Photo credit: Chase Jarvis
Zoë Keating is a renowned cellist who uses technology to loop tracks and enhance her live and recorded music performances. Her songs tell stories without words—and luckily we have this interview to make up for that! Read on to learn more about Zoë, in her own words. :-)
(This interview was perviously recorded as a podcast back in January 2014. You can listen to the audio version here.)
[MUSIC: “Optimist” by Zoë Keating]
INTRO: This is Kayla here, with your Murfie podcast. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Zoë Keating at her show in Madison. Zoë is a world-famous cellist who’s crafted a bunch of scores, in addition to playing with musicians like Amanda Palmer and DJ Shadow. Zoë creates amazing layered compositions by looping cello tracks with her laptop. Not only was her show incredible, but her personality is great, and she told the audience funny stories between songs. Here’s a recording of the interview we had backstage at the theater.
Kayla: So, I’m at the Majestic in downtown Madison right now with Zoë Keating—thank you so much for talking with me today, Zoë.
Zoë: Oh, you’re welcome.
Kayla: I’m excited for the show, first of all. Um, did you just arrive today in Madison?
Zoë: Yeah, like two hours ago [laughs].
Kayla: Okay—what do you think of the cold? It’s finally over zero.
Zoë: You know, I arrived in Minnesota the day after the polar vortex left, so that was pretty darn cold…and in comparison, it feels pretty warm now.
Zoë: I think it’s like fifteen degrees outside, and it feels lovely.
Kayla and Zoë: [Laugh]
Kayla: I know! Who would have thought we would appreciate fifteen degrees. But you’re from Canada, is that right?
Zoë: Originally, yeah, but I live in California now and it’s been a long time since I had to deal with cold.
Kayla: Ohhhh, yes. The trick is keeping hand lotion by you at all times.
Zoë: Oh, really.
Kayla: Oh, yeah—for your hands.
Kayla: [Laughs] So, how much of your tour do you have left?
Zoë: Well, I’m kind of at the end of it…I started in December. Um, I did a couple weeks before Christmas, and then just tacked on these extra four days in January. So I’m just playing Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago, and Bloomington.
Kayla: Cool. How’s it been so far?
Zoë: Very good. I actually love playing in the Midwest; a lot of artists sort of, you know, make fun of playing in the Midwest. But these, like, small college cities are kind of my base, I think. So, places like Madison, and Iowa City, and Minneapolis, they all kind of…they’re good places to play.
Kayla: Yeah, I agree. So tonight, onstage, for your set, are you going to be the only one up there the whole time?
Kayla: Cool. Yes, I—
Zoë: Well, except for the cello.
Kayla: You and the cello! Yes, I like that angle, definitely. And so, I know that you make your music by layering different beats and melodies on your cello, and is it the same for your recorded stuff? If someone were to look at the musicians on your album, is it just you?
Zoë: Yeah, it’s just me.
Kayla: Very awesome.
Zoë: Yeah, it’s just me, with the same cello, on all of them.
Kayla: Yes. And do you use your hand to make beats on the cello, or anything else?
Zoë: Um, you know, I’ll tap it…I’ll tap the cello with my hand, sometimes I’ll use the bow and I’ll brush the wood…um, I do all kinds of things. The cello can make a huge array of sounds; it’s a really versatile instrument. And I’m still exploring the boundaries of the cello to see what kinds of sounds I can get.
Kayla: Yeah, definitely. So do you have a name for your cello?
Zoë: Yes [laughs].
Kayla: What is it?
Zoë: Uh, his name is Ariège, which sounds really highfalutin, but that’s just the town in France that he’s from—he’s from the French Pyrénées. And um, he’s very French, and kind of delicate—“Ariège”…I can just imagine him with a scarf on…
Zoë: [Laughs] He has a definite personality.
Kayla: Yeah! It’s very fitting…I like it a lot. And how do you choose the names for your songs, since they’re all instrumental?
Zoë: Uh, usually, each song, I’m sort of capturing a feeling or like, an emotion, or something, and the name of the piece will come from that feeling or emotion that I was trying to recreate in a musical form. So, like my piece “Lost” is sort of this feeling of being lost. Sometimes it’s difficult because the feelings are a little hard to put words on, and I try to pick one word that encapsulates all of them—but I hate naming things. If it was left to me, I would just give them all numbered names, like “1, 2, 3, 4.”
