The last real memory I have of Zac Clejan other than passing each other in the halls of Walton High School is riding to school one morning in a group carpool. He was energetic, kind of intense and blasting Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” A little while ago, I came across his Instagram page and thought to myself –woah! this is a completely different Zac than what I assumed to have known. I checked out his music and his combination of classical violin’s discipline and the boundary pressing freedom of rap was incredible together. I reached out to see if he’d share his story. There just had to be one. And I was right.
The Zac I spoke with has been through many transformations. From the outside, he’s had a drastic lifestyle change ––quitting his plush 9-5 corporate job, a man bun!, relocating to the West Coast, and pursuing his music and entrepreneurial ambitions. But, these shifts were all the result of major internal changes ––an awakening of self, the pull to live a more authentic and meaningful life, a new path to healing. And I’m happy to say, that throughout it all, he never lost that intensity. Except for now, that intensity is a fuel for creativity, adventure, and evolving self-awareness. Thank you to Zac for sharing his story with a level of honesty that is inspiring and liberating.
MN: Experiencing an identity crisis seems to be a common theme with many Millennials caught in between crossroads. During our interview, we discussed the pressure to live up to others’ expectations rather than owning who we really are. When did you decide to flip the script and create the lifestyle that is true to you? What was that process like and what was the most challenging + rewarding part?
ZC: Since I can remember, I’ve always had this idea of who I wanted to be, but no earthly idea how to get there. I’ve spent a lot of my life going with the flow, taking opportunities as they come ––and honestly that’s worked for me to an extent. I’ve enjoyed every stage of my life since I gained my independence. Most recently, I was able to move myself to Los Angeles with an awesome corporate job out of college, find a wonderful group of people to surround myself with, and find a living situation that I could not only afford, but also truly enjoy. In society’s eyes, I was doing the “right thing.” But the more I successfully transitioned into adulthood, the louder I heard my inner child question ––is this who you really are?
It had always been my hope that as long as I could keep coasting, taking life as it came and leading with kindness, I’d eventually end up realizing the potential of exactly who I wanted to be when I was younger and maybe for some people that is true. I wish I could say one day I just woke up and decided to pursue my dreams. But in actuality, it took someone truly believing in me and giving me a glimpse of what I could be for me to decide for myself that life wasn’t going to just give me what I wanted. I had to really take the steps to create that reality for myself.
This came in the form of my first solo violin gig, a charity show in the famed Alex Theatre in Hollywood. Someone had noticed the videos I was putting on Instagram and got me a spot performing. I put together my first 15 minute set, experienced my first red carpet as a featured artist, and played for a crowd that included some of my closest friends. It was one of the best feelings in the world. I felt fulfilled, thankful and for the first time excited about the future. That simple recognition was what it took for me to get the courage to actually think I could really do this and even more–why shouldn’t I try?
I put together an 8-month plan to quit my corporate job. I spent that time prepping for the biggest transition of my life –going from socially approved Millennial 9-5er to a self-serving, semi-starving artist. I started putting out more content, brought studio equipment while I still had a salary and started collaborating with other artists in LA. I planned a one month trip to India with my best friend and quit my job two days before we left. During that time, I re-centered my mind, body and spoke to my soul.
Now, I’m three months into this new lifestyle and I work for myself. I wake up every day with 7-8 hours of sleep, go to the gym, do part-time work for my friend’s CBD business, eat lunch by the pool, create music and find time to read, meditate and learn something new every day. The most challenging part is finding ways to make money for myself. But, I’ve been doing studio session work, taking gigs, giving violin lessons and yes, driving Uber. It’s difficult sometimes to make ends meet, but so worth it. For the first time in a long time, I no longer hear any inner voice questioning what I’m doing with my life. It’s now telling me to keep going. Whether I make it or not, I’ll be able to look back and know that I was true to myself and hopefully that will make all the difference.
MN: You take a modern approach mixing the classical violin with rap/hip-hop. What draws you to this particular instrument and genre of music? What are the similarities or connection between these two sub-genres?
ZC: The violin has always been a part of my life. I started learning before the age of 3 and have been studying ever since, with a small break during business school. My father, his father, and his mom before him played an instrument, so I think it was only natural I was taught to play as well. The thing was, I was raised and taught in a purely classical music environment until the age of 17, and I hated classical. While I thought the Beethoven Symphonies and Rachmaninov Concertos were beautiful, I found little to no joy in learning and performing them. They didn’t excite me nearly as much as the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Eminem, and they certainly didn’t impress my friends (or girls!).
