Natalia Zukerman's Gypsies, Clowns and A Live Album Not To Be Missed
By Peter Zimmerman
March 01, 2013
Natalia Zukerman released one of the most compelling and dazzling folk records of 2010 with Gas Station Roses, which saw her approach the genre with a deft hand at songwriting, a thoughtful ear for harmony and a captivating take on melody and song structure. In many ways, it's Zukerman's masterpiece, which, coming in more than 10 years since she began as a singer-songwriter, is quite remarkable.
Is it possible, then, that Zukerman has managed to top that record? Not exactly, because those 10 songs represent a document in time that saw her interface with the studio in a way that captured her live talent and the judicious use of subtlety in the production and mixing. But, with her new double live album Gypsies and Clowns, Zukerman has managed to provide a look into her career in a way that is pretty novel to the genre-- she's revisiting her oeuvre with the help of nearly a dozen fellow singer-songwriters, including Erin McKeown, Willy Porter, Garrison Starr, Mona Tavakoli, Susan Werner, Anne Heaton, Edie Carey, Trina Hamlin and Adrienne Gonzalelz.
Glide Magazine recently spoke to Natalia about what it was like to open up this work to so many other voices at once, how they coordinated the entire event, what decisions went into making the evening a success, as well as her musings on the future of her career, songwriting and how much painting inspires her to continue as an artist in all senses of the word.
Hey Natalia- how are things? How's the new year started?
So good. I’m at my painting studio, I just put on my coat and stepped outside. I have a tiny apartment, so I rent a shared studio space to do some painting in.
Is it one of those big, open studio spaces where you get to see what everyone else is doing and mingle- all the cross-pollination stuff?
Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s this huge 10,000 square foot warehouse that's open 24 hours a day, and everybody has a code to the building, but it’s first come, first served, so you don’t get the space everyday and you have to clean up every night. I actually don’t mind it, it keeps my stuff clean. There are private spaces, too, but those are twice as much money, but you can walk through and just hang out. Somebody actually came up to me today and was asking questions about this technique I was using. It’s really nice. But usually people just kind of keep to themselves, which is kind of good, actually, I thought it was going to be really social but it’s not. People are serious artists. And now there’s like a monthly art show, and the gallery is actually becoming a space that people come in and out of, so it's a good place to be.
That must be really good for your artistic process-- just in terms of keeping things vibrant and current.
It’s really inspiring. You know, usually creative life is so lonely. You spend so much time alone, and there’s part of that that I really crave, but it’s also cool to be surrounded by people. If you want to talk to someone, you can, but you don’t have to. There’s like a shared kitchen and a library, and there’s drawing classes a couple times a week. It’s really cool.
In terms of projects, are you mostly doing the painting for yourself, or are they mostly commissioned? I've seen some of the murals you've done and have been quite impressed.
I pretty much only do commissioned work, which is something that I’ve kind of missed out on as a member of this studio space, because once a month you can bring your work to get critiqued and I never have anything, because I make so much stuff, but then I sell it. Or it’s like, today I’m working on a piece that somebody specifically commissioned based on one of my songs. So I’ve been working on that, and I’ve been doing some portraiture, but it’s all commissioned, and really mostly through fans, so it’s such a cool kind of cross-pollination of both of my worlds.
I would think that from a songwriting point of view, being a visual artist actually gives you an enormous amount of source material to work from that a lot of people don’t necessarily have as songwriters; that they’re always observing the world, but when you’re taking in painting and drawing and all sorts of things like that, I would think that also would influence you as a songwriter.
Yeah, I would hope so. I was doing a co-writing session last week with a friend, and we just approached it so differently. Sometimes songwriting works and sometimes it doesn’t. And it was like, not working. And it’s not a rule, but I kind of go with the first verse, try to use as many proper nouns as possible. Like I want to see this face before I hear what you feel about it. Why do we care yet? You know, it’s like, show me where you are in the song. I go from sort of like broader description, and then the chorus can be a little more the crux of what you’re trying to say the feeling is. And then there's also the approach where you take everything and throw it out and turn it around and spit it out another way, but, yeah. I try to approach things visually because it’s just what interests me.
Yeah. Well I like that you list all your influences, or visual artists that you’re interested in as well, on your website, because a lot of those people I love as well. Like Jenny Saville, for example. I think for people who are into music, they’re not necessarily communicating with a lot of contemporary art as well, so it’s cool to see that.
Aw cool. Thank you! Yeah, I got to hear her speak like two years ago. She did a lecture in Boston. And actually, one summer I took a course which was a painting course in the South of France when I was in high school, and she was the niece of the teacher, and she was using the space upstairs to paint. It was before she was famous, obviously, this was like, I don’t know, 20 years ago. But I remember going up to the attic and seeing these enormous…the bodies she was working on, like, oh my god! She was just…she’s incredible. The way she describes skin, like the language of skin, I’ve never seen skin painted like that before, except for maybe, like, Ruben’s. It’s crazy.
