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April 2023

 Photography by: Gem Ceniza

Zane Carney

Zane Carney
An auteur of the fretboard

Zane Carney, 37, is known by many for his intricate mastery of jazz guitar. But one might be surprised to hear him playing for a diverse set of artists like Thundercat, Avril Lavigne, Justin Timberlake, and Sia.


Astute listeners, however, may be able to distinguish his sound by the way his guitar converses with the rest of the instruments in a song or performance. The stories he builds on the foundations of the fretboard are found few and far between in the music industry.


In the last decade he’s begun to focus on his solo career, with Confluence, and exploring his love of the improvisational nature of jazz in Amalgman and Alter Ego. But he’s added another person recently, who some might say is a fitting complement to his abilities.


Carney’s band with actor and singer Evan Rachel Wood (“Across the Universe,” “Westworld,” “Thirteen”), Evan + Zane, is now touring around the globe fresh off its freshman album release, Dream, bringing the best that the cornerstone of modern music – guitar and voice — has to offer.


Carney and Wood had wanted to create an album of their favorite performance since they started playing together in 2018, and they settled on the theme of dreams, picking the top songs of that set.

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Carney is happy to be back on the road with Wood, but at the same time, he’s relished the time off touring he did have. Carney says that he was on tour for eight months out of the year between ages 18 to 34. He loved the places he visited — Japan five times, Europe more than 10, and Australia five — but didn’t love the grind.

Carney says this tour will be slightly different, however. The duo will be headlining a mixture of rock’n’roll and cabaret venues.

“It'll be a little more unique with Evan + Zane, because when we walk into a room does it smell like beer from the night before? Or is it like a nice wine list,” Carney joked.

On a serious note, he added that the diversity of locations has nicely matched the variety in Evan + Zane, having played more than 600 songs since the band’s inception. The majority of the performances were before the album was released, and each represented a theme, such as jealousy, psychedelia, blue, or playing the entire album Jagged Little Pill or OK Computer.

These performances are a sight to behold. Part of the draw that sells out these unique venues is the talent of the two musicians — Zane turning the guitar into a fragment of his imagination and Wood matching the mood of the cover while adding her own languid flair.

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“People who are really versatile often are just impressionists, they're into mimicry. And she's [Wood] not into that in my experience of her, she's like, ‘Oh, I can do it. And I'm going to make it my own,” Carney says. “I relate to that because most of the training I did as a musician was transcribing great musicians. And they'd be making quote, unquote, musical sentences. I'd learn their sentences and then I’d deconstruct them and make them my own. So she does that too.”

The other draw to Evan + Zane is experiencing the artistry first hand, seeing the two play off each other and lighten the room. The audience is one person that you would have thought Carney and Wood knew for ages, but in reality, they had just met.

That feeling is also palpable in Dream, which was recorded live in Carney’s studio over Twitch. The only addition, Carney says, was two or three guitar solos added on top. Carney calls it a live performance with studio mics.

When Zane Carney and Evan Rachel Wood met, a world-class musical duo was born. But it would take years for them to mature in their own artistic journeys and come together for something special.

That bond, Zane hypothesizes, comes from their love of retro Nintendo video games that remind them of their youth, and also their shared experience as child actors. It’s an experience most children can’t imagine — being on set all day and attempting perfection on take number one, attending school in the morning and evening, and trying to have a normal social life.

“Sometimes when you're really close to people, and you're also working with them, it can create challenges. I don't know why she and I got so lucky or how we got so lucky. But I think we're pretty good at calming each other. And I do wonder if part of that really does come back to both being child actors. Because as a child actor, there's a lot of pressure on you. And your cortisol levels and nervous system are not regulated properly. So we always look for relationships that will be a calming influence. And because we both understand it, we're not going to pressure each other over,” Carney says.

Evan + Zane has been changing with time. Carney and Wood are beginning to try their hat at creating more produced albums and winding down the frequency of shows.

