Interview with Zoë Keating

April 9, 2011 § 4 Comments

By Rebecca Liao

For someone with over a million Twitter followers, Zoë Keating is very much alone. She is a one-woman string quartet, using her computer to loop and layer recordings of her playing to create the illusion of multiple instruments. She does not belong to a record label, nor does she have a coterie of handlers. Her album “Into the Trees” debuted at #7 on the Billboard classical chart and shot to #1 on iTunes Classical. Catching a breather at home in Portland, Oregon after completing the first leg of her Out of the Trees tour, which included collaborations with Radiolab, and a visit to Google, Zoë took some time to chat over the phone.

You’re almost done with the first leg of your tour, what has the experience been like, and how has it been different from tours in the past?

I love touring. I love going to new places and meeting new people, trying all the foods of the region. All of that is to say that the feeling of waking up in a different place everyday is both discombobulating and wonderful. And what’s different this time is, obviously, having my family with me. Traveling with a baby means that any time you might normally have off on a tour, you don’t have off anymore because you also have to be a parent. It kind of makes for no down time, but you just take every minute as it goes. I couldn’t do it without my husband coming with me. He does all the baby wrangling during the shows.

Oh, yeah. I imagine you have to wake up several times during the night.

Definitely. One other thing that’s different is that, in my mind, I thought of touring as this thing I do on my own. And now it’s a group operation. I think the three of us (baby, husband, and me) are the smallest operation. I think we’d actually like to take more people with us because then it would easier. Yeah, it’s been good to learn that I need help.

When you meet with your fans before and after shows, what is the most common thing they say to you, other than, of course, “I loved every minute of it”?

(Laughs) It depends on what kind of audience. If they’re musical, they have technical questions. The other thing I hear is, “Oh, you know, I listen to your music all the time while I’m writing, or while I’m painting,” or “I listen to your music while I’m doing this or another thing, and it really helps.” I also hear a lot of people say, they gave up an instrument when they were younger. Then they heard me and picked it up again. Those are my favorite kinds of comments.

Do you have an audience member in mind when you write music?

No, not at all. It’s very personal. I don’t really imagine the listeners. (Laughs) Although, after the concert, I do like to go out and talk to everybody. This is a very important part of the show for me. It’s like closure. But when I’m actually creating the music, it’s a very personal experience where I’m making my own world, and it’s not about who listens to it; it’s more about some kind of abstract thing I’m trying to create.

Describe your composition process to me. Do you start off with this musical idea in your head, and you know where you want to go with it? Or is it more, this is sort of what I want to express, and let me try out these different phrases?

Often the pieces start out with a feeling. There’s some kind of, I don’t want to use the word emotion, cause that seems sort of flat, really. There’s some sort of feeling that I’m trying to capture in music. I’ll want the music to feel like that. As far as the content of that feeling, it comes from improvisation or mistakes in a previous performance, or I kind of build it up from little bits and let it develop organically. Sometimes, the feeling might change along the way, and I might go somewhere else. Other times, I stick to this feeling that I have in the beginning, and I try to make all of the parts match that emotion. I don’t really know the word to use. That’s why it’s music. (Laughs) It’s sort of a direction, like a motion and an emotional feeling. I’m trying to make a musical version of those two things together.

Yes, I know what you’re talking about since I have a bit of a dance background.

Yeah, if you’re a dancer, you would definitely get that.

I read one of your previous interviews, and you said there was a piece of music in your CD that started with a happy accident during a performance. Do you often remember a lot of those instances? For me, it’s harder to remember something that happens in music the same way I remember a quote from a book, say. But for you, is it natural to keep everything in your head?

I do tend to remember musical phrases, sometimes better than I remember words. It’s kind of like a “finger memory”. My fingers remember what they did. Sometimes, it’s frustrating to hear what I think is “the melody to end all melodies”. I’ll hear it in my head while I’m walking, and I’ll want to do it in the studio, but by the time I get around to it, I’ve forgotten it. Whereas, if I play it on the cello, I’ll probably always remember it.

Walk us through one of your performances. I know that it’s part what you’ve already composed, and it’s part improvisation. How do you navigate the two when you’re on stage?

I have to sort of not think about it. It’s funny: I have my eyes closed because it helps me to concentrate. I’m really concentrating, but I’m not thinking directly, “Now I will do this, and now I will do this.” It’s concentrating on this overarching abstract thing. It’s a funny state of mind that I find sort of hard to describe. I make these strictures in advance. The piece is pretty composed, and I just sort of practice it enough so that I know what to do, and then I don’t have to think about that part.

There’s also a lot of math. I have to make all the numbers of loops add up. On stage, I don’t really think about that either. I just sort of practice it enough so that it becomes second nature. I’m not being very helpful in my description.

No, that totally makes sense.

