Zoe Keating's latest album is titled Into the Trees, and that's exactly where I have to go to meet her. She lives in the middle of a redwood forest, an hour and a half north of San Francisco. As Keating walks me around, we listen for her neighbors, the woodpeckers, who she says are extra-noisy in the evening.
It's fitting to find Keating in the middle of all this natural noise. In her studio, she creates a similar symphony of sounds, except she does it with just one instrument: her cello.
Her secret lies in the way she constructs her songs. Keating uses computer software to record sounds and musical phrases as she plays them. When she plays something she wants to keep, she taps on pedals at her feet, which tell the computer program to save and loop what she just played. That frees her up to play a new musical phrase along with what she just recorded. The process repeats until she's created layers upon layers of sounds, all from her one cello.
"I'll spend eight hours, you know, I'm just recording parts, and I'm in the groove, and I'm just adding layers and layers and layers," Keating says. "It gets bigger and bigger, and then it goes in new directions, and then I clean it up later. So it's almost like there's two parts to it: There's the kind of getting it all down, and then the cleanup and the refining."
Perfection Is Destruction
Keating didn't always play this style of music — she started playing the cello classically when she was 8 — but when she reached her teens, something weird started happening during her performances.
"Suddenly I'm like, 'How am I doing this? This seems really difficult. How am I doing this?' And then, soon enough, [I] wouldn't be able to play the cello," Keating says, laughing.
These performance hiccups developed into paralyzing stage fright, which led Keating to give up pursing a classical career. However, she continued to play through college, and eventually discovered a way to do it without fear.
"I started improvising," she says. "And I found that when I improvised, I wasn't nervous."
Keating used her newfound courage to experiment with the instrument, testing the limits of what it could do. When she moved to San Francisco and discovered electronic music, something clicked in her mind.
"I liked the vibe, but I got really bored with the sounds — musically, it wasn't doing a lot for me," Keating says. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be neat to make music that has that same production quality, but entirely acoustic?' "
Keating says her experimentation led her to realize what was really paralyzing her all along.
"It was like perfection was the thing that was destroying me — being totally focused on making it perfect," she says. "And I found that when I would improvise, I didn't care about the technique. I would just put my mind outside of where I was, and just be in the music."
Though Keating says she still makes plenty of mistakes onstage, you'd never know it. When I ask her to improvise something, she closes her eyes and, without a second thought, begins to play. Each note comes out as if it were born organically from her instrument, and what could be a mistake is easily transformed into a new direction, a new sound, a new expression. At that point, it's hard to imagine the piece sounding any other way.