Listener :: Finding Inspiration Outside The Craft

I get asked a lot about where I get my inspiration. That’s a hard question to answer because there are so many things and people in my life that inspire me. Let me tell you a story about a white guy from Arkansas that raps.

More after the jump ::.

Last night Meg and I were able to get a babysitter and go see our friend Dan Smith play a show. His project is called “Listener“.



Dan has a schtick. A persona. A presence on stage. He does this “thing” that is amazing. Dan does “talk music” and it is his own thing. Love him or hate him, when Dan takes the stage people get off their phones, stop chatting, and watch. His stage persona is mesmerizing. It never bleeds into background music. His music isn’t ever going to make the top ten on the billboard charts and I think that’s just all right for him. He’s not following. He’s not replicating. He’s not trying to find what is popular and pursue that.

I met Dan about six years ago when he was more of a hip hop artist than folksy/indie/something/talk music artist. I was introduced to him through this cat in Nashville named KC Jones. KC said to me, “You gotta hear the Listener. He’s a white dude from Arkansas that raps.” That introduction was enough to pique my interest. :)

The first song I heard was Train Song (mp3 download).  “It’s my habits that make my fingers weak…” Listen closely to the story. Pretty amazing.

Decadence (mp3 download) is one of my favorite tracks from his more hip hop centric era. It also features Manchild who has a flow like no other. Yes, I do have permission to link to these files.



It’s been interesting to watch him change. To watch him find who he is. To start at one place and end up somewhere else and to see he’s not “there” yet. Dan has always been Dan, yet with each new part of his project he is becoming more true to his core. He’s walking through the shit of life and stripping off the non essentials and building back from there. It’s really an amazing process to watch from the outside.

I need to sit down with him sometime and see what it’s like from his perspective because I know for a fact it will be much different than my perspective. Maybe I’m wrong about how I see Dan. Maybe Dan is wrong about how he sees himself. Sometimes people on the outside see the real you. The “you” you can’t see. And sometimes people from the outside have the wrong idea about who you are. Hmmmm. This reminds me of something Meg is working on but that’s not for this post. (Dan, next time you’re back in Atlanta let’s talk it out)

If you listen to his older music you can hear the framework of his newer work. Meaning, you can look back and see the progression but you never see it when you are moving forward. The same thing goes for photography. It’s called personal style and it takes years to develop and you can’t really see your style until you have some years under your belt and can look back.



Dan is a huge source of inspiration for me. That inspiration doesn’t change how I look through my viewfinder but it changes how I look through the eye in my brain if that makes any sense at all… Which it doesn’t. I went to public school so trying to flowchart how inspiration works for me is a bit difficult. My brain eyes connect to my face eyes which connect to my viewfinder so maybe he does inspire how I see the world. How “inspiration” like this works for me is the music gets in my head. I listen to the stories in the lyrics. I connect the dots from the songs to the dots of my own life and those thoughts sort of lead me down a path of more thoughts that eventually lead to actions with my camera and with my business. Inspiration for me isn’t seeing one person do something and then I go do something similar to that. I think that’s more like plagiarism than inspiration.



Dan’s magic really comes through his show. He’s brave. He’s full on. He doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t care what he looks like. He just lets the f#ck go and pours it all out. I’ve seen him perform to a packed venue and to 8 people in a living room and he brings everything he has to the stage with every performance.

You can find his new album here. Be sure to give “Wooden Heart” a listen. Buy a copy and support an artist. Don’t you want someone to give you some support in your endeavors? Pay it forward.

You can stream his new album. Sorry iPhone/iPad users. These are flash embeds.

This is his last album. It’s called “Return To Struggleville” and it’s about a traveling knife salesman and it’s brilliant.

His songs are stories. They are pulled out of his head and out of his experience. He’s living his story. Are you? Are you aware that you’re walking out your story? Are you keeping your eyes far out ahead and busting your ass to get there or are you sitting around on said ass looking backwards? How’s that working for you? I saw a great quote on Twitter yesterday…

“Don’t ask God to guide your footsteps if you aren’t willing to move your feet.”

Dan’s played more than 800 shows and he has 800 more to go. He’s doing it. He’s sharing his life. He’s changing. Growing. He’s moving his feet. Stripping it down to the essentials. He’s inspiring thousands. He’s just a white dude from Arkansas that raps and he is a really important character in my own story. Fun trivia – His 800th show was at a Mexican Restaurant. 800th show.

Where are you getting your inspiration from outside the photography world?


Are you moving your feet or sittin’ on your ass? I’d rather have sores on my feet than on my ass. There’s a t-shirt.

