Author/Musician Zoe FitzGerald Carter Plumbs New Depths on Debut Solo LP, ‘Waterlines’

"As a writer, you look at your own experience and look at the past. You’re excavating your own psyche and your own memories and your emotions. And by doing that, you have this opportunity to see them anew and understand them in a fresh way."

You could say Zoe FitzGerald Carter’s background as an author, essayist, and journalist primed her for the literary and autobiographical approach she takes on her debut solo LP, Waterlines (out now). Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go, was written about her mother’s decision to “end things,” the final freedom from the tiresome trammels of Parkinson’s disease. The award-winning memoir was Zoe’s vehicle for understanding her mother’s decision, her way of processing the grief that came with it. 

The title of the album, insightfully, refers to writing itself. “It also evokes the way we look for clues from the past. Like tracing the watermarks after where a river has flooded or been depleted,” she explains. Waterlines’ lush lineup of Bay Area musicians include drummer Dawn Richardson (formerly of 4 Non Blondes and Tracy Chapman’s touring band), keyboardist Julie Wolf (Ani DiFranco), trumpet/flugelhorn player Erik “Mr. Tasty” Jekabson (John Mayer), bass player Paul Olguin (famed Bay Area sideman), and guitarist Michael Papenburg.

Zoe’s first album, Waiting for the Earthquake, was recorded with Sugartown, an Americana string band. On Waterlines Zoe breaks into new musical terrain — from jazz to the funky feminist send-up “I Wanna Be A Teenage Boy,” to the consummately countrified “One Too Many Days in Nashville.” Her sound is deeply rooted in folk and Americana, but for the last couple years she has been experimenting with Brazilian and jazz styles. She cut her teeth in Washington DC, where she began playing guitar and singing as a teenager and where her father was a well-known jazz drummer.These Words,” premiered here, reflects the jazz influence — her soulfully supple vocals separated by floating, Chet Baker-esque flugelhorn interludes. 

Zoe also recently penned an essay for ABS on how songwriting and conjuring a post-pandemic world where we can “help play and sing the world back to life” has helped maintain her sanity over the past year. She resides in Berkeley, California where she teaches both songwriting and memoir classes, and has taken up playing the drums as one of many ways in which she seeks to elevate her songwriting.

Lauren for American Blues Scene:

I want to thank you for writing that essay. It was wonderful. In it you mentioned the time it takes to write just the rough draft of a song. So I was curious as to what your rubric for pruning and editing is.

I think both as a writer of prose and as a songwriter, I tend to be someone who likes to take things out. I’m not overly descriptive or florid in any of the writing I do. I think I’m always taking words out. I’m cutting the fat, always trying to say in fewer words what I might’ve said in the rough draft in more words. I think that that’s one thing that I’m always trying to do. And then, you know, sometimes a line just won’t quite sit right with me. I feel like it doesn’t do what it needs to do or there is a word that feels off.

And sometimes things are really stubborn, and you have to keep coming back around to them and try to figure out why they aren’t doing what you want them to do. Oftentimes when you then go to sing a line you’ve been working on just with pen and paper, you realize that it doesn’t sound good at all. It’s funny because I wrote that song “Owl in Kensington” and my sister said, “Yeah, I don’t think owls sing.” But an “Owl Hoots in Kensington” is not happening. So I just said, you know, poetic license.

So I think a lot of it is trying to get that sweet spot where you’re conveying a lot with a little and you’re sort of etching things in. I think of songwriting more like etching than painting. There are people who can convey a whole scene with just a few lines; they’ll capture a person or a landscape and it’s so simple, but they evoke so much. To me that’s good songwriting. I mean, that’s the image I have in my mind.

That’s one of the first thing I noticed about your essay was you were saying so much without too many words. 

I was always doing songwriting in some small corner of my life all those years when I was doing journalism, and now it’s kind of taken center stage. I do think all the working on writing and thinking about writing and teaching writing — and developing a kind of style of writing and an aesthetic around it really helped me when it came to songwriting. But honestly, I feel like I’m still learning it, too. It feels like a new craft to me. And that’s probably why it’s so much fun because it feels new. It’s exciting. 

You’ve had more time to craft songs during the pandemic. Has the inspiration changed at all? Have things like your journal or weird dreams played any role in your writing or has the muse sort of remained the same, but with more time?

I feel like the inspiration was coming from a lot of different directions. I did write one song called “Breathe Again,” which I specifically refer to in that piece, imagining being in the future post-pandemic and all the things we could be doing again. Getting together with friends was certainly top of that list, and getting on an airplane. You know, I live with somebody and my daughter’s nearby. But I still feel like it’s just been a lot of isolation.

