Zach Sobiech: I hope a music career doesn't change who I am
Sobiech played to a sold-out crowd at the Varsity.
Photo by Erik Hess.
When he first wrote the song "Clouds," Zach Sobiech never imagined it would mean something to so many strangers.
About three years ago, doctors diagnosed Sobiech, now a 17-year-old, with Osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He's since been told it's terminal, and he could have only a few months left to live. The song was intended as a personal message to his friends and family, but since the video premiered on YouTube last December, more than 2.4 million people have viewed it. Recently, Sobiech signed a deal with BMI and played to a packed house at the Varsity Theater.
Gimme Noise caught up with Sobiech recently to see how he's been enjoying his newfound success.
Gimme Noise: You recently played a big show at the Varsity. I wonder if you could give me an idea of what that felt like.
Zach Sobiech: It's kind of surreal to get up there and see that many people looking at you. It's one of those things that you're really nervous for five minutes beforehand, but once you're up there and playing, you really get into it and it's really fun.
Your songs are these personal messages. What's it like to realize that they've affected so many people you've never met before?
That's one of the cool parts about music. A lot of times you're writing songs about yourself, and they end up helping other people. So I'm writing these songs for me, and [my friend and writing partner] Sammy's helping me write them, and it's about our relationship and other relationships that I have. But if people can relate to them, then all the better.
Can you tell me a little bit about this BMI deal, and how that came to be?
I was working with KS95. Recorded "Clouds," and it got played on the radio, and eventually BMI contacted us and asked us if we'd like to fly out there. The Hubbard family from Hubbard Broadcasting flew us out there, and we got to meet with them. So they're kind of the royalty company, so they're collecting royalties on "Clouds," and any other music that I put out there, which is really cool.
So how does that work? They collect royalties and you get a portion?
Yeah. They take, I think it's 15 percent off the top of whatever royalties. So I receive 85 percent of that. They are working with YouTube and people who make videos, and they collect royalties on it for me, which is nice because it's a lot of work by yourself.
And have you already started to see some of those royalties, or does that take a little while?
I think it takes a little while. We did set up an account in a bank that's dedicated to royalties. So probably in the next month or so.
Any specific plans for that money?
Probably just help out the family, as far as economic stability. And possibly help out the fund.
How long have you been playing music?
About five years. I started guitar when I was 12. I got a an electric guitar for Christmas, because I thought it was the cool thing to do. I took lessons for two years, and then I was kind of on my own, because I'd actually been diagnosed two years in. And so I kinda started playing guitar whenever I could at the hospital, at home, when I was feeling OK.
What are some of your favorite bands?
So there's Jason Mraz. Passenger is really cool. Ed Sheeran. The singer-songwriter kinda thing -- I'm really into that stuff. Mumford and Sons, too. The Lumineers. That kind of style of music is what I love.
OK, and as you just mentioned, you were diagnosed when you were 14. What did the doctors say?
It was actually November 23. It was a biopsy. They knew it was a tumor there, they just didn't know what it was. So they went in and took it out and ran tests on it. And I think it was a couple hours later after surgery, but I was still completely out of it from whatever drugs they had given me to put me to sleep. So I woke up for probably five minutes. My surgeon was standing in front of me, and he said, "Zach, you have Osteosarcoma." And you know, you never really process those things right away. So It was weird. I thought I was having a bad dream or something, that I was going to wake up later and be fine. Yeah, so it was very simply put, when I found out.
Did they say at the time that it was terminal?
They didn't, because at the time it wasn't. It was in my hip, so it wasn't that bad. This summer is when they actually told me months to a year. So that was in May, I think. They said months to a year.
OK, and have they given you any kind of update on that recently?
Doctors told Sobiech last May he likely had months to a year to live.
Photo by Erik Hess.
Recently, no they haven't. I've had more scans, and I think there's more nodules in my lungs, but we haven't really been given a time frame.
At one point after finding this out did you decide to put your thoughts into a song?
It was shortly after my mom asked me to start writing letters to people, just so they could have them after I passed away. And I tried doing that, and it was tough, just because, thinking about it, you want that letter to last as long as possible. So you're thinking, I should make this 50 pages long. I don't know. I couldn't do that. I didn't have the time and I'm really not good at writing. So I thought a song would be better because you can have a lot of hidden meanings behind it, and it can get stuck in your head, so you're constantly singing it throughout the day, so it sticks with you.
Was it difficult to translate what you were feeling into a song?
As far as "Clouds" go, it was pretty easy. I was feeling down. I felt sad. So "Clouds" was a pretty easy song to write, and it came pretty quick. Most songs I have written, either by myself or with Sammy, my songwriting partner, have been within a half hour. Songwriting is one of those things you can't force, because if you force it, it can end up being pretty bad.
Do you remember when you first started to realize "Clouds" was getting a lot of hits on YouTube?
I actually remember checking Youtube and seeing, I think it was like 60,000, and thinking, "60,000 people have watched that video." The whole idea of that was crazy to me. That's like a whole city. Sixty-thousand is big. And when people were saying a million, that was just unbelievable.
What are you doing day to day when you're not doing music?
Usually it's hanging out. You know, TV, video games. Teenager stuff. Hanging out with friends. Days I feel OK I'll go to school, but lately I haven't been just because the past couple weeks have been busy with interviews. We had a film crew at the house, and that kinda thing. So recovering from that. But usually it's pretty normal.
Are you usually at home? Or are there times that you're at the hospital?
It's once every three weeks I'm at the hospital for like an hour. Or more like three hours. It's an hour infusion, and it takes around three hours to get all set up and that kinda thing. So once every three weeks I am, and I'll go in for blood draws and that kinda thing, but I'm not in the hospital a significant amount of time, which is nice.
I've read in other articles your friends saying you haven't changed much since you found out about the illness, or since your music career started taking took off. Do you think that's true?
I think from being a normal kid to knowing that I had cancer, I did change. I think I was forced to grow up a little bit, because I don't know, a ninth grader -- You know, you think you're invisible. And you learn about this, and you realize that you're not. From cancer to the whole music career thing, I hope I haven't. I've tried not to just because I am who I am, so I hope a music career doesn't change that.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that, when you say you had to grow?
A 14-year-old is focused on the next three years of high school and that kinda thing. I had to more focus on, "OK, how am I gonna do school and chemo? How am I gonna keep living and keep going to school?" And it was tough, because you never really have to think about that when you're that young. You really just assume that you'll keep living, or you assume that you'll feel OK the next day. And that's something that I couldn't count on because of the treatment.
Do you have anything coming up, or anything you want to do?
I think we're kind of cooling down. The whole family has been kind of overwhelmed with all the interviews. I'd like to get out to L.A., just to see it.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.
More Music News
- Phish and Keith Urban are coming: Big news for two very different fanbases
- Flashlight Vinyl: New record store brings vinyl paradise to northeast Minneapolis
- How Minneapolis' awful Super Bowl XXVI halftime show changed the game
- Minneapolis indie-rock faves Fog reunite, announce first album in nine years