When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Zac Little had already amassed a handful of songs for a new Saintseneca album. So, for much of the pandemic, the musician largely kept his head down and continued to write and record, doing his best to stay busy amid the absence of touring and the general lull of stay-at-home existence.
“Working on creative stuff, for me, is a way of processing or even just dealing with things, so it gave me something to focus on, and it was also good just to have something to do,” said Little, who will join Saintseneca bandmates Andy Cook, Caeleigh Featherstone and Jessi Bream in concert at the sixth annual , which takes place at the Valley Dale Ballroom on Saturday, March 11. “And then producing a record myself has always been a long-time ambition of mine, which I suppose was compatible with the forced isolation. So, that’s what I did.”
Little spoke by phone in early March from Omaha, Nebraska, where he was in the process of mixing these self-produced tracks for a new Saintseneca LP alongside Mike Mogis, who had a hand in producing the band’s last three albums, including its most recent release, Pillar of Na, from 2018. “I wanted to work with him, and it came together last-minute,” Little said of the mixing sessions, which will resume following that kicks off Friday in Cleveland.
While a number of these new songs – some of which could appear in some form during the band’s set at SoupFest – were written prior to the pandemic, Little said there are sentiments captured within that have taken on new resonance in light of current events. “I feel there are certain things in them where if I were to hear someone singing the song or lyric or whatever, I would think it was related or informed specifically by that, but they weren’t,” he said. “But I suppose it gives them a new lens, where you say, ‘Oh, that takes on a whole new meaning based on the world.’”
Little, for his part, is deeply accepting of this idea, believing that a song never really belongs to him – “Although I try to take good care of it,” he said – and that listeners are free to pull from the work whatever might feel relevant to their lives.
Though Saintseneca hasn’t released a full album since 2018, the band has doled out a handful of singles in the intervening years, a couple of which – “In a Van” and “Wild Violent” – have touched on the concept of nostalgia, and how this backward view can sometimes become skewed or take on surprising new form when observed through the lens of history.
“There’s that strange feeling of time and living in time. And I imagine over the last couple of years everybody’s sense of time has sort of been turned on its head,” Little said. “I think I’ve always probably had an element of that nostalgic impulse, but I suppose the older you become the more you have to look back on. Also, it’s weird, because there are certain cycles with things. For instance, coming out to Omaha, the first time we were here was exactly 10 years ago next month, which is kind of a brain twister. … And this is the fourth time we’ve been out here to work on music, so you have these little rhymes and experiences of each time and how it’s evolved and changed, and I think that’s probably an inevitable part of life.”
Generally, though, Little said he tries to not get too hung up on the past, preferring to focus on what comes next, which has led to a constant evaluation of self, the forces that compel him to create, and what form that might take moving forward. In many ways, the pandemic allowed even deeper introspection, with the societal upheaval causing the musician to more carefully reassess his values and priorities.
“Something as disruptive as the last few years really makes you reflect and ask, ‘What’s important to me?’” said Little, who in more recent years has also started to ask himself more probing questions related to the act of creation. “I do find myself wondering, ‘What are my motivations? … Why do I feel compelled to keep doing this?’ But for me, it doesn’t feel like a choice. It just is. I don’t know what else I would do. And I don’t mean that from the perspective of, ‘Oh, I’m totally defined by being in this band,’ because if anything that’s one thing I’ve chosen to let go of. I don’t want to be defined by this band. And maybe at some point I was even irritated by it. … I’m a human first and foremost, and I define my life by my relationships with other people.”
Little described his brief “irritation” with Saintseneca as difficult to articulate, but he recalled one time when he was hand-lettering something band related – a concert poster or an album cover of some kind – and it struck him that he was tired of recreating this particular grouping of letters in this particular order.
“I had written this series of letters in a whole lot of different fonts over the years, and at that moment it was just irritating to me for some reason,” he continued. “But I feel like the forced downtime imposed by the pandemic afforded enough space to sort of be out of that hamster wheel for a bit. And maybe now I feel a little more grounded in what’s important to me and what I want to invest in. And that’s one of the things I hope I could carry forward in life and in making creative decisions, and not just doing it because it seems expedient, but rather because it’s inspiring and expansive.”
These revelations have been accompanied by a new appreciation for the music he has made within Saintseneca, an output of which Little has tended to take a more jaundiced view, that he was “never happy with anything” he creates.
“At various points in my life, I think I was almost afraid to like things that I had done, because I’m pretty self-critical, and I was just like, ‘Oh, well, if I go easy on myself then I’ll start to suck,’” said Little, who also had a hand in producing Infinite Spring, the forthcoming record from , due April 21. “But I just think that isn’t true, and the best things come out of that sense of connection and joy. … There are a few times I’ve needed to relearn a guitar part or something, and so I’ve listened back to things that maybe I felt anxiety about in the past, like, ‘Oh, did I get this right?’ And I was like, ‘Holy shit, that sounds awesome.’ And, for me, that isn’t an ego trip; it’s actually the opposite. It’s growing and allowing some of that kindness in, which is actually more of a challenge than just being mean to yourself.”