I just felt like if I got interested in something and wanted to write about it, I could really go deep into it. I feel so excited about these songs that I’ve written during this time. They are yet to be released on the world. I have time, and that is such a gift as an artist or a writer to just have this kind of openness of time. This an example: I wrote this song about the three wives of Adam. I spent the time sort of pulling all this stuff into this wild, crazy song. And I don’t think I would do that ordinarily. I wouldn’t have time to research and flesh it out and develop a whole world.

And as far as the songs on Waterlines, are there any that were an uphill climb that you were concerned about finally coming to fruition? 

One of the songs that I’m proud of is the song “Like a Drum.” It came from a quote that I stumbled on from Flaubert: ‘human language is like a cracked kettledrum on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when what we long for is to make music that will move the stars to pity.’ I decided to kind of turn it around because I was like, well, here’s this French novelist saying the dancing bears is like the lowest form. And what he really wants is to move the stars to pity.

And I was kind of like, what about the bears? What does this mean from their point of view? I went down this road where I imagined this whole circus world. All the imagery just came pouring in. And it really became a song about kind of breaking out of these bonds of oppression and exploitation and finding freedom. So I was imagining the bears breaking out, getting away from their tutus and their tricycles or whatever they had to do and kind of running through. It’s so unlike any of the other songs I’ve written that tend to be roughly autobiographical or based on experience.

I was learning jazz chords for a show that we were doing. And I was really getting excited about bringing in that coloration into my songwriting. I’m very driven to not repeat myself to not write in the usual formulaic chord progressions, especially Americana or folk chord progressions. I’m trying to break out of those as much as possible. Sometimes they’re just perfect for a song and you have to find your interests maybe in the melody, rhythm or something else. And the chords themselves can be pretty straightforward, but I have tried to push past the obvious progressions with chords. So I’m really proud of the two jazz songs on the album.

Me too! I love “These Words” — the flugelhorn and your vocals. They just work together so well. And your father was a jazz drummer, yes?

He was; he played in a Dixieland jazz band called The New Sunshine Jazz Band in Washington, DC, where I grew up and he was a drummer, but  he also played guitar. And I really learned, initially, the guitar from him. He gave me one of his old guitars, and I sort of became obsessed. I was one of those kids that just didn’t put their guitar down for a couple of years.

By experimenting with jazz on some of your new stuff, is it more uncharted territory or are you actually coming full circle?

I hadn’t really thought about that. I think it probably was in there in the mix. I was identifying with a different kind of music than my father. The kind of jazz that they played was the jazz standards from the ‘40s, ‘50s. And I love that stuff. My sister and I had his jazz fake books, and she played piano and we’d sing  piano and we’d sing “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Up A Lazy River” and all these old jazz songs. And I could do that all day; it’s so fun. It’s not like I’m a jazz singer, but I’m willing to go at it.

I think you are a jazz singer.

Well, thank you. Thank you. I think there really is a whole other level of the art of jazz singing. It’s fine to dip into it and sort of bring whatever you bring from your own tradition or style of singing.

I understand with Waterlines you took a more literary approach. And I also wanted to mention I love how you worded your description of the title, which “evokes the way we look for clues and remnants from the past.” Would you say that’s the concept of the album?

I think that’s the big idea and why I liked the title. I’m interested in what you can’t see; I’m interested in what is below the waterline, what’s below the surface. Because I think that’s kind of where all the good stuff is.

What’s making the ripples, what’s making the lines. 

Yeah, and all the things that I think inform us and drive us and inspire us — that we aren’t even necessarily aware of. I mean, they say you only use 10% of your brain. And so you think, what’s the other 90%?

The world of the unconscious and dreams and what’s unknowable — that all interests me too. There’s something about the mystery of ourselves and of the world we live in that I like as an idea. Even though I don’t think I was overtly referencing that. But as a writer, you look at your own experience and look at the past. You’re excavating your own psyche and your own memories and your emotions. And by doing that, you have this opportunity to see them anew and understand them in a fresh way.

And then when I wrote the memoir that I wrote about my mother, the decision to end her own life, I allowed myself to go back and sort of relive that experience and see it, look at it from different angles and understand it in a different way. Because I think part of me always felt like, was that okay? Did I do the right thing? Was I a good daughter? I mean, what do you do when your mother wants to end her life? 

By making yourself vulnerable, perhaps that served as some sort of closure. 

I think part of why we read books and why we listen to music and why we feel we’re so drawn to these art forms is that we feel less alone when we realize that other people have these interior worlds that are messy and complicated and strange. I was just telling my writing students, don’t sanitize yourself. What people respond to is all of the complexities of your thoughts and emotions. Don’t make it all smooth and nice and simple.

