Zachary Pace is, at heart, a fan. Their writing is from a perspective of a lifelong obsessive, of someone who has listened, thought about, and loved longer than you have. That obsessiveness, as well as Pace’s instinct to attempt explaination, is what makes their work so strange and surprising. I am not a lover of music. I certainly like it and listen to it, but I rarely think about it more deeply than how I like a song or how it makes me feel. Pace digs deeper, into the literal shape of soundwaves, into their personal history, and into the recordings themselves, plotting concept next to idea next to emotion and seeing what we can draw from them.
Pace describes the recorded voice as “a trace of human existence.” That descriptor can also be applied to Pace’s new book, I Sing to Use the Waiting (Two Dollar Radio, 2024), in which they probe at their own compulsions, interests, and infatuation with the women singers who have changed Pace’s relationship to performance, identity, and sense of power.
Conducted over video call, this interview shines a bit of a light on how Pace listens—more importantly, it highlights how Pace loves music (and loves again).
Rumpus: Do you have a song that’s stuck in your head right now?
Zachary Pace: Oh, boy. Yes. It’s no secret by now that I love Cat Power [also known as Chan Marshall]. Chan just released a new record about a week ago. She recreates a Bob Dylan bootleg that is notorious, because at the show, Bob Dylan started with an acoustic set and then finished with an electric set. Somebody in the audience called him “Judas” because he was betraying the diehard folkies and becoming a rock musician. That bootleg became very famous. Chan recreated the whole concert from start to finish at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where the bootleg was supposedly recorded, but it turned out it was mislabeled.
At the end of the day, she recreated the concert and it’s her first live recording that she’s released as an album. There are fifteen songs on it—fifteen new Cat Power songs to listen to. I’ve had three or four of them rotating out. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” is a Bob Dylan song Chan covers on that record, and it’s very beautiful. I didn’t really know the song before this. There’s a moment in it where I hear a tone in her voice that is the epitome of what I love most about her voice. I keep listening so I can hear that over and over. Because I’ve been listening to it so much, it’s gotten stuck.
Rumpus: That is really interesting. This recording you’re talking about is a replication of a memory in a way, and so much of your book is about not just the music itself but your memory of the music. Can you talk about what for you is particularly important about the intersection of music and memory?
Pace: I don’t think I’m alone in this, but I, maybe especially, attach certain emotional memories to music. Especially if I’m going through something difficult, and a song can really help me out, then that song gets really attached to whatever that struggle was. When I listen later in life, it’s so transportive. It stirs up so much sense memory around whatever event it helped me through, but it also gives me this feeling of having come through it.
Rumpus: Is there music that you don’t listen to anymore because of that?
Pace: No, because I’m such a glutton for punishment. Sometimes I’ll even pull out the song that I know is going to wreck me. Just a couple of weeks ago, I started thinking about Sarah McLachlan and her album Solace. I think it was her second album, like old, old album. There was a song that used to really destroy me when I was a kid. It would make me so sad and feel such longing. It’s called “I Will Not Forget You.” I pulled it up on YouTube immediately. I was like, “I want to feel this. I want to feel totally destroyed right now.” It actually didn’t move me the same way that it used to. That’s just to say there’s nothing that I don’t listen to because it’s too difficult emotionally. By and large, I’m trying to go for those difficult emotions.
Rumpus: One thing that stood out to me a lot about your book, and you mentioned this with Cat Power too—you don’t really talk about live performance. You mention it but not really as the art object. It’s either a recording, a bootleg, or an album. What drove that decision?
Pace: I think the value of the recording to me is, and especially nowadays, it’s at our command or it’s at our . . . I wanted to say disposal, but that’s such a negative word. We can access it whenever we want. I think about this a lot, the frustration that I felt as a kid in the early and mid-nineties, when the Internet was not in the home and computers were hardly in the home. If you wanted to hear a song, it was pretty difficult unless you had the CD. But I even think all the time—I’m in my childhood home right now, and it’s in a rural place, Upstate New York—we used to ask the local music shop guy to try and find these tapes and CDs for us because it was just really hard to obtain recorded music. Even at that time, CDs were expensive.
