20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
In part 32 of our continuing 20:20 Q&A series,
the amazing Zoe FitzGerald Carter—guitarist, singer-songwriter, author, and mother—
joins us to talk about her new album Waterlines, writing songs compared to writing prose, her incredible variety of musical styles, and so much more.
Waterlines is Zoe’s phenomenal new solo album released March 26, 2021. A profound depth of feeling is conveyed through Zoe’s lyrical and literary songwriting combined with her masterful and understated performances throughout the album. Zoe creates vignettes set to music, hinting at deeper stories not completely revealed as all good short stories do.
We are thrilled to have you with us, Zoe. Thank you for your insightful, thoughtful words.
Photos courtesy of Zoe FitzGerald Carter
20:20 with Zoe FitzGerald Carter
NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Zoe: I’m an author, singer, and guitar player and the mother of two daughters, of whom I’m ridiculously proud.
When I’m not noodling on my guitar, writing songs, or riding my bike, I’m lying on the couch reading books and/or watching the news. I like to think of it as surfing the zeitgeist for insights into the human condition.
NWM 2): What is a favorite of your songs? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Zoe: From the new album, I especially love ‘Like A Drum,’ in part because it’s so unlike the rest of the album.
While most of the songs on Waterlines are pretty autobiographical, ‘Like A Drum’ was inspired by a random quote I stumbled on from the french novelist Gustave Flaubert. It said, roughly: ‘Language is a big drum that we beat for the bears to dance when what we really want is to move the stars to pity.’
As if beating a drum for dancing bears was the lowest form of literature! This irked me, so I turned the whole thing around to consider it from the bears’ point of view, What did they want or feel?
In the end, it became a song about the desire for freedom and escape. I really wanted to free those dancing bears! Let them run through the forest and catch some fish. And because I began with them, I moved on to lions and clowns. I imagined them in one of those old-fashioned carnival-like circuses that travel from town to town.
People talk about writing things in a fever dream and, with [‘Like A Drum’], it did feel that way. It came from a place mysterious even to me.
The song opens with slow guitar chords but then drops into this syncopated, Latin-esque groove complete with drums, guitar, and trumpet. It also shifts from minor to major to minor keys, which gave my producer a small heart attack but somehow we made it work.
People talk about writing things in a fever dream and, with this song, it did feel that way. It came from a place mysterious even to me.
NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Zoe: Staying up late playing music with friends. Swimming in lakes. Talking to my boyfriend over a delicious meal that he’s just cooked for me which, luckily, has happened almost every night of the pandemic.
NWM 4): We cannot say enough about your phenomenal new solo album Waterlines, released March 26, 2021. You capture so much feeling and utilize a terrific range of sounds, from Americana and folk to jazz, Latin, and even funk in the delightfully catchy and profoundly illuminating ‘I Wanna Be a Teenage Boy.’
Tell us about your overall vision and creation of Waterlines, the different styles therein, and the significance of the title.
Zoe: First of all, thank you for the kind words! I considered calling the album Below the Waterline, which is the title of one of the songs. I’ve always been intensely curious about what lies below the surface of things. All the mysteries we can’t see but sense are there. I ended up going with Waterlines because a waterline is like a clue from the past. Was there a drought or a flood? Did the river change course? And many of the songs on the album look back at relationships and experiences and try to make sense of them. It felt like the right metaphor.
I also like how the word evokes the act of writing itself, the placing of ‘lines’ on the page. Writing is so central to my identity, both as a journalist and a memoirist, and now as a songwriter. It just felt right.
As to the stylistic shifts in the album, I’ll admit they are a little crazy! I never really fit that neatly into one genre as a musician and I try to push myself to write in different styles.
I was pretty steeped in folk and Americana growing up, which I love, but I’ve resisted getting stuck in that lane. On my first album, Waiting for the Earthquake, I wrote a rocker about Levon Helm (‘Ode to Levon’) and an old-fashioned waltz (‘Betrayal Waltz’). And on this album, I stepped out even further, especially on the jazz tunes.
Writing is so central to my identity, both as a journalist and a memoirist, and now as a songwriter.
That happened in part because I was learning some jazz standards for a gig and suddenly had these cool new chords in my arsenal. ‘Saturday Man,’ which is a kind of paean to sexual freedom from a woman’s point of view, came out of that. And then I was lucky enough to collaborate on ‘These Words’ with a jazz pianist friend, Hindy Bare.
She also came up with the funky bass line on ‘I Wanna Be A Teenage Boy.’ We wrote it during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. We were both feeling so disgusted watching this whiny, red-faced man melt down, obviously shocked that his behavior might rob him of a job. And then, of course, it didn’t and he became a lifetime judge on the highest court in the land!
