by Mia Hughes
As 2018 began, Zac Farro made a New Years’ resolution.
The year behind him had been a big one. He had begun it with his first UK tour with HalfNoise. Then in March came the release of The Velvet Face EP, which saw him shifting from the synth-pop of the previous year’s full-length Sudden Feeling to a more classic rock and psych-influenced sound. The next month, the first single and album details were released for Paramore’s fifth full-length After Laughter – the first since Farro had rejoined the band after more than five years away. The release of that record was followed by an extensive tour, which took up the majority of the latter half of the year and most of 2018 – but he found time amongst that to write and record another HalfNoise EP, Flowerss.
As 2017 came to a close, he decided to make some changes. “My personality is reflective of the people that I’m around,” he tells me. “So I find myself catering to other people around me, and thinking about how I could win their approval if I was a little bit more like them instead of being myself.” His resolution was to strip that away; to live honestly, to be himself without taking on outside influence. Towards the end of 2018, he took everything he had learned from that experience and started work on what would become Natural Disguise. Really though, Farro’s drive to find himself had fuelled HalfNoise since way before this record had been conceptualised.
Growing up the middle child of five in Franklin, Tennessee – a small, conservative town just outside of Nashville – self-discovery wasn’t something that would come easy. Then, when Farro was 13, the band he started with his older brother Josh and their school friends signed to a major label. Paramore made their debut album in 2005 (Farro, the youngest of the group, still only 14) and were ushered out onto a constant touring and recording cycle that saw him leave school and spend the remainder of his teen years away from home. The struggles that plagued Paramore as they grew up and clashed with one another have been well-documented; when the two brothers quit the band at the end of 2010, Josh Farro infamously detailed his feuds with the band in a long and acidic exit letter. Zac, at the time silent on the matter, would later explain that his reasons for leaving weren’t the same. By then 20 years old, he’d been wrapped up with the same group of people from the beginning of his teens, had never been able to live a normal teenage existence, and was feeling trapped in the shadow of his older brother. He needed to take a breath.
“I’d grown up rather quickly because I was only 14 when we left,” he says. “So in this one way, you’re really young, but in an adult world. You’re having to act mature everywhere because you’re around label people and other musicians and stuff. So it’s this weird thing where the work experience is through the roof, but regular life experience – going surfing, or living in a van for a year and just hanging out with friends – I missed out on that in life.”
The first taste of HalfNoise music, single ‘Hide Your Eyes’ (the project was then called Tunnel, and featured Farro and collaborator Jason Clark) was uploaded to Soundcloud days after Farro’s departure from Paramore. A self-titled EP followed in 2012, with Farro by then the sole member. But HalfNoise didn’t really take on the significance it has to Farro now until a temporary move to New Zealand that year.
“I think that’s where it started, to be honest,” he says. “It was a real coming of age place.” He lived in New Zealand on-and-off for three years, spending the summers there before returning to Tennessee for its own summers. At that point, he had been travelling the world for years and seeing that there was more to it than the confines of his upbringing, but it took actually living somewhere that was so different from what he had known to make that click. “It’s really cool to be like, ‘wow, where I come from is a very small-town feeling, a very narrow-minded place’,” he says. “Especially in communities like religious communities – I would say that world inside of itself can be kinda small even then. So it was cool to go [to New Zealand], where I really found out who I was. Sometimes it takes going across the world to do that.”
He made the first HalfNoise full-length, Volcano Crowe, during his time there. It was “freeing,” he says. “When I started [out] I was just a drummer, and I thought of myself as that, because when you start with something you tend to think, ‘Well, this is who I am’. And so breaking out of being known as the drummer was a pretty vulnerable thing but I’m really, really proud I did.” It seems, purely from listening to the project’s output from that point onwards, that the self-discovery facilitated by his time in New Zealand pushed HalfNoise off to the races as a vehicle for Farro’s self-expression. You can hear it simply in his evolving music tastes – from the Sigur Ros and Radiohead flavoured post-rock of Volcano Crowe, to the Tame Impala and MGMT evoking synth-pop of Sudden Feeling, to the ‘60s and ‘70s psych and Afrobeat influences he’s leaned into now with Natural Disguise. But you can hear it too in the growing confidence through his discography, how self-consciousness transforms into exuberance from one record to the next. “At the start it was really intimidating and I was a bit lost, actually. I didn’t know where to go,” he says. “I guess with each album I just refine it even more and grow even more, and it’s been really cool to look back at the process.”
