The heart and soul of Joan Zen now in Seeley
December 8, 2022
By Victoria Howell
Seeley Lake is now home to two of Montana's finest musicians and they plan to pour their hearts into their new community.
Deborah and Jason Hicks, the foundation of "Joan Zen," the well-known and much loved soul and rhythm and blues band, are just completing their home-build on a mountainside above the town. They have been living in their camper for the last three and a half years as they worked on their house and more recently have been living in town.
The couple moved to Montana about 20 years ago, and they've been playing music around the state ever since, building a loyal following and a solid reputation for putting on a great show, whether as a full band or an acoustic duo (because of the band's name, over the years many people have mistakenly thought that Deborah's first name was Joan, and she said that she answers to that name, too.). They lived in the Bitterroot Valley for a number of years. They had been trying to find the right place to buy a piece of land and build a house, but by the mid-2000s, land prices had soared, and they were having trouble finding a place that would suit their needs and that they could afford.
As Deborah recalls, "In 2004, we were playing with Don Maus and we were doing a lot of weddings. We got hired to play at the Double Arrow Lodge for a private wedding. It was our first time in the Seeley area. We pulled in, got all set up, then a gigantic storm came through with huge golf-ball-sized hail. All the cars got dented and everyone was running for cover. But right after that a gi-normous rainbow came out, the power went out, and we had to play acoustically. We've been all over Montana, we've seen it all, but we just thought it was so beautiful and it stuck with us."
So, they started looking in the Seeley Lake area, which was still sort of undiscovered, a growing area that hadn't exploded yet. They found a piece of land and bought it.
Little did they know that difficult times were ahead for them. In 2018, Deborah's father died, then 60 days later Jason's father died, and not long after that Jason's stepfather died. Jason's mother passed away in April. And of course, there was the whole pandemic thing, when musicians weren't able to play any in-person gigs.
The house they are building is on top of a mountain. At 5,600 feet, it's hard to get to, and they had to carry snowshoes in their vehicle.
"We moved up here and started building," Jason said. "It's been a challenge, and we're almost done with the house. There were serious cold snaps and dicey times in the Airstream but we persevered. We should be moving in by late spring or early summer."
"There are so many great service- and tradespeople here in Seeley," Deborah said. "We were able to build our whole house from local resources, like Timberline (coincidentally Bud from Timberline built the house that Jason's mother lived in). We had support coming out of the woodwork here. Everyone is working one or two jobs, everybody has special skills, even 2-3-or-4 skills. They can do so many things. We've had an amazing amount of support, including from our neighbors on the mountain."
Throughout the house building and the pandemic, they kept playing their music together, and with their other band members. They wrote and recorded seven new songs that they are starting to perform for live audiences.
"We've always played for audiences with the exception of the pandemic when no one was playing anywhere," Deborah said. "But now we're traveling more and more. It's been a real blessing. A lot of bands didn't make it through covid. They couldn't wait and had to leave and find jobs elsewhere. But we made it through, and now we're just really busy. The arts are booming right now, a lot of new venues and new bands...this year was our busiest year ever - we've played about 50 shows from Darby to Yellowstone to Whitefish. Also more community events than ever - the Creamery Picnic in Stevensville, the Bitterroot Brewfest in Hamilton, the Daly Mansion show opening for the Lil' Smokies."
Deborah and Jason met in a band while Jason was still in college. Deborah was the lead singer of a well-known band that played popular 50's-60's music in larger venues.
"We met in the rehearsal studio when I was auditioning to be the sax player in the band," Jason said. "So our first encounter was playing music together. It was a whirlwind romance. The only weekend we could get married was when the band was on vacation. We were under contract to not fraternize among band members. But it all worked out."
When thinking about why they chose Seeley, Deborah said, "It was like when I met Jason, it's like falling in love. Sometimes you just know, it's a feeling. It kind of reminds me of that. I'm not saying our road has been paved with easy steps – building a house, and a marriage – but they're both a learning process and a labor of love."
This year they have started playing more in Seeley Lake. "We've always done weddings here," Deborah said, "and this year we played at The Filling Station's 75th anniversary party, which was also the 25th anniversary of our meeting. We also played at the Double Arrow for the owners' private party."
"We're looking forward to playing even more in Seeley," Deborah said. "We're getting connected with the non-profits here and hope to do what we've done in the Bitterroot. We're figuring out how we can help out the community with our music."
Deborah describes the Joan Zen sound as "soul music." She says, "I was born in Memphis, and spent the first 20 years of my life in the south, raised on a lot of church music. My dad was a musician and growing up he was the musical director for many of the churches we attended. So my love of music really was fostered by him and his voice. In a lot of respects, the music is the sermon, it is the message. I was drawn to the spiritual, soulful messages from a deep place at a young age. I was never just satisfied with being a bar singer. I had to make people feel good. It's also nostalgic for people. They leave the show feeling happier than they did when they got there."
She said her influences are the greats of soul and R&B (such as Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder), "artists who sing from their heart."
Jason is influenced more by jazz. "That comes out when we play our acoustic duo," Deborah said. Jason went to school for music. Deborah never had any formal training, but you wouldn't know that from listening to her. She's been singing professionally for 36 years, and her sound just keeps getting better. "I started getting paid to play at 16, but I was singing when I was a little girl. I don't know who I would be if I wasn't singing."
She gave a lot of credit to the late Don Maus, the band's former bass player. "He taught me so much," Deborah said. "All our band members are amazing musicians."
Besides Deborah on vocals and Jason on saxophone, band members are Eric Hutchins on the guitar (Hutchins was the orchestra director for Meadow Hill School in Missoula for 30 years); Milan House on the keyboards (House is Montana born and raised from Libby, and is a graduate of the UM Jazz Studies program); and brothers Drew Barker on drums and Branden Barker on bass (the grown children of well-known musician Checkers Barker, owner of Electronic Sound & Percussion in Missoula).
"People always compliment me and say how great I am," Deborah said, "but I think the mark of a smart musician is that they surround themselves with people who are way better than they are. They [the other band members] definitely keep me wanting to do this. I would be a fool to give this up when I have all of them around me."
"The main reason I keep singing is that I believe that every person has a moral imperative to give whatever gifts we have to the world as a way of making it better for everyone," Deborah said. "If you can sing, you should sing. If you can write, you should write. The world would be a dark place if everyone stopped giving their light to it. This is the one thing I do that seems to make people happy, so I'm going to do it until I can't do it anymore."
So, hopefully you'll be hearing more of the music of Joan Zen in Seeley Lake.
"We love living here, it's so great to live in this part of Montana," Jason said. "Handshakes still mean something to people here. And I love the natural beauty. We feel blessed and grateful, and we're looking forward to finding ways to give back to the community here."
Joan Zen will be playing at the Union Club in Missoula on New Year's Eve. For more information or to inquire about bookings, go to the website: joanzen.com.
"Music for me is a necessity," Deborah said. "It's like air, water, nutrition - you've got to have it every day. I'm so thankful that Montana has a place for us to do this."
A splendid profile by Victoria of a staple couple in Bitterroot Community Life.
12/07/2022, 4:03 pm