Just folk Just folk Just folk
Singer/songwriter Natalia Zukerman is tired of being introduced as the daughter of Pinchas and Eugenia Zukerman. “I do what I do,” she said, “and it’s totally different from what they do.” Still, there are certain benefits to being raised by an internationally acclaimed violinist father and a renowned flutist mother. “I’ve been around the best music on the planet since I was a baby,” she said. Zukerman appears at the Santa Fe Brewing Company on Wednesday, May 26.
Although she grew up in New York City, she and her sister, Arianna, an opera singer, often tagged along with their parents on concert tours. “I could pack a bag before I could walk,” she said. In fact, Zukerman is so familiar with the backstage areas of the world’s great concert halls that when she recently attended a performance at Lincoln Center, she automatically walked to the stage entrance without thinking.
“My mother was a huge influence,” Zukerman said. “She taught me to seize life.” Eugenia Zukerman, divorced from Pinchas in 1985, tours as a chamber soloist, is a published author, and works as an arts correspondent for Sunday Morning on CBS. In her spare time, she runs the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, where, this year, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra are in residence.
Zukerman the daughter majored in art at Oberlin College and ran a mural company in the Bay Area before moving back to New York. She said that people were always telling her to “choose one form and concentrate” — but, with her mother as an example, she simply wants to create a life. “Get up earlier and sleep less,” Zukerman said. “It’s possible to do all the things you love.”
In addition to performing, Pinchas Zukerman is a highly regarded conductor and teacher. “Dad inspires me with his spirit and drive,” she said. “He’s got a gift. Where does genius come from? The story is that, as a child, he tuned his own violin at his first lesson. I think it’s an otherworldly, spiritual thing. He feels like he is here to play the classical rep. He has a higher purpose. It’s great to have a role model like that. Sometimes when I’m freaked out about my own career, I remember it’s not about me anyway. What a gift it is to be creating music.”
Natalia started out studying the violin as a child but hated it. “I was hearing all this great music, but I couldn’t reproduce it. It’s such a hard instrument. I sounded like I was killing a farm animal.” But there was no giving up. “My mother gave me a stack of music and said I had to learn all of it and play it for her. Then, I could decide to quit or not.” At 14, Zukerman switched to the guitar.
Her studies began with technique — she learned to play classical guitar. Meanwhile she was listening to folk music and blues. She got an acoustic guitar and experimented with “open tuning like Joni Mitchell.” Ani DiFranco used a percussive playing style that Zukerman admired. She experimented with slide guitar after listening to old country blues by Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Muddy Waters. And then she got a record by Bonnie Raitt. “What is that sound?” Zukerman recalled thinking. “I love that!”
Folk music seemed to fit her personality, Zukerman said. “I always felt out of place in the classical music world. It’s beautiful, but there is a pomp and circumstance to it that is so weird. It’s so polite. I admire the craft and athleticism of classical music, and I appreciate my education, but the music just didn’t speak to me in the same way.”
Zukerman didn’t begin the life of a touring performer until years after college. She had left her mural business in California and found herself at a music conference in Nashville. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “I hooked up with two other singer/songwriters, and we traveled around playing in crappy bars. It was a lot of Motel 6s and bourbon. It was a grassroots thing.”
Eight years into her career, with her fifth recording coming out, Zukerman says that although this life has its ups and downs, she “couldn’t ask for a better job.” The music keeps developing, and touring with veterans like Willy Porter and Louise Taylor (who is scheduled to appear with Zukerman in Santa Fe) is inspiring. “I can’t believe I’m on tour with Taylor,” she said. “She’s out of control. She holds down a rhythm like no one else. I’ve been picking stuff up. One of these days, she’s going to say, ‘Wow, you’re really ripping me off.’”
Zukerman’s songs may have started out in the highly personal, self-obsessed style of some folk singers, but, as she put it, “I’m not 25 anymore. I just don’t have that much angst. I’m trying to widen the lens and not just sing page six of my journal.” In one of her recent songs, Zukerman examines the life of Shirley Collins, who was romantically linked with Alan Lomax, the American folklorist and ethnomusicologist who filmed, recorded, and documented traditional music culture in the U.S., Europe, and the Caribbean. Collins was a pivotal figure in the English folk-song revival of the ’60s and ’70s. According to Zukerman, she played Appalachian finger-picking banjo music and was a great musician in her own right. “It’s a love story,” Zukerman said, describing her song. “I’m trying to imagine the woman behind a man, which isn’t natural for me to do. How to have a life with another musician. I’ve been coupled with musicians in the past, and it’s hard. The song is about the possibility of sharing life and art together.”