Natural Disguise seems to be the most fully-realised expression of Farro’s self. While on Sudden Feeling there’s plenty of his sunny personality to be heard, it seems he hadn’t yet acquired either the confidence or the adeptness in songwriting to dig very deep, lyrically or musically. The time he spent before making Natural Disguise – in his words, “Having that year of saying, what do I want this record to sound like? Who am I? What is my voice, in this world of Spotify and Apple Music and streaming?” – allowed him to make that step up.
Where before he extensively drew from standard break-up song territory for his lyrics, he’s now broadened his scope. Much of his content now, he says, is about “taking the mask off and looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, who really are you? And whatever that is, it’s okay.” On ‘Boogie Juice’ he insists, “I’m not your bad apple now” to those who would judge him – perhaps including the religious community in his hometown from which he’s branched away. On ‘Cinnamon Sugar’ he treads a similar path, singing “I can’t win them all / So now, I let it go”. ‘Know It’s Her’ is a sweet love song, bundled in a short acoustic interlude, whereas ‘Beautiful Someone’ is the most emotionally affecting moment of the record, wherein Farro longs for real, lasting love. Sonically, the songs are more three-dimensional than we’ve seen before, his melodies more gripping and the instrumentation more layered and exploratory.
“I think all artists, if you’re really passionate about it, feel like if it’s not the best thing you’ve done, then I don’t know why you’d be making it,” he says. “So I just naturally wanted to make it the best thing I’d done yet. I think one of the biggest steps was to follow every inclination and every initial thought and feeling that I have, and just chase that. Because it’s the first time I’ve ever self-produced any of my music, it was a big leap of courage for me in all respects.”
Natural Disguise and the period of time in which it was made has seen Farro branching out in other ways, too. His decision to self-produce it led him to produce for other artists: he’s worked on two records in the last year, one by Nashville Americana artist Becca Mancari and one by And That, the project of LA-based Scott Cleary. Both are long-time close friends of Farro, a sign of the artistic community he’s surrounded with and fosters not just with these collaborations but with the record label he founded, Congrats Records. He releases all his HalfNoise music with it, as well as And That’s music – and even a book of poetry by HalfNoise and Paramore touring member Joey Mullen. “This whole thing, and Congrats Records, it’s all just for collaborative friendship,” he tells me. “Without the people in my life – my friends, my bandmates and people that play with me – I wouldn’t be able to be anywhere that I am now.” Aside from that, he’s become a keen photographer and music video director too (he directed two of the videos from the After Laughter album cycle). HalfNoise exists in tandem with Farro’s other artistic pursuits, a medium for him to express himself and, in doing so, become more confident and open to other forms of expression. “HalfNoise has been this vehicle for me to not only become a songwriter, but I feel like everything benefits from it. I just hope that HalfNoise continues to be a vehicle to meet new artists and work with other people. I hope it opens up the door for more art in general.”
It seems that with Natural Disguise, Zac Farro is more than ever an artist in full control of, and fully confident in, his artistic identity; the transformation finally complete from drummer-turned-reluctant-frontman to out-and-out creative force. “I was able to feel free to make the music that I wanted to, without any fears of ‘I wonder what people are gonna think about this’,” he says. “There’s just pure inspiration and joy.” What’s truly exciting about Natural Disguise is how it throws the door wide open as to where that inspiration might take him next. As long as Zac Farro continues to bloom, HalfNoise will too.