Kayla: Hmmmm! Yeah, very interesting.
Zoë: ‘Cause names have so much meaning attached to them, of course, and the pieces have a meaning to me when I make them, and then they might have a different meaning when I’m playing them. And I like it when people who listen to the music have their own experience, and sometimes if I put too loaded of a title on a piece, it might change the way somebody perceives the piece. So I like people to be free to have the music mean to them whatever it means to them.
Kayla: Yes. I like the song, “Don’t Worry.”
Zoë: Yeah [laughs].
Kayla: Yeah [laughs]. I get that vibe from it—maybe ‘cause I like reggae, I like that one.
Zoë: Yeah. You know, that piece came from when I was pregnant—and it was kind of like, when you’re pregnant, there’s all these things, and details, to take care of, and it’s like, if you start going down that rabbit hole of things to worry about… And I would kind of sit back and kind of like [say] “Don’t worry, everything’s fine…it’s gonna be fine, you’re fine”—that was what I was thinking about when I wrote that piece.
Zoë: It’s kind of happy.
Kayla: Yeah, definitely. So, you originally started playing cello when you were eight, I read; what made you choose cello versus other instruments?
Zoë: Weirdly, I never chose the cello. I was at school in England at the time, and the music teacher just asked me if I wanted to play the cello. It was that time of life when they start giving instruments to kids, and I think I was the tallest in my class.
Zoë: So I think that’s why they suggested the cello.
Zoë: And, I started playing it, I loved it, and then, it kind of never occurred to me that I could stop [laughs].
Kayla: Yeah! Well hey, I’m glad you didn’t stop. And that seems like a bit of fate maybe—that’s really cool. So, when you’re making all these different sounds that come together as a song, do you ever or have you ever used anything besides your cello, as a source of sound?
Zoë: Yeah, I have occasionally. The first time I did that was on my EP, I actually sing a little bit, like it’s got my vocals on there, and then I wrote through the vocals backwards. And then I did the score for a horror film, and I used mostly cello, but also some cheese grater and a screwdriver.
Kayla: Hmmmmmm—the cheese grater! With the screwdriver?
Zoë: With the screwdriver.
Kayla: Wow! That’s really cool—that’s crafty.
Zoë: [Laughs] I was trying to make some sort of percussion-y sort of scraping sounds, and I had a cheese grater and a screwdriver, and those were the other instruments.
Zoë: Maybe that’ll be my next big thing.
Kayla: Maybe! You could have that be part of your show, like “what is she gonna bring out next?” [Laughs] So, originally, you were recommended to me by a developer at Murfie, someone who works on our website, and he mentioned that you have a background in technology and computers…so what is your background like with that?
Zoë: Um, when I got out of college, it was the dot-com boom in San Francisco, and I moved to San Francisco from New York. And I had a liberal arts degree, and I kind of fell into the software start-up world. I think a lot of liberal arts grads were lucky at that time to get jobs, cause nobody knew what they were doing then.
Zoë: And, I started working for a software start-up—I was like employee number seven. And they had me at the front desk as their admin, and I also made the website—I figured out how to do that. And then the CEO came and he said, “Zoë, you’re the worst admin we’ve ever had—I think you’d do better in engineering.”
Zoë: And so, I went back to engineering, and they taught me how to program Java, and that was that, and I loved it. I think I was pretty good at it, and I loved the environment, and that was the beginning of that. And I did that solidly for about five years.
Kayla: Mm-hmm. Wow, really cool. And um, so can you tell me a bit about your current open-source software that you’re working on?
Zoë: [Laughs] Well, um, the software that I’m using right now onstage is just regular, off-the-shelf software: I’m using Ableton Live, and some MaxMSP, and SooperLooper, and MidiPipe, which runs some Apple scripts…so I feel like everything there is very conventional. Um, I am on the board of this group called CASH Music, and we’re trying to make open-source digital tools for artists to promote, market, and sell their music online. And the idea behind that is to make it just simple, and inexpensive, and there’s no reason to have, like, all these companies as middlemen to put the control in the hands of artists. And they’re web developers, so they can put these little modules into their own sites, and stream music or whatever.
Kayla: Mhmm. Do you think that musicians have it easier or harder nowadays?
Zoë: Both [laughs].
