Quick Q and A with Natalia Zukerman

Natalia Zukerman is a multi-talented artist who has plied her trades on both coasts – as a muralist in San Francisco and as a musician in Boston and New York. She may have grown up surrounded by classical musicians, but it was the folk and acoustic music scene that beckoned to her to join forces.  Natalia has recorded seven CDs and has contributed her talents to recordings by Susan Werner, Willy Porter, and Janis Ian among others. Her songwriting combined with the rootsy and gutsy instrumentation of any stringed instrument she chooses to play makes for a terrific show or CD listening experience.

To learn more about her, visit her website.

Here’s a video of Natalia playing her song “Gas Station Roses.”  It’s a great song to introduce you to her tasty tunes!

 NZ

You’re got a brand new CD coming out … your seventh!  It sounds like the record took on a life of its own—various twists and turns and a variety of different kinds of songs!  How would you explain this recording to someone familiar with your earlier work?

It definitely took on a life of its own! That’s a great way to describe it. I knew I wanted to record a handful of songs “live” with just me and Willygoo Porter in the studio. Bringing him new songs and “noodling” together on them is one of my favorite ways that I make music in my life so I wanted to capture that. I had just written the songs (I actually finished one the morning we went into the studio!) so neither of us knew them all that well. There wasn’t time for them to get stale or set. Kinda like jumping off a cliff but I trust Willy so implicitly that I knew we wouldn’t fall far, or that we’d at least catch each other and end up somewhere cool! When the recording was done, I figured I had an EP of acoustic songs but one of the songs, “What Comes After” was really begging for a different kind of production. So I sent the song to Meg Toohey and AG out in LA and they sent back this incredible, lush, heartbreaking, cinematic version. I just continued to do the next thing and trust that the answer would come. I try to do that in life and in art and whoa is it hard but when you can really do that, the best results come!

Tell us about all the various special guests you had on the CD.  (including your father and his wife on violin and cello)

I really am so blessed to have a community of such incredible musicians. Most of the sounds on this record were made by me, AG, Willy, Erin McKeown and Meg Toohey. Abbie Gardner played dobro on one of the tracks. I had played a lap steel part and it just wasn’t doing what I wanted it to so I asked Abbie to come in and of course she killed it in one take. She’s a monster slide player and one of my great heroes. 

 My mom, a flutist, has played on two of my records – my first record ever, Mortal Child and my second, On A Clear Day. It was an amazing experience to work with her in that way and my dad and stepmom have always asked, “When are you gonna ask us to play on your records?” There was never quite the right time- I had wanted them to play on Brand New Frame on the song, “The Last Few Miles” and I even wrote out string parts but their touring schedule and the studio availability was going to mean that I wasn’t going to be able to be present at the recording. Kind of defeated the purpose for me. Adrianne (AG) added a lot of synth string parts to the songs we were working on for this record and while some of it laid a really cool sonic foundation to my ear, some of it just sounded, well, fake. I’m totally fine with that if it’s not trying to sound real but I think my ear just can’t really handle too much of that. I’m spoiled by having grown up with some of the best string playing in the world being played in my living room every day! It’s a blessing and a curse. So, anyway, my dad and stepmom, Amanda just happened to be coming to LA when I was out there working with Adrianne. I didn’t think they’d have time but we brought a portable rig to their hotel room the night they arrived and Adrianne recorded them right there. I couldn’t have asked for a more amazing experience. They were so generous and so attentive to the tone and the music. It was a really big moment for me on a personal level and I hope that the sweetness of that comes through!

 I’m intrigued by the fact that you wrote many songs about the power of fire for this CD.  What do you think brought that theme into your consciousness?

