A few years back, Zack Schwartz and his then-bandmates embarked on a tour that he describes, unequivocally, as "a disaster." The singer, guitarist and sole full-time member of the fervent folk outfit the Hollow Ends blames a lemon of a van he purchased for the bulk of the troubles.
"We had tires blow off on the road and pieces of the brakes fall off while we were driving," Schwartz recalls. "I'm literally still paying off debts from that tour."
While that experience didn't scare him away from performing music on the road — he has a 22-date tour booked for the Hollow Ends later this summer and fall — it did instill in him the reality of touring's toll on musicians, and how lucky (and rare) it is for everything to go well.
"I think those experiences are good for you," he says. "You're pretty vulnerable going on tour, and it's good to get a healthy dose of how bad it can go. The fact that we all survived was great, but it was very sobering."
Part of that sobering experience involved Schwartz realizing that he didn't especially love being in a band. He first made waves around town as a member of Amen Lucy, Amen, a group that channeled much of the roots-revival music championed by stomp-and-shout string bands like the Lumineers. Being in that group was a learning experience on several fronts.
"One thing with Amen Lucy, Amen, I was learning how to do all this stuff — learning how to write songs and get songs to match my voice," Schwartz says. "I was learning to be a leader of a band, which I wasn't especially good at it."
For the Hollow Ends, Schwartz still leans on some of those old friendships — former bandmates Jenn Rudisill and Stephen Lightle contribute to Hollow Ends' debut Bears in Mind. But Schwartz makes no bones about being at the center of this project.
"Amen Lucy, Amen was very democratic, whereas this is me at the center of it, and I am responsible for the whole thing," he says. "I kind of prefer that; I suppose I am sort of type A. Things run smoother when I run them."
The run-up to Bears in Mind has somewhat of a long tail; Schwartz released what he now calls a "demo-ish EP" in 2015, sowing the seeds of what he hoped to create with the new LP.
"The new record is a lot like [the EP], but I guess the other players had a lot more influence and there are a lot more soloists on the new record," says Schwartz. "I think having other people's influence on it is an important part of why it's more fleshed out."
On Bears in Mind, Schwartz points his flinty and expressive voice toward the rafters and strums his guitar with plenty of force alongside some gypsy-jazz flourishes. It is an unsubtle record in many ways — there's a stridency to his performance that demands a fair share of the listener's attention. Schwartz says that, when tailoring sets for live performance, he looks for ways to temper the in-your-face approach.
"It's me and a guitar and a kick drum and a tambourine pedal," he says of his live setup. "The challenge was to make them interesting with such basic things to work with. I had to draw from new styles. Playing a set of four-on-the-floor, loud-strumming, loud-singing is gonna get old after a 40-minute set. My goal was to do something interesting that people can hang with during a set where it's just me.
"It's still a work in progress," Schwartz admits. "In that way, the songwriting — whether or not it's any good, I leave up to the listener — but I had to think more about a structure of a song. I had to go back to the fundamentals of a song when it's only me on stage."
Schwartz adds that he likes having a finished product he's proud of, but "the truth is I hate recording. In order to get it right, you have to sit in front of a computer for hours and hours." He calls albums "just a big musical dissertation" and would rather be performing songs in front of crowd.
"My passion is playing in front of people," he says. "There's nothing like when a show goes well, and there's nothing like when a show goes bad. That risk makes the whole thing even better."
And the road still beckons Schwartz as he prepares to take his songs across the South and Midwest later this year. While the release show this weekend will feature some local players and singers backing him up, Schwartz is more than happy to hit the road as a true solo act.
"I am perfectly happy touring by myself," he says. "Like I said, it just seems to fit my personality."