When Zach Heckendorf was 18, it seemed like he was on the fast track to stardom. The singer–songwriter had a major record deal, his music was being compared to the likes of Jack Johnson and John Mayer, and he had already opened shows for many prominent artists, including Mat Kearney, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and Michael Franti. But when he moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating from Cherry Creek High School in 2011, the promised level of fame didn’t follow. “I got thrown around in the major label system,” he says. “I wasn’t fully ready for it.”

He eventually decided to put down his guitar and studied creative writing at Columbia University in New York, searching for a new life path. Throughout his time in college, though, he realized his desire to make music wasn’t going away, and after graduating in spring 2019, he decided to give it another go. Ahead of the first act of his comeback—a new album, Hawk Talk, which was released September 25—the 27-year-old chatted with 5280 about what brought him back to music, the logistics of making a return, and how his tunes have matured.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity. 

5280: What do you think caused you to burn out on music after your initial run of success as a teenager?
I kind of hit a wall living in Los Angeles. I felt like I was really pushing to make things happen with music and that possibly took the fun out of it. I have no beef with the major label system or anything like that, but I wasn’t ready for it. I lost that fire that I needed to be a musician. I didn’t want to perform and there were points where I didn’t even want to touch my guitar. I wasn’t sure what life path I wanted to take.

You ended up going to Columbia University in New York. What about your time there made you feel like coming back to music?
I felt like those years I lived in New York I started to get to know myself better and I realized how integral music was to my life. It wasn’t going away. No matter what I did, my love of music was going to be with me. I found that it is really a part of who I am. I also think my songwriting got a lot better through college. Things have more clarity and are miles ahead of what I was doing when I was 18.

Did you still have a record deal? How did things work logistically on the business side?
During my last semester at Columbia, I called the head of the label, Aware Records, I had initially signed with when I was younger for some advice. His name is Gregg Latterman and he was the guy that first discovered John Mayer. He is also a professor at Northwestern University, and when he came to Columbia to give a talk, we fully reconnected. We thought it might be a good idea for us to work together again and he is now my manager. It all came full circle. I wouldn’t have been able to make the comeback without that relationship.

I saw he hooked you up with producer John Fields, who has also worked with Pink, the Jonas Brothers, and Miley Cyrus. What did Fields bring to the album?
He has an electric energy. When you are in the room with him you have no choice but to move forward at breakneck speed. He does really quick work in a way that never really sacrifices quality. Even on the weekend we had to test each other out, we got three songs done in two days, top to bottom.

What story are you ultimately trying to tell with the album?
The songs are about embodying your inner authority. It is about finding your power as a person and learning how to use it in a positive way. It is something I have had to continue to tell myself. But I don’t want people to look at it as, hey, you should do this. In a lot of ways I wrote these songs for me. It’s my own self-help record. It’s me trying to get out of my head, out of my own way, and into a stronger, happier place.

You are also officially moving back to Denver. Are you excited about that?
I am really stoked to get back. It’s a weird time with COVID-19, so I’ll probably get more work there than other places. I have been doing a 50-state streaming tour, and hopefully there will be more live stuff coming up. But my community is also in Denver. I was born and raised there, and it’s a place that means a lot to me.

Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.