Q&a with zack cokas: making music during covid-19
by. Noah Buck, Staff Writer
Back in the spring of this year, times got freaky. Flash forward to now and things are still freaky with COVID-19 clusters, couch-hopping, and countless hours spent at home. Now more than ever it’s important to have outlets like painting, baking, or even making cringy Tik Toks. For me, it’s making music. Putting guitar chords together. Recording tracks. Spending hours adjusting vocals and panning virtual violins. Those are the things that get me excited and take my mind off of late assignments and pending housing refunds.
Zack Cokas, a 21-year-old junior at NC State, shares this sentiment and for him, this desire to create music has put him on an upward trajectory in the rap scene with his song releases being recently featured on Lyrical Lemonade’s website and the Fresh Finds: Hip Hop playlist curated by Spotify. His new album PABLO dropped in late-August and has already racked up over a hundred thousand streams on Spotify. Not to mention, Cokas was featured in the 52nd edition of Windhover and blessed the book’s release party stage with a performance of his NC State anthem “Lead the Pack.”
I got a chance to talk to him about his music-making process and the struggles of being stuck at home.
How have the past two weeks been?
ZC: Just sitting in front of a computer all day. It’s probably more efficient than doing it in person since there’s a lot less travel time. I do miss the interactions with professors and friends, it’s kind of isolating staying inside all day. I should get outside more. With all the tests and quizzes you’re just trying to stay on top of everything.
Describe yourself as an artist. Who/what are your influences?
ZC: I feel like I’ve recently come into my own as an artist. I’m making music that I can look back on and be happy with. Sometimes when you’re younger you make music that doesn’t necessarily represent the kind of artist you want to be known as. You don’t realize that people may look at you in a certain light based on your past records. Now I’m portraying myself in the light I wanna be seen in; I’m being more honest with people about who I am because I feel more comfortable with myself. With my music, I try to make other people feel the same. Influence wise I love Kanye, J Cole, Drake of course, Kendrick, and xxxTentacion.
So back then, were you just figuring out your sound. Looking back, do you still like that music?
ZC: I was definitely making stuff I liked but I wasn’t making the stuff I want people to look at years later and be like “this is what he represents.” I’m 21 now, I’ve matured a little and I’ve learned to think about longevity. It’s good to go through that phase of growth though. Sometimes people may sign to a label early when they’re not as experienced and they end up getting pigeonholed into a person they’re not. You gotta ask “Is this even me?”
As an artist you’re always evolving so I feel like it’s a balance between establishing your longevity but also being in the moment.
ZC: Yeah, you gotta put real emotion into the music but you should avoid sounding like you’re trying too hard to keep up with the times and be relatable–it’s about just whatever you’re feeling.
What are you writing about generally? What are some of the things you’ve been feeling?
ZC: I write about personal struggles with anxiety and depression, any mental health stuff especially recently; relationships, friendships, bad friends, fake friends, good friends. Also, I always want to keep in mind how I’m gonna deliver it in a way where people can relate. I’m not just getting shit off my chest for myself, I want to say the things that people may be going through outloud. When you have a platform that’s important.
Growing up I always heard songs with messages about anxiety and depression but they never really resonated. I’m starting to appreciate those types of songs more especially with what I’m going through these days in quarantine. How has quarantine affected you mentally?
ZC: At first I was okay. Two months ago I started getting panic attacks and if you never had one it feels like you’re dying almost. You don’t know what’s going on but it feels like you have to go to the hospital. I had a couple of those in a month so I went to the doctor to figure it out. I tried medication. The first one didn’t work but I’ve been on a new one for about a month and it’s been doing good, I haven’t had an attack so far. I’m about to start talking to a therapist, just to see what’s up. Personally, I like finding the source of a problem because I don’t like not knowing what went wrong. I’m a person who suppresses a lot of shit, I try to act like I’m okay a lot of the time, which I feel like a lot of men do instead of talking it out. All the stress just caught up to me and it ended up exploding in my face.
