Zoë Keating: An Interview
Zoë Keating (Wow, what can I say??) has definitely cultivated a very respectable place in the new music and indie music circles. After rethinking a classical concert career as a cellist for working a tech job, she was intervened to perform with various friends, played in the band Rasputina, eventually went solo with a gorgeously layered, rhythmic cello sound. Zoë went on to sell over 40,000 copies of her CDs without distribution, a record label or management. And she has over one million Twitter followers. The internet loves her!
Besides her solo career, her other projects include music collaborations with various dance companies (Apex Contemporary Dance Theatre, American Repertory Ballet, Digby Dance), film scoring (or soundtrack performances; Warrior, The Secret Life of Bees, The Conspirator), scoring for varied TV programs and other medias, and makes guest appearances alongside artists such as Amanda Palmer, Paolo Nutini, Imogen Heap, and many more.
CM: Can you give us the nutshell version of the beginning of your musical career up to now?
ZK: I studied classical pretty seriously as a teenager, but I decided not to pursue classical music as a career. I went to a liberal arts school, and when I got out of school, I started working in technology in San Francisco just because I needed to make a living. I played the cello in various groups, and friends started asking me to play cello in their rock bands. I said “yes”, and sort of just started playing in other people’s bands and playing non-classical music. I found that to be kind of more rewarding, and it became something that I was good at, because I listened to non-classical music. At the time it was unusual because classical musicians were supposed to play only classical music. So, then, time went on, and I just kept working and then eventually my cello career became big enough that I could support me and I didn’t have to work a day job anymore. I started playing with the group Rasputina in 2002, and I quit my tech job in 2003. I left Rasputina at the end of 2005 or early 2006, and I’ve been solo ever since. It’s been a very gradual process–I think it probably is for most musicians because it takes a long time to get established.
CM: How did that lead to composition?
ZK: I always wrote music. I started writing music in high school, just coming up with stuff, and then I pursued it in college, I took composition classes and improvisation, and made music there. I’ve been doing that since I was a teenager.
CM: It’s really amazing stuff! When you hear music from you guys in the new music world it’s hard to categorize it, and everything has its own version of melody and texture–it doesn’t even really necessarily have to factor in a categorization anymore. And the fact that you have this career where you can just make your own records, release them, stream them–Thank goodness for the internet because that definitely has played such a huge role in how you’ve sort of come up.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYrcXX4nWOA]Escape Artist (Live performance for Wired.com; 2009)
ZK: I think actually the internet is definitely responsible for my success, because I was playing the cello with other groups, but the kind of music that’s in my head that I wanted to make–Nobody else was making it, and it was just something that I wanted to do. It was a very solitary pursuit. When I finally had something recorded that I was happy with and was ready to release, which was in early 2005, I sent it out to a few people in the industry that I kind of had vague connections to, and they said “it’s interesting, but it has no absolutely no market potential”. So I felt like “okay that’s fine! I’ll just keep doing it ’cause it’s something I want to do and it’s my thing–Nobody else likes it, fine!”. [laughs] I really feel like in some ways it developed without outside input, you know, like business input or anything. And the fact that it ended up being modestly successful was a huge surprise and a bonus, and it was only possible because of the internet, because the internet allows me to find my audience, and it allows them to find me. It’s all about the fragmentation of music and the rise of subcultures. I’m very niche, and the internet is all about letting people and their niches find each other.
CM: I probably have heard you the first time last year on Q2 when you performed at LPR with Todd Reynolds. I think you were both awesome, and then the 2 of you played together–That was like 2 wonderful things happening at the same time! BTW, are you guys ever going to do another thing together like that either onstage or on a record?
ZK: I hope so! He’s kind of legendary, so I would love to do something else with him!
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/20800573]Untitled improvisation (w/Todd Reynolds, violin; LPR, NY 3/6/11)
There’s a lot more musicians right now–Again we’re becoming aware of them because of the internet, and then there is a little bit of a trend happening, and I’m like ‘”Finally!”. The New York Times had an article a couple of weeks ago about what they called “alt-classical”. It was the first article I ever read where I read that I might possibly fit into a group! [both laughing] That was interesting to read! A lot of it is demographics–I’m on the older end of it, but there’s a lot of younger folks who are coming out of school, and there’s as many of them as there are baby boomers, and they grew up listening to classical and other kinds of music, and so it’s inevitable that they would be playing both or mixing them together and being without genre.
