Interview: The Homeless Gospel Choir on touring and the inclusiveness of punk

Feeling overwhelmed by the current state of the world? Folk punk singer The Homeless Gospel Choir is here to make you feel understood.

Derek Zanetti, also known as The Homeless Gospel Choir, is a protest singer, author and artist based out of Pittsburgh, PA. Through his on-stage humor and vulnerability, Derek creates an atmosphere of inclusion and community. His latest record, The Homeless Gospel Choir Presents: Normal is a concept album, loosely based on Zanetti telling life stories via short acts throughout the album. The release was described by Frank Turner as “a generationally defining album for the underground punk scene.” Adding “In half an hour, Derek reminded me of what punks supposed to be.”

Ahead of his support set at Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings 2, Derek talked about his recent album, the political landscape and the inclusiveness of punk music.

How are you doing? 

So good. It’s a whole whirlwind. I feel very optimistic and very happy. Everyone’s been very kind to me so I’m thankful to be here.

And this is the last bit of the UK tour with Frank Turner. How’s it been? 

Unreal! It’s been unbelievable. We talked about it for a number of years, about me coming over here and supporting him in the UK. It’s exceeded my wildest dreams to be truthful with you. Just all the different people I’ve met who like my songs and who are interested in hearing more of them. They’ve been very caring and supportive, it’s wonderful.

How do you feel the British audience has reacted to your music? Because you’ve toured the UK before with Frank Iero in November. 

A lot of those kids are coming out to the shows, too. It’s been awesome just to see the loyalty. The folks here are just, like …. down. That’s awesome.

The Roundhouse is one of the biggest rooms you’ve played – how do you feel about it all? 

I feel … I’m anxious and I’m nervous and I’m excited and confident and worried and joyful and scared shitless – all at the same time. I think all the good feelings you should have.

So what can fans expect that might not have seen you before? 

I just want to have an open conversation on stage about what it’s like to experience music, what it feels like to belong. I think so often in the world that we live in, people feel detached from one another and they feel like there is not a sense of home or belonging or community. And hopefully with the ethic of what I’m able to create in a very short period of time is an immediate sense of belonging and knowing and community where people can feel free to be themselves. Where we work to create an egalitarian state that’s free of sexism, racism and homophobia. Where people who feel like they’ve been marginalised and oppressed, they have a place to come. You know, punk rock is supposed to be for the fucking weirdos, for people who didn’t fit in, people who didn’t get picked for the soccer team, people who didn’t win a beauty pageant. That’s what punk is for, for all those weirdos. And it’s awesome that they get it here, it’s fucking awesome.

Would you say that’s also the essence of your latest record Normal? 

Yeah. Normal is just a commentary on the realization that I found a home and I found belonging with these other weirdos. You can try to smash your head off the walls trying to get into the cool kids club, you know. There’s not enough room for us, we don’t belong there. It’s not for us. There’s a new cool kids club that we’re starting. And that we’re going to create and that everyone is welcome to be a part of. Doesn’t matter if your parents have money, or if you went to college, doesn’t matter what your past happen to be. You get to grow and create an ethnic of inclusion. That’s what I’m interested in doing.

Do you feel that’s even more important in this modern society with social media and cyber bullying? 

I think to just bear with it. People are nervous and afraid. You have a president of our country who goes on twitter and makes fun of people who are intellectually handicapped and make fun of women and people of color, and people who are muslim. There is a contingent of people who applaud that and there’s a contingent of people who back that. And that think white is better or that male is better or that straight is better. I think as a privileged person I think I owe a duty to my fellow men, to my fellow kind, to my fellow human beings, to my fellow sisters and non-binary folk, that I owe a duty and I owe a responsibility to address those things. I’m working hard to do that.

The political side of the album, it’s quite visible with the cover and the cop and devil puppets. What was your inspiration behind that cover? 

