J Hacha De Zola typically uses a “pin the tail on the donkey” approach to songwriting. “I love when a song has a particular air of randomness to it,” says the New Jersey-based singer-songwriter. Surprisingly, writing “Which Way” off his upcoming fifth album East of Eden (Caballo Negro), out June 11, wasn’t as capricious.
Written in one sitting, De Zola had a clear idea of what he wanted to say, and how. His response to the state of the country during lockdown, “Which Way” is a reflection of the inequalities and “true colors” that came to the surface during the pandemic.
“Never before have I felt such a departure from reality as I have during the lockdown—people dying, family, friends, and their family, dying,” says De Zola. “Never before was there this blatant defiance of all rational thought being demonstrated by those in positions of power, pure fear, pure hype, [and] the population at large seemingly trapped in this dogmatic, dualistic fatalistic slow decay.”
A shift for De Zola who rarely writes around anything topical, “Which Way” shifted directions for the artist. “I prefer to approach songwriting differently, to “paint pictures” in my songs rather than tell a particular narrative,” he says. “I feel this allows the listener to draw their own conclusions with regard to meaning or anything like that.”
“Which Way” is not a happy song, says De Zola. He was angry when writing it, following the death of a dear friend who died from COVID. “When that happened, it really made the pandemic hit home for me,” he says. “It made it real to me.”
He adds, “I wanted it to sound a bit like a funeral. I was grieving, full of anxiety, angry, and dismayed. All of this pressure focused my mind and the effort, and I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to say.”
In formulating the hook, it was all based on picture De Zola had in his mind of a waiting room, somewhere on the “other side,” where the departed might be, lining up, confused, lost, and frightened and wondering “which way to heaven?”
“I couldn’t help but feel and think about how disorienting and lonely that transition had to be,” shares De Zola. “In many ways, that song was a way of taking inventory of the chaos and confusion of the moment.”
A somber song, “Which Way” reflects the confusion, loss and fear, and daily complexities felt by many during the pandemic.
“It was very difficult to focus on anything other than trying to have enough food to eat, staying warm, keeping the bills paid, protecting those most vulnerable members of your family, staying alive and not getting sick—let alone writing an album,” says De Zola. “It didn’t feel like a priority at all given that moment in time. I had to push myself pretty hard to work through the fear, work through this national nightmare and get this thing done.”
De Zola adds, “In many ways, a lot of people felt like we were being left behind in this state of utter chaos, and that’s basically what this tune is about.”