When Zachary Schwartz released his first full-length LP under the name the Hollow Ends in mid-2018, the folk-leaning, stridently voiced singer-songwriter had plans to take his one-man show on the road. And while he's taken the Hollow Ends to gigs in Kansas City and Springfield, Illinois, Schwartz's professional duties superseded his musical calling for much of this year.
"I'm a teacher and getting my PhD, so a lot of time has been devoted to my classes, so I didn't get as much of a chance to get out on the road," Schwartz says.
Schwartz is finishing up his degree in political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and the grind of coursework, thesis writing and adjunct teaching doesn't exactly comport with the rock & roll lifestyle. Even still, Schwartz managed to sneak out the five-song EP II before the end of 2019.
The seeds of the EP were planted in the sessions for last year's Bears in Mind full-length, and initially Schwartz hoped to reclaim some of those castaways. Upon further review, though, more work was needed: Two songs from those initial sessions were scrapped entirely, one was rebuilt from the ground up, and the other two tracks were written for this project. So how does Schwartz know the good from the bad, the salvageable from the misbegotten?
"I think about that all the time," he says. "'Oh my god, are any of these good?' I have no idea."
"Owls," from EP II, is one of those songs that got recast for this new release. Schwartz calls it more "stripped-down," and this version relies on a lightly overdriven but wildly tremulous electric guitar and occasional blasts of harmonica to tell an inward-looking story of self doubt and paranoia.
"I re-recorded everything in a couple days," Schwartz says of the song, which he says was "pretty campy" in its initial incarnation. "The original version was more of a folk-rock song, much louder, bigger guitars and bass, and this one is more a reimagination of it. I decided to go back to the drawing board and see what would happen if I did it this way."
You would be hard-pressed to find a lot of humor in Hollow Ends songs — Schwartz notes that several songs on the debut LP dealt with his own struggles with anxiety — but the songwriter drew inspiration for his songwriting process from the seemingly bottomless reserve of comedians talking to comedians about comedy.
"I watch a lot of interviews and listen to a lot of podcasts with comedians," Schwartz says. "They are more open with the process in a way that musicians are not. Comedians will talk about the nuts and bolts of how you make something funny. In songwriting, I'm so close to this and have heard these songs 500,000 times and have been re-recording it — you kind of go crazy after a while. Hopefully you can trust yourself enough to put it out."
Schwartz has had to learn to trust himself more and more over the past few years of working as a solo artist. Having played as part of the folk-rock quintet Amen Lucy, Amen in the earlier part of the decade, he has experience with the democratic process of being in a band. Ultimately, he is happy to be in the center of this particular circle, but it is not without some misgivings.
"It's kind of a give and take; there are definitely positives to doing things by myself," Schwartz says. "I can play shows or go on tour without checking with anyone else." Having made a few solo recordings as the Hollow Ends, Schwartz is aware of what he has sacrificed by being at the helm of this project.
"With Amen Lucy, Amen, having five people invested in the record and take ownership of it, is that I had more confidence in the process of making that record because the five of us liked it," he says. "At the end of the process where it's my record and I have friends playing on it, you don't fully know in the way as you do with a band process. There's something where I'm not getting the same honest, critical feedback."
Of the two new songs written for EP II, Schwartz says that the songwriting process went much more quickly than in years past. The strummy, chummy "Annie Pardami" starts off the record with a bright, thumping tune that showcases Schwartz's treetop-clearing tenor. The other new composition, "Little Devil," is more raucous and sinister; Schwartz says he used some of his academic experiences for this track, focusing on moral ambiguity, ethical ambivalence and how that affects our decision-making.
"Little Devil" benefits from a broad cast of singers and musicians; a ghoulish choir and some Salvation Army horns give the song a dark cast. All told, around a dozen friends helped Schwartz give the Hollow Ends a fuller feel.
"The first record was dramatic already — it was this silly circus — and I pushed it further," he says. "I'm trying to fill out the idea there. I don't necessarily adhere to any particular sound — I can do whatever I want since it's just me."