Paste Magazine recently listed you in a story of artists who paint, which was great to see them do-- in terms of getting another angle to look at all these musicians we know who are doing other creative things as well.
Yeah, that’s actually one of the best press things that’s happened for me this year. And I’m hoping for some more stuff like that can happen. So far it’s really just word of mouth, and it’s really my own…every time I make something, I post it on social media, and people sometimes will contact me and order something similar. But there’s some really cool magazines around Brooklyn now that highlight different Brooklyn artists doing various things. Something like that would be awesome.
Speaking of artistic cross-pollination, your new live album is pretty much the perfect example of that, as you invited all your friends to play with for a night at SPACE in Evantson, IL back in September 2012. How long was that idea in the making?
It’s actually been quite a long time. When I went to go make Gas Station Roses, I thought, “It would be so fun to do a record with guests on each song” and a lot of the songs I had been playing on the road with different friends, and then Patty Larkin put up her 25 record which is amazing. But… I was like, "Shit! Somebody just did it!"
So, I kind of put it on the back burner, but the idea of being surrounded on a project, especially live, with all of my musical collaborators really stuck with me. And it's different than a studio record, because live is something I’ve been so afraid of because I’m a harsh critic of myself. I thought there was just no way I was ever going to be able to get a show that I was happy with. But then, I was touring with Mona [Tavikoli], actually, and what we do together – just the two of us – is so special, I thought it would be really cool to capture just that. And then I had a gig the next night with Susan [Werner] at the Auditorium Theater, and I was like… well, SPACE is one of my favorite venues, it’s one of the places I do the best in the country-- in Chicago-- in terms of people coming to the show, and it’s centrally located and so I just put out a couple calls to see who would be interested/available, and everybody said yes. It totally surprised me!
It was probably more than a couple calls! Quite a few people showed up…
Yeah. I mean there’s some people I didn’t invite and there’s a couple people who…I had to make some tough calls, but there just were too many cooks in the kitchen.
Did you have to talk some people down from being upset they weren’t invited?
No, no, the only thing I realized was that I completely blank on Winterbloom. You know, I'm in this sort of quote/unquote “band” and I didn’t call those folks, except Anne [Heaton], because she lives there. But I think I just figured they'd wanted to do something different, since we tour together for the winter.
It was such a great experience. Everybody prepared as much as they could, and then I felt this great non-attachment to the outcome, because I knew that it was going to be fun, and I'd just see what we could get. I just figured we’d get an EP, and that’s why we did so many songs during the show. I thought that if six of the songs worked out, great news… but 22 of them did!
Yeah! I mean, it’s a lengthy, which is great because you get to hear so many different songs from your career represented.
Yeah, it was like, Bruce Springsteen length.
So tell me a little about the rehearsal process. Did you choose the set list the way before, send it out to these people, and say, “This is what I want to do, here are chords for the songs?” You’ve toured with a lot, if not most, of them, so I’m sure they do know many of the harmonies to certain songs, but can you tell me a little bit about that rehearsal process?
Yeah, it probably started around June. I started just writing down songs that I wanted to record based on the people who were coming and based on a few that had been recorded that I was never really happy with the arrangement on the records. And I knew I wanted to them differently. So it was sort of writing them out, and writing down who would play, and then changing it around. Each person is totally capable of every role – that’s the problem. Everybody I asked to be a part of it is just such a good player, and so egoless, that they were like, “Whatever! The best person should just fill that role no matter what."
So starting in June I started sending around mp3s of songs if people didn’t know them, and new ones I’d written, and especially with folks like Willy who knew he was going to be on tour right up until the date we recorded, and he’s somebody who really likes to prepare a lot, so he was like, “please, please, please send me them early!” And Erin had virtually no time, so she’s like, “I have this window of time in July. Please send me the songs!” They were cracking the whip because I wasn’t. So everybody really did their homework, and I had charts for everything, and we got together the night before. That’s it. We only had one rehearsal in real time.
Wow. Was it terrifying?
No, you know it was so joyous, I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was really the coolest party I could think of. There’s nothing like playing with people who you admire-- it makes you play better. So, I only wish we had recorded the rehearsal, because there were some things that happened that were like so, so great, especially because there was less pressure.
I imagine it was electrifying to hear all of those songs for the first time in these new incarnations, between putting it together, and just being in that space and taking it all in before you even perform.
It’s just so overwhelming emotionally. Like Willy walked in and Erin stood up and went over and said, “Hi, I’m Erin” and they gave each other a hug and it was like, "These people haven’t even met!" They feel like my uterus to me, how is it possible that my ovaries and my uterus have never met! [laughs] I went shopping and made tons of food, and nobody was hungry, ever, and we just did a lot and laughed a lot. The terrifying part was that we had so many songs to get through and everybody was giving their time, so I didn’t want it to be mean and do an 18 hour rehearsal, but it was a good 6 hours or something. There’s stuff we didn’t even get to, and I was just let that go, and thought we just had to go with it, and wing it. And I'm so glad we did-- it was really great.
