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!
- 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.
- 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’re 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!
All the buzz about The Steel Wheels is most definitely warranted. They have been selling out venues up and down, and back and forth this land of ours. The band has also been asked to play at some of the most prestigious festivals around: Merlefest, Moab Folk Festival, Kerrville Folk Festival, Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Stagecoach and the Fayetteville Roots Festival. Their music caught the ears of the good people at National Public Radio and they dubbed their sound as “Americana, made by hand.”
The band calls the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia home. This incredibly talented four-piece string band manages to transport their audiences by playing some of the most natural and organic music ever heard. They take their traditional music that is so close to their souls and magically transform it into something that is as compelling and relevant as anything I’ve ever heard.
Check out the band’s website and catch some of the special magic of The Steel Wheels by watching this fabulous video of “Red Wing.” Another spectacular video for “Rain” gives you another taste of the band’s music.
- How long have The Steel Wheels been playing together?
- We first played a show together in 2005, but we truly formed The Steel Wheels in 2010 and have been touring since then.
- Were you directly inspired by any particular musicians whom we may or may not know?
- Some you may know: Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Grisman and Garcia, The Band
- Some you may not: Mennonite Hymnal, Henry Wagler
- Your style is described as Americana. How do you define that term?
- I think we’re best described as Classic Americana or Americana Roots/String Band music. We borrow from the early styles of U.S. music. That’s mountain music, blues, old-time, ballads, a little Cajun and Irish influence all seen through our 21st century lens.
- What is it about your music that gives it its unique flavor?
- We pay tribute to the aforementioned styles, but we’re writing from our own experience. We’re not a “period” band. The best music you can listen to is true to itself and its performers. We strive to be as authentic as possible and hopefully that works for people.
- It’s interesting and quite exciting that you have developed relationships with other independent type business people to sell coffee, beer, and those absolutely stunning mugs! Was this a brainchild of the band or did the individual entrepreneurs approach you because they were fans of your music and felt that it would be a good way to reach a demographic who would be interested in their products?
- These partnerships all developed naturally out of relationships we’ve made as a band. In most cases we were friends with the businesses first. Then, we saw and loved their products and wanted to partner with them to promote their work as well as ours. The mugs, for example, are made by a lifelong friend of Jay Lapp, our mandolin player.
- Just like we want our music to sound and feel authentic, we prefer to keep our partnerships with business owners we really know and believe in.
- Tell us about the Red Wing Festival. How did that come about?
- We have spent the last 4 years touring the country seeing some of the best bands in the world. We wanted to bring some of what we’ve seen to our home: the Shenandoah Valley of VA. We also knew if we were successful we could build a reason for more of our friends and fans to come to our home and join us every year for a celebration of music at the festival.
- When you play a show, you get the chance to construct an evening of music and all the artistic choices surrounding that evening, but when you create a festival it gives you a bigger palette to communicate who you are and what you’re about. The different musicians and activities included are a certain kind of artistic statement.
- What’s your favorite thing about festival season?
- We get to see great music and collaborate with other musicians.
- Have you toured outside the United States at all? If so, what is the audience’s reaction to your music?
- So far we’ve spent a good amount of time in Canada. The audiences up there have been amazing. We’ve talked about Europe and Australia, but nothing has come of it yet.
- If you had any words of wisdom to impart to aspiring musicians, what would they be?
- Play anywhere and everywhere you can. Music is music. On the porch, on the street, or on a stage. And put your heart in it, or your wasting everyone’s time.
Louise Mosrie’s transformation into a musician with a keen sense of Southern culture is intriguing since, as she says below, she resisted being part of that very same culture for many years. She has stories to tell and songs to sing. Louise’s songs are thoughtful — the type of songs that stay with you long after you’ve heard them. These are the type of songs that meander around your brain and nestle down deep inside your heart. These are songs that need to be sung and need to be heard. Spread the word!
To learn a lot more about Louise and her music, visit her website. Here’s a video of her haunting song, “Leave Your Gun.”
- You’ve cited your influences as Nanci Griffith, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams. What have you learned about yourself and your music by listening to their music?
- I don’t know that I’ve learned anything about myself through them, but I have certainly learned a lot FROM them. I learned about phrasing and using visuals in lyrics from Nanci. I learned about simplicity and passion from Lucinda and Alison is a lesson in vocal perfection — that I’ll never reach — but she’s an inspiration!
- Do you remember the first time you sat down to write a song? Was it a keeper?
- Yes I do. No it was not . . . not even close.
