and doing some of the writing, Del Vecchio contributed bass, keyboards, and backing vocals across the album and provided additional rhythm guitar on “Won’t Let Your Love Take Me Down.” Zadra also enlisted the help of talented vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, a friend and musician he knows well from the L.A. scene. Soto provided backing vocals on all but one song on Guiding Star (“Come Back to Me”) and wrote some lyrics. Jelly Cardarelli played drums on Guiding Star. Jimmy Leahey contributed acoustic guitar on “A Matter of Yesterday.” Additional rhythm guitar parts were contributed by Andrea Seveso (“Won’t Let Your Love Take Me Down”) and Martin Jepsen Andersen (“Escape the Rain”). Additional keyboard contributions came from Guillermo De Medio, Pete Alpenborg, and Jan Akesson. And DeYoung made a guest appearance on the record, providing a killer keyboard solo on “Take My Hand.”
“That was a thrill, because I played on his records, but to have him play on mine, that was a big moment for me,” Zadra said.
Guiding Star begins with “Come Together,” a short, uplifting piece with fantastic, soaring harmony vocals by Zadra, Del Vecchio, and Soto. It’s a song inviting music lovers to reintegrate in celebration after so much time alone during the pandemic.
Looking at you I feel the magic’s return
Embrace the power as we celebrate together
Lift up your voices, make a sound of joy
Music will heal what isolation has destroyed.
“It's a three-part harmony, but I think that we each sang each part,” Zadra said. “So, essentially it's a three-part harmony with nine voices.”
The song closes with some various vocalizations of “ohhh” and “da-dee-da-dee-da” jumping left and right in the stereo mix, making for an interesting headphone listening experience.
“Nothing More to Say” is a mid-tempo rock track with an emotional vocal performance and soaring lead guitar. There are a lot of small parts taking place but I found it to be an atmospheric song with plenty of space to breathe despite the various vocal bits, keyboard washes, guitar, drums, and bass.
“I noodled all over the thing, the front and the back of the song,” Zadra said about “Nothing More to Say.” “And then Alessandro in the production role was like, ‘Cut that out, cut that out.’ And so, when he sent it back to me, the first mix, I’m like ‘Where's the guitar?’ He said, ‘Well, it doesn't need it there. Let's set the vibe of the song, bring you in on bar three rather than bar one, let it breathe for a second.’ And those are things where (it’s good) having someone else to collaborate with, or a producer that can bring another opinion and make executive decisions in this case that were smarter than what I would have done on my own.”
One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Ship of Fools,” with its gorgeous guitar solo, which is brilliantly doubled in the back half. The cadence of some of the vocal lines reminds me of “Play the Game Tonight” by Kansas, although it’s melodically different, and there are hints of Journey stylistically, but the solo is something else entirely, and it works perfectly.
“Michael Schenker,” said Zadra when asked about the inspiration for the guitar solo. “That's exactly what I was feeling on this song, was that Schenker vibe and I love him. He's the king of melody. He and Neil (Schon), in a similar way, have chops for days, and they can play these super fast technical things, but they also have a great ear for melody. But it would have been too far to use a wah-wah pedal on that one, too Michael-ish, but that's where I was going for sure.”
Some of the album’s best drumming from Cardarelli takes place on “Come Back to Me,” another Journey-esque song with interesting tempo changes. While I would have liked a thicker drum sound on it, perhaps the thinking was that it would have been too overpowering. Cardarelli puts his talent on full display on this song.
“Escape the Rain” is a catchy song that sounds to me like it has some Survivor influence and it has another of the album’s best guitar solos. Zadra scorches through a solo that tonally sounds like Dokken’s George Lynch but Zadra said that stylistically he was paying tribute to another famous hair metal guitarist.
“From a guitar point of view, I would say that was probably Warren DeMartini from Ratt coming out,” he said. “That’s kind of the vibe I was (going for).”
In addition to having a memorable chorus, the song has a positive message which was an intention of Zadra’s throughout the record.
“I wanted to have stuff that was — not motivational, so to speak, but just at least inspiring and encouraging and uplifting,” he said.
The tempo changes with “A Matter of Yesterday,” which is a bit of a power ballad with some lovely keyboard work and exquisite harmony vocals. Another thing that sets this song apart is the acoustic guitar work by Jimmy Leahey, who is another member of DeYoung’s live band.
“Jimmy is one of the greatest acoustic players on the planet in my mind. I said, ‘Take this ball and run with it.’ And he did a masterful job,” Zadra said. “He actually came up with a new tuning to create one of the voicings on the song to match the keyboards better. He's just brilliant. And what he brought to this kind of gave it almost a folksy, minstrel kind of vibe.”
The song presented one of the bigger vocal challenges for Zadra on the album. He wasn’t happy with the initial vocal he laid down for the song, so he went back and re-recorded some of the vocals after getting a better feel for it. Zadra said he still wasn’t completely happy with the vocal and has an idea of how he can do it better if he gets to take the album out on the road.
The title of the song “I’ll Meet You in Heaven” instantly begs the question, Who is this about? Upon hearing this song of loss a couple of times, I’d decided it might not be a romantic interest being addressed in the story. Perhaps it was a close friend or a mentor of some type? Wrong.
“It might spoil the song,” Zadra said with a laugh. “It’s about my dog. Kind of the goal with things like that is trying to have somewhat of a universal appeal, but not make it sappy.”
