Zoe Boekbinder doesn’t need to listen to music to be a musician. Sounds odd, right? Not really if you think about it because with all the music going on inside Zoe’s head, well, there just isn’t room enough for any outside distractions or influence.
And it seems to be working brilliantly.
The Canadian-born New Orleans-based artist creates some of the most gorgeous music around, layered in spots, sparse in others, Zoekbinder admittedly just can’t stop humming melodies. And thank goodness for that because her voice is soothing, melodic, drizzled in pain, in redemption, in the fear of falling in love.
GSM reached out to Zoe to get a feel for her own writing process, the reasons behind her empathy for the creative convict and her ability to save enough space in her own head to creates the magic that comes out of it.
Q. You seem to be a poet as much as a wonderful musician. Do you write songs as if they are poems? Or is it the music first, words second?
It’s not one or the other. It often starts with a short melody in my head (sometimes with words and sometimes without). It’s something I can’t stop humming or singing. Guitar comes after that usually … but not always. It isn’t a formula, which keeps it interesting. Songwriting is still a mystery to me after 18 years.
Q. There’s so much sound in your songs, even when they are quiet songs it seems. Do you mostly hear those sounds when the song is being created long before you hit the studio? Or do they come from the production?
I never thought of myself as much of a producer and I’ve always worked with someone else on flushing out the albums. On my last record, though, I mostly did that myself. I had the studio to myself for a few weeks and I messed around a lot on different instruments I didn’t really know how to play. I love how it came out.
Q. Everyone at some point has envisioned how they want their funeral to be when they die. Is that what you were thinking about on the song, “Funeral?”
I wrote Funeral when I was falling in love for the first time. It felt like a free fall … like surely I would land on something and it would be fatal. It’s a silly song.
Q. What annoys you most about the music business?
Being in a female body in this industry is hard. Either I’m being underestimated for my skills and accomplishments or undervalued because I don’t look how I’m supposed to. Men don’t have to deal with this. The industry is male-dominated and it’s challenging to navigate that while staying positive.
Q. Do you have a constant flow of ideas for songs, or are there periods when your mind/brain is on vacation and just shuts the music down?
I rarely listen to music … or I rarely put music on because music is constantly playing in my head and I’d rather listen to that. That’s where my songs come from. They appear in my mind when it’s quiet, when I’m driving or folding laundry or working on a house project. Activities where others like to listen to music, I like to leave space for it to drop out of the sky into my lap.
From 2009 – 2014 I volunteered as a teaching-artist at New Folsom, a max security men’s prison in California. During that time I wrote an album with the men I worked with there. I used their words and stories, with their consent, and put an album together. Ani DiFranco produced the album and also co-wrote one of the songs with a man named Spoon Jackson. The two of them became pen pals when she started working with me, six years ago. The album releases this May and profits from sales go to prisoner’s rights groups and bail funds. There is a lot of work to do to address mass incarceration in this country. One necessary step is humanizing the people who have been disposed of by this system. I’ve made such good friends through this work and I hope the album can illustrate to listeners that the people in American prisons are not all dangerous, and not all deserving of how they’ve been treated.
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