“The voice is a pretty crazy thing,” says Zach Deputy. “It can emulate any and everything.” Deputy is living proof of that. In his one-man-jam-band shows he uses his voice to create and stack drum beats, bass lines, horn sections, guitar riffs and backup vocals, with help from a Boss RC50 looping machine. Then he sings, and adds live guitar and percussion, on top.
“We have the ability to make pretty much any sound that we can think of, any noise that we hear,” Deputy says. “I find that fascinating. So I like to do that, play drums with my mouth, play trumpet and some guitar with my mouth.
“I’ve been singing since I’ve known my name. That’s still my main instrument.”
Deputy recalls having beatboxing competitions in the third grade, seeing who could make the coolest drum beats with vocal sounds. “I’ve been doing that forever. Most of my teachers really liked me, they just didn’t really like me in their class because I was kind of non-stop,” he laughs.
Deputy was born in Savannah, GA, and raised in nearby Hilton Head, SC. His mother was from St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, and her parents from Puerto Rico. “I’m from an island town, and I think that in itself influenced me,” he says. “I grew up listening to Afro-Cuban, salsa, meringue, calypso, mambo, and all this stuff like it was normal. That was a heavy influence. On an island town, everybody plays reggae and stuff there.”
His father brought the old soul music into the mix. “My dad listened to Motown, James Brown,” he recalls. “When I really got into music, I got into funk and soul and jazz. Ray Charles is one of my favorite singers. I grew up on that stuff, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway.
“I was in second grade when MC Hammer and The Fat Boys were coming out, back when people used to beatbox covering their mouths, doing that in-and-out breathing. That was the birth of that whole thing, and hip hop is definitely still a big part of my music.”
Before teaching himself to play guitar, he was imitating hip hop stars with his brother and his friends. “We would all beatbox and then free-style rap over the beatboxing, take turns and go in cycles,” he explains. “We would do that for hours to pass the time because we lived in the country and there wasn’t really anything to do.
“I never thought I was actually learning my trade back then, but I really was.”
Deputy has always had a great “ear,” an ability to pick out individual instruments on recordings, and arrange instruments in his head. “I started imagining a symphony orchestra,” he says. “I would try to count the amount of instruments that I was hearing. A lot of times I was hearing more instruments than I could even count, and I felt if I could get whatever was in my head outside of my head, it would be the coolest thing ever. That sparked my attention — to get whatever this is in my head, somehow get it out to the people, that’s been my mission ever since.”
The other big influence in Deputy’s music and singing style has been gospel. “That’s the way I hear it in my soul, so that’s the way I sing it,” he testifies. “I grew up in a big singing church, in a big choir, so that’s definitely the way I hear a voice singing. I can get my voice to pretty much sound like whatever, but the most relaxed, the most natural to me my voice sounds, without even thinking about it, is definitely gospel.”
A lot of Deputy’s songwriting happens during his live shows, of which he’s been averaging 250 a year. “I’ll be playing and out of nowhere just stumble into a different groove, and that’ll spark a whole melody idea that creates a song,” he explains. “I stumble into this hook and then the hook gets stuck in my head for a month, and because of that I’ll develop and nurture a song.”
People who come to a lot of Deputy’s shows get to hear songs evolving. “I don’t do too much music outside of performing live, and a lot of times I don’t even write down the lyrics,” he says. “I’m working on the song in front of people live every night, fine-tuning it, growing and taking it to the next level. Sometimes when I’m home and have a break I’ll actually write a song. I would say that my live stuff is more James Brown, and the stuff I write at home is more James Taylor. I like them both.”
The common denominator in all of Deputy’s recorded work is soul, whether it’s on the relaxed, reggae groove of “Home” (Out Of The Water 2008) or the acoustic rock anthem “Sweet Rene” (Another Day 2012).
Deputy is eyeing the release of a new album around April, reflecting a recent interest in up-tempo material. “The songs lately have been driving. I’ve been playing a few songs way faster than normal, getting into the upper tempos, things above 130 [bpm]. I’ve been writing some cool dancehall and reggae type stuff, and have been leaning more on the hip hop based stuff,” he reveals. “I think this next album will definitely be more of a dance album.”
The 30-year-old singer loves the artistic and logistic challenges of his one-man show, and can laugh about those rare occasions when the technology doesn’t work perfectly. “Sometimes things happen and the crowd goes crazy, and they think I meant to do it. Some cool moments happen because of that, and some horrible moments,” he smiles. “You’ve just got to roll with it, you know.
“Nothings’s pre-recorded. I make it all up in front of everybody like a hibachi chef. They watch me make it, and then they get to eat it. I’m excited to come back, Asheville’s going to be a ball.”