Zoe Keating's Ambitious, Eclectic Journey

Innovative cellist creates her own orchestra through looping

Emily C. Wong

Cellist Zoe Keating steps onto the stage of the Berklee Performance Center. The bold smile on her face doesn’t betray the stage fright she told me she would inevitably feel before stepping into the spotlight. Neither do the confident red dreads bursting from the top of her head.

Keating settles into her chair and, after cracking a few jokes, begins to work her magic. She’s more of a conductor and an orchestra together than a single musician, really; as she performs, she loops her cello parts, layering them on top of one another until she’s filled the stage—and entire concert hall—with her presence.

A self-produced composer and performer, Keating came to Boston last Thursday as part of an ambitious, multinational tour. She’s come a long way from the California redwoods she calls home, but travel isn’t foreign to her. Neither is attention. Despite starting her professional music career late and self-releasing both her albums, Keating has received press from everyone from Wired to NPR, not to mention the million and a quarter followers she has on Twitter.

Keating calls herself a shy person, but to leave it at that would be to ignore a more intriguing truth: she’s a woman of contradictions. A classically trained cellist, she graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and promptly began a career at an IT startup. “I had a liberal arts degree—a very valuable liberal arts degree,” she says, characteristic of her self-deprecating humor. “It just so happened [my graduation] coincided with the dot com boom…. That was really the savior of liberal arts grads. You could do this creative thing where you were doing a little of everything and nothing at the same time—it sort of sums up being a liberal arts grad.”

It’s typical of Keating to play down her abilities and accomplishments like they’re nothing. She explains her placement as an engineer by saying that she wasn’t cut out for her first job. “They told me I was the worst admin they’d ever had, so they made me an engineer,” she laughs. She mentions off-hand that at the same time that she was working these full-fledged startup hours, she was also spending long nights playing rock shows in her friends’ bands.

Keating’s love of music has been one constant in her life. “I think I always had some sort of musical aptitude,” she says, “[the type] that comes out in your forced recorder class,” which is exactly what happened to her. Upon noticing her talent, her music teacher asked her to try out the cello. “I don’t know why the cello, specifically,” she adds, jokingly offering her imposing height as the reason. “Sometimes I feel like she could have said, “Do you want to play the bassoon?” and I’d have said, ‘OK,’ and I’d be doing this with bassoon,” she says, gesturing at the stage behind her.

Regardless of the reason, the instrument stuck. And eventually, her signature style was born—not on the stage of one of her late night concerts, but in the living room of the 6,000-square-foot, two-floor, San Francisco warehouse she moved into. Surrounded by fellow musicians, Keating had the opportunity to innovate. “It was a really fertile environment, and there were all these doodads for me to try out and experiment with,” she says. Eventually, she premiered her first compositions there—to an audience of 200 people sprawled on beanbags.

Keating’s goal, beanbags or not, has always been to recreate the powerful connection she has with music. “I like to lie on the floor, and I put the speakers on either side of my ears, and I go to another universe. Time stops meaning anything,” she says. “I have a very visceral and physical reaction to music, and I’m trying to recreate that onstage.”

Watching Keating play is fascinating. She’s not an artist who has been whisked away by her music. She plays in tension, brow furrowed, lips tense, painstakingly building a background for herself note by note. Eventually, there’s a release: her eyes close, and she starts moving with her cello. Keating blends background rhythmic plucks and guttural, jabbing chords with dancing melodies and deep, smooth bass lines. Her songs build quickly but shift and break with equal agility, building tension and releasing into her trademark ethereal feel.

But this music isn’t the music of Keating’s warehouse days. It underwent a dramatic transformation when she was offered her big break—a last-minute opportunity to tour with Imogen Heap in 2006. In typical style, Keating accepted the offer two weeks before she was supposed to take off and set to work packing all her clunky looping equipment. She quickly realized on tour that her setup was too difficult and complicated for anything but her spacey warehouse. So she turned to what she knew well—computers. This in turn opened up new possibilities for her music. “The computer allowed me to make the looping phrases happen really fast,” she says, something she also then realized was important.

Previously, her songs were “cello odysseys:” up to 30 or more minutes of slow development. “In a warehouse with people who are in—whatever state—they’re happy for you to take 45 minutes to make a song happen.” However, the audience Heap drew was younger and less forgiving. “If I didn’t win them over in the first 60 seconds, I was done. They’d be on their cell phones texting all their friends,” she says. Ever positive, Keating took this as a creative challenge and began experiment with punchier beginnings—the sort that are now her trademark.

This adventurous spirit that has so aided Keating didn’t come to her naturally, though. “I’m a very shy person, so if I just follow my instincts I’ll go hide in a corner and I won’t meet anyone interesting,” Keating says. So she decided to change. “If someone asked me to do something, I’d just say yes without thinking about it. Not anything, obviously, but music things…. I just say yes, and figure I’ll work it out later.

It seems that Keating extends this approach beyond what opportunities she will take and to her music itself. When she performs, she improvises. She lets her music take her to places she didn’t intend and works out the next steps when she gets there. Sometimes, this means she accidentally erases entire songs halfway through performing them, but more often it means she’s able to escape the expected and take the audience with her to another place—perhaps it’s home to the foggy redwoods, or perhaps it’s somewhere that didn’t exist before.

—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at kreddy@college.harvard.edu.

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