Cheers, Zack


  • Bradley Spitzer said on June 18, 2010

    Great summation in that last line. Definite inspiration right there.

  • Tim Rogan Design said on June 18, 2010

    Hmmm, the songs come up with usedfilm’s account in iTunes and says we are not authorized to play them. Am I doing something wrong?

  • zack said on June 18, 2010

    Tim – Dang it! DRM files! Trying to find some clean files to post. Will update as soon as I find them.


  • Gary Chartier said on June 18, 2010

    This is what I’m talking about.. See Zack I’ll never have what you have.. You’re always coming up with great stuff.. Some cool stuff once again Zack….

  • greg said on June 18, 2010

    He sure had a lot of usedfilm tattoos.

  • Josh said on June 18, 2010


    Wow. You have such a special ability to connect with people…You should move into motivational speaking. You deliver over and over here.


  • I. Eden said on June 18, 2010

    I just love this quote:

    “Don’t ask God to guide your footsteps if you aren’t willing to move your feet.”

    It is so true!

    Very suitable on my life & career now.

    Thank you so much for sharing this Zack! God Bless you!

  • Sherri said on June 18, 2010

    …a t-shirt indeed!

  • Dave The Canuck said on June 18, 2010

    Awesome tracks. I hope he makes it up here to Canada. I think you’d like Buck 65. He’s up in here in Canuckastan and has a similar sound.

    Check him out:

  • Philip said on June 18, 2010

    I went to college with this guy and I used to be scared to death of him. I’ve since gotten over that and moved onto admiring him for his raw craft and the intensity in which he executes it.

  • Nick Lopez said on June 18, 2010

    This is the spirit that has always driven me. I put myself out there, and things seem to happen for me. Last weekend I slept at a crack whore hotel on Aurora, a hostel (clinging to my lowepro and sleeping with one eye open)and crashed on Dan’s floor the last night. (happened to be the nicest room and best sleep of all three nights). When I was having breakfast at the hostel I realized how lucky I was to be given the opportunity to be there. I didn’t feel sorry for myself because I didn’t have a fancy room or a ton of cash. I tweeted: “I reek this morning…of desperation and hustle”. This is my only choice, there’s no other path for me and I’m not letting up until I make it. I’m writing my story.

    BTW, I would have slept on the ground in front of the Within space.

    Thanks again for all that you do.


  • Kenneth Roszkowski said on June 18, 2010

    After being blown away from my first listen, I bought Wooden Heart just now. I’m a metal head so his stuff is way out of my comfort zone, but I found it brilliant nonetheless. While we are on the subject of inspiration… I spent all week watching my (prepaid) downloaded Zack-a-thon on CreativeLive… all I can say is thank you! That was the single best source of learning and inspiration one could ever hope for.

    Looking forward to Chicago OneLight in July!

    – Ken

  • Bill Pierson said on June 18, 2010

    A wise man once said that chance favors the prepared mind. It also favors those that not only prepare their minds, but get up off their ass and put thoughts in motion. I appreciate the reminders – it’s all too easy to become comfortable and settle for the mundane; the usual; the expected. I’m learning that life is too short to waste on wishes. I listened to one of Dan’s songs with an open mind, and ended up listening to 3 more. I enjoyed it. You offered the notion that Dan is doing his thing. DOING his thing. This is the epitome of inspiration – witnessing someone putting a thought of something that they are deeply passionate about in motion. I think you hit the nail on the head – proof of inspiration is replicating that same momentum on DOING your own thing, in your own way.

    Thanks once again, Zack. I appreciate your blogs and the thoughts that you share.

  • Chrisdavid42 said on June 18, 2010

    awesome music. Very moving.

  • Sergey said on June 18, 2010

    Thanks, Zack. Very inpiring!

    “Sometimes people on the outside see the real you. The “you” you can’t see. And sometimes people from the outside have the wrong idea about who you are. ” -Amen

  • Doug R. said on June 19, 2010

    “Don’t ask God to guide your footsteps if you aren’t willing to move your feet.”

    Absolutely brilliant. Those few words provided a kick in my pants, thank you.


  • maski said on June 19, 2010

    nice trumpet photo….

  • Adi Ulici said on June 19, 2010

    The story from “Train song” is very similar to fav song. I would share it with you guys, but it’s in Romanian so you wouldn’t understand it..

  • Crystal B said on June 19, 2010

    Snagged up that album, good one. Thanks for the class last week too, much obliged.

  • Zack said on June 19, 2010

    Man this guy is sick!! can’t wait until he comes to Dallas

  • Hank James said on June 19, 2010

    Thanks for being real.-Hank

  • Hank James said on June 19, 2010

    Really liking Train Song. I’ve listened to it over and over. I’ll be buying the down load.

