Wishbone Zöe embodies a load of contradictions. When she took the stage for the new Amherst Kendrick Park summer concert series, she looked a touch pixie-ish with her blue hair, rainbow wristbands and Converse All Stars. But her solo set began with the kind of clanking, looping, nearly ominous rhythms more often found in the work of the decidedly un-pixie-ish Tom Waits. Between songs, she offered a flash of a smile and a quick “Thank you.” You’d think she was shy, at least until Zöe (aka Saera Kochanski) unleashed her confident, wide-ranging vocals while moving with the rhythmic loops she’d created.
The net result of all that contradiction is music that’s not easily tuned out. Lend an ear, and you’ll probably be in for the long listen. Zöe’s songwriting is rich with melodies that move well, weaving their way in interesting turns, ornamented with harmonies and layered parts. Those melodies are delivered with a warm, confident voice—by turns childish and sultry—that complements her wonderfully weird instrumental concoctions. Put with it an image-drenched, playful and unusually smart sense of lyric writing, and the combo becomes irresistible.
When she played Kendrick Park, the audience included a large number of kids, and her music seems like kids’ music in some respects, if perhaps kids’ music for grown-ups. She offers images of things like animals and sunbeams, but a careful listen reveals that she sometimes undercuts that imagery with talk of fear and misunderstanding. Zöe says it was “refreshing” to play to an audience of kids, and she says her own childhood memories are a song source. “I remember pieces of being a tiny kid and, even before I fully understood a lot of things, I felt affected by music very strongly,” Zöe says. “It’s a very primal, pure language that people can begin to understand fluently at even the youngest of ages, before their world gets tarnished with things like routine, prejudice, reason. I try as much as I can to tap into those early, original experiences when I put songs together.”
It’s easy to hear that influence. Hers is a technicolor world streaked with dreamy foreboding. In “Barefoot Girl,” she sings, “Hair of golden wheat and prairie blue eyes/ soaking up all the color from the washed-out sky.” In “Idealism,” she ends up singing at full tilt, in a raucous wall of noise, “’Cause all I can think about are sunbeams and turpentine/ ’Cause all I can think about are dogs in heaven and it’s fine.”
Early on, Zöe discovered her affinity for the strain of music writing that’s miles from the standard vacuous pop. “I got into Beck and Tom Waits when I was younger, and eagerly tore through their lyrical discography like an acid. Their juxtapositions and little hints at stories and characters without further explanation both enormously inspired me when I first began to make music. When it comes to writing songs, and, honestly, viewing the world, imagery is the most important aspect to me,” says Zöe. “I practically lived in a world filled with dragons and coyotes and fantastical landscapes as a small child, and I like to try to capture that as tangibly as I can in lyric.”
Part of what conjures up Zöe’s unusual and welcoming aesthetic is her visually interesting manner of building songs on stage. For one song at Kendrick Park, she picked up a pair of tin cans, rubbing and hitting them together into the mic. After establishing a pattern with them, she put them down. Thanks to a looping pedal, the tin can clanks continued. She played with an open case beside her, and pulled things from it repeatedly, things like a thumb piano, a triangle, and all manner of small sound-making items. She used them to add to the initial loop, eventually building complex cells of rhythm. Sometimes she added her voice to the mix, creating multi-part harmony or layered vocals.
Though it’s becoming more common to see solo performers employing loops, it’s a demanding practice that looks far easier than it really is. “It does still throw me sometimes,” Zöe says. “There’s been many a time where I loop some percussion for a song and reach the pedal on the looper a millisecond too late, and for the rest of the song there’s a little hiccup of empty space every four bars. And so that’s how it is for the next three minutes.
“I’ve been working with a looper for a bit, and it’s only been recently, after a few years of wrestling the beast, that I’ve been able to grab somewhat of a handle on it,” she says. “Timing loops and setting the tempo sort of becomes a sixth sense after a while, and it certainly helps to be playing them all the time, in just about every set!”
Zöe doesn’t limit her artistic endeavors to the musical. For her recently released album All of These Oddities, she created what she calls a “graphic libretto,” a term she says was coined by Ann Hackler from the Institute for Musical Arts (which Zöe attended). It’s a visual voyage that is in part traditional libretto, but which also contains standalone pieces of writing and art. “I didn’t want this companion book thing to be completely a lyric booklet, or full of illustrations that go song by song,” says Zöe. “So with this term in mind, I threw in some of the things I wrote while I was in the process of writing these songs, earlier versions of them, dreams I had during the process, and some characters that came to mind with the lyrics. It’s not really supposed to explain all of the songs per se, but give you some other angles at which to look at them.”
Zöe’s embrace of contradiction and complication has deep roots. “There is video footage of me as a baby with not only Beethoven, but Nirvana and Arrested Development playing in the background,” she says.
Though she’s just beginning her musical career, Zöe is doing so in a Valley that, she says, is welcoming. “The percentage of artists per square inch in Northampton, Amherst, Greenfield Easthampton and the surrounding areas can feel a little overwhelming sometimes when it comes to booking or promoting your own show above the raucousness of everyone else doing the same thing, but there’s never any malice in anyone’s voice.”•
You can see Wishbone Zöe at Transperformance on Aug. 26 at Northampton’s Look Park, and Aug. 29 with Dave Champagne at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton. For more info, check out wishboneZöe.com.