“Also Evan + Zane, the spirit of the band, for so many years was all about 15 to 20 new songs, every single show we played, and flying by the seat of our pants, that was sort of the old model. Now we're doing [the same] show in different cities, we're going to be writing songs, and eventually, we're going to be giving ourselves less material so we can be more focused. And we're excited about that, too.”

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Carney was steeped in music and entertainment as a child. His mother, Marti Heil, went to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music for theater and musical theater, and his father, John Carney, was a jingle writer in the 80s and 90s. One of his well-known jingles was featured in a 1998 Play-Doh ad. The reggae-infused 30-second song was etched into the hearts and minds of 90s kids. “Anything goes with Playdough!” He also co-wrote the song for the Hands Across America event, where millions of children across America linked hands for charity.

As an eight-year-old Carney landed a spot as the eldest child of Harry Anderson’s character Dave Barry and was part of “Dave’s World” for its four seasons between 1993 and 1997. Coincidentally, the 1993 pilot features Dave picking up a guitar amp, much to the consternation of his neighbors.

At 10, when he received a blue Vantage acoustic guitar for his birthday and his older brother Reeve, who Carney would eventually start a band with, was taking up blues guitar, music became a larger part of his life.

Especially because the fretboard came naturally to him. Usually, the piano is more intuitive for budding musicians. But it was the opposite for Carney.

The fretboard just made sense to him. His brother and father taught him a few chords, and from there he experimented on his own. He discovered which finger shapes yielded which pitch up and down the fretboard. Looking back, Carney said he didn’t necessarily know the theory behind it, but within a week he felt he understood the instrument that for many is a great mystery.

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By the time young Carney was 12, he began approaching musical stages in the Valley — Smokin’ Johnnies, Cozy’s Bar and Grill, and B.B. King’s Blues Club — with zero inhibition, thanks in part to starring as a child actor.

“I just felt like I, whatever I put my mind to, I'll just be able to do eventually. And I do not care what other people think about me in these three or four areas of my life (In this other area I’m obsessed with how people think about me.) But in this area, I'm not going to let people's opinions of me stop me from learning,” Carney says.

Neither was he afraid to seek tips from the music greats that frequented these clubs and restaurants and try different techniques in front of a crowd. He also began to observe what resonated with audiences.

“I realized there's more to music than impressing people,” Carney continued. “It's about making them feel an emotion that they didn't think they could feel that evening and so that really set my course to focus more on opening up someone's emotional experience versus impressing them.”

Finding jazz, however, wasn’t prompted by his family. It’s something that he discovered on his own.

But now, nearly 30 years later, the Carney family is coming back together. His brother Reeve, 39, headlined the Spider-Man: Turn off The Dark musical, and his younger sister Paris, 35, who’s had songwriting credits on multiple records.

Each of them, like Carney, has been around the world playing music, starring in movies, and writing hits, and are now ready to come back home with an unparalleled diversity of life, and musical experiences. They already have 40 song sketches between the three of them. Keep writing until find 5-6 winners.

Discovering jazz at a young age was owed to renowned jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. He remembers listening to a guitar solo from the track “No Blues” off the Wynton Kelly Trio Smokin’ at the Half Note album.

“So my head just exploded. And then at the end of this, not only was I enamored, I felt this sense of connection. Like, this is how my brain works,” he says.

“When I heard jazz I could just sense in the music like this was not composed this happened in the moment. It's like hanging out with my friends and saying, ‘oh, man, did you see that new movie’ and my friend goes, ‘oh, so crazy.’ Well, that's what's happening musically in jazz.”

Listening to Montgomery was a turning point for Carney. He remembers telling his mother shortly after that he wanted to become a musician and quit acting.

By the time Grammy-award-winning producer David Foster plucked him from the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music in his sophomore year for Renee Olstead’s jazz tour, Carney had amassed decades of combined years of experience in the art of guitar and jazz.

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After spending his twenties touring with the likes of Johnny Lang, John Daversa, and John Mayer and opening for artists like U2, Fergie, and the Black Crowes with him and his brother’s band “Carney,” he was ready to build his solo sound.