  • Luciano Meirelles said on June 19, 2010

    I like the music and I liked the b&w contrast on the pics.


    way to go zack.
    inspiration is always a good way to refresh our minds.

  • Bryan Mitchell said on June 19, 2010

    Listener is the shit!
    Thanks for sharing Zack!

  • Chris Bergstrom said on June 19, 2010

    Zack, nice band you’ve found here. Reminds me a little bit of Modest Mouse.

  • Dan Kaufman said on June 20, 2010

    He’s got a bit of Tom Waits in ‘im.

    You’re a good man Zack !! Thanks.

  • Derek said on June 20, 2010

    Great post, Zack. Excellent content, and an excellent artist getting some attention.
    Buddy Wakefield might interest you, as well.

  • Easton Shultz said on June 20, 2010

    Thank you so much to you and Listener for some more greatly needed inspiration in these hectic times we live in. You are both incredible people for sharing your stories, passions, and fears. You truely are an inspiration to me. There are obviously others that feel the same. Good shit Zack. Thanks again.

    btw, wooden heart (the track) is insanely epic!

  • Ben said on June 20, 2010

    ““Don’t ask God to guide your footsteps if you aren’t willing to move your feet.”
    “I’d rather have sores on my feet than on my ass.”

    Fantastic quotes.

  • Huggs said on June 20, 2010

    The 3rd pic makes me want to watch “There will be blood.”

  • Takki said on June 20, 2010

    Being a human it’s all about story! This is a little poem I wrote a while back about the importance of story: The way we gain knowledge is through story!
    It‘s the simplest form of passing on knowledge.
    Good storytelling is the key to our past.
    Ancient wisdom inspires the dreams of what is yet to come.
    Good storytelling is the key to our future.
    Do you dare to imagine?
    A better world,
    A better tomorrow,
    A better you?
    The world is waiting for another great story to be told.
    Your story!

    That being said – thank you Zack for your storytelling and being an inspiration in words and pictures

  • Jon said on June 20, 2010

    Nice. I really dig his music. Think I’m going to have to go buy it now. Reminds me of mewithoutyou. Good stuff.

  • Roland Hernandez said on June 20, 2010

    Hi Zac, great piece of information. Inspiration is what you make of it, find it on your own.

    By the way, Happy Father’s Day. I wish your family the best of luck with all your endeavors.

  • jjpare said on June 20, 2010

    Have to agree with Dave the Canuck — my first thought was a bit of Buck 65 (my upstairs neighbour, as it so happens). Then a bit of ‘Greetings from Asbury Park’-era Springsteen. Then Tom Waits. Then… a hundred other things all thrown together, then boiled down to create something entirely new.
    Excellent stuff.

    Thanks for pointing this guy out, Zack.

  • Levy Moroshan said on June 20, 2010

    Fantastic music! Love the spoken word style here. First time I’ve written on your blog Zack, but have learned from you over the years. You’re so right about finding inspiration in non photo places. You never know what you’ll see just walking around town. :)

  • Daf said on June 21, 2010

    I think some people see a big jump in front of them an are afraid to take that jump, let go of the stable past and leap into the unknown.
    But it doesn’t have to be like that – almost everything can be done in smaller steps if need be and you can find the path.
    I know this as I am one of these people. Ho-hum.

    Thanks for sharing the music. Love sharing music that I love with others – so here’s some from me. A guy called “Mr B – The Gentleman Rhymer” calls his style Gentleman hip-hop. Seen him live a couple of times and I think he’s a pure genius the way he puts tracks together with his style. CHeck his MySpace page out, particularly the videos on the right.

  • Daf said on June 21, 2010

    Hmm not keen on the 1st/new World cup video (my link above) but the rest are great.

  • Howard Haby said on June 21, 2010

    Good stuff!!

  • JD Smith said on June 21, 2010

    Holy shit Zack, this post hit me hard in so many ways!!! 1st, you ROCK! 2nd, the Train Song by Dan hit deep! I was born and raised in Seattle but went to school in Chicago, and I tell ya, you meet “those kind of people” on the platform (it brought me back to the point where I can smell the platform and hear the approaching train), and 3rd, you saying “it takes several years to find your style”. I have gotten down on myself and discouraged because I haven’t found my way in photography (I just finished a year long project taking a photo a day hopefully to have my style be apparent – to no avail!) But, to have you say it takes years…that helps me to chill out and enjoy the ride…thank you!

    Oh, and “looking through your eye in your brain…” it DOES make sense! Woooorrrrd!

