Zoe Keating…

Roi Huberman, sound engineer and online video producer for Australia’s ABC Radio National, alerted us this week to a special collection of performances captured recently; avant cellist and one-woman-orchestra Zoe Keating visited Sydney during May and June as part of her recent tour and spent some time with Tim Ritchie (https://twitter.com/timritchie), talking and playing on his show Sound Quality.

For the few still unfamiliar with Zoe’s work, these performances will serve as a perfect introduction. Best known for both her use of technology (using laptops and footswitches to sample and loop her cello onstage) and for her DIY ethic, classically trained Canada-born Keating spent her 20’s working in software, completing an arts degree and also moonlighting in rock bands.

She eventually combined cello and computer, developing a signature style of live-layered music improvising for late night crowds at her Francisco warehouse. In 2003 she quit her comfortable tech job to focus on her music, drawing little interest from anyone in the music industry. As her observation of the career trajectory of signed acts made her justifiably wary of record contracts, she made the choice to release her music online without a label, believing that her listeners were out there and she just needed to find them.

Keating speaks regularly on artist empowerment, sustainable careers and the concept of artist-as-entrepreneur, has been profiled on NPR’s All Things Considered, named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and awarded a performing arts grant from the Creative Capital Foundation. She serves on the boards of the San Francisco chapter of the Recording Academy, the Magik Magik Orchestra and CASH Music, a nonprofit organization that builds open source digital tools for musicians and labels.

For the last year, Zoë has been slowly touring North America, young baby in tow, to support her latest album, Into the Trees, which spent 49 weeks on the Billboard classical charts, peaking at #7 (covered by Fluid HERE and HERE).

She is currently working on a third album scheduled for release in late 2012.

Zoë has performed and recorded with a wide range of artists, including Imogen Heap, Amanda Palmer, Tears for Fears, DJ Shadow, John Vanderslice, Rasputina, Pomplamoose and Paolo Nutini. She has collaborated and performed with WNYC’s Radiolab and is also known for her work in film and dance. Commissions include music for the San Francisco MOMA and soundtracks for the films Ghost Bird, The Devil’s Chair and Frozen Angels. Her music has been used by countless entities, including the BBC, ITV, PBS, NPR, NBC, Intel, IBM, Apple, Patagonia, Specialized Bikes, the Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Alvin Ailey Dance, Parsons Dance and San Francisco’s ODC, and was recently in the Broadway play “Wit” starring Cynthia Nixon. Her cello playing can be heard on Mark Isham’s scores The Conspirator, Warrior and The Secret Life of Bees.

Her interview with Tim and the majority of the Radio National performance is available as a free MP3 download from the Sound Quality homepage with the permission of the artist, and is available HERE. Video of all tracks is also embedded on the same page, and also on the Radio National Youtube channel HERE.

For those with portable media devices, the video of ‘Optimist’ is also downloadable in three flavours of resolution from the Vimeo embed above. The technical prowess on display is obvious, and the layering in “Lost” is vast.

We were blown away by what we saw, and spoke to Zoe over the last few days about her stage setup and recording at the ABC.

How do you have your cello rigged up through your laptop, and what software are you running to process your sound? How did you develop that setup?

ZK: My setup is pretty simple. I have microphones on the cello connected to my audio interface and I’m running Ableton Live plus SooperLooper plus MIDIPipe. Ableton and SooperLooper do different kinds of sampling and looping and MIDIpipe translates my footswitches to useable MIDI notes and launches Applescripts. Ableton is the audio host and I can control every aspect of the program – from recording, to playback, track volumes, EQ, panning, etc – with MIDI rather than my hands.

About 6 years ago I was looping onstage with a bunch of bulky hardware (using something called the Electrix Repeater) and using Ableton in the studio.  I needed to make my rig smaller so that I could bring it in my flight carry-on, and since necessity is the mother of invention…I came up with what I’m using now!

What is your recollection of your day recording at Radio National?

ZK: I remember we flew from Melbourne at the crack of dawn and the punctual classical musician in me was concerned about getting there on time (I hate being late). When we got there, Tim and the crew were very welcoming and didn’t seem to be in a hurry at all, and so I started to relax.  Usually a radio gig is a mad rush and I only get to play one song. But they seemed happy to have me play all day. I was very, very impressed with their recording studio. It had great acoustics and feng shui and was a great space to be in psychologically.

So all in all, I felt very welcomed, and that made for a very enjoyable performance for me. I’d play there every week if they’d have me.

I’d like to be their artist-in-residence and make them a song a week!

How long did it take to capture the performance?

ZK: I did everything in one take, so as long as each video is…that’s how long it took!

How long did the recent tour last?

ZK: I tour with my 2-year-old and husband, and to make it all sane and enjoyable, we like to travel slow and have many days off. In April we started touring in 3-week segments with 10-day pit-stops at home. We started with the West Coast of the US, then Australia, then the UK and I went on my own to a concert in Quito.

I’ve noticed that touring for many artists is something separate from life.  They have home lives that disintegrate while they are away and touring is usually so fast-paced and grueling that drinking and overeating is a way to cope with the stress and lack of sleep. I really didn’t want to live that way, but I need to tour.

So, to make it sustainable, and to make touring something that my family looks forward to as an adventure, we take more days off and go slower. We don’t make as much money this way, but I feel like touring for me is more promotional than financial. It’s a way for me to meet my listeners. So my goal is to break even and to enjoy it.

Are you back to recording now, or more touring planned?

ZK: We got home last week from Amsterdam. We needed a holiday, so we rented an apartment and bicycles in Amsterdam for a week. I’m trying to spend the rest of the summer writing music and then I have a short tour of Germany lined up for the last week in September.


Zoe plays some shows in Europe in September; Dusseldorf on the 21st, Germany from the 22nd to the 27th and Fisher Rance with ODC Dance on the 30th. Anyone in the vicinity would be well advised to investigate.

It would be great to see such a talent recognized further; anyone wanting to spread the word about these extraordinary performances is also strongly encouraged to do so.

Retweet away.

The link for Sound Quality below also has a number of links to previous shows covering The Books, Brain Eno, The Necks, brilliant Australian label Preservation, avant garde jazz and considerably more. And if that wasn’t enough, their next show on Friday the 27th July is a feature on modern Krautrock.

Thanks to Roi for the heads up.


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