So yeah, there’s a teeny bit of anger in that song, but there’s also humor and a kind of wistful longing for the sort of mental and physical freedom that boys take for granted. I know it’s not always easy for them, but they don’t get all that repressive messaging we get as girls and as women. You know, look pretty, act sweet, and if some drunken dude lunges at you, it’s your own fault. It’s exhausting and maddening.
Also in the mix is ‘One Too Many Days in Nashville,’ a sendup of the classic ‘trying to make it in Nashville’ song. The fiddle and lap steel give it an old-timey country music sound.
‘On the Raft’ is another one-off. It has a dreamlike, almost dissonant quality inspired by memories of lying on a raft on a lake in Vermont, a place I’ve been going since I was a kid. I have such a strong sense memory of being lulled by the water and the sun, the sound of the birds. I tried to capture that sense of dissolving into the elements, feeling one with the earth and the sky.
I haven’t described the quartet of songs that kick the album off—’Better Things to Do,’ ‘Owl in Kensington,’ ‘Only Girl,’ and ‘Below the Waterline’—but they fall pretty solidly in the indie folk/Americana genre. I think I wanted to lull the listener into thinking they knew what to expect and then throw them some curve balls.
Other than being offered $100 to play ‘Country Roads’ in a hole-in-the-wall club by a drunken John Denver fan, I have to say the Day of the Dead shows have always been a highlight.
NWM 5): Before releasing your solo album, you played with local bands in the Bay Area, including Do Wrong Right, The Deadliners, Rolling Thunder (a Bob Dylan cover band), and Sugartown, ‘an Americana string band that found a large and enthusiastic audience for their yearly ‘Day of the Dead’ concerts featuring songs by recently departed musical greats.’
Please share about your time with this fun musical variety and a particularly memorable performance or venue.
Zoe: Well, other than being offered $100 to play ‘Country Roads’ in a hole-in-the-wall club by a drunken John Denver fan, I have to say the Day of the Dead shows have always been a highlight. My main musical compadre, Brian Bloom, co-founder of Sugartown, keeps a running tally of musicians as they shuffle off the mortal coil during the year between shows, and he’s a genius at picking songs to represent them.
We’ve performed everything from ‘Life on Mars’ by David Bowie to ‘I Think I Love You’ by David Cassidy to ‘Corcovado’ in honor of the great Brazilian guitarist João Gilberto who died in 2019 to ‘Memphis’ by Chuck Berry. No genre is off-limits—soul, R&B, rock, and pop. The shows were challenging as we had all these disparate songs to learn, but they were a blast and popular with our fans. They often knew or recognized the songs within a note or two and enjoyed the spectacle of watching a five-piece string band recreate unexpected and iconic songs.
One of my last gigs before the pandemic was with The Deadliners, a group of journalist musicians. We played at The Makeout Room, a very hip club in San Francisco, to help raise funds for a local literary festival. The gig brought my writing and music worlds together in a very sweet way. But the best part was having my younger daughter show up and say, ‘Whoa, mom. You’re playing here?’
NWM 6): Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist?
Zoe: I was in the recording studio! We’d all been getting progressively more nervous as the news worsened. We went from hugs to fist bumps to waving at each other with masks on and then, with only the vocals and some overdubs left on one song, we had to go to ground. We stayed out of the studio for over three months, which was excruciating. Finally, last summer, we started creeping back in to finish things up. It was nerve-wracking but also reassuring in a way. A reminder that life—and music—continues even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. But it’s been sad for me not playing with anyone this last year. Some backyard jams but no performances. I’m looking forward to getting vaccinated and getting back out there!
NWM 7): In 2018, Sugartown released a CD of your original songs, Waiting for the Earthquake. How does this album differ from your new Waterlines?
Zoe: Waiting for the Earthquake was recorded with Sugartown at Guerrilla Recording in Oakland with a wonderful sound engineer, Myles Boisen. It has more of a ‘live’ feel. When we recorded, Sugartown had been performing these songs for months and we were super well rehearsed. In fact, some of the songs were basically recorded live. The album was also a real labor of love. One of my daughters sings on it as does my best friend and a few other musician friends. And of course all the members of Sugartown contributed their time and talents. I learned a ton doing it, but it also made me realize how much I didn’t know about recording.
I was on a songwriting tear after the album came out and itching to record again when my bandmate, Brian, suggested I find a producer. I had the great fortune of meeting Jeffrey Wood at Fantasy Records in Berkeley shortly after. We had an instant rapport and to this day he is one of my favorite people on the planet. He has enormous technical knowledge of music and recording, but he also feels music in a deeply emotional way. This makes him an ideal producer in my book! He’s also a riot to spend time with and great at putting musicians at ease.
