Former Richwoods student to appear on MTV's 'Starmaker'

Tim Alexander

Peoria-to-Manhattan transplant Zach Berkman, a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter and audio engineer, will showcase his talents this Sunday during the world premier of “P. Diddy’s Starmaker” on MTV.

Along with the legendary P. Diddy (aka Sean Combs) the show, which makes its debut on Aug. 16 following “America’s Best Dance Crew,” also features the talents of famed executive producer Mark Burnett and a host of music industry veterans.

Berkman, 23, earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and recorded music from the prestigious Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University in 2008, along with a bachelor’s in journalism.

Currently residing in New York and single, Berkman is living his dream as a musician and audio engineer. He plays a wide range of instruments, including guitar, bass, drums, piano and the harmonica, and his soaring vocal style seems reminiscent of Steve Winwood or Counting Crows’ Adam Durwitz.

As an engineer, he has been called on to provide sound expertise at Carnegie Hall and other notable venues.

It all began for Berkman in the house he grew up in on Grandview Terrace in Peoria. He attended Peoria Hebrew Day School from kindergarten through the eighth grade, and Peoria Richwoods High School before moving to Chicago after his sophomore year.

Though he took various music lessons as a youth, he hadn’t given serious thought to becoming a professional musician until after picking up a guitar.

“I was self-taught on guitar, though my dad did show me a couple of things,” said Berkman, from his Manhattan apartment, last week. “I started writing songs early in high school, but I originally had wanted to be a professional tennis player.” 

At the same time he began penning songs in his Peoria bedroom, Berkman was developing an appreciation for singer-songwriters from the Beatles to James Taylor, the latter of whom Berkman saw in concert at the Peoria Civic Center.

He had never displayed his talents before a live audience until moving to Chicago, when a family friend urged him to attend the open stage night at the nightclub Uncommon Ground in the Wrigleyville district.

Since then, Berkman has written and developed about 175 songs, issued one full-length album, “Stumble,” and one E.P., “As Far as it Goes.” The albums are digital releases available through iTunes and Amazon.

Berkman, a sound engineer, generally produces his own work. He also produces the work of another musician, Ron Pope, who sold 150,000 singles online and was recently signed by the Universal imprint Republic. Berkman sought help from a friend, Paul Hammer, to help play the instruments and produce Berkman’s E.P. in a studio in upstate New York.

Aside from winning “P.Diddy’s Starmaker,” Berkman said his immediate goals are to “write songs with a lot of people, develop my fan base, promote my music and make a full-time living.”

Berkman learned about “Starmaker” when a casting call was put out on the social media website MySpace. Since the auditions were to be held in New York, Berkman decided the opportunity was worth exploring. He piled into a cab with a full-sized keyboard in tow and instructed the driver to take him to the audition.

“I thought it would probably be a waste of my time, that I would audition and then go home and make dinner,” Berkman said with a laugh, “but they kept calling me back. Now I’m treating this as an opportunity to spread the word that I make music.”

The premier episode of Starmaker was filmed in Los Angeles, where Berkman had a chance to meet P. Diddy himself. “He was cool,” Berkman said, “and a consummate businessman.” 

Though Berkman has left Peoria behind — perhaps for good — his memories of growing up in Peoria will always resonate through his music, he said.

“A lot of my music comes from experience. I lived in Peoria 16 years and there are snippets of memories of Peoria throughout my music. Peoria is a definite influence if only because it is in my roots.”