Zen Thomas: “Talent can only get you so far”

Talent can only get you so far. You hear so many stories about your idols playing at a coffee shop and boom the right guy was there and now they’re an international star. In a perfect world that is amazing, but the music industry is so much more than just talent. You can be the […]

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Talent can only get you so far. You hear so many stories about your idols playing at a coffee shop and boom the right guy was there and now they’re an international star. In a perfect world that is amazing, but the music industry is so much more than just talent. You can be the greatest singer in the world, but you also have to be a hard worker and be ready for the struggles that come with this life.

As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Zen Thomas.

At 18 years old, Zen Thomas had just graduated from high school when he decided to move cross-country to LA in pursuit of his music career. He started in Santa Monica as a street musician, which turned into a full-time gig for 3 years. During this time, he went viral for his live performance of a Sam Smith cover, garnering over 1M views on YouTube. Passionate about sharing his art through his unique instrumentation and powerful lyrics, Zen Thomas is an independent pop artist who has now defined his own musical lane. He draws inspiration from the likes of Maroon 5, Prince, Queen and the 1975. With his soulful raspy voice, rock guitar riffs, and meaningful messages, Zen Thomas is on the rise and only going to the top from here. Now, 23-years-old, Zen is living the LA lifestyle as a full time Musician, Writer, Producer, and most importantly, Performer. Zen has been currently working in the studio with the music producer AJ Jenkins. AJ has worked with artists such as Jordin Sparks, Elijah Blake, KJ-52, Jason Derulo, Raven-Symone and more.

Based out of Los Angeles, Zen Thomas regularly performs at Hotel Cafe, The Peppermint Club, The Study, City Walk Main Stage and more venues in Los Angeles. By the end of 2020, Zen’s music had over 300,000 streams on Spotify. Zen’s sophomore EP ‘Moonlight’ is set to release this summer! ‘Moonlight’ was created in the last unprecedented year. These tracks allow listeners to acknowledge the disarray in life while also allowing them to find the light through it all.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Thank you so much for having me! The story of how I grew up to me is honestly hilarious because it’s a little ridiculous when I really think about it. My parents got divorced when I was 3 so I never grew up with them together for as long as I can remember. Both my parents got re-married and both my step parents I see as real parents. So, I’ve basically been blessed with 4 amazing parents. I mainly grew up with my mom who is the hardest worker I’ve ever known. She was a photographer/hostess, and my Father was a tattoo artist, so I was always surrounded by the arts in some way. I also have an older sister and 2 younger siblings who are my favorite people in this world. I do everything I do in my life for my family and loved ones. Okay, okay now let’s get to school, growing up in the New Jersey public school system was very interesting to say the least. I never exactly fit in where I lived. Music and the arts weren’t really looked at in a meaningful way, more so seen as a hobby. My parents though never saw it that way, they are the best when it comes to being supportive. Every single person in my life told me to not do music, except for my family. High school was especially tough for me just because I’ve never felt so alone. I was this long -haired skinny kid who wanted to sing and shred guitar solos. Once I joined my school’s music department junior year (I was turned down my freshman year) is when things started to turn around for me. Doing musicals and singing in choruses wasn’t exactly how I saw myself, but it opened so many doors for me.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

So my dad is a musician. He was always in bands and always writing songs. But if you ask my mom the reason I’m a musician, she’ll say it’s because when she was pregnant with me, she went to a John Cougar Mellencamp concert. Music was always what made me feel normal. I wish I could give you one specific reasoning as to why I chose music, but I don’t have just one. It’s in my blood; it’s who I am. When was 4 years old, I sang the national anthem at my Pre-K graduation. When I was 6, I won my first karaoke contest. When I was 2, I learned all the words to Teenage Wasteland by The Who because it was in A Bugs Life. In a way, this career path was just handed to me from the start.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