Zoë: Yeah, I think both. On one hand, it’s easier than ever to make music, and to record it—um, nobody has any more time [laughs], so that’s still a scarce resource. But it’s easier to make the music, and it’s very easy to get it out there—but now what’s harder is, how do you get people to find it…like a needle in a haystack. So, just by creating more and more and more art, it makes it harder and harder to find what’s good. So, [there are] pros and cons to it…it’s just a natural development, I think. One thing I like about the world of today is that if you are determined, and if you have something that is worthwhile, you can just put it out there—you don’t need a middleman. If you can work on finding your audience, you can do it directly, without having to rely on a record label, and I think that that’s really powerful—it’s really empowering. It’s scary, but it’s empowering.
Kayla: Definitely. Are you on a record label right now?
Zoë: No—absolutely not.
Kayla: Okay. Do you ever plan to be?
Zoë: No [laughs].
Kayla: Wow. And so, um, is it because of the kind of freedom that it gives you—?
Zoë: Um, initially it was just ‘cause I was rejected, y’know…and I, certainly like every band, when I was starting out I sent my music to labels and just didn’t hear anything back. I did actually hear back from one label, and they said, “You know, this is not marketable—but if you sung on it, it would be.” And I wasn’t really willing to compromise my artistic visions, so, I just did it myself. And I’ve sold more than sixty thousand albums on my own, so I’m not clear what a record label could do for me.
Kayla: That’s awesome—that’s really good for you, that’s really awesome.
Zoë: So, I encourage other people to do it, too. You definitely need help with administrative things—we all need help. But I don’t think it has to be a record label—it could be…your friends, you know, you could hire your friends to help with some things: like, someone who’s good at PR, someone who’s good at making websites, you know.
Kayla: Mmhmm, yeah—I definitely feel that. What’s your favorite media format for listening to music?
Zoë: Mmmm…that’s a tough one. Again, the choice! I would say that I still like records; but they are cumbersome, and I travel a lot, so most of the time I’m listening on my phone.
Kayla: Mmhmm, yeah! Totally. I’m a fan of vinyl too, but you know, the practical element comes in—
Zoë: Yeah, yeah—those are heavy.
Kayla: Yeah, they are.
Zoë: They’re big, they’re very heavy. And also, it’s funny because I used to listen to CDs a lot, but I find that it’s too easy to scratch CDs, and I lose the cases, and all this stuff. So as soon as I get a CD, I make it in a digital form, and then it just lives on my computer and on my phone.
Zoë: I think I’m like everybody else that way.
Kayla: Yes, I know—perfect fit for Murfie and what we do. So um, do you download music at all?
Kayla: Yeah; some stuff is only available on download, of course.
Zoë: Yeah, and also like, if I’m on tour, and I really want to hear something, I’ll just go get it.
Kayla: Mm-hmm. Are you more of a single-track download gal, or a complete album downloader?
Zoë: I’m definitely a complete album downloader. I like to hear an artist’s full thought, and so, it’s usually the case that one song is not long enough for me and I want more. The way I listen to music is I like to listen to something all the way through, and if I really like something, I’ll have it on repeat and I’ll listen to that album like ten times in a row.
Kayla: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So, you’ve worked with quite a few different groups, whether you’re in the group or performing with the group, so, over the years, who has stood out as a really fun person to perform with?
Zoë: Imogen Heap.
Kayla: Ooh, sweet!
Zoë: Without question, yeah. I mean, I love everybody I’ve worked with, of course, but she’s very special.
Kayla: Yeah! Um, does she have a good personality?
Zoë: Yeah, she’s just a joy to be with. I lived with her on a bus, you know, as we were on tour for several tours—and she’s fun, she’s a great cook, she’s just a wonderful person, and a great musician, to boot—she’s great.
Kayla: Yeah. So who do you look up to, music-wise?
Zoë: That’s a tough one. Who do I look up to?
Kayla: If you look up to someone.
Zoë: I don’t know if I have an answer.
Kayla: Yeah, that’s totally fine, too.
Zoë: [Laughs] I don’t mean to sound like an egomaniac, but [laughs]—
Kayla: No, no, not at all.
Zoë: It’s not that I’m great or anything, I just don’t know who I look up to.
Kayla: Yeah, totally. Also, that would mean that you’d have to agree with every aspect of what that person is doing…that’s hard to do.
Zoë: Yeah. There are people I really admire, and it’s not for things that I want to do myself, you know—like, I always am curious about them, or— Like, I love Björk, for example, and I will continually be fascinated by everything she does; whether I like it or not is another story [laughs].
