One-woman orchestra fuses classical music and electronica

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - The internet has made possible some pretty amazing things: crowd-free shopping, free video chat and more information than you can shake a stick at (I’ll look up the history of that saying on the web later).

Equally amazing are the realized dreams of the countless musicians using YouTube, MySpace, Facebook and the like to sidestep traditional means of getting their music heard and purchased by the masses.

For Zoe Keating, it’s the way she earns a living.

Keating is a classically trained cellist, having performed with artists including Imogen Heap, Amanda Palmer and performing for movie scores, but now plays solo with a laptop computer that records and loops her playing live to sound like an entire orchestra.

Her latest album is Into the Trees and came out in 2010.

ABC 15: I saw your Facebook ad for the first time this morning, and was really surprised that I was able to get a hold of you and get over here. Is that type of internet presence, is it defining the way a lot of artists like you are able to operate at all?

Zoe Keating: I think so. I started out always just doing everything myself because I couldn’t afford to have anybody else working for me, and the internet is free, you don’t need publicity, you don’t need to hire a $2,000/week publicist or anything like that, you can just go online and get a Facebook ad. And then if someone wants to talk to me, all they have to do is email me and I’m right there. I think it is a lot more common, because there aren’t as many middle men involved. Everybody’s sort of downscaled and I like it that way. I’ve always been a very D.I.Y. person, and so I just like that interaction with people, I like to feel connected to where I’m going, I like to meet people when I’m there. It’s my life.

ABC 15: Being such a do-it-yourself person….I saw on your MySpace page, ‘unsigned’, ‘not even looking’, or something like that. Are you happy just sticking with yourself?

ZK: Yeah, again, when I first started out, I think I went the route of: I tried to get labels to be interested in my stuff and I sent them my demos and what have you, but they were pretty uninterested and the responses that I did get were like ‘well, you’re very interesting, but it’s completely unmarketable, we don’t know where you would fit.’ So, I didn’t want to take no for an answer, and I just believed that I could do it myself. And the thing is, when you do it yourself, you get to keep all the money, which is what a lot of artists who are on record deals are realizing now, is that there’s so little money to go around that it just works out better for me. The other thing is when you’re a small-scale artist, and it’s just you, you can make do with less. I don’t need to sell a hundred thousand copies of an album to make a living, you know? I can sell ten thousand copies. It feels much more sustainable, I can grow it gradually, like, I don’t have to do a big marketing splash, I don’t need like a thousand new fans a day or anything, it’s just very natural and organic, and I like it that way.

ABC 15: You mentioned the labels not knowing where to put you. Has that been a challenge for you in developing your sound? It’s a crazy unique sound.

ZK: Well, thank you. One thing that is a challenge is that people always ask me, ‘what category are you in? What artists are you like?’ It’s almost like we’ve stopped trusting our own musical instincts and we have to know what it is before we hear it. I’ve always sort of just refused to categorize myself, I tried for a long time, and I failed. So now I sort of make a point of deliberately not categorizing it and I just say “hey, I think it’s music that you might like and just give a listen, and you can put it in a category if you want to.” (laughs) It’s blue music, or it’s green music.

ABC 15: Can you give me some sort of timeline on how you developed that sound, or that idea?

ZK: Well, I was classically trained as a cellist from a young age; I started playing when I was eight. Then when I was in college, I sort of stopped doing classical music; I started doing improvisation, studied new music, and was studying things that weren’t about music, working with dance department and things. And then when I moved to San Francisco, I lived in a warehouse, and I was really influenced by the sort of electronic music scene there, and warehouse parties, that kind of experimental electronica. I think I really liked the idea of trying to make something that would have the production quality of electronica, but with a classical instrument and not modifying the sound, like only using an acoustic instrument. It sort of appealed to me; it was like a challenge to see if I could do it. I just like that aesthetic, but I like the sound of the cello, and I think it just naturally evolved like that.

ABC 15: I watched your videos and saw that you do your own rhythm on your instrument. Is that something you instinctively knew would work?

ZK: I don’t know. I just try

things out. It’s always been an experiment, and I never knew it would be successful; it was just something I wanted to try out. Because I made this really small box for myself, like my box says you can only play the cello, and I can’t manipulate the sound other than recording it and maybe chopping those recordings into little bits, but I don’t play it backwards, I don’t distort the sounds. So to get percussion sounds, it’s kind of like, ‘huh, what can I do?’ And so I started like scraping the cello, or hitting it, tapping it. I’m just always trying to see what sounds I can get out of it because I just have one cello and I’ve made this rule for myself that I can’t just use kick drum. Some of the sounds work really well, some of them don’t, and it’s a never ending ‘processive’ exploration that I really enjoy. Often when I have a new song, I’ll test it on the audience and maybe be like, ‘oh I kind of like the middle bit’, and I’ll improvise a bit, and in the end I’ll sort of pick and choose as I go along, it’s always evolving.

ABC 15: I noticed that you don’t have to touch your computer much. You’ve got some foot pedals, but you’re not even touching those a ton. Is it something that you have to program a lot ahead of time?

ZK: Yeah. I work really, really, really hard to make it seem less that way, I think that’s the classical musician in me, practicing something over and over and over again trying to make it flawless. They’re always at war with each other, this desire to make a flawless thing I can get up and perform and I don’t have to touch the computer, I don’t have to use the foot pedals, and then the chaos of what I’m actually doing, which is 16 live tracks of cello with things that I played wrong….

ABC 15: On the fly.

ZK: Yeah, on the fly, and like I make mistakes, or the software crashes. That is like this chaotic environment and then there’s this control thing and they’re always at war and I think they need to be at war for my music to work, but I do a lot of work beforehand to do that. I make these sort of modules that I call them which are like, record for four bars, stop recording, record the next track for two bars, or fade this out, fade this in. So I can actually always take over and do it directly with my feet at any time. Sometimes I might press a module to go and it’ll start recording at certain times like a robot.

ABC 15: Has it ever crashed on you?

ZK: All the time, it’ll probably happen tonight, I’m sure. It happens constantly.

ABC 15: Is that something you can even cover up?

ZK: I just tell the audience what happened. I’m like, “you know what? My software just bit the dust, so we have to restart. Do you want me to play the song again or should I do a different song, come back and play this one later….?”, or you know like it may crash and I might say while I’m playing, ‘okay, software crash, we’re just going to wing it now.’ But it’s like life, you know. You hope that your training in something prepares you for every moment that comes at you, like we’re having a conversation because we learned these words when we were kids, we know what to say. So it’s like, you just have to be prepared for anything that’s going to happen at any moment and so it’s almost like a philosophy. Like it could completely crash onstage, in front of who knows how many people and that’s just life, so you have to go along with it.

ABC 15: How do you like travelling with your family?

ZK: It’s totally new. It’s a lot more tiring, but I love having them with me. I’ve always gone away to travel, but now that I’m a mother, the baby has to be with me all the time now, cause we can’t be more that two hours apart since I still nurse him. Its very grounding because I think artists can get pretty much in their own head with their own ego trip and you can’t be on an ego trip if you’re a mother, you know? Because you have this little creature who needs you really badly and you have to take care of them. Luckily dad, or ‘cello baby daddy’, that’s what we’re calling him, is pretty awesome as you can see.

You can find out more about Zoe Keating on her website here .

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