brent johnson chats with New York singer-songwriter Aaron Zimmer …
Nebraska has seen its share of musical fame over the years. Bruce Springsteen named his classic 1982 acoustic album after the Cornhusker State. More recently, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes put Omaha on the indie-rock map and Lady Gaga shouted her love for the state in a Top 10 single.
But by age 24, Aaron Zimmer realized something: If he truly wanted to make it in music, he’d have to leave Nebraska behind.
“There was sort of a music scene,” the singer-songwriter recalls about Lincoln, the state capital and his hometown. “But by and large, it’s not really a music town. It was really clear all there was to be done in Lincoln, I had done it. We filled every venue in town. There was nowhere else to go.”
So Zimmer gave himself a choice: Los Angeles or New York.
“New York just felt fresher,” he explains. “I was excited about ditching a car.”
The rest of the story isn’t that simple. But seven years later, the 30-year-old is a fixture of New York’s venerable club circuit. His latest album is called This Time Next Year, a collection of melodic pop-rock songs filled with subtle surprises.
For example, ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ begins innocently enough with a rolling drum beat. Then come the vocals, guitars. Oh, and a full-blown horn section — not something you hear often in 21st century rock.
It’s Zimmer’s favorite song on the album.
“We put out a record called Live Wires in 2009,” he explains. “When I went back and listened to it, it occurred to me I had a way about writing songs that was a little messy. That whole record had an obvious thing about it. I knew when I was going to write again, I needed to make changes. Even how I tuned my guitar.
“This new record was about writing songs in different ways. Writing on new instruments. Writing not just about me, but from other people’s perspectives.”
Zimmer grew up in a musical family. His first record he owned was a cassette he got for Christmas at age 5: a-ha’s 1985 album Hunting High And Low — otherwise known as the one with ‘Take On Me.’
He says he didn’t listen to rock music until his teenage years. That’s when he discovered Dave Matthews Band’s first album: 1994′s Under The Table And Dreaming.
“That record was the reason I bought an acoustic guitar,” Zimmer says.
He went to college not far from home: a small private school called Concordia University. He double-majored in music composition and business administration — and lasted three semesters.
“I failed every business class I was in,” Zimmer remembers, laughing.
He was 19 when he put a band together in Lincoln. They spent a few years playing in the area before he moved east.
“With anything in life, if you’re going to do something fantastic, you have to make drastic decisions,” Zimmer says. “You have to do things that are scary.”
He arrived in New York without a job, an apartment or contacts.
“They say it takes six months to acclimate yourself. For me, it was longer than that,” Zimmer recalls.
“I did everything wrong. I played too much. I hadn’t really refined my abilities much. I realized every single friend I was making was way better than me.”
Played too much? Zimmer says that’s a good thing to avoid if you’re a musician starting out in a large music area. In smaller cities, the goal is to play as much as possible to build up an audience.
Zimmer found the opposite to be true in the Big Apple. Shows were easy to book in New York, where there’s a venue on every avenue. He played 50 or more gigs in his first year.
But he wasn’t drawing a crowd.
“What I learned about New York is: There’s sort of a hierarchy,” Zimmer explains. “You work your way into the bigger rooms. It’s about finding a good balance of playing just enough so fans will always come to every show.”
Now, Zimmer plays several shows a month around the region. He’s about to kick off tour of colleges.
“I like the marketing aspect of music almost as much as I like the songwriting,” he says. “It’s all really challenging. That website I made myself. All that social media — I just love it. That’s ingrained in me. I’m always learning.”