Now the fact that I can find almost anything that I could possibly want to hear on YouTube —the fact of the recording—it’s something that I can call up and enjoy again and again. I do have a repetitive, sort of obsessive personality. I’m soothed by repetition, but I also always seem to get something out of the next. Not only do I want to repeat, but I get something out of having repeated. The fact that the recording I can call up anytime I need it, it’s a security thing.
Whereas live performance to me is so ephemeral if it’s not, of course, recorded as a bootleg or a live recording. I think so many people feel this way. You go to any live music concert these days, and you see just a crowd full of cell phone screens. People are recording the concert. It’s so imminent that it’s hard to believe sometimes that it’s actually happening unless we have proof or evidence through the recording.
Rumpus: Throughout your book, you talk about voice in terms of performance. Performance of social norms, of gender, of queerness. On the other hand, so much of your book is about the recorded voice, not necessarily the live voice. Do you feel like the performance of recorded voice is different than the performance of your regular speaking, live, unrecorded voice?
Pace: That’s the interesting difference to me between a studio album and a bootleg, or even a live album like the one that Chan has produced, which has been engineered and mixed. You take out a little bit of the audience. I know that there are so many tricks for mastering a live album that make the sound more polished than in a bootleg, where accidents happen, bottles clinking on the floor, people talking and whispering and coughing.
The bootleg is more redolent of being in the audience, whereas the live recording is this perfect vantage point. You’re an audience of one, and you have the best sound in the house. The voices and the instruments are all balanced perfectly for you.
In studio albums, there are so many takes that go into creating a finished track, where the singer or the performer can try again and again and again to get it right, and I imagine even mix together different takes in order to create a really controlled outcome. Whereas the live recording is a little bit more . . . there’s a little more risk, and then the bootleg is completely lawless.
In fact, I don’t really know how artists feel about bootlegs. Chan, of course, has recreated a Dylan bootleg. It’s in the tradition, but I don’t know how artists feel about bootlegs of their own material. Of course, Bob Dylan had a bootleg series where he officially released unreleased bootlegs, so it probably runs the gamut. There’s so much risk involved in that recording, both for the performer and the audience member recording. I really like that element of the bootleg a lot.
Rumpus: This next question is about what I assume was one of your greatest challenges writing this book. How do you, as a writer, describe sound?
Pace: Oh my gosh. My first instinct is to go for what I think I know scientifically, which is that sound is an acoustical vibration. Even in my researching around what produces a human voice, I still don’t understand how all of these mechanical things actually produce this sound. When I think about the voice—and I try not to think about the scientific, technical stuff behind what produces a voice, especially a recorded voice—I think of it as a trace of human existence, expression. Besides the written word, it’s one of the few ways that we have to interpret what’s going on around us and to communicate it into the future.
A lot of times, I think about how if it weren’t for human language especially, this universe wouldn’t understand itself in the same way. It would be left to the other animals that can witness but can’t communicate. Whereas we humans can actually interpret, analyze, synthesize what’s going on around us, and then tell people into the future so that we keep knowing and understanding and realizing what the world is.
You’re asking about sound, which I’m just thinking of matter on the air. I’m thinking of a Toni Morrison quote that I’m probably going to misquote, but it’s something along the lines of, “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.” I think of sound as matter being placed on the air.
Rumpus: What’s your listening practice when it comes to returning to a song, album, or artist you’re writing an essay about?
Pace: I have an unusual tolerance for repetition. Most of these essays came out of repetitive listening that I’d been doing for most of my life in order to self-soothe. But when working on certain essays, I did make it a rule, or a ritual, to listen exclusively to the artist in question, and I continue to do this as I work on new writing. I think of it as research, but it also helps pass time while giving me a sense of continuity. Of course, I will let myself listen to a random artist just to cleanse the palate, but by and large, I find it gratifying to follow the rule or the ritual of restricting and repeating my listening.
Rumpus: Were there other books on music or collections of criticism that informed your collection?
Pace: Greil Marcus’s Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads was the first. Hilton Als’s White Girls is the most important book of all time to me. Clarice Lispector’s Selected Crônicas get me in the mood to write—also anything and everything written by Wayne Koestenbaum. Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, The Art of Cruelty, and The Argonauts are a kind of holy trinity for me. I’ve said it before, but it bears endless repeating: I was inspired to try to write this book after reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, which was published by Two Dollar Radio, so it is unbelievably meaningful to me that Two Dollar Radio said yes to my book.
