I’m warming up to the idea that a cellist doesn’t have to play Bach… to be a proper cellist.

The San Francisco Weekly described Zoe Keating as, “Swoon-inducing. Like taking a triple-shot of Absinthe before stepping outside of the bar just in time to see the sun exploding”. She calls herself ‘post-everything’ on facebook. What the hell had I signed up for? As a classically trained cellist, I had no idea.

I rock up to Kings Place and sit in the cavernous venue with my glass of wine and bag of giant chocolate buttons. ‘Cos that’s just how I roll.

Walking onto the dimly lit stage, picking her way through her equipment (it was actually really dark), Zoe’s presence makes your senses crinkle with electricity. She was dressed in long black and white psychedelic socks along with a sleek bob. I’d never seen a cellist dress like this before.

You get the impression that Zoe Keating normally shies away from the spotlight. She still had this gentle and chill energy… She told us tales about her music – the inspiration for the songs she plays comes from walking in the Redwood forests, near her old hometown in California.

 

Zoe Keating
Zoe Keating performing live. Source: Youtube

The stage setup is her cello, laptop (with loop pedal to control the tracks) and dramatic lighting. The tech side is vital to her style, with her many-layered pre-recorded cello tracks creating a multi-dimensional, looping sound, while she plays live over the top. It’s impressive to anyone who has spent an hour playing around with a loop (or trying to make it work) to see how she never misses a trick.

This gig was a part of Venus Unwrapped – the year-long festival that celebrates the creative power of women.

She started with “Lost”, which tells a story about when she lived in the middle of the forest. I didn’t feel ‘lost’, exactly, but it made me think about the different meanings of the word. And how she might’ve felt when she wrote it. I kinda fell into a trance, watching her bow dance over the strings.

I loved “Seven League Boots”. Zoe shares that she wrote it when seven months pregnant, when she was big and couldn’t walk far. She wished then that she could put on a pair of magical boots to fast-track her to the top of the hill she loves walking up. I felt the force of nature in this song, mentally visualising the path she’s taken, hopping up a huge hill, in amongst the trees and soaring to the top.

She also uses her cello as a percussion instrument, exploring the different sounds she can make from it, drumming her fingers against the wood. Each time she performs or records, she says she likes to be more rebellious and steer away from the uniformity of how she first wrote it. This leads to ever-evolving and alive pieces of music.

Some of the tracks might not even sound out of place in a chill stoner rock track, just add a bass, drums and guitar riffs…

Maybe this is why Zoe’s self-produced album One Cello x 16: Natoma reached Number 1 four times on the iTunes classical charts and her follow-up album Into the Trees spent 47 weeks on the Billboard classical chart, hitting the Number 7 spot. Pretty impressive for an unsigned self-made artist.

Forte“, from her EP Snow Melt (released in 2018), was my fave track and judging by the head nods and ‘oohs’, I wasn’t alone. It has a heavenly melody. Makes you sit up and say ‘mm-hmmm’. And unlike a lot of concerts here, Hall One at the venue was crammed with young audience members (think under 40s)… Figures. She has nearly 100k followers on twitter.

She was told by her potential labels that she had to change. That perhaps a bit of vocals over the top, or maybe add some other instruments to the sound. But she believed she had ‘something’, and decided to Fleetwood Mac (and go her own way). And it’s worked out pretty well.

Zoe toured America in the spring and says she hopes to be back in London again soon. She’s opened my eyes to a new way of understanding and hearing the cello – and I’m one of the under 40s. There’s hope for me yet.

Check out her latest tracks:

Icefloe

Possible

Optimist

and her collab with Imogen Heap – “Tiny Human”

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