Zoe Keating: A Symphony Unto Herself

Originally published on September 6, 2011 10:04 pm

Zoe Keating's latest album is titled Into the Trees, and that's exactly where I have to go to meet her. She lives in the middle of a redwood forest, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. As Keating walks me around, we listen for her neighbors, the woodpeckers, who she says are extra-noisy in the evening.

It's fitting to find Keating in the middle of all this natural noise. In her studio, she creates a similar symphony of sounds, except she does it with just one instrument: her cello.

Her secret lies in the way she constructs her songs. Keating uses computer software to record sounds and musical phrases as she plays them. When she plays something she wants to keep, she taps on pedals at her feet, which tell the computer program to save and loop what she just played. That frees her up to play a new musical phrase along with what she just recorded. The process repeats until she's created layers upon layers of sounds, all from her one cello.

"I'll spend eight hours, you know, I'm just recording parts, and I'm in the groove, and I'm just adding layers and layers and layers," Keating says. "It gets bigger and bigger, and then it goes in new directions, and then I clean it up later. So it's almost like there's two parts to it: There's the kind of getting it all down, and then the cleanup and the refining."

Perfection Is Destruction

Keating didn't always play this style of music — she started playing the cello classically when she was 8 — but when she reached her teens, something weird started happening during her performances.

"Suddenly I'm like, 'How am I doing this? This seems really difficult. How am I doing this?' And then, soon enough, [I] wouldn't be able to play the cello," Keating says, laughing.

These performance hiccups developed into paralyzing stage fright, which led Keating to give up pursing a classical career. However, she continued to play through college, and eventually discovered a way to do it without fear.

"I started improvising," she says. "And I found that when I improvised, I wasn't nervous."

Keating used her newfound courage to experiment with the instrument, testing the limits of what it could do. When she moved to San Francisco and discovered electronic music, something clicked in her mind.

"I liked the vibe, but I got really bored with the sounds — musically, it wasn't doing a lot for me," Keating says. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat to make music that has that same production quality, but entirely acoustic?' "

Keating says her experimentation led her to realize what was really paralyzing her all along.

"It was like perfection was the thing that was destroying me — being totally focused on making it perfect," she says. "And I found that when I would improvise, I didn't care about the technique. I would just put my mind outside of where I was, and just be in the music."

Though Keating says she still makes plenty of mistakes onstage, you'd never know it. When I ask her to improvise something, she closes her eyes and, without a second thought, begins to play. Each note comes out as if it were born organically from her instrument, and what could be a mistake is easily transformed into a new direction, a new sound, a new expression. At that point, it's hard to imagine the piece sounding any other way.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And now, the story of a classical cellist whose paralyzing stage fright did not shut down her career. Instead, it helped make her a success. Zoe Keating's self-released recordings have gone to the top of the iTunes classical charts and she's even gone back to performing on stage. From member station KALW in San Francisco, Martina Castro visited Keating at home and sent this profile.

MARTINA CASTRO: Zoe Keating's latest album is called "Into the Trees," and that's exactly where I have to go to meet her. She lives in the middle of a redwood forest, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. As Keating walks me around, we listen for her noisy neighbors, the woodpeckers.

ZOE KEATING: And they get really loud again in the evening and they sound like (makes noise).

CASTRO: It's fitting to find Keating in the middle of all this natural noise because in her studio, she creates a similar symphony of sounds, except she does it with just one instrument, her cello. Her secret is in how she constructs her songs. Keating uses computer software to record sounds and musical phrases as she plays them on her one instrument.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO)

CASTRO: When she plays something she wants to keep, she taps on a series of pedals at her feet. Those pedals tell the computer program to save and loop what she just played.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASTRO: That frees her up to play a new musical phrase along with what she just recorded. She can then record and loop that combination, which frees her up to play something else, then something else, until she's created layers upon layers of sound that all came from her one cello. And all of this is communicated to the computer program through the pedals she taps with her feet.

KEATING: Like, I'll spend eight hours, you know, I'm just recording parts, and I'm in the groove, and I'm just adding layers and layers and layers. And it gets bigger and bigger, and then it goes in new directions, and then I clean it up later. So I almost - it's almost like there's two parts to it. There's the kind of, like, getting it all down, and then the cleanup and the refining.

CASTRO: And the getting all down, that's just an improvisational thing?

KEATING: Yeah.

CASTRO: It's just you jamming with yourself?

KEATING: Yeah, exactly. Totally. I'm jamming with myself. It's like me down here having a party with, like, 16 other cellos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASTRO: Keating didn't always play this style of music. She started playing the cello classically when she was eight, but when she reached her teens, something weird started happening during her performances.

KEATING: Suddenly I'm like, how am I doing this? This seems really difficult. How am I doing it? And then, soon enough, you wouldn't be able to play the cello and I would, like, falter. You know, your fingers would make it screw up or your bow, you do a wrong thing. Like, your brain works against you.

CASTRO: This turned into paralyzing stage fright that led Keating to give up pursing a classical career. But in college, she continued to play.

KEATING: So I started improvising. And I found that when I improvised, I wasn't nervous.

CASTRO: She started experimenting with her instrument, especially when she discovered electronic music in San Francisco.

KEATING: And I thought, wouldn't it be neat to make music that has that same production quality, but entirely acoustic?

CASTRO: Keating says that she's still discovering new sounds she can make with her cello.

KEATING: I was really interested in the things that were kind of not musical, little screeches and...

CASTRO: Can you give me an example?

KEATING: Yeah, can I do it - can you hear it?

CASTRO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

KEATING: So it's just - ponticello is a good one. You know, like one - here's a regular cello sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO)

KEATING: And then, if you move the bow up a little bit...

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO)

KEATING: You hear how that's different?

CASTRO: Yes.

KEATING: So there's a lot of potential in there.

CASTRO: This experimentation led Keating to realize what was really paralyzing her all along.

KEATING: It was like perfection was the thing that was destroying me and being totally focused on making it perfect.

CASTRO: Now, on stage, it's not about being perfect.

KEATING: Like, I make a lot of mistakes.

CASTRO: And they just become part of the song.

KEATING: Yeah, yeah. I feel it's almost become this sort of thing where, yeah, if I make a mistake, I have to work with it.

CASTRO: But the thing is, you would never know it. When I ask her to improvise something, she closes her eyes and, without a second thought, begins to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CASTRO: Slowly, each note comes out as if it were born organically from her instrument. What could be a mistake is easily transformed into a new direction, a new sound, a new expression. And then, it's hard to imagine it sounding any other way. For NPR News, I'm Martina Castro in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.