It’s a lot of work beforehand, just like it would be for a classical piece, really. You have to learn the piece of music in an incremental way. You learn it phrase by phrase, and then you learn the whole thing. I do it the same way I would do classical music, except that I also have a bit of programming in there that’s telling the computer what to do and when to do it: for example, record me for 4 bars, stop recording me for 4 bars, record the next track for two bars, fade down track 1. It’s very similar to the stuff you would have in a musical score. So when I get up on stage, I just have to do the right thing at the right time. I could take over with my feet, if I wanted to, but once I have a piece a certain way, I tend to stick to it that way, and change little bits here and there.

So you play the cello, and the computer just sort of goes, and you only use your feet when you want to change something up?

Yes and no. The computer knows when to record me, so if I didn’t do anything, nothing would happen. There would be no audio. The parts of the song are broken into these things I call modules. When one section of a piece is finished, it will trigger the next section. So if I wanted one section to go longer, I could stop it from triggering that next section. Or, I could have it go to a different section. It’s a little bit like, “Choose your own adventure.” Sometimes, I might start out a piece using this method and then stop it and take over entirely with my feet.

The MIDI commands are what tells the computer what to do. When I send the MIDI command, the computer knows to start recording or stop recording or mute or unmute something or to chop up a phrase. But if I were to send a MIDI command with my foot for every single thing I do, I would do so much tap dancing because there are so many things going on all at once. Once I got this method of doing automated MIDI control, it freed me up to do things that were much more musically complex and not quite so linear. When you hear someone doing looping, it often sounds kind of linear because you get a phrase going and it has to go for the whole song. Automated MIDI allows me to have more different sections and be a little more flexible in how I want to make the piece.

Creating something beautiful and personally meaningful is your main objective, but I was wondering if you have an idea for how you’d like to move music along in general?

My philosophy is that music does move along. I find it frustrating that it’s segmented into these different genres. Classical music is something that is from the past; it will play forever a certain way. Obviously, music evolves. One thing that I would like to do is help break down the barriers between different genres. It doesn’t have to be that your identity means that you only listen to one specific kind of music. I often notice that one particular social group will listen to one particular kind of music. If their friends find out that they listen to another kind of music, they might be ostracized, especially with young people. I listen to all different kinds of music.

Just segueing a bit here, I’m curious, how has motherhood changed you as a musician, if it has at all?

Well, that’s an ongoing question. It’s always changing, just like your kids are always changing. Right now, it’s changed my relationship to time because time is broken up into smaller chunks. I’ve yet to do any major composing since I became a mother. I released my album right when my son was born, so I’ve focused on promoting that and touring on it. The next stage is for me to figure out how to compose. I spend long hours doing that, and that’s something you can’t do if you’re nursing. So I’ll have to keep answering that question in the future.

Do you think in future albums, you’ll compose something for your baby?

Most likely. He’s a huge inspiration. I’m inspired by whatever’s going on in my life, and he’s obviously the biggest thing going on right now.

If we could go way back and talk about why you chose to go into technology right out of college.

I went into technology because it was the only choice at that time. I had student loans to pay off, the dot-com boom was happening, and it was a great way for someone with a liberal arts degree to get a job. I always cared a lot about not doing anything evil. I didn’t like the idea of working for a company that created a lot of stuff, be cause I’m sort of anti-stuff. Working in a dot-com, it wasn’t even really clear what you were making!

You really don’t know what you’re going to do right out of college. I once thought I might go into advertising, and I thought I might be good at it, but I knew that I’d have to work on products I didn’t believe in, like cars or Coca-Cola, a lot of things I just can’t support, so technology was a great industry to be working in. And it was an intellectual challenge that I really enjoyed.

I know you get asked this question a lot, but we can never ask you too many times because you’ve done this so successfully. How does a musician harness social media to build a successful career?

Just like everything else, it’s incremental. Looking back on it, it seems like, “Oh, you were so clever in doing something,” but really I just threw myself out there to see what would work. The main part of it is always being honest. I just use all those tools to be myself and never be out of character. There are tools that we use like anything else, and you have to keep your integrity, and not just use them as marketing. I think if you only think of them as marketing, you won’t succeed. Unless you’re really clever, maybe you can, I don’t know.

Do you mean by that that you have to have a personal connection with your fans so that when they ask you a question, you’re not going to give a PR response?

Exactly. Basically what it means is that it’s just me, and whatever I use, I’m always going to be myself. My motivation is to be myself, and not promote myself, you know what I mean? It ends up being very simple, but I just feel that a lot of people are either trying too hard or being fake.

You were named a Young Global Leader. What does that role entail and what would you like to do with it?

I don’t know yet. It sort of came out of the blue while I was on tour, and I was really surprised by it. I have to think about that for a few months. Right now, it’s a little hard for me to act on because I’m a new mother. I did say to them, “Next year, I’d like to think about this more.” It sounds like an amazing opportunity, and I don’t want to take it for granted. It did just sort of come out of the blue.

That must have been an amazing phone call to get.

Yeah, it was actually.

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