He found success there, too. Carney’s 2013 freshman album, Confluence, was aptly named given the score of influences on his music career. The pop, soft rock, singer-songwriter album mixed driving guitar rhythms and his smooth tenor voice. That album, plus his follow-up jazz album, Amalgam, also helped land a six-month residency at the Hotel Cafe in LA in 2015.

It helped that he had played for such a wide range of musicians and built up a diverse base of music for himself. And playing for all those names came down to a simple philosophy, Carney says — “saying yes to every gig that was offered.”

When Carney was about 18, Ron Patterson, a local LA neo-soul artist, heard him play at one jazz night in LA. After the show, he asked Carney to lay down some guitar for the record he was recording the next day. Carney played the chords in front of him but made it his own jazz- inspired version. They loved it. He also played individual chords that were fed into MPC pads, which allow the user to trigger a sound or sample. This added to another layer of Carney’s understanding of music production.

The next week he auditioned for and got a part in Jesse McCartney’s “Beautiful Soul” tour. Then he subbed for Grammy-award-winning guitarist, producer, and songwriter Eric Wahls at Living Waters, a gospel church in LA.

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“I said yes, to every genre I could. And whenever I entered into a new genre, I learned as much as I could about the new genre I was playing, while also being encouraged to just do whatever I think should happen,” Carney said. “And so I accidentally developed, thankfully, a sound that from what I hear from people is pretty recognizable.”  


Most of his music lately has had an unplugged element. Dream was recorded in his garage and mixed by Carney himself. No mixing engineer would touch it anyway, he says. There was a lot of bleed, meaning the sound from the guitar amp bleed into his and Evan’s vocals.  


For Carney, that’s been a form that has better matched the music he enjoys, particularly jazz. That was the goal of Alter Ego. The proof is in the custom Siegmund Sound King he used, which is powered by retro 300B television tubes and features a larger 15-inch speaker. The cable can literally kill someone if touched, Carney says. 


“With jazz music, for me, it's really important to make the audience feel like this is not a perfected piece,” Carney says. “This is a group of musicians who've spent their entire lives learning how to improvise together and let's hear them improvise.”  


While Dream is a more rehearsed show for Evan + Zane, the feel of stripped-down musical talent resides. And as part of Carney’s love of having people listen to music as close to the source as possible, tickets to his performances Feb. 23-25 in San Francisco with Evan + Zane will include vinyl albums of Dream.  


Carney’s own mastery of music theory and improvisation is unmatched. Carney recently discovered that libraries keep score studies through the history of music. Late at night, to his hundreds of chatters in his Twitch livestream, he’ll analyze the music theory behind songs measure by measure. 

Carney said many top musicians tend to focus on the way a song sounds rather than the music theory behind it. But Carney wants to know why a song makes someone feel the way they do and how someone like Wes Montgomery gets away with playing a major seventh on the one chord in a blues.  


“This frickin seven-year-old magic trick-loving kid likes to know how it's done. I like to know what's behind the curtain. And I've found that it has only enhanced my enjoyment of music. The analogy I use is if I were to eat a really fancy chef's meal, and it just tasted good. That's good enough for most of us,” Carney said. 


He has nothing against people who let their muse guide them. Carney remembers The Edge, lead guitar player for U2, entering the room while working on the “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark” musical. He was shocked that he could “read that” sheet music. Carney says his brain is just wired differently; he finds more enjoyment in music when he knows the ingredients.  


“But if I have cooked a few meals, and I can tell there's pineapple in this weird dish that shouldn't have pineapple and I eat it I go whoa, that's crazy, you put pineapple in here, that actually might increase my enjoyment of a meal. Because it’s no longer just tastebuds. It's thought, it's memories, nostalgia, it's realizing I understood it,” Carney says. 


That gastronomic enjoyment of music is what makes Carney a genius when it comes to the six strings.

Evan + Zane


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