Musician Zachary Mills releases debut album ‘Waltz on W Street’
AU alum discusses his musical journey and recording process
Years before fiddler Zachary Mills had even begun to record, arrange or mix his own music, he dreamt of recording and producing songs into an album of his own.
In February 2022, after years of practice and hard work, that dream finally came true when he released his debut album “Waltz on W Street.”
“The musical genre is really traditional Celtic music,” Mills said. “Traditional in the sense that there is no source composer, they’re just generational melodies and songs that have been passed on and on.”
For Mills, part of the creative process was exploring and researching the different fiddling traditions: “Each country is going to have their own genre and stylistic nuances in the way that the tunes are played, certain ornaments.”
Despite a variety of influences, this album is uniquely Mills’, bringing his perspective and background to a storied canon and combining the ideas and styles of many different regions.
Mills traces his own musical journey all the way back to Vermont. He started on the violin, learning to play European classical music through the Suzuki method, a very strict curriculum for beginner classical musicians.
“I just didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t feel exciting to me,” Mills said of his classical training. “I could understand sheet music, but I didn’t feel like I could express myself with it.”
Everything changed once he found folk music and fiddling through a summer camp in Vermont, where he was able to meet and work with some of the most prolific and talented young fiddle players and folk musicians in the country. Later, Mills came to American University for his bachelor’s degree, where he majored in music and audio production.
Even though Mills has been composing songs and melodies for years, he really began “Waltz on W Street” in 2019 when he was figuring out how to use ProTools, an audio production software.
“I really didn’t know anything,” Mills said. “I was just pushing faders and just figuring out how to make a mix sound coherent.”
This adaptability and learn on-the-fly approach was vital to the process of making the record, especially with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The actual recordings took place in many locations all over the east coast from D.C. to Vermont and Quebec.
While some of the recordings were done live with all of the musicians present in the studio, others were recorded instrument by instrument, sometimes remotely.
“With modern technology, we have the ability to just put everything on a computer and build the tracks from the ground up,” Mills said. “We’ll take four seconds with take eight and combine it with another eight seconds from take two, combined with another 15 seconds from take five and it sounds like a seamless recording.”
From there, Mills went through the process of recording and mixing almost the entire album by himself.
Even with the amount of work he put into “Waltz on W Street,” Mills credits the numerous collaborators that he worked with for the album. He named several of the prolific Celtic musicians who contributed to the album like former U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion Seán Heely, an adjunct professor of music at AU, Zan McLeod, a legend in the Celtic folk music scene, and Pete Sutherland, Mills’ former teacher.
“Being able to work with these pioneers of this music, it’s just an honor,” Mills said.
However, some of the musicians featured said they were just as excited to work on the project for the chance to work with Mills.
“Working with Zachary is different than working with anyone else,” said senior Brendan Moriak, who helped Mills with the recording and the technical aspects of the album. “A lot of us go through our lives and we do music, but Zachary lives and breathes music; it’s part of everything he does. It’s always cool to work with him and see the things he listens for, or the questions he asks that other people wouldn’t”
Not every musician was experienced in the genres heard on the album, but to Mills, the different backgrounds involved strengthened the overall album. He specifically pointed to “Green Vines on the Stonewall,” a track that brings together Heely and Sutherland with AU musicians like senior Jacob Niederman and cello professor Nancy Snider.
“It was just the culmination of people from various places all into one track, and that is true for the whole record too,” Mills said.
Niederman himself noted that his contribution to the track was coincidental.
“I was brought on kinda last minute,” Niederman said. “Zachary thought clarinet would work well on the track so he called me up and said ‘hey are you around’ and I went and recorded the piece that day.”
While some might shy away from recording without much rehearsal, Niederman praised Mills’ ability as a recording artist to enhance the quality of the musicians.
“Zachary is very professional,” Niederman said. “He’s very good at what he does; I know that if he is recording something I can trust him to bring the best out of the instruments.”
Mills also credited the generous contributions of the Marinus and Minna B. Koster Foundation, inc., who awarded him a Koster Grant to help finance the physical release of the album.
Bringing together so many traditions and ideas for a debut album is a lofty task, but “Waltz on W Street” more than delivers. The backbone of the album is the masterful and virtuosic fiddle playing featured across all of the tracks, which soars above the lush instrumentals. Some highlights include the title track “Waltz on W Street / The Nail Tearing Tree House,” which climaxes in the second half with an improvisatory vocal and fiddle lines that wail over the instrumental texture, while the upbeat and carefree fiddling of “Tarantella / Wallop The Spot / Dinny O’Brien’s” will leave listeners dancing along.
Mills isn’t done yet though. He’s currently completing his masters in audio technology at AU and putting his training towards helping others in the folk community.
“Right now, I’m producing a lot of traditional music,” Mills said. “I’m working on more Celtic music but more through the role of a recording engineer and producer.”
Mills advised young artists to work with other musicians who they have good “musical chemistry” with.
“Establishing those relationships early on is really important and there is no better time to start than the present,” Mills said.