Kayla: Hmmm. And, so, lately, is there any new artist that you’ve been following at all that you’ve really been diggin’?
Zoë: Um, I wish that there was, and I feel actually like I’m on a quest right now—I need to find…I’m on a quest to find music that moves me. I have old favorites that I go back to, to listen to, but right now I feel like there’s a little bit of a void in my life that I don’t have anything new that is really moving me. And I know it’s there, it’s just that I haven’t been hearing it. So I try to tell people, “If you think of something that you know I would love, please tell me about it”…‘cause that’s how I’ve discovered everything in my life, is by someone who’s motivated, who tells me about it. So I’m trying to encourage my friends to pass on their musical favorites. But I haven’t heard anything that really like, grabbed me, and made me stop what I was doing, and lie on the floor and move the speakers next to my ears [laughs].
Kayla: ‘Cause that does happen! That definitely does happen. So, when you’re on the road right now, what album is a good album for traveling, when you listen to it?
Zoë: I have two things I tend to go to when I’m traveling. Um, one is podcasts of Radiolab—so I know that’s not an album, but you know, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the show—it’s a great, great show and I like to listen to those when I’m driving. And then, I’m kind of a fan of Mahler. So, like I was just on tour right before Christmas, and I was listening to the Mahler symphonies as I was driving. And also this German artist named Ulrich Schnauss—he’s a German electronica artist. And he’s kind of like an electronic version of My Bloody Valentine—
Zoë: So, um [laughs]—
Kayla: I’m just picturing that [laughs]—
Zoë: Yeah, just try to picture that [laughs]
Kayla: Wow! I’ll have to check him out.
Zoë: Yeah. He’s kind of like Kraftwerk meets My Bloody Valentine.
Zoë: Yeah, it was good driving music.
Kayla: Yeah, definitely. Cool. Well, so, you’ve got a few shows left—if these are places that you’ve been before, this there any venue or city that you’re looking forward to going to again?
Zoë: Well, I love Chicago.
Zoë: But I do love the Majestic. I mean, this is my favorite kind of venue to play in: the kind of, um—the old, historic movie theatres of America. So, I always look forward to places like this. I’m really a fan of these kind of, tight cities. But no, I like them all. I was sort of joking that, um—I know that this place has a shady past, as did the Cedar, where I played yesterday—
Zoë: Yeah, I think it used to be a, um…a pornography theater.
Zoë: I believe, in the ‘70s.
Kayla: Oh my gosh!
Zoë: Yeah, I think a lot of theaters—a lot of sort of main-street theaters—had that history in the ‘70s.
Zoë: Um, so I was joking that this is like the former porn theater tour.
Kayla and Zoë: [Laugh]
Kayla: Oh my goodness. Yeah, that’s one take on it, you know, that stuff used to be everywhere. So, I wanted to know…your tour’s almost done, what about the rest of 2014? Any new releases, or anything you’re working on?
Zoë: Yeah, I’m working on a new album—actually, I’m in the mixing stage of it, so I hope to have that out in the spring. Um, and then right after my tour this week, I’m going to play a new piece that I’ve been commissioned to write for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. So that’s kind of [where] all the world leaders and stuff go into Davos, and they have this big meeting, and I’m gonna play at the closing of the annual meeting. So I’m really…kind of scared about that; I have a new piece that I’ve been working on for it.
Kayla: Yeah—that’s exciting. Scary, slash exciting [laughs]. Cool. My last question: what’s your wine of choice? [laughs]
Zoë: Uh, well this is from the venue—I actually don’t know what it is, it’s from Chile—
Kayla: Oh, okay—
Zoë: I am a Malbec fan.
Kayla: Malbec. Nice.
Zoë: But, you know, I live in California, so I’m surrounded by amazing wine.
Kayla: That’s lucky.
Zoë: That’s my downfall.
Kayla: [Laughs] Well, thank you so much for talking—I’m really excited for the show tonight.
Zoë: Thank you for coming to see me, and I hope you enjoy it.
[MUSIC: “Optimist” by Zoë Keating]
Kayla: And that was Zoë Keating. To learn more, visit zoekeating.com. What you’re hearing right now is a clip of the track “Optimist”, from her most recent album, Into the Trees, now available on murfie.com. That’s all for this podcast—I’ll see you next time!
Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.