I did find a love for music, however. I grew to appreciate the technicality, the musicality, the theory, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself. Even though I didn’t like what I was playing, it was how I learned to express myself when I was sad, angry, happy, etc. At the time, I didn’t even consider I could use it to create my own music. To me, it was a chore that I had to complete before I was able to do what I want. For 14 years, I practiced every day for hours with weekly lessons from the second chair in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I competed in numerous competitions, ranking top ten in the state at the age of 14. I was succeeding in music, but I felt empty, out-of-control and unmotivated. Ultimately, I realized that what I was creating wasn’t what I wanted to say as an artist ––it wasn’t my true voice. I began to look for other ways to express myself creatively, outside of the violin.
Growing up in the Atlanta music scene, I developed an affinity for Hip-Hop. By the age of 10, I was writing songs. At 17, I put out my first solo Hip-Hop Project, some of which included me vocalizing over violin beats. I fell in love with creating music in a way that I was never able to with the violin. I started getting gigs around Atlanta and my college town of Athens. I dreamt of a career as a lyricist. However, when I hit college, I suddenly dropped music altogether. I’m not sure if it was the fear of pursuing my dreams or the relief of gaining pure independence, but I put my pen and my violin in storage and didn’t look at either for years. Once I got out of college, I could feel that something was missing. I picked up my violin again for the first time in years. I thought about what I could actually do with it now that no one was telling me what to learn or what to play. On a whim, I began experimenting, mixing classical violin with contemporary music and an emphasis on hip-hop.
At first, it was just something to do for fun to see if I could. Then something I never imagined possible happened. People began to resonate with the music I was making. Better still, I began to resonate with it. I had found a way to take the instrument I grew up hating and put my own twist on it. I felt the same satisfaction I had felt as a lyricist. Both the violin and the hip-hop voice are lead instruments, and when combined with the right rhythms, swag, and enunciations, I quickly realized they can mesh to make a powerful NEW sub-genre of music rarely applied in the industry today. It took me 25 years, but I see a lane and I’m taking it.
Now that I can look back, I wish I had more music I could relate to as a violinist. I wish I had more artists to look up to that dealt in my craft and appealed to my generation. I wish I wasn’t ashamed of an instrument that can be so beautiful, so diverse, so much more than what it seemed to younger me. I wish I had the courage to create music that I enjoyed rather than blindly play music I was told to play. This year I stopped wishing and started doing. I will be a voice for the younger generations and show any instrument player that their musicality is limitless. I believe I can connect with other musicians who may have been put in a creative box. I want to inspire others to stop living by anyone else’s standards but their own, especially in music but also in life as well. By combining classical violin with the raw virulence of hip-hop to create my own sub-genre of music, I hope to do just that.
MN: You are a musical performer and startup entrepreneur. Do you feel like these two worlds collide? Do you find it challenging to express yourself authentically in a “brand yourself” society that tries to categorize people? If so, how do you deal with that pressure? What is your approach? How would you describe who you are?
ZC: I wish I could say I’ve mastered a perfect harmony of pursuits, but that’s just not true. I’ve had to sacrifice one pursuit for the other plenty of times. I’ve been stuck on getting my app coded by a legitimate company for years because I haven’t had the resources, yet I’ve asked for loans to buy studio equipment. I’ve turned down music gigs in LA to spend the night in my bedroom on Skype with my app’s tech team in India. It’s funny ––I meet with a group of entrepreneurs every week, and they often tell me by all logic, I should be focusing on just one pursuit with all of my energy. You’ve probably heard the whole “don’t half ass two things, whole ass one thing” debacle. That definitely works for some people, but I don’t think it’s a law. I’m one of those people that needs to be using every part of my brain or I get bored. Having multiple pursuits in multiple industries keeps things exciting and allows me to problem solve and create in different ways. Using one side of my brain often creates inspiration or direction for the other. I believe it’s all about finding a balance between what you want and what’s gaining traction. If one pursuit is getting you further than another, pour more resources into it and see if it keeps growing. What’s important is that you’re moving forward. Alternatively, if one of your pursuits is perhaps stalling or not going anywhere, consider a pivot or replacing it with another pursuit entirely. To those that say artists or businessmen or blue-collar workers must choose one brand and be boxed in it, I say ––while sometimes it’s best not to half ass two things, it’s also smart not to place your eggs all in one basket.
