This article was originally written for Talk Nerdy With Us.
Fans might know Zach Callison as the voice of Steven Universe on the Cartoon Network show of the same name. Now Callison is branching out and releasing his own music. I got the chance to talk to him about knowing when he wanted to be a performer, the inspiration behind his single, “War!”, what he nerds out about and much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say.
Let’s just start at the beginning. How did you get into the world of performing and entertainment?
I really liked singing as a kid. My parents decided to put me in singing lessons at a local community college in St. Louis, where I’m from, when I was 7. That led me to musical theatre. I ended up auditioning for The Music Man, to play Winthrop. Did that with my dad. Then I spent a couple of years doing musical theatre and watching my dad perform in rock bands and such. Then I moved to LA to do the child actor thing, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years or so.
The inspiration for the music that is coming out now started about two years ago when I first got in the studio. I finally felt like I had something to write about, to use my piano and my singing for. That’s sort of where that came from.
Was there any specific experience you would credit as the moment when you knew performing, both acting and music wise, was what you wanted to do for a profession?
Funny story. This was before I even did singing lessons. I was five years old, and we were on a company trip with my dad in Hilton Head, South Carolina. At the place we were staying, they had this children’s entertainer, who was this guy who played acoustic guitar and sang little songs like “Billy the Kid” and “Giant Purple People Eater” and entertained all the kids who were staying there. I went there one day, and I was totally enchanted by it. He asked kids to volunteer to come on stage and sing a song. My hand shot up in the air, and I was jumping up and down screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” I went up there, and I started singing the worm song, which is sort of a family tradition that was passed down from my grandfather…so I sang it. I got a bunch of applause and all the kids were laughing and enchanted. We were walking back to our room that night, and I told my mom I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. She asked me and I told her, “I want to be a star.” It’s super cliche and I have no memory of it, but I can point to that as the moment it all started.
Thank you, thank you.
I’m just curious, what was the inspiration behind it?
That moment I was talking about, when I felt like I finally had something to write about, it came from being broken up with [my] first love…high school sweetheart. Not really knowing any other normal way that I could deal with that, I turned to writing songs. That basically became the small part of the wider concept of my EP that’s coming out ,and “War” is a big part of that. It was inspired because the person I had broken up with, she was also a singer, also had a bit of a public profile, and she was sub-tweeting me when I would call her. She would reject me, then tweet about it afterwards and get her friends to prank call me. Just all of this really childish stuff. I thought that the best way to respond was to get back up on my feet and write something calling her out for things. Particularly with “War!,” the fact that she was a singer, had been working on the same record for many, many years and hadn’t actually done the work to release it, it was sort of like a “Here is my music. Where is yours?” kind of thing.
I was also really inspired by the diss-track culture of hip-hop, people getting into battles, shooting tracks back and forth and seeing who could most eloquently get the upper-hand on someone. I wanted to release something that was so dominating, in that way, that it would be hard to top. As much as I would love to hear that, I don’t know if that will happen. [laughs]
Going off of being influenced by hip-hop culture, there is a lot of rapping on this track and you’re so good at it. Where did you learn to do that?
I’m most[ly] self-taught. The first song that I wrote for this project also has the first rap verse I ever wrote on it. I re-wrote it a bunch of times, so it is definitely not in its original form. When I first wrote it, it was not good. I ended up making tons and tons of song demos in my home studio and studying the greats from Kanye and Kendrick [Lamar] to old-school like 2pac and MF Doom, especially MF Doom. I love the way he does multi-syllabic rhymes and the advanced rhythm structure of his verses; it just blew my mind at what he could do and say in such a short period of time with his lyrics.
It was mostly study. I just had this fascination with the genre. I also had some friends around me that I discovered also had a love for hip-hop. My buddy, Noah Gary, who is an actor and makes a lot of hip-hop music as well, really got me into freestyle cypher culture and worked on that quite a bit, which helped. It was a combination of things, but really just the determination to not be bad at it and put in a record that I was comfortable with releasing.