He loved my voice and my songs, but he also pushed me hard to hone my performance before going into the studio. This really helped my confidence and made the recording process incredibly fun. He also brought in a group of amazing musicians from around the Bay Area, beginning with San Francisco drummer Dawn Richardson (who toured with Tracy Chapman), and bass player Paul Olguin, a fixture on the Bay Area music scene. And because I’ve mentioned them, I need to mention everyone because not only were they great people, they each brought an abundance of musical ideas that elevated and supported the songs: Michael Papenburg on electric guitar and lap steel, Erik Jekabson on trumpet/flugelhorn, and Julie Wolf on electric piano, organ, and accordion. Several of my Sugartown bandmates also brought their amazing spirit and talent: Brian Bloom on acoustic guitar, Dan Seamans on standup bass, and David Boyden on fiddle. I also want to give a shoutout to Alberto Hernandez, the sound engineer, who was a lake of calm in the midst of the madness.
I was actually kind of shy when I was a kid, but I’ve always had strong opinions and been a little in your face expressing them. This propensity to speak up only gets more extreme as I get older.
NWM 8): Fascinating and thought-provoking, your award-winning memoir, Imperfect Endings, (Simon & Schuster, 2010) which was excerpted in O Magazine and chosen as a finalist for the National MS Society Books for a Better Life Award, ‘is the uplifting story of a woman determined to die on her own terms.’ It deals with your mother’s request for you and your sisters to assist in her suicide.
In writing for numerous national magazines (The New York Times, Newsweek, Vogue) and other publications, your articles are thoughtful and thought-provoking and often concern family, racism, and injustice.
Further, your ‘I Wanna Be a Teenage Boy,’—which, as we have said, is delightfully catchy and profoundly illuminating—was inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and deals with the tragic and absurd differences in the messages given to and expectations from girls and boys, women and men.
As a writer, you have embraced these difficult subjects rather than shy away from them. Tell us about doing so—the trials, tribulations, and triumphs—and why it’s important to you to speak out, to lend your voice to the chorus that refuses to be silenced on those critical issues that matter to our dignity and shape our humanity.
Zoe: I was actually kind of shy when I was a kid, but I’ve always had strong opinions and been a little in your face expressing them. (I chalk it up to being a triple Aries, something I recently wrote about in a song called ‘Zodiac Maniac.’) This propensity to speak up only gets more extreme as I get older.
NWM 9): What in particular fuels your inspiration? Tell us about your space or what is most necessary for your writing.
Zoe: For me, songwriting feels very private so I have to be alone—really alone. I have a little writer’s shed in our backyard and my partner is forbidden to come out to it without texting ahead. We have a small house and a small yard so it’s kind of a funny boundary, but it feels important to me. I need to be able to sing the same line 30 times in a row without worrying if the person in the next room is going to strangle me. Or, God forbid, tell me the line sucks. You have to protect your creative process from the judgment of others.
NWM 10): Your songwriting is at once lyrical and literary. You create vignettes set to music, capturing and conveying feeling, and hinting at that deeper story not completely revealed as all good short stories do.
Please share your approach to songwriting and coupling words with sound compared to writing as a journalist and memoirist.
Zoe: I love this question. One way I think about the difference is that, while a songwriter has a limited number of words available to them—the average song only has 200 words—they have other tools, like melody, rhythm and voice.
I taught memoir and nonfiction for many years, and now teach songwriting, but whatever the genre, good writing is good writing.
But prose and songwriting demand similar things, like vivid, evocative language. Structure is also important; beginnings, middles and ends. Just as a gun in the first act means someone will get shot in the third act in the theater, songs generally need a set up and a pay-off or resolution. If they ask a question, they should answer it. If they tell a story, the story should have a conclusion or make some bigger point. I taught memoir and nonfiction for many years, and now teach songwriting, but whatever the genre, good writing is good writing.
As to my process, I don’t have one tried-and-true formula. Some songs come from a single line, like ‘Owl in Kensington.’ I live in a little community next to Berkeley called Kensington and, night after night, we would hear an owl hooting outside our window. It was kind of haunting and beautiful, and we started thinking about it as ‘our owl.’ Then, one morning I woke up and thought, ‘an owl sings in Kensington’ might be a good first line for a song. It ended up being a song about loss and death but also the resilience of love.
On ‘Below the Waterline,’ I wrote the chorus first but had no idea what the rest of the song was about. It took lots of false starts to find the story.
I often just sit and noodle on my guitar, searching out cool chord changes or melodic licks and then find a lyric that drapes nicely over them. Once I have something I like, I’m off and running.
Much of the joy of songwriting is discovering the song on the fly. It’s much more intuitive and associative than writing prose, although usually by the second verse I start to understand what the song is about. Then it’s a matter of revising and editing and shaping the structure while also tinkering with the melody to make it as interesting or beautiful or unexpected as possible. I’m big on throwing out the obvious rhymes, the cliched lines, and the well-worn melodic pathways. And while I am not young, I do consider myself a young songwriter. So I’m excited to keep evolving and progressing as a songwriter in the years ahead.
