On September 14, 2012, lesbian singer-songwriter Natalia Zukerman took the stage at SPACE in Evanston, Ill., with a veritable who's-who of fellow out songstresses: The Rescues' AG, Garrison Star, Susan Werner, Erin McKeown, and many more. The fierce musicians had all gathered near Chicago to support Zukerman's latest record — a live album recorded that very night. The product of that two-hour jam session, which AG described as the musicians "wanking all over her songs," is the decidedly not smutty Gypsies & Clowns.
SheWired caught up with Zukerman, whose latest bluesy folk album is now available in digital and on CD, about making live music with a motley crew of out ladies, the dissapearance of lesbian musicians as a genre, and the secret lesbian rock-star club that you're not cool enough to know about.
SheWired: Why do a live album? And when do you think you can get back in a studio? Do you even want to?
Natalia Zukerman: I really never thought I'd be able to do a live album because I'm such a harsh critic of myself. But it was an idea I started kicking around with Mona Tavakoli, who I've been playing a lot of shows with over the past few years. Originally we thought we'd record a bunch of our shows and put out a sort of duo record. But then I started thinking about my incredible community of musicians who I've collaborated with over the years, and what fun it would be to have them all come and play. I had a gig booked with Susan Werner for the day after the live recording in Chicago, which is one of my favorite places to play. So I booked the room and just started inviting friends, thinking because Chicago is centrally located that I might have a better chance of getting some people to come. Well, they all said yes. And it turned out better than I could have ever imagined in every way. Almost makes me think, "Why ever do a studio record again?" But I know I will. I have almost all the songs for one, and I think what usually happens is that those songs just start screaming for a home. So once I am sure these songs are supposed to live together, I'll go back into the studio.
What's your favorite song, and do you remember how you wrote it, what you were doing?
I think your newest song always tends to be your favorite. Good songs are cumulative experiences — they feel like they gather the tools you've learned over all the years of writing and come from a deep place of knowing; knowing the craft, knowing your set of tools and tricks, knowing and trusting your instincts as a writer. Not every song feels like that, but when they show up, they take first place as new favorite.
How did you come to involve so many fabulous, out female musicians on your album? Is there a secret lesbian rock star club we don’t know about?
Yes. There is a secret lesbian rock star club, but I can't tell you about it.
What would you tell young lesbian songwriters or artists, that you wish someone had told you?
I tell young songwriters and artists that I work with and teach — gay or straight — to listen. Listen to everything and everyone and be open to magic. There is a frequency that ideas and inspiration operate on, and if you're open to hearing it, feeling it, seeing it, amazing things happen. Learn to trust your instincts — it's a struggle sometimes. I think we're taught not to listen a lot — especially these days when we are all plugged into our own individual cellular worlds all the time. But if we start to listen more closely to the world around us, we hear our internal worlds and how they operate in relation to the bigger picture. Write from there and you can't go wrong.
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The Lilith Festival is on the decline, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge aren't in pop culture the way they once were, and neither are the Indigo Girls. Is the lesbian music culture on the wane? What's next?
This is a tough one. Because the answer is yes. Culture as we know it is in total flux. The way we buy and listen to music is shifting, and so is the way we consume it as audience members. It doesn't mean that it's over, but it means that it is changing. The Indigo Girls and k.d. lang will always be musical geniuses, and there will always be people who love and appreciate what they do, but I know that their audience has been affected by economy and the shift in the way music is consumed. It doesn't mean that they are not viable or relevant, but I'm sure they're figuring out how and why they fit into this new paradigm.
The other side of this is that perhaps there isn't as much of a need for lesbian music culture anymore. Meaning, we don't need the public gatherings on that scale to feel like we are part of something, that we belong. Lesbian culture is much more in the mainstream than it has ever been, so we don't need to seek out these alternative spaces to feel safe as much as we did when k.d. and the Indigo Girls first started out. What's next is that there are more gay men and lesbians, trans, bi and queer people in the music world than ever before. And it is less of a big deal than ever before, less of an anomaly.
A lot of women in pop music are more likely to call themselves bisexual than lesbian. Is it riskier to a person's success to be a lesbian?
Of course. I'm afraid this will always be true. Being bisexual as a women still leaves open the market to straight men, and in pop music in particular, where so much is about marketing and sales, that isn't a market anyone wants to alienate.
Who are you writing for? Do you consider lesbian fans in your music?
I don't really think about writing for a particular audience when I write. If and when I do, it's stifling. I can't think about what anyone else is going to say or feel about the music I make. I just have to trust myself enough to make it and follow it wherever it wants to go.
Which lesbian artists influence you now?
I am constantly influenced by other artists and musicians, whether they are gay or straight. And honestly, most of the time, I don't know or care how anyone else defines their sexuality. I've never listened to music solely because the artist defines themselves as gay. OK, well... not since college.
How is your painting a different outlet for creativity than writing music?
Most of the painting I do is commission-based, so I'm realizing someone else's vision, whether it's a portrait of their dog, a wall painted in a house to look like venetian plaster, or an image based on a lyric from a song — mine or someone else's — that has a specific meaning for someone. I think of myself as an illustrator in that way.
Music comes from a much more personal place and for the most part, I'm writing what I want to write, when and how I want to write it. I definitely think I write from a visual place; I'm much more interested in what something looks like to describe a feeling, create a mood.
Music and painting have certainly been overlapping for me, especially as I've delved more deeply into illustrating my own songs, and the set of questions you ask yourself when creating a painting, or a song, are starting to be one and the same. In fact, the best lesson I ever learned about songwriting came from a painting teacher of mine in college who said, "If you know what you want to say, you'll figure out how to say it." He meant that it didn't matter if the piece was a photograph, etching, installation, or clay pot — it was the idea and concept that mattered. I think the same statement can be applied to writing songs: if you have a story you want to tell, or something that needs to be said, it will find its way out.
Do you ever get inspired to write a song by a piece you’re painting, or vice versa?
I just finished a commission for a couple in Alaska based on my song "The Right Time." They wrote to me and told me of their tumultuous beginnings, how hard it was for them to get together in the beginning. Now they're celebrating 20 years together and wanted a painting to commemorate their anniversary. That song has meant a lot to them and it was so cool to get to see it and hear it in a different way, knowing it meant something so different to these women than it has to me. It changed the song for me and in the end, is probably more a gift for me than it is for them!
Check out the making of Gypsies & Clowns and get to know the fierce females whose marks are all over this record in the video below.