I knew I wanted to write a more cohesive record this time, to challenge myself to make a record with a real story line rather than just a collection of songs placed together. I had a few of the songs – “Courage To Change,” “What Comes After, Bucket” and “Come Thief.” I started writing about the writing- (kinda meta! what can I say? I’m a nerd.) I wrote about what I thought was the connective tissue and what came up were themes of resurrection and destruction. In writing the title track, Erin and I did a lot of research about fire — controlled burns, oxygenation, the way that a Jack Pine’s seeds can only be released under extreme heat. In other words, the way that fire creates and destroys. I was very taken with this idea in my own life. I was (and am) in a time where I am noticing all of my old behaviors and actions and realizing what I do to protect myself, what I do out of habit, and what I do to be self-destructive, either willingly or unknowingly. I’m still writing about all of that. I am done with fire (I think!) but I don’t think I’m done with the ideas started in this record. 

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 The financing of the CD was fan-funded.  Not only did you have musical offerings but paintings as well.  Your virtual gallery is a fascinating tour of your artwork.  What inspires you to paint?  Do you go in creative spurts — dividing time between music and art?

The fan funding was so fun. I was really resistant to the idea, having watched lots of my peers go through the process and feel overwhelmed by it. I knew I wanted to have the things I offered be only things that I would be doing whether I had a fan funding project or not. Those things are writing and painting. I’ve been making paintings based on my songs for a few years now so once this collection of tunes was finished, I went through the lyrics for imagery that excited me as a painter and got the opportunity to realize most of them. Making art about my art sometimes seems really redundant, certainly indulgent, but what are artists if not obsessive? It was really cool to investigate fire from a visual place and find new ways to tell stories that way too, to let the songs take on new visual lives.

I’m also interested in the charitable organization, Keepers of the Waters, that you have aligned yourself with.  Can you tell us a bit about this group and what they hope to accomplish?

It is so exciting to work with KOFTW and I’m so glad you asked about it! I was in a women’s artists group when I lived in the Bay Area in the ’90’s called No Limits that was started by an artist named Betsy Damon. I’ve followed Betsy’s career over the years and knew that she started an organization called Keepers of the Waters and has dedicated all her work to water. Keepers is a non-profit whose mission is to inspire and promote projects that combine art, science and community involvement to restore, preserve and remediate water sources. Pledge Music gives artists an opportunity to align with and donate part of the proceeds to a charity so I looked up what Betsy and Keepers were up to and saw that she is now living in Brooklyn! I couldn’t believe the serendipity of it all. We are actually going to get together next week and I’ll hopefully be able to film some of our interaction as I learn more about what she does and how to further my work beyond the Pledge Campaign with this organization. Betsy and Keepers combine art, activism and environmental science to help us continue to have clean, accessible drinking water on this planet. I can’t really think of anything more important.

 You have taught songwriting clinics.  What could one expect if they signed up for a writing workshop with you?  Have you had the opportunity to catch up with former students and see how they’r doing with their writing?

I have taught workshops at festivals and I also taught at a two-week songwriting camp at Interlochen in Michigan. I love teaching and learn so much from my students every time. In a one-time workshop, I usually like to start with a writing prompt of some kind- sometimes working from a painting or an image- and then talk about structure and “rules” of songwriting (rhyme, meter, etc.) from there. In a two-hour workshop, we usually have a whole song by the end either as a group or each individual, depending on the size. It’s really one of the coolest things.

 I understand that you went to Spain to study flamenco guitar a while back.  Was this the first time you studied flamenco?  Have you found yourself using flamenco technique as you write new songs now?

Going to study flamenco at Carmen de las Cuevas in Granada was one of my lifetime dreams and I applied for an Iguana Grant every year to help me pay for it. I finally got the grant and got to go! It was incredible- to just play guitar all day and walk all over that gorgeous city. It’s a style that has always pulled at me — the combination of sounds and influences, the confluence of Moroccan music, Jewish and Arabic music — it’s so rich! I was humbled by the experience. I hope that everything I endeavor to do makes its way into my writing somehow so I think there’s little flourishes here and there for sure. I really hope to go back and study more someday. I met an amazing woman who works with the university there and she’s been trying to get me to come as a guest teacher. Another lifelong dream I guess!

 What’s the latest with Winterbloom?  Will there be any more projects with you, Meg, Antje, and Anne?

We will definitely all be working together in some incarnation for a long time. I hope so anyway! We love each other so much and are all such fans of each other’s work that I can’t imagine we won’t collaborate again in the future. The pull is too strong!