- Along those lines, what kind of gigs did you play when you first started playing live?
- I played open mics, bookstores, coffeehouses . . . anywhere they didn’t throw me out.
- How would you describe the Nashville music scene? Is there an inordinate number of songwriters per square mile down there or is that a myth?
- The Nashville music scene is diverse. Everyone who doesn’t live here thinks it’s all country, but there’s a rock scene, folk scene, jazz scene, gospel scene and Americana scene but it’s all songwriting all the time. Yes, there are thousands of writers here. It’s very inspiring.
- I understand that you’ve been part of a southern rock band called Hirum Hickum. Is the band still playing? And are you talking about Lynryd Skynyrd / Marshall Tucker kind of southern rock? I have to giggle a little bit about this since your bio talks about how your move from Delaware to Tennessee was culture shock and you tried to distance yourself from everything southern. What brought about the drastic turnaround?
- The Hirum Hickum Project is not together right now. It was a great little group of folks focused on songwriting. The guys wrote the music. I wrote the lyrics. It was fun, but our lives just got too busy to keep getting together regularly. We were southern rock with folky lyrics.
- Regarding the return to my roots, moving to the south even as a kid was kind of a shock. My parents are British and we moved to the country in middle Tennessee when I was 7. I couldn’t understand what my 3rd grade teacher was saying because his accent was so thick. Plus, I was living in a tiny town attending a tinier school and the food was weird to me. I had never eaten white beans and cornbread let alone turnip greens cooked to gray submission in vinegar. There were many days when I just refused to eat! Now I love white beans and cornbread (but not turnip greens. . .). All the kids in the school were related to each other (no kidding). I just felt completely out of place and I didn’t want to be southern, so I spent most of my youth pushing against the culture I was living in. But in 2004, I moved back to Nashville from Knoxville and started writing with bluegrass and country writers and discovered that I really did appreciate the southern culture and I finally “got it.” I was “writing what I knew about” which is something I had always heard in songwriting seminars and soon found that I had a lot to say and celebrate about the South. It felt like I had come full circle, which is why that album was titled Home
- What’s your creative process like? What makes for a good song?
- My creative process starts with an inspired “zing” — which might be a line or phrase that I, or someone else says in conversation and it’s like a little electrical current hits me and I know there’s something there to investigate for a song. Then I might walk around trying to come up with a chorus or a melody in my head without my guitar. I try to work on it without the guitar as long as I can so that it sings easily. BUT, I have also just grabbed my guitar and just started playing on an idea, so who knows? Songs and how they come are magic and mysterious to me. I try not to think about it too much. Don’t want to jinx it.
- A good song (to me) has clear, emotionally authentic, inspired lyrics that when combined with a beautiful, singable, crafted melody moves a listener to laugh or cry or both. It’s a spiritual connection to the heart. As Rich Warren of WFMT says, “I want your song to change my life”. I agree! If a song isn’t moving or emotional, then it’s not a good song in my opinion.
- I understand that you’re working on a new CD with Cliff Eberhardt. How would you describe the CD? How is it different or similar to your last CD, Home?
- The new CD (which will be titled Lay It Down), is a very spare production-wise acoustic collection of songs. Cliff chose the songs and arranged them for simplicity and emotional impact. He is brilliant at that! We wanted to make a record that was all about the songs and capturing a performance and not so much about genre. Home was very Americana and I used banjo, mando and dobro throughout. Lay It Down sounds considerably less produced than Home as well as less Americana — no drums, no pedal steel, no banjo. Anna Uptain plays mandolin on one song, but other than that and my guitar, Cliff plays everything on the album. Interestingly, it was harder to make a record that is super simple than to make one with lots of overdubs. . . . I guess because each choice you make seems so stark when you’re not using a lot of instrumentation. I’m very excited about the project and proud of the work we did. It will be out by end of summer/early Fall.
- You have some blog postings about your experiences with synchronicity and the lessons that such experiences offer you. Do you find that if you are open to the universe, that there are more avenues for you to saunter down? Has this mindful way of living influence your songcraft at all?
- Yes absolutely. When I read Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, it changed my life. The basic idea is to be present and not resist what is. It’s amazing how much we resist what is all day long. It creates so much anxiety! So, if I’m not resisting or judging, I’m open to song ideas and present enough to catch them. If I’m saying “yes” to the present moment, I’m more in touch with my emotions and can become the “observer” and write from there. It also helps with letting go of the outcome and stepping away from my ego. I have no control over who hears my songs and what happens to them. I just try to write the best songs I can and let the chips fall where they may.