On one of the wettest, most slippery nights when sidewalks were rivers during the great polar vortex thaw, kicking back near a fireplace with a mug of tea was probably your best bet. But somehow cellist Zoë Keating had the same effect and turned Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music into a sweet, dark den of solace. She pulled you in, warmed your insides and made you forget about the socks swimming in your drenched shoes.
When the spotlight came up, it illuminated a seated Keating with a laptop and her cello, which was handcrafted by a man in the south of France who loved her music. Keating’s hands moved just as much as her red-stockinged feet as they tapped the pedals to form rich loops and layers. At her shows, your eyes see a single instrument, but your ears play tricks on you the whole set as the cello samples blend and build to what sounds like a full string orchestra.
In 2003, Keating left her previous gig in the San Francisco start-up scene and turned to composing and performing her music full time. It’s been a DIY journey ever since: No record label, no tour bus, and no backup on stage. (She penned this op-ed about the experience for the Los Angeles Times.) Her sound is beautiful, but it’s Keating’s electronic process that has garnered the buzz, which has allowed her to play with Imogen Heap, Tears for Fears and DJ Shadow, to name just a few.
During the show, Keating whisked through 2010’s Into the Trees, the body of work she wrote largely all at once. Sometimes inspiration was found in unexpected places, she said, like for “Seven League Boots.” She was seven months pregnant and nearing the album’s completion when she wrote that song. Keating envisioned hopping over a hill in the redwood forests she calls home, clad in “magical boots.” They were catalyst boots, she explained, and allowed her to add the finishing touches.
“Now that you’ve hiked the lake in your seven league boots, you’re at the coast and you’re gonna watch the sunset,” she said before easing into “Tetrishead” (“an homage to programmers everywhere”) and “The Path” (“version 4.6,” Keating joked.)
Later, the Chicago crowd was treated to an untitled piece that Keating composed in Quito, Ecuador during her December tour there. “I knew I wouldn’t do well at a high-level altitude and would need a few days to get used to it,” she recalled. Nauseous, with swollen hands and feet, she remembers seeing kids and fruit sellers out her window and was, totally high from lack of oxygen, “I got out my musical instrument and was really emotional for no reason. I improvised, and this was the result.”
Keating also unearthed “Fern,” one of the first songs she came up with when she decided to start layering cellos. She would play it for her roommates and artist friends reclined on beanbags in the wee hours of the morning. “Horizontal audiences are really forgiving: the original version was a half-hour long.”
In addition to working on a new album (coming out later this summer), Keating has been honored with the enormous task of composing a piece for the closing event of the World Economic Forum (who named her a Young Global Leader) in Switzerland this month. It’s an opportunity for all the world leaders to gather together and solve the big problems, and the piece, she confessed, was not quite finished. “What will help them organize all this chaos to make the world better? Over the next week I’m going to practice and finish. Here’s to optimism.”
Catch Zoë Keating on tour:
1/25/14 Davos, Switzerland @ Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum
1/31/14 Oakland, CA @ Fox Theatre (a guest of the Magik Magik Orchestra)
5/2/14 Omaha, NE @ Holland Performing Arts Center
Cover photo by Chase Jarvis; inset photo by Nadya Lev