In early March, 2018 WomensCalendar sat down with musician, painter and educator Natalia Zukerman to discuss a range of topics spanning from her lifelong musical journey to the highly-anticipated unveiling of her newest project, The Women Who Rode Away.
Dig in further for other timely subjects such as Natalia’s recent work in Africa and her overarching responsibility to “paying it forward” in life.
While you’re here, hit play on the video below for an intimate acoustic set (amongst wine barrels!) and keep scrolling for the full interview.
Video: Natalia Zukerman — Live @ City Winery, New York
Hi Natalia, thank you so much for joining WomensCalendar for an interview! To start us off, we’d love it if you could speak to your musical journey. Where did it begin and what has led you to where you are today?
Natalia Zukerman (NZ):
I grew up playing music. My parents are both classical musicians and playing an instrument was required in my house- like doing the dishes, making your bed, doing your homework…practicing your instrument was one of the things you just did. I started out on violin and I learned a couple chords on guitar as a kid and always really loved to sing.
I think the discipline of studying classical music has helped me in every facet of my life actually, though at the time it just felt like torture! While I’ve always loved and appreciated the rigor, the physicality, the history and the depth of classical music, it just never spoke to me the same way as an incredibly moving song or a guitar solo or the improvisation of jazz. Not sure why. Maybe I was dropped on my head!
WC: You seem to have a TON going on in regard to living a life of multifaceted artistry, with a strong focus on connecting with women and children. Can you tell us a bit more about why you’ve chosen this focus and where you see it taking you in the future?
NZ: Oh thanks for saying that! I do feel like it’s my duty, and this is something I also learned from my parents, my dad in particular, but I do feel like it’s my responsibility to “pay it forward.” I’ve been given incredible opportunities in my life and I’m so grateful for all of them. I sometimes still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing but the truth is, I’ve amassed a set of skills and the knowledge that I have about the world, about music, about making your living as an artist and I feel great pride in being able to share that with women, with children, with anyone really.
I got to work in Africa on behalf of the State Department last year with my group The Northern Lights who are my friends Mona Tavakoli and Chaska Potter (Raining Jane/Jason Mraz) and that was some of the most incredible work I’ve gotten to do in my life. To walk into different situations, different communities, with different languages, cultures, beliefs and to just be who we are made an impact. While we were there ostensibly to empower women and girls, I actually feel like our role was to be the connective tissue for what was already in place, already forming but just needing a platform.
Since then (it was last February ’17), I’ve sought out and been sought out for work that really engages with community and has an educational component. It’s also changed the way I write, what I write and how I see the role as performer in my life.
WC: Looking ahead at the spring and summer months, we see that you’ve got a lot lined up. What are you most excited for?
NZ: I’ve been working on a show I’m calling The Women Who Rode Away since the fall. I’m going to be the artist in residence at a theatre in New York called the cell where I’ll get to develop it further with the artistic director, Kira Simring and an incredible designer named Gertjan Houben.
We’ll have the premier on May 31st and June 1st and then I’ll be performing it at a couple of other places—the Crested Butte Music Festival and Boston College in the Fall and then I’ll be “taking it on the road,” so to speak with a bit of a paired down version.
The show is songs, paintings and stories about women who were and are architects of their own lives; who defy categorization. Through these portraits and stories, I’m finding my way to tell my own stories. These women have been the guides for me and I hope in the re-telling, that the audience walks away with a sense of strength and a permission to be exactly who they are.
I’m also developing workshops around the performance and am so excited to bring that to art schools, performance spaces and arts centers as the show progresses.
WC: Your sixth studio album, Come Thief, Come Fire prominently featured two distinctly different approaches to songwriting that found harmony in being brought together as one. Is this sort of dichotomy something that you’re still embracing in your writing? What can fans expect in regard to the approach of your next album?
NZ: Come Thief, Come Fire was a really fun sound experiment but it was also born a little out of necessity and circumstance. I recorded the first few tracks with Willy Porter—just live in the studio, the two of us with our guitars. I kinda thought I was going to be making an EP. But then I ended up working with my friends Adrianne Gonzalez, Meg Toohey and Erin McKeown who produced a few more tracks for me and suddenly the album made sense and started to take shape.
It’s really the arc of my own recovery from one particular relationship, or really pattern of relationships, so it made sense to have the stripped down quality in the beginning and to have it grow sonically and then return to its beginnings.
I don’t think I’ll ever work backwards and I hope I don’t stay in one place artistically. Actually, I don’t seem to be able to! Whether that’s a good thing—my artistic ADD—or not, I’m not really sure but I’m just doing the next thing that excites me.
So my next recording is actually going to be a record and a book of The Women Who Rode Away. I’ll have the music separately as downloads but I’m looking at this as a kind of art piece in and of itself—something to hold and look at and listen to. It’ll be a pretty limited run, I imagine but I’m excited about the design possibilities!
Natalia Zukerman: Current Inspiration [Listen]
WC: Unquestionably, your music lends itself quite well to collaboration with other musicians. Who of the collaborators you’ve worked with do you feel has made the most profound impact on your music and (how) has this impact changed you?
NZ: I have been so lucky to get to make music and collaborate with some of my great heroes. I really can’t single out any one above the others because whatever incarnation is happening at the time ends up feeling like the sustenance providing life force that keeps me alive. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s really true.
WC: If you could spend a day in the studio with any living musician, producer or singer… Who would it be and how would you approach the session?
NZ: Oh man. I’ve fantasized about getting to work with Ry Cooder a lot. I just love his playing so much and his breadth of work. After I got over my nerves, I think I’d just like to play with the record button on the whole time and see what happens. I know I’m way too much of a control freak to ever really do that, but that’s my fantasy anyway!
WC: Lastly, and we assure you this is the most important question you’ll be asked all day… What shoes do you wear when touring and why?
NZ: Ha! That’s a good question. I wear shoes until they literally fall off of my feet. Then and only then do I buy THE new pair that I will wear forever. I actually just bought a beautiful new pair of M. Gemi leather boots because my last lived-in pair finally died. Like I’d re-soled them twice already. They needed to be put out to pasture.
I don’t carry a lot of clothes with me on the road and really only like to bring my running shoes so the shoes I travel in have to be versatile. I like to have one pair that I can wear for everyday and to perform in. I’m hoping these will last the next ten years!
WC: Thank you again for joining us, Natalia! Are there any words of wisdom you’d care to leave us with?
NZ: Thank you so much for having me. Words of wisdom? I’m working on that. Wisdom and words, that is.
We hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know Natalia Zukerman and her work as much as we have!