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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

A conversation with Derek Zanetti of the Homeless Gospel Choir

After dropping off lasagna at a friend’s house, Derek Zanetti spoke to me from his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He lives there with his wife Lindsey and their dog Winnie. Zanetti is a multimedia artist best known for his punk rock band The Homeless Gospel Choir. His distinctive Pittsburgh accent rings as clearly when we speak as it does on his records.

Derek Zanetti is a wholesome figure in the punk community. His songs, every one of which is referred to as a protest song because, “making art is a form of expression and resistance…” are largely about American politics, mental health and Zanetti’s life, but often with an emphasis on positivity and always containing his sense of humor. Songs like “Depression,” “Armageddon” and “Figure it Out” (about the dread of working a 9-5 job) in the hands of a different songwriter could easily fall into traps of cynicism and solemn reflection, but from the Homeless Gospel Choir, these songs are funny and optimistic while still providing thoughtful commentary. 

As Zanetti outlines in his song “Normal,” punk music has been a part of his life for a long time, but he hasn’t always been a musician, at least not professionally. Before 2009, when he “decided to giddy up a bit” and start touring and releasing music, Zanetti described his life as, “just being a human, just living.” He graduated college and worked as a server at the Olive Garden and at a Christian hot dog spot called the Franktuary. When he decided to make the shift to music, he did so not abruptly but assuredly. “I had to ease myself into it because I didn’t know what opportunities could present themselves, but I also knew that it was certainly something that was feasible and doable and manageable on a DIY level … there were plenty of friends of mine who were in bands who were touring a bunch of the time thatyou know, I don’t need very much, they would just put me in their van and they’d take me on tour … and I just did that for quite some time to get the experience to do it.”

14 years on, Zanetti stated, “… all the goals I have set out to accomplish with this punk band I’ve achieved.” The Homeless Gospel Choir, which has released five albums in addition to a split EP, a demo and a live album, has seen the range of touring bands’ experiences, “I’ve played basements and I’ve played hockey arenas. I’ve put out records on my own and I’ve put out records on fancy record labels. I’ve done solo acoustic in a Volkswagen Passat and I’ve toured in big huge fancy buses where there’s breakfast and catering and all the rest of it.” The Homeless Gospel Choir is not always a solo project for Zanetti; his past two albums were released alongside four other musicians. “… there’s some moments on those records where it’s like yo, that’s a magical moment that we created that I certainly couldn’t have created on my ownthat I needed to have that group effort for it.” But as of today, he prefers to work solo “… I’m a control freak and … you have five individual people with five individual brain cocktails inside their heads of the things that they wanna do and how they wanna be represented and trying to navigate that and trying to juggle that at times proves to be problematic and proves to be difficult.”

Looking towards the future, Zanetti is planning on making some changes in his music. “I’ve been wanting to release music under my own name, under Derek Zanetti … these next batch of songs will probably just be Derek Zanetti or the Derek Zanetti Band or Derek Zanetti Music Experience or something like that.” The music he releases under his own name would not inherently be different from his past music, but as he explains it, “… I just don’t want to always have to look to my past, for like my past accolades to put my hat on. I’d rather be hungry … as somebody who wants to make art that is current and somebody who desires to make art that is timely and of the moment, I want to just play new songs and maybe see what new things I can do without the past ideas of what a record is supposed to be. When I think about having to make another Homeless Gospel Choir record I think I’d rather jump off of a fucking cliff. It makes me so sad and depressed, and then I think about being able to just make anything that I want and calling it the Derek Zanetti Band is super liberating.” While he expects those who like his past music to enjoy his new releases, if they don’t, he won’t stop putting out new music. “I subscribe to a theory that if you’re gonna be alive you might as well make art and if you’re gonna make art you might as well show other people.”

Music is not the only form of art Zanetti creates. He is a physical artist, who had an art show at Eso Arts in Lancaster a few weeks ago. He also writes poetry. When creating art not for the Homeless Gospel Choir, Zanetti said “I get to be more abstract and I get to go down different rabbit holes and I feel like I get to be more wild and experimental …” But all art serves a similar purpose for Zanetti, “… when I get to make music, or whenever I’m working on something and I get lost in it, my mind gets to find like a measure of peace … for me the more moments at that peace, the more moments where the rest of the world doesn’t exist … I find the happier I am and the more at peace I am with myself and the world around me.”

It is important to Zanetti that the Derek Zanetti he presents to the world is a positive one, “… the world can be a sad place or an ugly place or a lonely place and I don’t ignore that, it’s tough to ignore that ever, but I certainly don’t need to live in it either … I only want you to see when I’m happy or when I am filled with joy … times where I’m not my best … I only keep that for myself.” This is clear not only in Zanetti’s music, but in his social media presence. A social media presence I should mention he despises. “… If I’m truly being honest about my feelings, I have a plate and on my plate I can only fit so many things, social media would not be on my plate. I absolutly hate it. I don’t like the way it makes me feel … I don’t like anything about it … I don’t literally give a fuck about any of it.” Still, on Zanetti’s rather active Instagram, you will find photo after photo of wide smiles and thumbs up as well as the occasional livestream. Zanetti’s livestreams are famous in my household. He has an incredible ability, both in his livestreams and as a performer generally, of making you feel like you are a part of his circle, a real friend, as he takes you around discussing his life and hobbies. His 2020 variety show series, during which he and his friends performed covers and original songs, were a gift during a less than stellar period. 

When I asked him to describe his fan base, Zanetti said he believes the people who like his music span all age ranges, ethnic backgrounds and genders. For readers interested in hearing more of Derek Zanetti’s music (which you all should be), I recommend fans of pop-punk try the album The Homeless Gospel Choir “Presents: Normal,” fans of punk listen to “This Land is Your Landfill,” and everyone else just give The Homeless Gospel Choir’s top five Spotify songs a listen. You will be glad you did.

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