CM: What’s so great today is that you have everything that exists in contemporary classical–Sometimes people have music for one instrument, some have music for one instrument layered and looped the way that you do it and different people that have their own version of that, and there’s people that still write for orchestral or smaller ensembles, and vocals (with or without accompaniment)–Everything you can think of is all happening now, and it seems to all work, and people either like it or don’t like it, or like some of it, and it seems like it doesn’t fall into political camps like it used to.
ZK: In the United States, people tend to be, or they used to be, very socially identified by their musical taste, which is kind of big, for not all countries are that way, and that’s the other thing I like about this trend is that it’s cross-genre, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks social cohesion or whatever. It’s nice to see people get out of their genres.
CM: And you do some wonderful things on the side as well with people like Curt Smith, Amanda Palmer, Imogen Heap, Pomplamoose–All really good indie artists too. Is there a huge difference between working with them and just working with yourself?
ZK: Well there’s always…When you’re working with someone else, there’s compromise, and you have their vision meets your vision, so that’s always going to be different no matter whether it’s music or a technology project, so, I like doing both. I don’t necessarily like one more than the other. For my own music, I have certain things that I want to do, and I like doing it by myself. And then I like what happens when you have two people’s musical vision, and they come together, and it’s something neither of you would come up with on their own. They’re both valid things, and they’re both necessary.
CM: And pretty much everybody lets you be yourself, they don’t don’t try to tell you “Can you play more classical?” or “Can you play less classical?”?
ZK: That’s kind of my rule. I don’t do it unless it’s something where I get to be myself! I’m very consistently myself for better or worse! [laughs]
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/3538771]Time Is Running Out (w/Amanda Palmer; live in Perth, Australia; 2009)
CM: During the LPR gig on Q2, you said that when you perform, it’s like you’re in a film, and when you close your eyes you’re invisible.
ZK: I don’t necessarily feel like I’m creating the music. [laughs] The music is its own thing, and I’m just consumed by it. I’m sort of inside of it or something, and it’s a very satisfying feeling, it’s kind of like I cease to exist and it’s just a musical expression of myself. And then it’s like I’m in a film in that when I close my eyes, I can sort of see the sweeping landscapes and the abstract things happening. I really like that, and it’s very hard to explain because it’s not linear, it’s just a whole different form of communication or something, and as soon as I open my eyes, I can’t experience it that well. That’s one of the reasons why I keep my eyes closed, so that then I can be in this musical world–This kind of abstract musical space.
I like keeping my music in this world that is non-narrative. Everything else in our culture is built around words and stories, and there are other ways to communicate, and so I like to stay in this realm of non-narrative storytelling, you could say!
CM: I like the version you arranged of the second movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony [Allegretto].
ZK: Thank you! That’s fun to do! It’s like a little academic exercise, but I like doing it!
CM: It was cool because you started with parts that sounded like harmonies of the melody, and I was like ‘is she doing it in a different key?’ By the time you threw in the rest of it, it was more recognizable.
ZK: Yeah, you’re hearing it sequentially, because what I’m playing is the actual cello part as it’s written, and I’m playing each phrase sequentially and then adding them accumulatively, so you wouldn’t naturally hear them all together because it’s just the cello part, although those phrases get passed around the orchestra. So it’s kind of like taking the music apart, cell by cell.
CM: It’s like when you mix a record, and you hear the parts that you’re not used to hearing separately.
ZK: It’s like a Beethoven remix!
Arrangement of Beethoven’s 7th-2nd mvt (Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, CA 6/26/11)
CM: Can you talk about the cycle Legions that appears intercut on the CDs?
ZK: Sometimes I feel like my life has sort of musical themes, and they have different forms, and so, the Legions one was kind of this–It was like a theme that was like the musical setting for something, and then there were different versions of it. There was “Legions (War)”, which is the main one, and then these other sort of ways of looking at the theme, and then on the latest album I did this one called “Legions (Forest)” because I wanted to feel like I’m moving from the city into the forest, and I’m sort of starting out with the theme of my life, and then I’m moving it into the forest. They’re really little threads that tie it all together. The music to me is really me making one large piece of music, and it just so happens that I’m breaking it up into smaller songs. I see it all as a linear progression for me, from my teenage years to the present day. If I have my own way, I might just number all the pieces or something. [laughs]
CM: No, but that’s cool–What it is, is you’re making it sort of like a saga, and it’s being broken down into different chapters.
ZK: That is kind of how it is. The Legions one–It keeps cropping up again and again, so no doubt there’ll be other versions of it to come out.
CM: If you move into a suburban area, there’ll be another chapter then, right? [both laughing]
ZK: Here we go from the forest to the shopping mall!
