Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Zoe Boekbinder Casts Her Spell

Written by Niina Pollari
I saw Zoe Boekbinder play her spellbinding folk-pop at the adorably ritzy Joe’s Pub (with Mal Blum), with its table seating, theatre ceiling and gorgeous lights. Her music is beautiful, but it is live that Zoe feels magical: when she sings her story songs, the air is huge with her voice, and everyone sits, listening.
ZOE Boekbinder.jpg
I saw Zoe Boekbinder play her spellbinding folk-pop at the adorably ritzy Joe’s Pub (with Mal Blum), with its table seating, theatre ceiling and gorgeous lights. Her music is beautiful, but it is live that Zoe feels magical: when she sings her story songs, the air is huge with her voice, and everyone sits, listening.

Now it’s afterward; I’ve torn her away from the lingering throngs and we’re hanging backstage, in the dark, on a ratty couch. As Zoe peers at me from under her brown bob, her face seems to be totally symmetrical. It’s an absurd observation, and it makes me want to start the interview somewhere else, away from my pages of notes. It feels right to start by asking an oddball, off-the-cuff question about any random thing.

Niina: What's the most disgusting food combination you can think of?

Zoe: I love food so much it's hard to even think of a disgusting food combination. Like I actually think bologna and Skittles would be really good.

Niina: It would make a kind of sweet gravy.

Zoe: But I really like sweet and savory together.

Now she’s dodged me completely gracefully, and we are both laughing.

Niina: OK, here’s the real beginning of this interview: how long have you been on this particular tour (with Mal Blum)?

Zoe: Three weeks.

Niina: What is your favorite city you've been in, this tour or ever?

Zoe: Every time I go to New Orleans, something about it just takes me in its arms and cradles me and pets my head. When I go there, something magical happens, and it never fails me, whether I'm there for twenty-four hours or a month.

Niina: Now I must ask – what magical things have happened there?

Zoe: The first time I went there was five years ago. [Kim Boekbinder and I] were playing this place called the Dragon's Den, which was an opium den at some point. It's kind of a trashy bar now, with a lot of punk shows. We'd never been to New Orleans, and we didn't know if we had any fans there. We got to the venue and there was this really narrow hallway to get in, and we're going down it and there's this character in a tail coat, a top hat, and a monocle. And he knew who we were! He was like, “Hey, Vermillion Lies! I know who you are, and I'm here to see you.” He had a perfect Salvador Dali mustache, which we later found out was award-winning! His highest ranking was third in the World Beard and Mustache Championship.

Niina: I know about this mustache thing! The pictures are amazing.

Zoe: He won third in the Salvador Dali competition. What we call him now is the Secret Mayor of New Orleans. We had three days off and he showed us the city. That's the thing that happens there! I don't have to go seek out anything, something happens and I can let go of any sort of expectation and I will meet someone who will take me somewhere amazing.

Niina: It's not like you leave intact when you visit. You're changed in some way, every time.

Zoe: Exactly.

Niina: Vermillion Lies is your band with your sister. I am fascinated with sisters who work together – my sister is a visual artist and has illustrated some things I've written. What is it like to collaborate in the same medium with your sister?

Zoe: We're seven years apart, and in a sense we didn't really even grow up together. Yet I have a stronger bond with her than with any of my other siblings. We have an unspoken thing between us that is really intense. In collaborating, sometimes it was really beautiful to have that bond, and sometimes – as with anything that significant – it can be significantly awesome or awful. Whatever it was, it was significant. People would say to us that they could see us speaking to each other without words onstage, which doesn't really happen with other people. I had more fun with her than with anyone else ever. But when it was awful it was truly awful. With anyone that you have that intense relationship with, it can be like that.

Niina: Significant with a capital S. It's like New Orleans.

Zoe: Yeah.

Niina: If you had an ideal collaboration in your life – historical or current – who would it be?

Zoe: So hard. I don't want to be cliché, but John Lennon. I've collaborated with a lot of people I've wanted to collaborate with, who are alive. One of those is Shenandoah Davis, who produced my current record [Darling Specimens]. She is a genius, and amazing.

Niina: She is.

Zoe: I have this habit of falling musically in love with people. It happened with Shenandoah Davis some years ago, and then we finally collaborated this year, so that was great. The next person who was not too famous to be accessible to me was maybe six months ago, with Alexanders Thompson. He's from Chattanooga and he's never toured. He didn't have an album, just these home-recorded songs, and I played with him and it was like, I'm absolutely in love with your music. So I told him to make an album and meet me in San Francisco and he listened. And then I took him on tour.

Niina: How is recording an album different from playing live?

Zoe: I was thinking about that tonight, actually. A really common comment I get is that my voice sounds better live than it does recorded, which is so strange because why should it? On a record it's through a really quality, expensive microphone. You'd think it would sound better recorded, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because when you're not seeing it created in front of you, it's not as impressive or something.