  • Rab Cummings said on June 21, 2010

    Sitting here processing my images from my sessions this weekend (on white seamless by the way, thanks Zack) see and can’t stop listening to “Five-Year Plan” on the Return to Struggleville. Outstanding. Thanks for your ongoing inspiration.


  • Mike Wilson said on June 21, 2010

    I love his intensity. It’s good stuff. Kind of reminds me of a frenetic Mountain Goats :)

  • Denver Photographer said on June 21, 2010

    I’ve been finding inspiration by trying out new forms of digital media. In my case I’ve been getting a kick out of the new photoshop brushes, it’s really turned me on to any form of digital painting. I’ve been having fun just moving into new media, it makes my photography more inspired.

  • Photographer Surrey said on June 22, 2010

    loving it all – great work

  • Srdjan Kalinic said on June 22, 2010

    Cool story. Very explosive guy with USED FILM tatoo :)). Interesting way to put codes into photos. I have got to the point where i have to start doing my own style. This story is one more sign i should start doing it.. Thanx for the inspiration on this rainy cold day.. Cheers from Serbia

  • Brian Laurent said on June 22, 2010

    Awesome post to encourage us to look elsewhere/everywhere/to other creatives for inspiration. Listener is powerful and I’ve shared it with my friends, who are diggin’ it too. Those next 800 shows are gonna be quite populated.

  • Amy said on June 23, 2010

    I love the way you tell your story, even the way you teach, and how you engage with it. I agree with what you’ve said about inspiration, it can be hard to describe. But I think we can gather inspiration from so many sources on a daily basis, it just depends on how much we are willing to see of what is being presented to us. (Yes, you made perfect sense with your ‘brain eyes’ – I totally understood what you meant! Ha.) This post struck so many cords with me – from finding my personal style, to inspiration, to having a ‘schtick’ to sell — all of them very important in my photography *and* my graphic design work. But, I really loved your bit about personal vs. outside perspective about ourselves. This is one part of photography that I especially love — that I get to help people see who they are from the outside, offering them a different perspective that they may not realize is there. And, of course, it helps me to reflect on myself and what that perception that I’m offering to the world in all that I do. You really made me think today, Zack. Thanks again for sharing not only what you do, but how you do it, why you do it, and what it all means to you. It makes a big difference that your a real person and that you’re not afraid to let it all out (see, another part of this post that meant something to me…)

  • zack said on June 23, 2010

    Thanks for that Amy. That was a great read. Glad to be of service.


  • Lanre said on June 23, 2010

    Uncle Zack,

    This is what separates you from other teachers that I have ever met or listened to them teach.

    What you teach goes beyond ONE LIGHT etc or the four walss of a classroom,so it is upto the listener to tap into what Zack is made off.

    One thing I think everyone should learn from Zack is this.

    He is an HONEST MAN.

    It reflects each time he has an opportunity to discuss with his audience

    On a final note,


  • James R. Doe said on June 24, 2010

    I’m sitting on my ass but I appreciate the inspiration. I use to have a lot more drive and I’m working on improving that. This past 8 months has been tough. Now I’m eating very healthy, getting more sleep, taking needed vitamins but I’m still on the road to recovery.

    I have bursts of productivity usually about once a week and most other days I’m in a trance. Half the problem is my job which sucks the life out of me. When I’m on vacation I’ve got bags & bags of energy and I’m as happy as a lemon. When your tied to a computer for most of the day it’s really taxing on the mind and finding a balance is key. I still love to shoot and lately I’ve mostly been into shooting bands because all I’m required to do is take nice pictures. While I enjoy it and it’s up there on my list of things to shoot there are areas I prefer but lack the motivation to make it happen. I lot of my motivation was killed when I lost all my pictures twice last year. Now I’ve got much more redundancy in place but I still haven’t gotten over that hump.

    I do find motivation in a lot of areas and actually find more outside of photography. You seem to have a knack for being a person first and a photographer second which is a motivating trait.

  • Barling said on June 25, 2010

    Zach, you did it to me three times just then. Listener totally rocks. Not only that, but, that site that does his downloads, is pretty freaking awesome. I’m even now putting my slackass obnoxious guitar/cello duo up there.
    And speaking of my slack ass… three times!

  • Martin said on July 21, 2010

    Dang. This post woke my brain up and felt it renew my soul.

    Bizarre feeling.

  • Wing Wong said on August 7, 2010

    OMG. Wooden heart rocks! It’s like a shot of adrenaline for the brain… right through the ears.

  • Neil Cowley said on September 3, 2010


    nice usedfilm tatoo – can I get one?

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