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUDI256PY4E]Legions (venue unknown, circa 2006)
CM: You had recently written an article about Spotify that’s very interesting. It was about them saying they compensate every artist, and you were saying there’s great dispute with that. Is there anything you could add to that?
ZK: My career is possible because of the internet, and the because internet levels the playing field, there’s no gatekeepers. I can interact directly with my potential fans and I can sell my music directly to them. And when iTunes came along, it was kind of revolutionary in a number of ways, and one of them was that they gave the same deal to every single artist. Traditionally, with a record deal, you don’t know what the deals are because they’re under NDA agreements and they can’t discuss them, but it might be that an artist might get X amount of dollars for their advance, and they only get a few pennies per album, a different artist at the same label might not get much of an advance and more back in payments, and they’re all different. But with iTunes, everybody gets 70 percent of every sale, and Apple keeps 30 percent. It meant that it’s still the burden instilled in the artist to go out there and promote your music and do your own thing, however, if you’re able to do that, you can make the same amount of money as somebody who’s on a major label! [laughs] You’re getting the same deal! So I have a direct label account with iTunes, and if somebody goes and buys a track for 99 cents–We’re giving and taking pennies here–I make roughly, slightly less than 70 cents, and it’s extremely fair.
To go to Spotify, we’re moving towards this world where people are buying less and less digital music, and instead they’re streaming it, but Spotify has a throwback to the old way of doing things. They have different deals with each artist and each label, and they don’t allow independents to even negotiate, so, I can’t actually just go up to Spotify and put my music up there, I have to go through a gatekeeper, going back to the old model. So the gatekeeper I have to go through is somebody who aggregates music, for example, CD Baby or something. So Spotify makes its money through subscription fees, like if you get a monthly subscription for Spotify, that’s one way. The other way is advertising, in fact they make more money from advertising! But the major labels, they get a percentage share of Spotify’s profits, like share price, they own shares in Spotify–Across the board, they make money. So, it doesn’t matter for them about the exact streaming rates for a particular artist. In other words, like Warner’s, or Universal, they make money off of me! People go up there and they listen to my music and there’s advertisements up there and stuff, Universal Music is taking a cut of the proceeds. I don’t get to take a cut of that. So it’s not equitable, and that’s my complaint with it. I’m not saying that streaming might not be the way to go, and maybe it is the case, that artists have to adjust to this new world where they only make .0008 cents per song as opposed to 99 cents per song. Because that’s the difference. It would take me–I’d have to have millions and millions and millions of listens in order to make the same amount of money that I can make with just 10,000 listens on iTunes.
CM: It’s insane! I can’t even wrap my brain around it, other than Spotify doesn’t seem to play ball fairly–I also noticed that there’s a lot of artists that didn’t make the deal with them and are absent from the stream.
ZK: My other point about it is that not to sort of just complain, but I don’t see anybody standing up for independent artists, and so I feel like, because I small amount of prominence in the world of independent artists, I feel like it’s my responsibility to say these things publicly because nobody else is doing it. It’s kind of like, I feel like I have to stick-up for everybody. And then if nobody’s talking about it, then you have to fight for everything in the music industry, and I’m wanting to just make sure that people hear our story, that actually there are independent artists out there who make a pretty good living through music, and this new streaming model is cutting us out of the picture and saying that the only thing we should care about is exposure. That’s why I do it. I hate to sort of, go on about it, but I just feel like, for whatever reason I’ve always felt like this in life, it’s my responsibility to call out things that people aren’t paying attention to.
CM: For the record, believe it or not, they put my album [CMc] on Spotify, and I think the reason for that is CD Baby probably put it on there because I actually have a deal with them! [laughs] I was shocked to find it on there–All I had to do was type in the name of the record and there it was!
ZK: I have advice for artists about what to do, and this is what I have done–Don’t release everything. Don’t stream everything. I always say put some of it up there, the stuff that you want people to hear to get interested in you, and keep the rest back. 1/2 and 1/2. Because there’s nothing to be gained if people can get everything of yours for free. I think it’s better that they be able to get some of it, and if they want the rest, then they should go support you as an artist. And I also think that Spotify should make it easier to support artists, like, while you’re streaming on Spotify, if people are listening to my music and are listening to the whole album, Spotify should show them that I’m on tour. If they really do care about artists, they should make it easier for potential fans to find the artist and go to their concerts.
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJJZcwHGFOo&feature=related]Don’t Worry (Sacramento local TV appearance; date unknown)
Zoë Keating: Avant Cello
Zoë’s official website