As you mention studying different artists, this single features so many different styles of music. Beyond the hip-hop ones you just mentioned, who are some of your musical influences?
My favorite band of all time is Muse. Their older stuff for the darker, rock stuff and their newer stuff for the theatrical sound that they have. I really love the way that those two worlds meet. Twenty One Pilots is another big one. They were sort of my ambassadors to hip-hop. I didn’t really like rap and hip-hop before I listened to them. It was in sort of a way that I had never heard before, and it let me see what could be done with it outside of the genre of hip-hop. Once I heard them, I dived into actual roots hip-hop, and I found a love for it. There is some Red Hot Chili Peppers in there, there is some Stevie Wonder in the song. I really just love being a student of music, all genres, and really try to meld all the sounds that influence me into one, without any one being particularly recognizable.
You briefly mentioned earlier that, soon I’d assume, you’re going to put out an EP?
Is it finalized enough to where you know how many songs are going to be on it and what fans can expect from it when it comes out?
We’re mixing now. We’re pretty close to be[ing] done. It started out as a five track EP, and it still is, but it’s really evolved into this concept record. It’s less about a breakup and more about how someone deals with it in the scope of these two people have a public profile, people are watching this and how that changes things. I was really fascinated by the idea of a breakup being under that lens and also the responses to each others calls being in the public eye. Sort of like I mentioned with “War!”, and sort of the transformation that I underwent during that part of my life. It’s five full songs, but I’m also doing a lot of interlude tracks, so its coming out to be about 10 in the end, 30-90 second interludes that will help tell the story and flesh it out deeper.
It’s funny that you talk about it being a concept album because I had written down in my interview notes that on my first listen “War!” sounded like it could be a bigger part of a concept album. I think that’s cool that it’s actually going to be part of a concept EP.
How does that affect your writing process? When you wrote “War!”, was it first or did you write some of the other songs on the EP first?
“War!” came later, actually. To give the fans a hint as well, “War!” is actually the final chapter of this story. I wanted to release it first because “War!” is the version of me that I’m living in now. The rest of the record is showing everyone how I got there and telling that part of my past.
[In regards to] the writing process, I love the idea of doing a concept record. I was really inspired by Kendrick [Lamar]’s last three albums, specifically because they get so specific. They dive into one issue or one part of his life, then flesh it out. I think he’s the greatest artist in the game right now and I wanted to do something like that. I just didn’t really know where to start, because I was so new to song-writing when I began. Once the songs started coming, I strategically picked certain ideas to work on because I knew they would feed certain parts of the story. I was still really focused on writing about one particular thing at the time, because it was all that was on my mind. The pieces of the puzzle came together later on and the interludes are sort of the glue that helps tell the story. The name of the record is A Picture Perfect Hollywood Heartbreak. It is, in the beginning, about the heartbreak, but the more important part is about the transformation of a person from one version of themselves to another. That was the story I wanted to tell.
It sounds awesome, seriously. Is it going to be a spring release or something later in 2018?
We’re thinking late spring. I just played my first show last night and got a really good response. We’re going to do some more of those beforehand and do some cool other sneak peaks for fans on my social media to get people hyped.
Was last night your first show ever,?
I’ve played quite a few shows. My bassist and I, actually, used to play in cover bands when we were 12 and 13. I had the musical theatre background too, singing and performing on stage. This was my first show playing my music, and it was my first on-stage live band show in six or seven years. It was definitely a coming of age for me in a special way. Overall, it went really well. I was nervous for it, but now I’m jazzed to do more of them.
Going off of finally playing your own music at your show last night, previously you’ve been featured on a number of soundtracks [including the Emmy-winning Sofia the First and Steven Universe Soundtrack: Volume One]. How does that compare to putting out music that is all yours?
