Listening to her latest album Gypsies & Clowns, recorded live at Space in Evanston, Ill., it’s not surprising to learn that Natalia Zukerman grew up in a very musical family. The daughter of violinist/conductor Pinchas Zukerman and flutist/writer Eugenia Zuckerman, the singer-songwriter was exposed to a wealth of musical influences from early on. It might explain why the 37-year-old out chanteuse (she’s been compared to both Ani DiFranco and Shawn Colvin) can play an arsenal of instruments, from a 1938 Rickenbacker steel lap guitar to the Dobro and banjo.
In an exclusive interview, she tells us what it’s like playing with some of her own musical heroes, what it was like opening for Janis Ian in Japan, and why she started painting murals all over San Francisco.
AfterEllen.com: What was it like growing up in New York City? How did that help shape the music you’re making today?
Natalia Zukerman: I think when you’re growing up, you’re just busy with the growing and don’t know that it’s necessarily different than it is for anyone else. But living in New York again as an adult, I realize what an incredible education I got just walking the streets, getting to take the city buses and subways, to go to school in a multicultural neighborhood with kids from all kinds of backgrounds. New York, like every city, has changed so much, but there’s still nowhere like it. I know that being exposed to the kind of music I heard as a kid (from the ghetto blasters to Lincoln Center concerts) has certainly broadened my ears and I hope made its way into my music.
AE: Your parents were both musicians. Did you feel any pressure to follow in their footsteps? Or did being surrounded by music inspire you to create your own?
NZ: A little of both. Music was required in my house so I first studied violin and a little classical guitar. I didn’t really feel pressure, per se, until I got to college. I went to Oberlin College in Ohio and started out taking classical guitar in the conservatory and, for the first time in my life, I was made aware that my parents were famous. I really had no idea before then. I grew up going to Carnegie Hall and the great concert halls around the world, seeing my parents celebrated, having Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman in my living room playing music on a Tuesday afternoon. It was just normal and for the first time, I realized “Oh, maybe this isn’t the way everyone was raised!” The pressure was enormous then, but it never came from my parents. They’ve just always wanted me to be happy and follow my heart.
AE: There are quite a few female artists right now who are blending genres – everything from folk and jazz to bluegrass and the blues. Your own music seems to pull from these diverse ranges. What’s the advantage to crossing between sounds?
NZ: I have always just made the music I make and I love folk, jazz, bluegrass, blues, so I’m glad to hear you say that my music pulls from that. Thank you. I think of all of those genres as traditional music or what we know as Folk, really. I also think I might have a little bit of artistic ADD, so I get bored if I’m only writing music in one style. But again, it isn’t something I really think about all that much. As I get older, in my music and in my life, I’m just trying to trust my instinct and know that whatever comes out is right whether it’s a little folk ditty or “dirgy” blues.
AE: Last year, you made waves during a show in Evanston, Ill., when you collaborated with other musicians for Gypsies & Clowns. How did that come about?
NZ: Making a live record was an idea I’d been kicking around for a long time, but I never thought I’d be able to do it in one night. I thought that I’d hire a sound person to record five to 10 shows and then pick from the best because I’m such a harsh critic of my own performances. But when the stars aligned for me to do a show with my great friends and musical collaborators, I decided to just record the one show and see what we got. I never dreamed it would turn out the way it did but I think because I wasn’t attached to the outcome, it was perfect. I was just overwhelmed that all of those people showed up to support me and I was so excited to capture some of what I’ve been doing with each of them in different permutations over the years. I trusted completely in all of their ability and was as prepared as possible and the rest is really never up to us anyway. So there was no way for it to fail. But I am still shocked that 22 out of the 24 songs we played that night made it on the record!
AE: Why record the show in Illinois and not in your hometown of New York?
NZ:Susan Werner has been doing a really special show every year at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago where she puts tables on the stage and plays a show for about 400 people in one of the oldest halls in Chicago that holds about 5,000 people. It’s a stunning show. I had been thinking about doing something live at that point and Space in Evanston is one of my favorite venues in the country. It’s also centrally located, so I started thinking, “Well, maybe I can get Willy Porter to come down and play since he lives in Milwaukee and that’s nearby.” And I knew Susan and Trina Hamlin would be there because of the show the next night. So I booked the room and started inviting friends and everyone could come! It just worked out perfectly.
AE: You really are collaborating with a lot of interesting artists these days. How do these musical partnerships come about?