NWM 11): What is something that has surprised you in your life or career? Tell us a bit about it.
Zoe: It’s almost a truism that failing at something opens you to other, greater possibilities, but I did experience a pretty textbook case of this. After moving to New York City to go to Columbia Journalism School and working as a journalist for 6-7 years, I had a daughter and decided to stay home with her and write a novel. It took me forever, but I did it—it was a mystery novel set in my neighborhood in Brooklyn—and I got an agent. Then it never sold. It was totally devastating. But a few years later, I ended up writing my memoir, Imperfect Endings, and within a week of submitting it, I had a new agent and a contract with Simon & Schuster.
If I had sold that mystery, I probably would have ended up being a mystery writer and never writing the memoir. I also learned a ton by writing that first book. And all those years I spent working on my writing has certainly been helpful to my songwriting life.
NWM 12): What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that you actually follow?
Zoe: A few years ago I was struggling over whether or not to leave a long-term relationship. I consulted a friend of mine, Paolo, who is a psychic. I told him I felt like I had one foot on the dock and one foot on the boat and was terrified of falling in the water. He laughed and said, ‘No, no. You must fall into the water. It’s the only way forward.’
I’ve frankly never found logic very helpful in decision making.
Somehow it freed me from the paralysis and I was able to move forward in a more intuitive, less fearful way. I’ve frankly never found logic very helpful in decision making.
NWM 13): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Zoe: Indian Ocean by Frazey Ford, Norman Fucking Rockwell by Lana Del Rey, Desire by Bob Dylan, The Brown Album by The Band, Jerusalem by Steve Earle, Trio by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt, Cry Cry Cry by Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, and Richard Shindell, and anything by Lowell George (Little Feat). This is a painfully truncated list but I am forcing myself to stop.
NWM 14): You have taught memoir and songwriting at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and Left Margin Lit, as well as at writing retreats and conferences from Hawaii to Vermont.
Share the importance of teaching to you and how you reach and inspire your students on these personal and subjective subjects.
Zoe: Teaching forces you to unpack what you know, so it makes you better at what you do. You learn how to follow your own advice, which helps you develop your craft.
I had just started teaching songwriting when the pandemic hit and I can’t wait to get back to it. I was learning so much, and I miss the camaraderie and flow of creativity and ideas.
In my memoir classes, I always encouraged my students to ‘write to the bone,’ to be brutally truthful. You can always edit things out later, but you don’t want to cut off the process of confronting your material, wherever that leads you.
NWM 15): How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
Zoe: Advil, CBD, marijuana, and mezcal. Eating well, riding my bike, and writing music helps too.
NWM 16): Please share a unique childhood experience that you feel helped contribute to who you and your music are today.
Zoe: I have really sweet memories of ‘sitting in’ with my father’s Dixieland jazz band when I was 12 or 13. I’d been studying violin for quite a few years by then and I could sight read old jazz standards like ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Up A Lazy River,’ and ‘Besame Mucho.’ Then when I quit violin a couple years later and picked up guitar, we used to sing and play together. He was primarily a drummer, but he played a mean rhythm guitar.
Work hard, but don’t lose the joy.
NWM 17): What is a core tenet by which you live your life or approach your music?
Zoe: Work hard, but don’t lose the joy.
NWM 18): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Zoe: Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday.
NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Zoe: I’m a really good kisser (apparently).
NWM 20): What’s next for Zoe FitzGerald Carter?
Zoe: I’ve got some new songs, written during the pandemic, that I’m excited about recording and sharing with the world when the time is right.
In the meantime, I can’t wait to get together with my musician buddies, give them a hug, and stay up late playing music!
From the new album, I especially love ‘Like A Drum,’ in part because it’s so unlike the rest of the album.
Zoe FitzGerald Carter
Singer/songwriter Zoe FitzGerald Carter began playing guitar and singing as a teenager in Washington D.C. where her father was a well-known jazz drummer. In addition to her career as a writer and teacher, she’s played and performed with numerous Bay Area bands, including the all-journalist band, The Deadliners, and the Dylan-inspired, Rolling Thunder. Her first album Waiting for the Earthquake was released in 2018 and features her longtime Americana string band, Sugartown, a staple at Bay Area clubs like The Freight & Salvage, The Back Room, Hotel Utah, and Rancho Nicasio.
Her new album, Waterlines, features ten new songs written in a range of musical styles and showcasing a panoply of top Bay Area musicians. In addition to recording, writing and performing, Zoe teaches memoir and songwriting and has recently taken up the drums.
To learn more and buy stuff visit https://www.zoecartermusic.com/
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with These Fine Moments
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