It’s amazing. It’s not just my first music, it’s my first project that I’ve written, produced, brought to fruition and promoted myself. As an actor, coming from that background, you’re always someone’s hired gun, working as their tool to finish their vision. There’s definitely room for personal expression , having fun, but ultimately it’s a collaboration. With this, I was really in the driver’s seat and able to rep my own vision. That’s all I want to do now. I mean, of course, I still want to work on other people’s projects, collaborate, be an artist in that way, but I really want to make more of my own content, whether it’s music or television.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you some Steven Universe questions.
[laughs] Of course.
There are new episodes coming out in April, right?
The timing lined up, didn’t it?
What can fans expect when the new episodes come out?
You know it’s a strange time on Steven Universe right now, because of all this home world drama that just happened. Nobody really knows exactly where it’s going and there are some strained relationships back on Earth. We did get to watch some of the final cuts recently with someone from Make-A-Wish and the Cartoon Network. That was cool. It’s not often that we get to all get together and watch the show. The episodes really are awesome. There are some that are particularly heartfelt, that are focusing on the relationships between the characters. I’m really excited for people to dig into that.
One of the cool things about Steven Universe is how it uses music as a narrative device. As someone who is now pursuing music on his own, what have you learned from producing and singing on those tracks for the past couple of years?
It’s been an incredible lesson. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Rebecca Sugar’s influence on me as an artist. Mixing mediums so much, creating a cartoon musical like she has, it was really inspiring to see her breaking ground on something that, not only is breaking genre boundaries, but also social and cultural boundaries. I’ve always said being an actor and [essentially] a hired gun, sometimes you just walk into the studio and do your thing. With Steven, there’s never been a more artistically fulfilling project to work on for me as an actor. Working with Rebecca and her team has been very important. Watching her hustle, working nights and weekends, making sure not just everything with the show is in line as it should be, but the video games, the comics, the universe around the show is cannon and all feeds into each other. That’s been really inspiring to see as far as work ethic goes.
Have you gone to her for any advice about your music specifically?
Yeah, actually. The first song that I finished a demo for, about a year and a half, two years ago, I sent straight to her. She gave me a round of notes on it. She liked it, but she definitely had a lot of constructive criticism of it and it definitely needed it. I took a lot of that, changed up a lot of that song and now I have the version that’s going to be on the album. She messaged me about “War!” and we talked about it because we saw each other in person a few days after the release.
Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us so what is something you nerd out over?
Oh, man. A couple things. Within fandom culture and my connection to that with all these video games, I love Mass Effect. That’s my video game that I dive into when I want to pull the blinds on the windows and disappear for a couple of days. That’s my favorite science-fiction universe ever. Over Star Wars, over Star Trek. I just love how rich it is and the variety you get with a game like that from BioWare.
The other thing, that is not even, really, totally related, that I nerd out about is baseball. I’m of the opinion that its the nerdiest sport, because of the amount of math and statistics involved. That’s my fascination with it, the amount of rabbit holes you go down with comparing statistics, finding oddities and historical firsts that happen almost every week, because of how much crazy stuff you can get into with the math and because of the way the game is structured. I’m a huge St. Louis Cardinals fan.
That was going to be my next question. Being from St. Louis, that makes sense.
More than any other city in America, I think, baseball is life to St. Louis citizens. Being a Cardinals fan is like religious doctrine there. It’s super important.
Were you a math person growing up?
Funnily enough, no, not at all. I was good at math when I was in first grade, second grade. Then once multiplication got involved, something went haywire. [laughs] Even still, it’s more about statistics for me. I leave the math to the really talented statisticians who follow the game. I like comparing stat lines, lining them up against each other and looking at different stats to evaluate a player, because no one stat tells the whole story. There’s a whole new field of sabermetrics that are so advanced that you could just do it forever.
Sabermetrics blows my mind. I’m much more of an NBA fan, but I’m with you on liking stats and seeing trends. It’s become one of my favorite parts of watching sports.
For sure. You can do it with games like basketball too. With like exit velocity on throws, and hits in baseball or route efficiency. They can track how guys move across the court or across the outfield, if their lagging behind and making poor split-second decisions. It’s so bizarre how psychological these numbers can get.