I’ve struggled with mental illness for a long time, and I’ve always felt very torn in my mind about what’s the good thing to do and what’s the right thing to do and what’s the wrong thing to do. For a long time in my mind I was torn between being bullied and being a bully. And how I was able to remove myself from that. There’s this illusion that the police are there to protect you, and to serve you, but there’s overwhelming evidence that if you’re poor and not white they don’t. And I just wanted to address that in, not in a funny way, but in a way that we can have an open-ended conversation about it. It’s easy for me to say “Fuck all cops” – and I’ll get claps for that. People like to hear that. But let’s have a conversation why the police are bad. I wanted to use that imagery, a childish imagery of just some puppets. Something that everybody can look at and relate to in a way but still had a very specific pointed narrative.

With the political situation being what it is in America and also in the UK, do you feel that folk punk is more important than ever? To actually have that conversation and not just say “Fuck the police”?

Sure. I think we have to entertain conversations with people who are different. It’d be easy for me to say all racists voted for Trump and all racists voted for Brexit but that’s not true. There’s people in my family that voted for Donald Trump who I would not consider to be evil or hateful people. I just think they were misled and they were angry. And maybe they were angry at the wrong thing. And if I don’t have a conversation and if you don’t have a conversation with those people, the conversations that they’re having are going to be extraordinarily confined to the small world view that they have. So it takes people who are empathetic and educated to go ahead and speak on issues like racism, like police brutality, like a militarized police force, like what our president is up to. There was a whole year-long issue when Donald Trump said it was okay to grab a woman by her pussy, if you have enough money you can get away with it. I think we have to have a conversation with people who sit on the opposite side of the table from us and do so with dignity and respect, and not just call them a Nazi, and not just call them a racist. But really have a conversation and say “I think there’s something good inside of you and I’d like to figure out a way that we can get that out so that people can see it.” And I don’t think that I’ve done a great job of it, I don’t think the left has done a very good of it, of entertaining those conversations. And hopefully with this record and this type of expression we’re able to garner those conversations and educate people to do the right thing. Not just demonize them for the decisions they’ve made in the past. So hopefully that comes through.

Speaking more about the live music side of things, having toured with Frank Iero and Frank Turner, who are both very different performers, is there anything you’ve taken away from touring with them? 

They’re both very different in how they present themselves and one thing I’ve learned in showing my music and showing my art to people, is the greatest service that you can offer to humanity is to offer your genuine self. And if I were to go ahead and be on tour with Frank Iero and play a bunch of songs that sounded like Frank Iero songs so that his fans would like me more, and then when I go on the Frank Turner tour I went ahead and played more Frank Turner-type songs so that his fans like me more, I’d be doing myself a great disservice. I think what the world needs is for you to be fucking you, like, super hard. You be the best you that you can be and that’s beautiful and perfect. I think whenever we’re able to do that and just be vulnerable and just be bare, and just be honest with it, I think that’s the thing that shakes people the most.

How did you get into making music in the first place? 

I think it was out of a necessity. I was pretty dissatisfied with how I viewed a lot of the trajectory of how my friends’ lives were going. I wanted to see the world and I wanted to express myself in an artistic way. And I’ve always been interested in punk and punk culture so I just gave it a shot.

What music do you currently listen to? Any good recommendations? 

I think that new Childish Gambino video is a slam dunk. I get super hyped when people speak out against oppression on a level like he’s doing, I think that’s great. I listen to a bunch of weird indie music. My friends play in a band called Listener and they have a new record that’s out that’s a smash, too. The new Frank Turner … *moves closer to the mic* … the new Frank Turner record Be More Kind, don’t miss out on that one!

What else is coming up for you, because you’re going on tour again with Frank Turner in the US? 

For about two weeks! And I’m going to go ahead and work hard to get everything ready for the Frank Turner tour. And then I have a wealth of opportunity after that, things I’m not supposed to talk about yet but I’ll be back in the UK and Europe many times before the year is over, doing some bigger tours like this. And some smaller tours as well, playing some headline shows, playing some support shows, here and in the US. I have my sights on Japan and Australia for next year. I have a whole new record written and ready to go, so I’ve never felt so inspired. I’m ready to just put out records.