As far as trying to express myself authentically, I still feel like I’m learning who I am and the impact I’m going to leave on this world. I know what I want, and I’m going for it, but I’m not there yet. In a lot of ways I’m at the beginning. And things tend to change from a beginning to an end. As far as pressure from “society,” it was tough at times, especially when I was younger and unsure of myself. But, I’ve learned to use my individuality as an asset. Our power comes from our uniqueness; it is what truly separates us from the other 7 billion people on this planet. If you’re weird, be weird. If you’re straight-laced, tuck in your shirt and do you. Society may try to brand you, but the truth is no one really knows you but yourself and maybe a few select friends and family. So why give a f*ck about what society thinks? You literally can’t do anything more than be yourself, so why waste time worrying about how others will react? You’re going to have haters and supporter no matter what. If they’re with you, then salute. If they’re not, that’s okay. Choose to listen to your supporters, just as you can choose to quiet your haters. I believe as long as you’re living in your truth and leading with kindness, the right people will notice and authenticity will come.
The challenge lies in making sure you are expressing yourself in a way that truly reflects you. Take a second before you put something out to the world ––is it truly representing your inner thoughts or has it morphed in some way to fit into society’s standard? The best question I find myself asking myself is: Would my inner child approve? If it’s authentic, proceed. If not, meditate and think about where you might have lost a bit of yourself. The more time you spend getting to know yourself, the easier this will be.
I try to be wise, kind, and motivated. But the truth is, sometimes I do stupid things, hurt people without realizing, and pass up on opportunities because of laziness. Every win I’ve ever gotten has had tons of failures behind it. Each success, failure, experience, person, place, lesson learned etc. has and will continue teaching me who I am. I am a student, a teacher, a speck of dust in an infinite universe. I am limitless, yet bound by the stretches of my own mind. You know who you are ––deep inside you’ve always known. Strive to feel that constantly, try not to worry about what others will think by focusing only on the positivity in your life. You don’t do things for the haters anyway. You do them for you and your support system. So, go out and be you.
MN: Some say to be a visionary can be a lonely road at times. Do you feel that because of your aspirations, you are often misunderstood? How do you cope with doubt and balance a practical lifestyle with the pursuit of your dreams? What is a dream of yours?
ZC: Damn, I get kind of uncomfortable hearing myself talked about like that. “Visionary.” None of this shit could work, haha. If nothing I’m doing goes anywhere, what would I be then? This is the voice that goes through my head as I think to answer this question. This is doubt rearing its great ugly head, which it sometimes does on its own accord. The best thing I’ve learned to say to doubt is ––why not the opposite? Doubt doesn’t know the future, just as much as you don’t know the future. Doubt could be right, but shouldn’t the same be true for hope? Hope can’t tell the future either, but it’s there all the same, though sometimes harder to find than doubt. If none of us know the future, WHY do we choose to listen to doubt when hope could just as logically be right? That is what I choose to believe in. Choose Hope.
I can see being a visionary as a lonely road at times. Luckily, I haven’t really felt that way. I’m still in the beginning stages of what I want to do, so maybe ask me again in 10 years. As of now, I’m very lucky to have an awesome support system of friends and loved ones who believe in me and are there for me when I need them. That doesn’t mean I don’t get misunderstood. I’m sure people see what I’m trying to do and scoff. But again, I choose not to waste my time thinking about those people. You’re not gonna be friends with everybody (but it doesn’t hurt to try).
As far as a practical lifestyle, I do my best to do all the things I was doing when I was working a 9-5. I go to the gym, pay my bills, go to the movies with my girlfriend, occasionally party my ass off, and work on my side hustles. Except since I quit my job, my side hustles are now my main hustles. As long as I’m giving half as much time to them as I was giving my corporate job, I can see a healthy and steady progress.
As for my dreams... I have many dreams, Elnaz. If I were to sum it up in one sentence ––I dream to live a life worth living. In every sense of the phrase.
MN: We bonded over our mutual appreciation for the self-empowerment book, “The Untethered Soul.” As cheesy as “self-help” can sound, there is a lot of wisdom waiting to be discovered when you find the right book. During your recent trip to India, you mentioned gaining personal experience of these teachings in action. Could you elaborate on a memorable moment/realization you had?