Zadra channels Schon with a smooth guitar intro. A bit of crunchy rhythm comes in before the vocal starts. The message is uplifting rather than sad, with talk of the story having no end. There are little quirks that hint about the subject not being a person. Zadra sings about “missing the sound of you,” rather than “missing the sound of your voice,” for example. Lyrically, the song can easily still work with a person in mind.
“Take My Hand” is the most overtly Styx-sounding song on the album and some of that owes to an incredible guest keyboard solo by DeYoung. It’s instantly identifiable as the longtime Styx front man. But it’s not the only Styx-ish feature of the song. Like many Styx songs, it starts gently and then kicks into a rocking phase. There are moments in “Take My Hand” where Zadra’s vocals stray close to his Tommy Shaw mimicry for his gigs with DeYoung. There are also some harmony vocals that are reminiscent of what Styx has done in the past.
Zadra said that he initially had a good keyboard solo from Del Vecchio but he had DeYoung in mind. He brought up the subject during a phone call with him.
“While we're on the phone, I'm kind of working up my courage towards the end,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, you know, I'm in the middle of this recording project.’ And I said, ‘What's your rate for doing a backing vocal, or maybe even a keyboard solo?’ And without hesitation, he said ‘August, we'll take it out of the money you didn't make playing for me this year.’”
Zadra said it took some time to get the solo back from DeYoung, but it was well worth the wait. It’s a solo worthy of those on the best of the classic Styx albums and it fits the song perfectly. It helps make the well-written “Take My Hand” one of the album’s highlights.
One of Zadra’s nicer vocal performances is on the mid-tempo ballad “Dream of You,” which starts a bit like one of Toto’s slower numbers. The song is juxtaposed nicely with the crunchy guitar riff of the next song, “Won’t Let Your Love Take Me Down,” one of the hardest-rocking tracks on the album. Zadra shows off his guitar heroics on the song but in a way that services the song. But it’s that riff that really hooks the listener, pulling them into the song.
“That riff came from me sitting in my room with the fairly new Fractal AX8 (an amp modeler and effects pedalboard processor) that I had,” Zadra said. “And a lot of times a new piece of gear will inspire a riff. On my sound file it was just called ‘F sharp rock riff,’ but it's a good one.”
Album closer “Rise from the Fire” sounds like Journey, Toto, and Survivor were thrown into a blender, creating something surprisingly smooth and tasty. Another standout solo highlights the song, leading into a doubled guitar part just before the song draws to a close with a harmony vocal reminiscent of album opener “Come Together.” It serves to bring Guiding Star full circle and, at the same time, makes the listener want to play the album again from the beginning.
Despite the fact that I’ve namechecked several classic bands from the 1970s and 80s in this newsletter, Guiding Star isn’t an album of that era. It’s clear that a great deal of care went into making the record and Del Vecchio is a gifted producer. The album sounds fresh and modern, but in a classic style that will please fans of the great bands from that earlier era who inspired it.
Zadra’s influences read like a who’s who of the best classic rock bands.
“I always think about the the golden age of music, for me, was probably 76 to 80 roughly,” he said. “For me, it was Boston, Styx, Kansas, Foreigner, Journey…I'm leaving out a few, I'm sure, but those were the main ones and I mean, that is just brilliant music. I also always say, ‘You are what you eat,’ and a lot of times we, as musicians, were influenced by the others who came before us, and that definitely informs your style.”
Zadra said he developed as a guitarist long before he did as a vocalist. Over the course of an hour-long interview, he talked about many disparate guitarists who influenced him, including Peter Frampton, who he singled out first due to Frampton Comes Alive. He mentioned Ace Frehley, Alex Lifeson, Gary Moore, Randy Rhoads, George Lynch, John Sykes, Michael Schenker, Neil Schon, and David Gilmour. And, of course, there’s the guitar icon himself.
“Eddie Van Halen was not a huge influence on me directly. But I think anybody who doesn't acknowledge his impact on their playing that's come out in the last 40 years, they're lying,” he said.
As a singer, there were many voices that have spoken to Zadra over the years and impacted what ultimately became his style.
“There were a lot of singers who I love. Let's just say Brad Delp, Steve Perry…I knew I could never sing that high,” he said. “You know, I really admired what they do. Rik Emmett (of Triumph) is another favorite of mine. But for things that were more relatable to me, it was kind of Lou Gramm, Steve Walsh, and I love Joe Lynn Turner. So I had a big three. I think that might be it.”
With the influences Zadra cites and his obvious talent, it’s no wonder his debut solo release is such a strong record. It will be fun to see where he goes next, but for now, it’s enough to simply enjoy Guiding Star.
There is an official Zadra website in the works, but for now you can learn more about August’s work and enjoy his weekly live Acoustic Happy Hour Hang (or “AHHH”) each Friday by checking out his Facebook page. You can order Guiding Star digitally from most online outlets and the CD is available on Amazon. The exclusive white vinyl version of Guiding Star is available only at the Frontiers online store (and you can save 10% on orders by signing up for their email newsletter when you visit).
For my full interview with August Zadra, including his first favorite record, some general discussion about the music that stays with a person their whole life, the classic bands and guitarists who inspire him, and more, check out the video below.
Thank you for reading MRC. I’d be much obliged if you’d share this newsletter or this story with a music lover in your life.