Composer Zak Dylan builds on experiences and influences from a childhood split between Hawaii and Alaska. He tries to create new forms and styles of music, blending genres as diverse as jazz, rock, blues, reggae, funk, soul, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, classical, electronica, salsa, bachata, merengue, flamenco, bossa nova, samba, world music “and others.”
The first song that Zak Dylan wrote was, as he describes it, a “half Hawaiian reggae and half Motown doo-wop” for the ukulele. He’s been making music that defies categorization ever since.
The Sitka-based composer and guitarist enjoys the unexpected consequences of combining disparate styles and sounds. “There’s something beautiful about hearing things interact that don’t usually interact,” he said. “It’s like creating new colors that weren’t there before.”
It’s no accident that Dylan began composing for the ukulele. He grew up spending summers in Alaska and winters in Hawaii, working on his dad’s fishing boat, the Hula Girl. He started baiting gear at age 10 and was a full member of the crew by 15. One of his earliest musical influences was the jazz that his dad played late at night, usually with the volume cranked to max. “He had really big speakers,” Dylan recalls. “It was much louder than a live jazz concert.”
Dylan strives to create new forms and styles of music, blending genres as diverse as jazz, rock, blues, reggae, funk, soul, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, classical, electronica, salsa, bachata, merengue, flamenco, bossa nova, samba, world music “and others.” His musical heroes include Pat Metheny, Jimi Hendrix, and Grammy award nominee Meshell Ndegeocello. Dylan is always searching for new sounds to add to his palette. He also cites his upbringing in the 49th and 50th states as an important influence. “Alaska and Hawaii are both places you can be outdoors and appreciate the beauty of the world. That has grounded me and allowed me to tap into the energy of nature.”
Dylan — who recently dropped his last name, Wass, professionally — returned to Alaska after earning a bachelor’s degree at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “After school a lot of my friends went to New York or Los Angeles to make it in the music world. I realized I had something here in Alaska that no one else did. I wanted to make Alaska my musical home and share it with the world as opposed to just being another person trying to make it in the city,” he explains.
While Sitka is his home base, Dylan has performed and toured with American Idol finalist Camile Velasco, worked as a session guitarist for Latin Grammy-winning producer Richy Peña, and produced an EP with Bangladeshi singer Armeen Musa. He plays electric guitar and provides vocals for Indian Agent, a three-piece experimental electro/acoustic project founded by fellow Sitka artist Nicholas Galanin.
But making a musical home in Alaska is not just a figure of speech. Dylan is literally building a foundation for his work by constructing a recording studio on his property, learning new skills in the process. “They don’t teach concrete and framing at Berklee,” he notes wryly. His goal is to invite his collaborators from around the world to play with him in Sitka.
Dylan continues longlining with his father, who lets him skip out for gigs. “Most captains would say that that you’re either a musician or a fisherman. Dad has always told me that I can do both.” Dylan appreciates all the encouragement he has received from his parents and is now trying to extend the same support to his 3-year-old daughter. “She is super creative, and really into music. She gets out my microphones and puts on her own concerts for everyone without any prompts,” he says proudly. “She’s a natural.”
While he enjoys performing and teaching music, Zak Dylan derives the greatest satisfaction from composing and producing his ideas into tangible form. “My best work is still ahead of me,” he says. With a hammer in hand by day and a guitar by night, he is building his life as an Alaska artist, creating new musical colors to share.
Listen here to Zak Dylan. Selections were composed and produced by Dylan. Along with other musicians, he plays a variety of instruments on each.
“Bulerias Por Tiberu” mix
“Hold On” mix
Robin Sherman is a consulting writer. She works on projects ranging from public policy reportsto recipes in her kitchen corner office in Sitka. She has a master’s degree in publicadministration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a master’s degree inurban and environmental policy from Tufts University.
Image credits - Artist portrait and gallery images are by Caitlyn Fondell. Gallery image 3 shows the artist with his young daughter. Writer portrait is by Orzel Photography.