ZC: What I found so special about that book was its perspective on who we are as people. It challenges that we’re not our past, our present or our future. We’re not the bones in our body or even the thoughts that run through our mind. What we are is a consciousness, located somewhere in the center of it all ––aware of everything our body and mind experience, but not actually linked to it. Thinking like this may not be for everyone, but it allows me to view things more clearly, less emotionally, and with a greater understanding of why. It also helps me recognize that the voice in my head that can bring doubt, fear, paranoia, anxiety, etc, is just a voice. If I remove any attachment to it, I can challenge it or even just tell it to shut the f*ck up. It’s crazy how much that’s helped me curb anxiety, doubt, or fear. I don’t have any huge moments or realizations to infer about this revelation. Just small moments, that over time have dramatically increased the health of my mental state. .
MN: We talked about the role that forgiving others and ourselves plays in our healing and enjoyment of the present. How has “forgiveness” shaped you as an individual? What are some steps you have taken in applying the theme of forgiveness to your life?
ZC: Forgiveness is something I struggled with for a lot of my life and continue to struggle with. I’m a really trusting person innately. More times, this trait has ended up biting me in the ass. I’ve had plenty of reasons to hate people or nix them from my life. Growing up, there were a few times where I left it at that. But, I’ve learned forgiveness really isn’t for the other person, it’s for yourself. It’s to help release negative energy and focus on your own healing and enjoyment of the present. When I was younger and hurting and dramatic, it was game over when someone wronged me. I’d cut them out, make them suffer if possible, and bottle the emotion away while trying to move on. It didn’t work. I ended up unhappier with myself than from whatever they had done originally, and oftentimes I regretted how I’d responded. I yearn to be a healthy and mature individual, and how I handle things when I believe people have wronged me has been a big part of that growth process. Since I’ve started applying these things to my life, it’s been far less dramatic and more fulfilling for who I want to be as a person. I always try to follow these steps whenever something happens.
First, I try to take some space and time to collect my thoughts. Acting out of impulse almost always never ends well. Breathe, think objectively, and try to sit in your center of self and detach yourself from the emotion of the situation.
I ask myself: Why am I feeling the way I’m feeling? What’s being triggered from my past that’s causing me to feel this way? Doing this helps me understand the reasoning behind my reaction and takes a little of the blame off the current perpetrator.
Did the opposing party do what they did maliciously? Sometimes people do things without thinking, and this shouldn’t be an excuse to hurt someone, but it should be noted. Sometimes people do things premeditated too, and there’s definitely no excuse there. However, differentiating between the two has helped me find a way to forgive in a way I might not have seen before.
What do they have going on in their lives that could have contributed to them acting in a certain way? Can I understand where they are coming from or why they felt they were pushed to do what they did? Everyone has their own shit going on ––if you put yourself in their shoes, what can you see?
At a certain point, you have to decide if you’re ready to forgive. Take as much time as you need, but if you do eventually choose to forgive, I encourage you to do it for your own peace of mind. It doesn’t mean you’re approving what they did, it means you’re accepting it and releasing any control it has over you. Oftentimes when someone hurts you, it’s because they are hurting themselves. While I believe everyone deserves forgiveness, I think it is equally important to not forget. It is when a pattern of hurt is formed that you may find the best option is to walk away from that person or situation, at least until they have shown real changed behavior. The most important thing is your mental health, and I believe you will feel much freer when you don’t hold onto negative feelings like grudges. At the end of the day, most of us are just trying to figure out how to maneuver this crazy world in our own way, based off our individual and collective journeys. Remembering that we are all different and uniquely beautiful will help you come from a place of love, and push you forward into the realm of inner peace, where forgiveness is not only necessary but celebrated.
Where do you think fear comes from? Describe what fear looks or feels like. Can you share a story of a time fear specifically impacted your life? How do you deal with vulnerability so that it makes you a stronger person?
Fear comes from doubt. Doubt that you’ll fail/succeed, etc. Fear is the feeling of accepting doubt and believing it to be true. It can overwhelm and take over a mind if we let it, and this is a reason so many people have trouble doing things like going outside their comfort zone or taking big risks. No one likes to feel afraid, and what’s worse is when our fears come true. We failed that math test, we fell off that skateboard ––there have been so many times throughout all of our lives that our fear of something has turned out to be realistic. We know how easily we can fail, because we as humans do it all the time. We err when we fail and do not learn something. We err when we allow fear to confine us. But to err is to be human, and it is nothing to be ashamed of.
