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From the basement to Hollywood

Local teen uses crowd funding to cut a professionally recorded EP

Singing into a microphone in a vocal booth at Through the Air Studios in Hollywood definitely represented a change of pace for Los Altos singer-songwriter Zach Gospe. Then 17 years old and more accustomed to recording his songs in front of a camera in his bedroom, Gospe found that keeping himself stationary and his pitch as precise as possible was demanding.

"You can't move your head away from the microphone and you can't breathe into it in certain ways," Gospe said. "There are a lot of very specific things because you want to have a very good vocal take that is close to the melody."

It was a challenge that Gospe, who turned 18 in June, learned to conquer as he recorded "New Horizons," his first professionally produced extended play (EP). Gospe and his best friend and manager, Riley Soward, are now promoting this seven-track endeavor ahead of its scheduled July 10 release.

The prospect of recording the EP came by chance when Gospe and Soward attended the West Coast Songwriter's Conference at Foothill College last September. At the conference, Soward recognized Mark Mazzetti, the head of Record Company in a Box and an A&R executive. Soward introduced himself to Mazzetti and gave him a copy of "Live at Midnight," an EP that Gospe recorded live at his home. Mazzetti, who has worked with John Mayer and Elton John, came away impressed by Gospe's songwriting ability and distinctive voice.

"I loved the freshness of the songs and the way he was constructing the songs," Mazzetti said. "He didn't sound like anybody else."

Shortly after meeting Soward, Mazzetti contacted Gospe, and they began to discuss the prospect of recording an EP in a professional studio. Gospe and Soward needed $10,000 to make it happen. They turned to Kickstarter, the fundraising web service. "There are only a couple of paths you can take when you're 17 years old and you need $10,000," Gospe said. "Kickstarter seemed very streamlined and seemed like the best way to go."

They raised more than enough funds to record the EP.

During the Kickstarter campaign, which ran from early November to early December, Gospe began working with Mazzetti to write lyrics and craft melodies. Over Skype, Mazzetti advised Gospe to try to maintain his personal style and appeal to mainstream listeners at the same time.

"It's a very tough balance to see when you're just one person, so I'm very grateful that Mark was there to help me with that," Gospe said.

As the Kickstarter campaign reached its conclusion, Mazzetti began helping Gospe arrange the instrumentation of his songs. Gospe's previous work involved only a guitar and vocals; Mazzetti felt Gospe's songs could use additional instruments. "We thought he should have a band sound except when he didn't need it," Mazzetti said. "Once he wrote those songs, they all seemed to me and Zach and Riley like they needed support."

They occasionally substituted a piano for Gospe's preferred guitar; Mazzetti felt that change, combined with Gospe's soft, relatively high-pitched voice, cemented a strong similarity between Gospe's work and that of what he called "a young Elton John."

The process culminated in February with a week-long recording session in Hollywood, where Gospe, Mazzetti and others finished up the arrangements and recorded Gospe's vocals along with other instruments. Four months later, Gospe, Soward and Mazzetti have begun to market the EP. Gospe's work is already gaining notice. Two songs from the EP, lead single "Whatever Happens" and "Alleyways," earned airplay on University of California at Berkeley's official radio station, KALX; the former song, the EP's lead single, has already received a nomination for Best Pop Song from the Hollywood Music in Media Awards.

Soward has been pushing to establish a greater online presence for Gospe. "We're trying to get on as many social platforms as possible and have his music available on as many streams as possible," Soward said. He said he hopes Gospe's EP garners interest from music industry professionals who can provide further opportunities.

Gospe recently held an acoustic concert at his house for his Kickstarter donors, briefly touching on his past songs before moving on to new tracks from the EP.

Attendees noted the strides Gospe made over the course of his EP's development and compared him with established stars. "Zach's new music is livelier, and the meaning of the songs is more apparent," neighbor Estella Bonifacio said. "He reminds me of a young James Taylor before he lost all his hair."

Others, like Laura Mori, likened his music to that of Jason Mraz. "I think Zach has such an original voice," Mori said. "I like his songs."

Both Gospe and Soward graduated from Los Altos High School in early June. This fall, Gospe will head to Nashville to attend Tennessee's Vanderbilt University, more than 1,000 miles away from Soward's school of choice, Boston College. Gospe and Soward plan to maintain their musician-manager partnership, but they aren't certain how deeply they'll pursue careers in the music industry. "A lot of it depends on how well this EP does," Gospe said. "At this point we're just going to do as much as we possibly can now and see where it goes."

Gospe's next performances will be at 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 15, at Angelica's Bistro at 863 Main St. in Redwood City, and at 6 p.m Friday, July 25, at the Crowne Plaza hotel at 4290 El Camino Real in Palo Alto. More information is at zachgospe.com.

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