Niina: Yeah, or the air in the room. Things like that. The experience of being in the room with the music. Although I remember having those moments with albums in my teens, too. What were some albums that were important to you growing up as a music lover?

Zoe: Really early on, my parents listened to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elton John.

Niina: I love Elton John.

Zoe: Yeah. And Edith Piaf. Those were four staples in our house. We sang along with Edith Piaf a lot because my mom is French Canadian. Then middle school, high school, I got into They Might Be Giants and Billie Holiday, Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple.

Onstage, Zoe had talked about a collaboration with inmates from New Folsom Prison
she is working on an album music that incorporates their words and stories within the structures of their songs.

Niina: Tell me about your experience with New Folsom. What do you do there, and how did it come to be?

Zoe: It was something I'd always wanted to do, but it wasn't something I knew how to break into. This woman at one of my shows would go to New Folsom and record interviews with inmates, then play them on the radio. She asked me if playing at New Folsom was something I'd be interested in doing, and she got me in touch with her contact there, who used to work with the arts in correctional facilities program. It lost funding, but somehow he's held on to the program and runs it subversively, with no funding.

Niina: Really? That is the punkest thing I have ever heard.

ZOE.jpgZoe: Yeah! He brings in people like poets, people who do writing workshops, and he himself does art classes. He brings in musicians as well. He brings someone about once a month, but there's 3000 or so inmates in that prison and maybe 100 or so get to hear me on the day I play. So as many times as I can go I will go.

Partly I feel it's a responsibility because I have a lot of privilege and I like to do what I can for people who don't have the privilege I have. And also, selfishly, it's really amazing. I've never felt as welcome and appreciated before. I don't know how to describe it – the audiences are so open and receptive and appreciative there. I love going back. The second time I ever went, I was walking through the yard and some guys yelled my name! The second time I was there, they recognized me. I love it.

Niina: And you collaborate with inmates, using their words for music. How do you get to interact with individuals?

Zoe: It's always in a group setting. I'll play songs, then inmates will play songs, and often there's extra time. Sometimes It'll be a group discussion, and sometimes I'll be cleaning up gear and one or two guys will come up and start talking to me. It's actually a lot more relaxed and less structured than you might think, depending on the section of the prison. There's the section I perform in, and then the mental health section, and some of the guys are there for mental health reasons and some for safety purposes. That section is more regulated. But in the first section, the guys seem to have more autonomy, so I play in a music room and the group of guys comes and goes. At the end of the session the guys filter out and there will be four or five left, and we'll stop playing music and start talking. I have a fair amount of personal time, which is my favorite part because it's an experience I don't get to hear anywhere else.

Niina: We talk about prisoners as a collective but fail to discuss individual experience.

Zoe: And it's hard to access, because they don't have any way to tell their story. That is part of the reason I want to make an album of their songs.

Niina: That is really really cool. You said that's the next thing you're wanting to do. Do you know when it's happening?

Zoe: I am trying not to put any pressure on this. Thus far with my albums, I've always had a date and a timeline. I'm always rushing people and myself, but I decided with this I'm going to let it materialize and see what happens. Part of the plan as that I have this artist-in-residency planned for May, and I'm going to live in Fairfield, Iowa, where I get to hole up and not worry about anything. I'm going back to the prison in January to collect as much material as I can, and then in May I'll spend the month coming up with as many songs as I can.

Niina: You are hearing other people's voices and letting their voices come through in your own material. Is there a difference between how you work with your own and other people's words and material?

Zoe: Yeah. The song I've been playing, I've switched back and forth between first and third person, and in the version I sang tonight, it starts off third person and at the end it switches to first. I've played with it, and that is the way that feels the best. It's something I've had to think about a lot. It feels particularly strange to sing these things in the first person, because the experience is so far from my own experience. But also because it is so uncharacteristic of someone who looks like me, it's almost a stronger statement. My voice and looks don't match up with the content of the song.

Niina: It's a radical act that way.

Zoe: I still don't know the context the material will be in.

Niina: So a lot of the current album Darling Specimens is kind of filled with longing. I was thinking of the song “Serrated Spoon” because you sang it tonight. In it, a pair of people are talking to each other, but the narrator’s strong feeling of want motivates the song. When you write that, is it a character, or is it personal?

Zoe: There's artistic license. A part of it I embellish or exaggerate, though I don't even want to say that. Yeah. It's always very, very personal. When I first write a song, it's very hard the first month when I play it live – especially if the person who is the subject is around. Sometimes, I write songs about a situation I'm in, but often I have to have space away from whatever the subject is in order to be able to write a song about it. But when I'm able to write about it when I'm going through it, the first time I play it live, my stomach will completely turn over. It's refreshing, kind of. It's a feeling I used to get all the time, but I don't get it anymore usually. It's nice to get that back sometimes.

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