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Zoe Muth - Living the dream

Zoe Muth is reflecting on her first year as a professional country singer. The highs include arriving in towns and cities where she didn’t expect to be known at all and finding large, appreciative audiences. And the lows? Well, driving all the way from her home in Seattle, Washington to play to five people in Lexington, Kentucky would be one.

The quietly spoken Muth shouldn’t need to worry about poor turn-outs the way things have been going lately. Since she released her second album, Starlight Hotel, on the Signature Sounds label, the follow-up to her self-released Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, critical praise and a growing army of admirers have been attaching themselves to her like burrs to gingham. Besides, even as she sang to an audience no bigger than her band, she felt lucky to be living her dream.

“I’ve always sung,” she says down the line from Seattle as she prepares to tour outside the US for the first – a European trip that brings her to Celtic Connections this month. “Even when we were very small, my sister and I would make up songs and sing them, just to ourselves. We never really gave any thought to singing as a job. It was just something we did for fun and even when I started going out to sing in clubs, I didn’t ever think I was going to be good enough to do it professionally.”

There were no musicians in the family before Muth’s parents bought her a guitar while she was in high school. Her dad, a postman, was a music nut, though, and had a huge record collection, built mostly around rock music and singer songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, John Prine, John Hiatt and Robert Earl Keen. Zoe’s early tastes ran more towards Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, the Bangles and Debbie Gibson but in high school she gravitated to the “classics”: Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and the Beatles and then got into folk music.

“The Alan Lomax field recordings had just been reissued and I bought as many of those as I could,” she says. “I’d been writing songs about how nobody understood me before that. But through those old recordings I got into Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and started reading Appalachian folk tales and that took me into the Carter Family, old time country and bluegrass.”

Heading off to college with thoughts of being a social worker or a teacher, she spent a lot of time in the record section of the library where she heard Rev Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt and probably studied the Harry Smith Anthology of Folk Music as much as her assigned work. She remembers driving her college friends crazy at parties by playing recordings of shape note hymns rather than the dance music they were expecting but she didn’t dare sing them the songs she’d been writing. She didn’t dare sing to anyone until she was out in the big wide world, teaching pre-school children and devoting much more time to trade union activism than thoughts of a music career.

That began to change in late 2007 when Muth forced herself to go along to an open mic session in one of Seattle’s coolest bars, the Blue Moon, and sing some of her songs. Much to her surprise, the people there seemed to like what she was doing and really seemed to listen to her song lyrics.
“I don’t really do autobiographical stuff,” she says. “I tend to take other people’s experiences and turn them into my own, which I think is what the people who listen to country songs do anyway.”

Hanging out at bluegrass jams around Seattle, she began to meet the musicians who would form her band, the Lost High Rollers. Her pedal steel guitarist, Dave Harmonson had his own gig at a country bar called the Little Red Hen and when a friend of Muth’s pushed her up to sing during his set, his initial suspicion was allayed when Muth told him she liked Kitty Wells and the Louvin Brothers. When she went on to sing a stunning, genuinely heartfelt Crazy Arms, she quickly gained a champion.

“All the guys in the band have now given up day jobs or regular gigs to come on the road with me, which is pretty flattering,” she says. “It’s great that they believe in me so much that they’ve been prepared, in the early days, to come out and play for $5 a head just to get the band up and running. When we recorded the first album, we just did it with a friend who was working as an intern in a recording studio and didn’t charge very much, and put it out ourselves. But the second one, which came out last April, came about after the singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell and her band heard us opening for them and they told their record company to sign us.”

After hearing Muth’s real old style country songs and singing – she’s been likened to Loretta Lynn as well as Kitty Wells – Jewell also put Muth in touch with her booking agent, who immediately got to work on filling her diary. So after nine years, Muth gave up her teaching job and started getting around the States.

On the day we spoke she was heading into the studio again to record a mini CD of some of the cover versions she and her band have been including in their live set. Songs from Janis Joplin, Charlie Feathers, Doc Boggs and Kate & Anna McGarrigle – all given a new, Muth and the Lost High Rollers treatment – are likely to feature alongside the original songs that Muth writes, rewrites, polishes, rewrites and polishes again painstakingly.

“I like to give people something familiar as well as singing my own songs that they might not know because a whole set of new music can be a lot to take,” she says. “We always include a surprise, new cover version in the venues we’ve played before. It’s fun and it keeps everybody on their toes.”

From The Herald, January 5, 2012.

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