NZ: All of my musical partnerships have come about by just getting to know folks. For example, I got to open for Janis Ian for the first time in the spring of 2010 and I learned a couple of her tunes. During my sound check I started playing “At 17” and she was really surprised. So she invited me out to play during her set and we had so much fun that she ended up hiring me to go to Japan with her that next year as her guitar player.
AE: Your music has been described as “confessional.” Does that mean the collaborations are more conversational?
NZ: Well, my music is definitely personal, or has tended to be. I’ve written a lot about my own experiences — or they sound like mine even if I’m “borrowing” from someone else’s stories. Playing with someone else is always conversational to me. That’s the perfect word to describe it. In the best cases, playing music with someone else, especially when there is improvisation involved, is like a deep conversation that just goes back and forth effortlessly.
AE: What was it like making a live album compared to the studio experience?
NZ: Making a live album is a completely different experience. For the most part, I’ve tended to record with instruments and players isolated and often, played separately. Making a live record, you don’t have the luxury of doing that so the editing becomes like an excavation project, especially on a project like mine where there were so many players on stage at the same time. You can’t go back and do a part again so it’s really humbling in the most beautiful way. It’s much more about capturing a feeling and a color than it is about getting the exact part. You perform and then you hope that you captured some lightning in a bottle and that it translates.
AE: On stage and in the studio, you play a range of guitars – many of which have roots in folk and even the country tradition. What was the first instrument you learned to play and how did that come about?
NZ: I started out on violin. I remember that my parents chose it for me, but they say I wanted to play it. I find that so hard to believe because I pretty much hated it from moment one. It’s such an incredibly difficult instrument to play and because I’d heard, arguably, the best violin playing in the world since I was in utero, I was horrified at the sound I made. It’s like killing a small farm animal when you start out. Ouch! So guitar was a very welcome antidote to that. Much simpler at the beginning level and I also loved songs right from the get go so getting to accompany myself and my friends and sit around and sing Woody Guthrie songs, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor — the songs I grew up with — was so much more fun than practicing scales in a windowless room to perfection on an instrument that I would never be able to make sing the way I’d heard it.
AE: Who are some of your own musical influences? What new artists are you listening to these days?
NZ: I’ll never forget the first time I heard Suzanne Vega. My friend Lara Galinsky‘s cousin was home from college and took us to a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in Central Park. She had this incredible long, hippie hair and was so beautiful and excited and alive and I was totally instantly obsessed with her. I had never been to a concert like it — outdoors with no assigned seating, sunshine, Hippies, pot smell in the air. I barely even knew who Woody Guthrie was (even though I’d been singing his songs since I was kid), when on to the stage walked Suzanne and she played a set of her music and a few of his tunes. I had never seen just one woman with one guitar before. It was so powerful and completely life changing. I knew in that moment that that is what I wanted to do. I was as in love with Suzanne as I was with Lara Galinsky’s cousin. Confusing and awesome!
AE: Fans may not realize you’re also an accomplished fine artist.
NZ: For the most part, I think of myself as an illustrator because I’ve mostly been doing commissioned pieces that are based on songs or other people’s ideas. Folks I’ve been painting for have approached me with an idea — whether it’s a memory of their grandparents, or a portrait of their cat, or a lyric from a song (mine or someone else’s) — and asked me to visualize it. I also do some mural work, which is very illustrative, especially the community murals I’ve worked on that tell a story.
AE: How does your visual art relate to your music?
NZ: It never used to, at least not in my mind. But about three years ago, my friend Adrianne Gonzalez and I started a project we called “Art.is.Song” where we take a lyric from one of our songs and I paint an image and she paints the lyric. That completely changed the way I think about my music and art and they’ve been inextricably linked ever since. I owe so much to Adrianne and that project because I totally compartmentalized and separated the two disciplines until we started that project. It’s opened up the way I view my music and created so many opportunities. I can’t even believe it.
AE: Is it tough being both a painter and musician on the road?
NZ: Yes. Both music and art require practice, muscle memory. I don’t paint when I’m traveling. And then the challenge is to continue to play music when I’m home painting. But I’m finding more of a balance these days — with everything.
AE: Where can we see you perform (or see your art) next?
NZ: I’m on my way to Canada next week after a stop near Buffalo and I’ll be teaching a couple of workshops up there as well as performing. Then I’m off to Israel, then the West Coast and a great resort gig in Puerto Vallarta! Right now I’m just working on some small commissions and just finished my first faux finish job in a private home in Manhattan.