What was one of the hardest songs to nail down?
I have this new song called “Catch Up,” and for some reason it’s just…I think because it’s new and I play it alone, and it pushes and pulls with the rhythm a lot, everybody was waiting on me to be the rudder. I had a hard time with that one. None of them were hard. It's just that sometimes I had a real vision, and we’d start and be like, "you know what? That’s weird, it sounds weird, I want piano in that song actually." And Susan is the first person to be like, “I don’t need to play, I don’t want to unless I’m adding something on the album.” Everybody actually is like that. They don’t want to play just to play. The only hard part was that everybody was so under-utilized. It was like having total experts sitting in the sidelines waiting.
You're dealing with pacing a show, which means that if you have absolutely everyone play on a song, it'd just be overwhelming-- you have to be able to space those numbers out with quieter, more stripped back pieces as well. I would think you had to consider that especially in this context when making your setlist.
Oh, definitely. And then the rehearsal was so integral to the whole experience because we’re sitting around, everybody in a big circle in Trina’s living room, and Willy said, “wow, I wish we could do the show like this.” Everybody just got silent and we were like, why can’t we? Originally I thought that I'd stand in the middle and I’d say, “Please welcome to the stage, Trina Hamlin!” for the 19th time, and it would have taken forever for people to come and go. But to have everyone just up there and we set it up to look like a living room with couches, you know, wine on the little cheese plate or whatever-- you’re just hanging out with us the way it goes down.
I bet there was also a level to which it was nice for them to only play on certain songs, because really it's your product, and they want to do the best job they can to make your work sound the best it can.
Totally. I had this thought the other day that it would be so cool if that same group amassed and we all became Erin’s band or Garrison’s band, or, you know, we all just sort of like took a different person’s repertoire. I don’t know, there’s something really cool about a pretty tight band. I don’t know if they’d be into it, but I sure would. And actually I was hoping we’d be able to do that. Sort of stupidly I thought, “well at the end of the night, we’ll just play everybody else’s songs.” But we were all so exhausted, it was just like, over.
Were there songs that didn’t make the record that you did record during the show?
Yeah, there’s two. One ended up being like a bonus track for people who preordered. I messed up so many times, we had to start again and then at the end I started ad-libbing because I forgot the words. It was funny at the time, but it was one of those things that I don’t ever want to do again. I didn’t even mix it, I was like it’s fine, it’s fine the way it is, let’s just send it out. And then I did a David Gray cover of "Please Forgive Me," which I really love, but my guitar was a little out of tune, and I thought it wasn't worth the nine cents per record to put out a cover that isn’t perfect.
Other than “Catch Up,” what are the other new songs that you performed?
I think I did five new ones: “Bought and Sold,” “Johnny Rotten,” River Boat"-- that one was so much fun. I wrote that song for Garrison. I wanted to do a duet with her, and it was so great to get to do it that way. And when I think about going back to a studio record, I don’t think I would redo that one. It’s perfect, to me. And “Bought and Sold,” too, came out exactly how I wanted it. Those two were really brand new at the time.
So are you prepping for a new studio record?
You know, I don’t know, really. I have some other stuff that I’m going to do first. I got a grant to go to study flamenco guitar in Spain. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for ten years or so, and now I get to go do it. I don’t know what’s going to happen when that’s over, so…I don’t know. It’s so hard. It’s so freaking expensive to make a record. And I’m afraid of the Kickstarter thing. The experience of the live record really felt strangely like a retirement party. Not like I’m not going to play music anymore, but not this way. I think it really felt like the end to me, or something.
And it did sort of like…like the Mayan’s didn’t mean the end of the world, they meant the beginning of the next era.
It's intriguing to hear you say that, because with Gas Station Roses, it felt to me that you'd created this work that was directly at the intersection of folk and pop music, and to come this far into your career, to release what I believe is your masterpiece, it's really impressive. Personally, I'd be sad if you didn't make another one, but I totally understand where you’re coming from as well.
I just feel done with genre. The confessional singer/songwriter thing is so incredibly boring to me now – as a listener and a performer – that I just…I don’t know, that’s so judgmental. I don’t know. Maybe I just need to write some new material. What always happens is…I have like half a record of songs that are just screaming for a home. So, it’ll happen. Willy called me a couple weeks ago and he was like, "When are we making the next record?" So when he cracks the whip a little bit, which definitely gets me more in the mood to get it done. So we'll see. I can't make any promises, but it's not like I'm done playing right now, whatsoever. Mona and I will do some playing together, and that’s awesome, and so I'm just going to roll with it and see where this all takes me.
Natalia Zukerman's new double live album, Gypsies and Clowns, is out now and can purchased via her official website. More information can be found on Natalia's Facebook and Twitter.