I totally agree with that. Well, I wish everyone thought that way, because sometimes I feel like I’m too complex for people. 

If I’m too complex for somebody I’m not interested.

Aside from the pandemic, how has this time of political upheaval affected your songwriting?

“I Wanna Be A Teenage Boy” was written during the Kavanaugh hearing. The kind of exhausting day in and day out outrage — the last four years has been just exhausting and draining of people’s creativity, of their attention, of their sense of positivity… I think we’re all just recovering from it. I think a lot of creative people that I knew were feeling incredibly stuck and unproductive. So it does feel like a lightening of the load.

How did you link up with the cast of musicians on the album?

I was really fortunate in that my first album I did with the band that I play the most with — and the one that is the closest to my heart and does my original music, which is Sugartown. I’ve also played in this band, The Deadliners, which is a band of journalists. I was also singing and playing with it with this Bob Dylan band called Rolling Thunder. So I was in the three bands before the pandemic, but Sugartown was my home base. And when we did the first album, it was really almost like a live album. We went into this studio in Oakland and a couple of the songs are almost as performed in real time live.

We kind of layered them in and stuff, but we had been playing all those songs. We had them arranged. We knew them really well. That’s kind of the way we went about recording that album. And it was great, but I also felt like there were things that I wish I had done differently or known more about. One of my bandmates, Brian Bloom, said, ‘You’ve got all these new songs. They’re great. You should find a producer and find someone who can really help you bring in different kinds of sounds, different kinds of musicians.’ I was sort of the de facto producer on that first one.

And so I was introduced to Jeffrey Wood at Fantasy through a mutual friend. I just went in with my guitar and sat on his couch at Fantasy. I played all the songs and he loved them, and we decided to work together and it was the greatest stroke of luck for me as a musician. He really pushed me. He really loved my voice. He loved my songs. He really respected me. I just felt very embraced by him. And he had all these great musicians that he’d worked with over the years around the Bay area. You know, Dawn Richardson is this fantastic drummer who has toured with Tracy Chapman. Julie Wolf, another homegrown star huge around the Bay. She played accordion and organ. 

(Jeffrey) didn’t change any of the songs, per se, but he was the one who he has so many ideas about. I worked a lot of them through in terms of arrangements, but in terms of the instrumentation, that really changed. We would be going back and forth between, you know, 72 and 73 beats per minute. I learned so much working with him and just had so much fun working with these musicians. We would give them the songs and give them the scratch recordings, but they came in with so many ideas of their own too. And that was such a exciting thing for me, you know, to just listen to this amazing trumpet and flugelhorn player (Erik Jekabson).

Seeing the thing you’ve created blossom and come to life in this way that you would not have imagined… So that’s a big difference really between the two albums was working with him. 

Could you tell me about teaching songwriting and memoir? How long have you been doing that?

I started teaching pretty soon after my memoir came out. This was about 10 years ago. I was part of the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, which is almost like a writer’s colony. It’s just an incredible group of a hundred plus writers in all different genres of writing — journalists and poets. They have basically a writing school and I was teaching there, and then I started teaching at different conferences. I’ve taught in Hawaii every spring for about five years at a writing retreat there. And then there’s a place in Berkeley called Left Margin LIT. I’ve also taught there. And then I started teaching songwriting and had my first eight-week course before the pandemic. I’ve taught a few other places. It was so fun and I’m dying to do it again. I just felt like it was impossible to do on Zoom.

I don’t blame you!

I think what I found is that having taught, as long as I had, there’s a lot of logistical teaching skills. And how I think people should give feedback and just kind of the respect with which I really asked people in the class to treat each other. We’re all so vulnerable. You’re bringing in this new material, and maybe it’s not polished yet. It’s  so important that people don’t say inadvertently crushing things to you. It’s really fun to teach memoir because people come in with all these crazy stories, and they’re wonderful. You learn so much about human nature. I’m also so moved by people who might have full-time jobs at Google or whatever, you know, San Francisco, there’s so many tech people coming into my class. But they want to do something they’re interested in and they want to write.

It’s not an easy way to fame or fortune, but there is that impulse to communicate and I think do the thing that we were talking about earlier, which is to look at your own experience and re-examine your past. It helps you to understand where you are in your current life. In both songwriting and memoir and personal essay writing, I really enjoy being around people who have that impulse to do those things.


Connect with Zoe FitzGerald Carter: OfficialAuthor

Buy Waterlines


*Feature image credit: Irene Young


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