Fear challenges me all the time. My whole life I’ve been deathly afraid of heights, yet I noticed something in myself after my friend’s convinced me to ride my first roller coaster. Was I scared shitless? You better believe it. Was I terrified of heights after I landed? Hell yeah. Fear doesn’t always disappear after you challenge it. But damn if I didn’t feel strong. I had challenged my fear head on and came out relatively unscathed. Better yet, i felt more confident to keep challenging myself ––riding more roller coasters, peering out over tall ledges, and eventually my sophomore year I skydived out of a plane. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I did it. By challenging my fear in little ways over time I was able to feel more confident to challenge it in bigger ways. This has taught me how to handle my fears and vulnerabilities. If I look at them as opportunities to grow, I become stronger each time. Start small if you have to, but I encourage everyone I meet to find as many ways to challenge your fears as you can. This may just give you the strength and force of will to go after your wildest dreams someday. Passing on from this world and leaving things unsaid, undone, unfinished ––could that not be our greatest fear? Every religion agrees that we are on this earth (as ourselves) one time, so, why shouldn’t you at least try to do everything you’ve ever wanted? Fear can stop us from becoming the best version of ourselves. But if you can find a way to challenge it, to learn from it, to grow from it, to use it as a fire for change, I believe you can truly do anything you put your mind to, and become exactly who you were meant to be.
Love. How has your views on love evolved over time? How would you describe the feeling of love using adjectives and imagery?
I have loved and been loved in different ways throughout my life. Each love has been different in its own way, and each love has taught me something. My views on love have been shaped through observing a broken marriage, growing up as an only child in a home devoid of traditional love, serious relationships I’ve been in, and more than one family’s willingness to open their arms to me and love unconditionally.
When I first think of love, it’s not all sunshine, warmth and happiness. Love can be fleeting and fickle. For the first 17 years of my life, I ran away from it. I learned this from my father, who left my Mom and I the first chance he could when I was 3 years old. As I grew up, my Mom and I didn’t share much love. She had her issues and I had mine, and we told each other we hated each other far more than the opposite. I’ve loved fiercely in my own relationships and been betrayed more times than I can count. I’ve been so happy I could cry and so sad I have cried ––all because of love. I think love can be shown in different ways by different people. My father said he loved me, but he left me before I could write my name and didn’t look back. My mom said she loved me, but she did things to me (and me to her) that no one should ever experience. And yet, I think I’ve always loved them. Not just because they were my parents, but because we shared memories and meals and mini spouts of joy. I guess that means there is healthy love and unhealthy love. And I have spent the better part of the past 10 years battling between the two.
I experienced healthy love when my friend’s family took me in when I left my Mom’s place at 17. For a few years and for the first time, I experienced what it was like to be a part of a loving family. Looking back, it’s crazy how much that time changed me. I was a troubled kid who was going down a troubled path, and I think it’s because I wasn’t being loved in the way I needed. Experiencing true unconditional love for the first time was like drinking a cold glass of water after being parched in the desert. For the first time in a long time I didn’t feel alone, and it took me down a path that welcomed more healthy love into my life.
Now at 25, I’m so lucky to be in a loving, healthy relationship. No matter what success I gain, loving and being loved will forever be the greatest feeling. Love changed me, but I still bear the scars from the first 17 years of my life and probably will until my dying day. Yet, so many others aren’t as lucky as me and grow up never feeling unconditional love. Often, these people don’t end up in a great place. I think love can quite possibly change a person’s life. I hope we can all remember that as we navigate this world. Love is free, and it is the easiest thing we have an endless supply of to give to someone else.
At this point in my life, I think love is beautiful and imperfect and rare. It should be cherished, celebrated, spread and sought after. True love is the affinity which links and draws together the elements of the world. It is understanding and acceptance. It is putting your heart and soul into something or someone and expecting nothing in return. Whether you are afraid of love or actively seek it, I encourage you to love as much as humanly possible ––you never know whose life you could change for the better. |
Interested in learning more about Zac? Roam to his Instagram: @clejantheviolinist