Rumpus: We went very granular, now let’s go big. So much of what you talk about in your book, including what the album art you mentioned, is about music culture. It’s not just “how this song affected me,” it’s how Cher existed and what kinds of stories she told. What do you think draws you to these divas? Is it the aesthetic specifics or is it something else?
Pace: In the beginning, I think that I was drawn to—this is hard because the person in question is sitting in the next room. I think I was drawn to performers who reminded me of my mother when I was a kid. I really idolized her, I felt very safe and protected by her. I really didn’t feel that way around my father and so I think I gravitated toward other characters and figures in the world who reminded me what kind of safety and protection I felt in my mother’s care.
I’m hesitant to say this on the record, but even Chan Marshall resembles my mother in some way that I’m sure I found very compelling at first. The magnetism of a celebrity is hard to do, but I am very drawn to celebrity in a way that feels shallow. More than Madonna’s musical talent, I was completely obsessed with her celebrity. That’s what I liked most about her at the time, I think. That’s why I got into Kabbalah, partially because I wanted to be like her because her star quality was just—it just made me happy to be alive. It made me inspired to go out into public and to try and to compel people in the same way or to—I think that’s what it was.
They gave me this courage to try and be that confident in public when, from a very young age, I was very insecure in public because I just knew fundamentally that I wasn’t a stereotypical boy when I was a kid.
Rumpus: When you mention celebrity, do you mean the performance of it, or do you mean the star’s behavior or the fans’ behavior that intrigued you?
Pace: I don’t know. That’s where it’s shallow for me. Of course, who doesn’t want to be loved by as many people as possible? I think it was more about the confidence this person exudes. I just thought the hard work that it takes to connect with so many people on an emotional level, even as an entertainer, they’re providing people with tools to enjoy life with. Even way before I knew how to vocalize that, and I haven’t even really vocalized it until right now, I think that I was drawn to the way that they made people excited to be alive and the ways that they created amusement material for us to use in our boredom, in our loneliness. They gave me tools for survival in a way that I, of course, wanted to try and do for other people.
Rumpus: When you’re writing about these artists, how much previous knowledge do you expect your readers to have on them, and how do you write to that?
Pace: I understood that a reader was likely to come to this book with more knowledge of Rihanna or Madonna than, say, Frances Quinlan, who is the subject of the last essay I wrote for the book. But overall, I tried to imagine a reader who had at least a cursory knowledge of the artist as well as the ability to fill in any gaps with the Internet. While writing about Frances, I had the realization, which I address in the essay, that the reader could very easily access the audio and visuals on the Internet. So I became more conscious about choosing details, and I cut back the details that struck me as more self-evident, then seeded in details that I thought couldn’t be found by a simple Google search.
The essays used to be laden with way too much information. The roughest draft of the eight essays came to twice the page count of the final fourteen essays. The book went through about ten rounds of heavy revision—including an amazing, big, last push two weeks before it went to print—so I have weeded out lots and lots of unnecessary information.
Rumpus: This book is memoir. It’s criticism, but it’s criticism from a fan’s point of view. What is it like writing analysis from the fan’s point of view, and how do you think it influenced how your writing?
Pace: I felt really insecure about that all along. For a long time, I wasn’t sure what approach to take. I was reading a lot of queer theory, and surrounded by a lot of graduate students, and thinking like, “Is this a more academic book or. . . .” I’m not an academic and I don’t have the training. Well, “academic” as we define it. I’m not a graduate student, and I don’t have a PhD. I didn’t write a dissertation, and so I have no training in that. One of the first few pieces written in the book is the first one on the queer voice. In that piece, I quote from Roland Barthes about his idea of what an amateur is: somebody who loves and loves again. Then I realized that that’s who I was.
I was not an expert, I was not an academic, but I was someone who loved to love again and again. I love to listen repetitively, and I love to appreciate and to praise the people who I respect and admire, so I thought, “This is what I can do. I can just love and love again through this book.” I can love my idols and I can love my readers, I guess, by trying to tell these stories in the most interesting, compelling, accurate ways.
I think the major impetus was to celebrate and to praise these singers, these performers because they gave so much to me. I wanted to give back to them but also give them back to the culture and to show people aspects of these women’s lives, their stories, their histories that may not have been evident to somebody who didn’t listen or watch over, and over, and over, and over.
Author photograph by Jared Buckhiester