When listening to cellist Zoë Keating’s recordings, you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing an entire orchestra. Each composition is a dense arrangement of overlapping strings, whistles and percussion sounds that form a complex musical whole. Rather than the work of an ensemble, however, the music is generated solely by Keating and her cello. A former software information architect, Keating uses a MacBook Pro and a single control pedal to construct intricate loops and layers as she plays, achieving the percussive sounds by knocking on the body of the instrument. The effect is the aural equivalent of a master weaver at a loom, spinning an elaborate tapestry out of a handful of threads.
Frequently described as “avant-garde,” Keating’s music can be difficult to categorize. Though somewhere in the realm of modern classical, it also turns up on digital distribution platforms as “neoclassical” and “dance and electronica,” and sometimes with a blank space where the listing should be, which appeals to the cellist.
“It’s something I’ve always struggled with,” Keating says over the phone from her home outside San Francisco, “and I worried about being too pretentious. Every artist thinks they’re unique! But part of being an artist in the age of the Internet is that the old genre buckets are antiquated. Our lives are much more multidimensional than that.”
Thirteen years into her musical career, the aggressively DIY Keating has never had a record label or manager. She mails out CD orders herself. After an initial stint cutting her stage chops with the rock-cello outfit Rasputina, Keating struck out on her own, hauling her cello from venue to venue in a van. When iTunes opened its marketplace to unsigned artists in 2003, Keating was one of the first to take advantage, only to be surprised as her first homemade recording, the EP One Cello x 16, rose to the No. 1 spot in the Classical sales charts and subsequently camped out in the Top 20. Later album releases One Cello x 16: Natoma and Into The Trees had similar receptions.
Despite this fruitful relationship with Apple, Keating is cautious about relying on those sales as the industry shifts in favor of streaming over downloads.
“Much of digital music still feels very messy,” she says, “the full potential of the Internet hasn’t been realized yet.” To diversify her income, she has licensed her music to NPR and television shows such as Elementary and Teen Wolf, and collaborated with musicians such as friend and fellow DIY maven Amanda Palmer. Keating maintains an active and candid online presence, which has helped her cultivate a loyal and diverse listener demographic.
Without any label or contractual obligations to restrain her, Keating has also been outspoken on the fair treatment of artists in the digital marketplace. “Large corporations always try to take the largest piece of the pie for themselves,” she says. “I feel like a big part of my advocacy is breaking people out of their industry ghettos.”
She’s publicly sparred with YouTube over its licensing policies and habitually shares her annual royalties statements from various digital services, a move which directly contradicted claims made by Spotify about how lucrative streaming is for indie musicians: “It’s up to the artist to create the world they want to live in for themselves, versus the one the corporations create,” she says.
Recently, Keating has had to adjust to becoming a solo act in a profoundly more personal sense: as a single parent. When Jeff, her husband of 18 years, passed away in 2015 after a difficult battle with cancer, Keating, now the sole caretaker to their young son, found herself unable to return to the album she’d begun recording just prior to his diagnosis. “I’m not one of those people who can make music when they’re miserable,” she says of this period. “I make music when the sun is shining. I make music for my world.”
To keep the creative fires burning she took gigs composing scores for the television shows Manhattan and The Returned. This gave her time to grieve and to care for her son, but left her unsure of what her next step would be. “It’s a really difficult thing, to lose the one person who always encouraged me, who was always there to listen to what I was trying to do,” she says. “I didn’t know if could have a music career without him.”
This year marks Keating’s first substantial tour since before her husband’s passing, and despite her reservations, this one-woman orchestra has found that she isn’t so alone after all.
“I’ve discovered I need my audience more than I realized,” she says. “I love performing now more than I ever did. At a recent series of concerts in Portland I felt like I was thriving in a way I hadn’t ever before. I don’t have Jeff anymore, but I have you guys. Knowing that people care makes me want to make music for them.”
Zoë Keating plays June 18 at AMSD Concerts