Rock 'n' roll high school

LAHS best friends hope to Kickstart their way into the music biz

Students from high-performing schools like Los Altos High School are often encouraged to pick up extracurricular activities. Participating in a robotics club or an after-school sport, teens learn to work with others while pursuing a passion. But for Zach Gospe, a self-identified "introvert," working with others is not a part of his extracurricular equation.

Just about every day, Gospe spends a few hours alone -- locked away in his room, or down in the basement of his parents' house in Los Altos -- hunched over his acoustic guitar, practicing and refining the original compositions that he hopes will one day land him a recording contract.

Zach Gospe practices one of his songs in his Los Altos home basement on Nov. 4, 2013. Photo by Michelle Le
It's a goal that both Gospe, and his best friend and manager, Riley Soward, believe is within reach. The LAHS senior recently connected with producer and recording industry veteran Mark Mazzetti, who is helping the teen fine-tune his songs before cutting a professional quality EP in Los Angeles early next year.

There's just one catch. Gospe and Soward have to come up with $10,000 for the recording session.

And so, like so many independent musicians, the two 17-year-olds are turning to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, where they'll have 38 days to reach their funding goal. If they hit the $10,000 mark, Gospe and Soward will travel to L.A. in February to record with Mazzetti and a group of studio musicians. After that, the two hope they'll be able to find a record label interested in signing Gospe, or at least one willing to distribute the album.

Early days

Gospe has been playing music as long as he can remember. At the age of 5 his parents plopped him down in front of a piano. Gospe's father, Mike, said that both he and his wife, Mary, were raised in musical households, and they believed that teaching their son to read and play music was important.

"Being able to read music, I think it helps you learn how to think," the elder Gospe said. "We look at music as an important base skill."

In addition to the cognitive benefits he might gain from learning to play music, his father said he also hoped it would help his son be more attuned to what it means to be human.

According to Gospe's father, it was clear that his son had a knack for music early on. Although the young Gospe didn't fall in love with his first instrument, piano -- he said that practicing with his teacher was more of a chore than anything else -- by the time he was 8, he had taken a liking to the drums.

By the time he was 10, he was playing in a jazz combo with his mother and father. The group, which had been organized through the Community School of Music and Arts, was supposed to be for adults. However, an official at the school deemed that he had the chops, and made an exception.

"We're a regular Partridge Family," Mike said, standing in the middle of his Los Altos living room, flanked by a drum set and a grand piano.

As a tween he picked up a bass guitar for a time, playing in a band with Soward -- The Flaming Ice Cubes -- but that didn't go very far.

Then he picked up the guitar. Looking back, Gospe said that the guitar immediately appealed to him because it was "freeing." He no longer had to play with others to create a full sounding song, he could bring the guitar down into the basement or up into his room. "Whenever I got inspired, it was easy to just pick up the guitar," he said. And it was with the instrument that he was able to reproduce the sounds of some of his favorite musicians.

Strumming along

It wasn't long after he began playing the guitar that Gospe started penning his own compositions. When he became comfortable enough with his abilities, he started to record himself playing in his parents' basement -- singing into the built-in camera of his family's iMac and uploading the videos to YouTube.

Though he has experimented with making full rock 'n' roll arrangements -- replete with bass, drums and piano -- Gospe said he prefers writing songs using just his acoustic guitar and his voice. "Before anything else, I'm a songwriter," he said. "That's how I identify myself."

Both Gospe and Soward describe Gospe's songwriting style by comparing him to his biggest influence -- John Mayer. It is a fitting parallel.

Recently the 17-year-old performed a few original compositions for the Voice Gospe's voice was smooth and a bit breathy as he crooned through titles "Can't Figure You Out" and "The Girl in the Yellow Dress." His soulful and bluesy melodies were complimented by intricate, finger-picked guitar lines and strum patterns that showcased his sense for rhythm and syncopation, as he alternated between strummed chords and plucked arpeggios -- sometimes slapping the strings with an open palm to create a stomping beat.

With a little help

Soward watched the impromptu set, smiling and nodding his head along to the tunes. Gospe's "best friend since the first day of kindergarten," Soward has been serving as his pal's manager since the two were sophomores.

Around that time, Soward said he began to see how seriously his friend was taking songwriting. "I was so excited, so I jumped in and started booking gigs for him." Since then, Soward has been helping manage Gospe's various social media outlets -- including his YouTube page and Facebook profile. He's booked Gospe shows -- including a showcase at Red Rock Coffee. "We're both very committed to this."

Gospe agreed. He said that Soward has been a great help -- especially recently. As it turns out, Gospe met Mazzetti thanks to Soward's "no-shame, go-for it attitude."

Both Soward and Gospe attended the West Coast Songwriter's conference at Foothill College in September. Soward was there to network and Gospe went to attend songwriting seminars. On the first day of the conference, Soward recognized Mazzetti, introduced himself as Gospe's manager and talked up his friend handing the producer his demo.

A week later, Mazzetti reached out to see if Gospe would be interested in working with him.

"As a person, I'm much more on the introverted side," Gospe said. "Having someone like Riley on my team is a very important way to contrast the introverted character of my music. Riley jumps into the middle of it."

A valuable experience

While Gospe has high hopes that he might make a living as a musician, he isn't banking on it. He plans to attend college and major in something other than music -- maybe English or physics. "Music is such a risk," he said.

Despite their son's level-headed approach, Mike Gospe said he and his wife feel it is important to support their son and give him a fighting chance to make his dream come true.

Around the time Gospe started recording his own tunes and his parents got to hear the quality of what their son was doing, "We started to think, 'Hmm, maybe there's something here that should be further encouraged and allowed to blossom,'" his father said.

Besides, he believes his son is getting more out of this experience than simply following his heart. He is learning how the music business works, he is building professional relationships and he is meeting new and interesting folks. "With any parent, you want your kids exposed to a variety of experiences," Mike Gospe said.

To find out more about Gospe, his music and his Kickstarter campaign go to his Facebook page.

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