What comes to mind is the way I met my managers. I lived on the 6th floor of an apartment building and I would take the elevator to my car every morning to go street performing. The acoustics in the elevator were amazing so I would always sing when I got in it. One day I’m singing in the elevator and while the door is closing a man throws his arm in to stop the elevator from leaving and asks, “was that you singing?”. I said yes and he gave me his card and asked me to go to his studio that night. I was 19 and super excited, I went and worked all day and went straight to the studio after where I met him and some of his friends writing songs. He invited me back the next few days where he introduced me to these two women. He said “sing something for them” so I did even though I wasn’t prepared or even had a guitar. 3 years later those women are still my managers.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Okay I tell this story all the time because it’s hilarious. When I was 15, I was a part of a battle of the bands contest to play at this big festival in New Jersey called Bamboozle. Me and my band couldn’t wait, we practiced for weeks and were sure we were going to be great. Well right before the show I bought a new wireless guitar system so that I could run around the stage. We start the show and it’s going great. Midway into the concert I was having the best time and thought “I should jump into the crowd during my solo and run around”. Well, I did that and the second I hit the ground my wireless system fell to the ground and the batteries fell out. So now I’m just a kid with a guitar that doesn’t work in the middle of the crowd. Now mid song, I have to walk up onto the stage and plug everything in front of everyone. It was pretty embarrassing. I would say the lesson I learned from that show is to always be prepared at your performances but also to understand that people mess up. You’re going to have shows where you mess up, and that’s okay because messing up is what better prepares you for the next show. Everything that happens is a learning experience.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Currently the most exciting project I’m working on is my new EP “Moonlight” That comes out in August. I spent quarantine feeling very alone and unsure of myself and wanted to capture that feeling in my own way. I believe that music can do one of two things. 1: Bring an experience or emotion to a listener without having that listener have experienced that place or emotion. Basically like if I wrote a song about going to Mount Everest, I would hope while you listen to it, you’d have that amazing feeling in your body and mind similar to someone actually going to Mount Everest, or a song about heartbreak makes the listener feel the intensity of that heartbreak without actually experiencing it themselves. 2: I think at its base level music is supposed to give people a break, have a fun time for the next three minutes. That’s what I try to do with my live shows. No matter what is going on in somebody’s life, I hope that at my show I give them at least 45 minutes of just pure happiness and fun. My EP Moonlight I believe gives the listener one of those two feelings, and that makes me so excited.

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Art is the greatest way to express every point of view there is. Diversity is what makes art great. It’s the ability to feel and understand someone’s struggles even if you have never experienced it yourself. Art has the power to put you in somebody else’s shoes and see their life from their eyes. Without diversity, art would be boring and repetitive.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Talent can only get you so far. You hear so many stories about your idols playing at a coffee shop and boom the right guy was there and now they’re an international star. In a perfect world that is amazing, but the music industry is so much more than just talent. You can be the greatest singer in the world, but you also have to be a hard worker and be ready for the struggles that come with this life.
  2. Learn how to take criticism. What gets you ahead in this industry, I’ve learned, is you have to be able to know when you’re wrong. When other people know more than you and when to trust them because you don’t know everything.
  3. Trust yourself. These last 2 go hand in hand. Of course, it’s important to listen to others, but you also have to know when to stick up for yourself. When you truly feel in your soul that you know what you’re doing. Believe in yourself and take chances that are scary.
  4. Have fun. This one seems simple and it’s all I wanted to do when I first started my career, but down the road you forget that you’re making music because you love it. Yes I want to tour the world and get signed and make lots of money, but at the end of the day, remember that the main reason someone chooses music is because they love it, and its who they are. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
  5. Most importantly, it’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to rest. Sometimes as a full-time musician you forget that you don’t have hours. We forget that we don’t have a normal 9–5 job, so we assume that we have to work 24/7. Yes you should absolutely work as much as you can and as hard as you can, but sometimes taking a break is working. I’ve written some of my favorite songs ever after taking a break and refreshing my mind.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take everything one day at a time and never give up. The music industry is ruthless no matter who you are. As long as you believe in yourself and your vision and you fight for it, you will figure it out. Also just have more fun. I feel like a lot of artists get so into the work that they forget it’s supposed to be a blast.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’ve always wanted to be an advocate for mental health. I have struggled with depression and anxiety in my life and the best way to heal from it that I’ve learned is to know that you’re not alone in your struggles. To know that there are people who are there for you no matter what, and that they want to help.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’d have to thank my Mom. I’m such a mama’s boy. My mom has helped and supported me in my life every single step of the way. She’s an Italian woman from New Jersey, so she has her own way of saying it but nobody else has ever made me feel better about my choices. Plus, she brags about me to all her friends. I have to also throw in my dog for making sure I go outside and play every once in a while.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

So when I first started my career in LA, I was stubborn and alone in LA and did not want a “real” job. I had to figure out how to make money doing music, so I started street performing in Santa Monica for 4 hours per day, 5 days per week for 3 years. My favorite memory of street performing is when I first started, my dad came to LA and wanted to watch. I performed for about 2 hours, and I started taking out all the pennies. I didn’t care for the pennies so every day I would take them out of my tip jar and just put them on the floor. My dad came up to me and asked me what I was doing and when I told him he said, “If you tell the universe you don’t want money, it’s not going to give you money” and for some reason that just always stuck with me.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would do anything to have a private meal with Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen was my idol growing up and who got me into guitar. He changed the way people played guitar and was an absolute icon. I’d love to talk to him about his career and playing for Michael Jackson and just being the coolest guy ever. Other people I could think of is either Nuno Bettencourt of extreme or Brian May of Queen.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me on all social media @zenthomas and on Spotify as Zen Thomas. Thank you so much for having me!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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