It’s eerie hearing you say all of this because the same thing happened to me during this quarantine. I had my first panic attack as a person who previously didn’t understand them. I started seeing a therapist. It’s just weird hearing you say all of this because I was going through it and it felt so shitty. Hearing you say this, it’s like okay other people are going through it too.
ZC: Definitely. I feel like us even as music listeners right now are craving authenticity. We need reassurance and we need people who are also going through what we’re going through just to know we’re not totally alone, cause it is freaky times right now. It’s bringing out problems, mentally in everyone. This shits tough but it’s good to know we’re getting through it together.
What do you think are the lasting effects of this pandemic on our generation? How does this affect the future both good and bad or if any?
ZC: It’s gonna affect us in a lot of ways. I think there’s going to be a greater lack of trust between U.S citizens, probably more with Gen Z and Millennials. There’s just a big gap between us and our leaders and I’m not completely sure what’s gonna come of it. It could all stay the same, who knows. I’m optimistic though and I’m hoping for change.
What’s your process of making a song?
ZC: A lot of times I look through Youtube for beats or I’ll have specific producers I’ll go to. Typically, I listen to a beat and try to write off of what I’m feeling at that moment. If I don’t catch a spark then I’ll make a demo but maybe never come back to it. My brother also produces a good amount of my songs so he’ll send a beat or we’ll make it together.
What’s the process of making a beat with your brother?
ZC: I’ll give him a couple of songs I want it to sound like, or I’ll be like “I want a Pharell type beat” or a “Kanye type beat.” Then we start listening to drums sounds, pick out what we like and then start piecing together samples and loops.
Is this a long process or does it happen pretty quickly?
ZC: It pretty much happens then in that room. After we’ve made the beat we’ll go back and record vocals with some tweaks.
I know recording vocals can be tedious trying to get the perfect take. What’s your process?
ZC: I have a portable soundproof mic cage that I use at home. Basically I record right into Logic (Music Production Software) and I track myself with headphones on but I make sure I can hear my voice when I’m recording. I do this to make sure my voice is coming through as I would want it to be on the record. I’m not a one-taker so I’ll do multiple takes until, or I’ll piece a couple takes together. Also, I like to record raw with no vocal effects at first (autotune, reverb, etc). I think it’s the best way to record vocals because once you sound good raw, you can add everything later and it’s gonna sound ten times better.
So you got the beat and the vocals. What’s next? How do you release it?
ZC: Once you’ve got your song put together there’s two important things you need to do before you ever release: Mixing and mastering. My brother is actually self-taught so he mixes my songs in Logic. I also have other engineers who mix and master songs for me. Mixing is making sure that the drums, vocals, samples, loops, strings, and guitars are all placed in the right position for your ears. Just like an orchestra is meticulously set up to sound perfect live, mixing allows you to turn things up and down and pan things left and right. You mix to master. Mastering basically boosts and enhances all the work you did in the mix via compression and other technical stuff.
So it’s sort of like the shiny gloss on the finished mix that makes everything pop?
ZC: Yeah exactly, and you need to master your songs. I remember putting out unmastered music and it was super quiet and just sounded like shit. Normally do it through this website called E Master, it’s a fire website if you want to master your songs.
Yes, different streaming services can actually compress songs mixes in undesirable ways if your song isn’t mixed and mastered correctly so it’s super important.
Has your music process changed at all as a result of quarantine?
ZC: I would say it’s pretty much been the same besides different emotions and headspaces. I’ve been writing more introspective emotional stuff. I do love making some hype songs but I haven’t felt inclined to make any of those records in a minute. It’s fun for me to make and listen to hype shit but I just haven’t been feeling it lately.
Any closing things you wanna say to people who wanna make music and to the people in general?
ZC: As far as music goes, now’s the best time to express yourself. If you do it without holding back you can create some really nice organic songs. And to everyone, take care of yourself and treat yourself nicely. Now’s the time to grow.