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A few kind words with Zak Abel

The CALM Ambassador is back with new song Be Kind, so we caught up with him to talk kindness, new music and playing ultra-competitive monopoly to get through the pandemic.

It was seeing the phrase Be Kind trending on social media that inspired Zak Abel’s new song; an optimistic, up-tempo earworm whose positive message of acceptance and compassion seems perfect for these times. “I was in LA when I wrote it and seeing #BeKind trending on social media sparked something. I was seeing things about bullying that were happening - people feeling that it was OK to harass people online because they perceived them as different or other to them.”

“That was what the song was about really: me hoping to do my bit to promote the idea of kindness, rather than looking for someone to blame and lashing out at other people.”

So the song was written but, of course, making music in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t easy and, with Zak stuck back in London, it meant having to find new ways to record. “We ended up recording it in lockdown. I did it with a guy called Nick Ruth and he was actually able to engineer me from LA over Zoom. It was like when you call up one of those IT troubleshooters who control your screen.”

The logistics of recording is certainly not the only challenge Zak has faced during the pandemic. In fact, back in January, he was struck down by coronavirus. It left him feeling ‘pretty horrible’. “I'll be honest, it was two weeks of not not a very nice time but luckily I got over it and pretty much everything's back to normal now apart from the fact I still can't smell - but there’s definitely worse senses to lose that’s for sure.”

Despite Be Kind’s message of misplaced anger online, Zak’s own experiences of social media have been positive - and it’s the passion and support of his fans - and being able to play for them online - that’s really helped pull him through lockdown. “My fans - The Zak Pack - are very, very kind. I was going live on Instagram Live every day in April during the first lockdown and I got to meet them on these sessions and chat to them and put a face to the names I see in comments. And it was honestly so inspiring to just connect.”

It helped Zak as, like many of us, he struggled with his mental health during the start of the pandemic. “Towards the very start of the lockdown, especially, I found it difficult to keep calm - haha, can’t believe I said that! I found it difficult to stay grounded, shall we say. I was very anxious about getting COVID myself and then also about giving it to other people.”

And having music to turn to - especially those Insta performances really helped (and who can forget his brilliant performance for CALM’s Lock In). “I think the most impactful music thing that happened really was doing the Instagram Lives.” And while he struggled not being able to visit his mum, his housemates helped him through. “We spent the majority of the first lockdown playing Monopoly and playing this in a very competitive nature. So I would say that we helped each other become better negotiators,” he laughs.

He was also able to continue writing music and his new album is nearly “85% complete” - it’s now a case of getting everything recorded and produced, mixed, mastered. And it’s a record he’s really proud of and can’t wait for people to hear.

“It took me a while to figure out which direction I wanted to go after my first album. And, I feel like I'm quite clear in my direction now. This album definitely has the most soulful bits of music that I've ever done. And I'd like to think that in every song that's on the album so far, I'm actually saying something. I spent a long time after writing my first album, just writing songs that weren't really about anything. But with this I can honestly say, hand on heart the songs on this album so far, I'm really proud of all of them. And they mean something to me. And I really hope they mean something to other people as well.”

The pandemic did throw in one other stumbling block to the writing process - making lyrics harder to write and as they’re so attached to what we’re living through. “There's a big thing which keeps happening in writing sessions at the moment, which is: we'll come up with the lyric and then we'll be like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. That’s a COVID lyric, isn't it?’ That''s a bit too COVID Specific. Because we're so used to using a certain language? One sentence I keep hearing myself say is “When all this is over” Like, and so many other people are saying that as well.”

“Ever since I can remember I've always had some issues with my own mental health. But luckily, I've had people around me, who've been been able to help."

Zak also became a CALM Ambassador in 2020. What does that mean to him? “Ever since I can remember I've always had some issues with my own mental health. But luckily, I've had people around me, who've been been able to help and have guided me in a way where I have some tools to help myself now.”

But some people don't have access to that. And I don't feel like that's fair. And so I wanted to do my bit to support a charity which does do that. I think that the idea is brilliant and I wanted to be a part of that.”

He also shared what helps him when he’s struggling. “I think about it in a similar way to physical health, which is: what are the things that I know are going to make me not feel healthy? So if I don't sleep, for example, I know my mind might feel a bit terrible the next day. Or if I'm not seeing friends, or talking to friends, and I'm alone. That's not good. But if I meditate, for example, I'm probably going to feel a bit happier. So it’s like compiling a list of things which I know are positive and paying attention to those things - just trying to break things down into manageable elements is really useful for me.”

With a return to ‘normal life’ looming Zak is excited to play new music IRL. There’s also the opportunity to build on the brilliant collaborators he’s already worked with before. So to end the interview, the question is, who’s the one person he dreams of working with? “I think it has to be Mark Ronson - he’s responsible for some of my favourite songs ever made. You know, from Amy Winehouse to Daniel Merriweather. I just love soul and funk music and there's not many people who are able to pull that off in a modern way. So, I'd love to work with Mark Ronson.”