Dreaming of a new studio

If you’ve been following me for a while you know my “studio” isn’t really a studio. It’s a spare bedroom in the house. This room is somewhat less than ideal at about 11ft by 10ft, with a 7ft ceiling and a beam at 6’6” that I keep whacking things on (like the scroll of my cello). Low frequency buildup anyone?

Our house is an upside-down house, perched on stilts on the slope of a hill, with the kitchen, bathroom and living room upstairs and the bedrooms downstairs. Built 100 years ago as a summer cabin, the house was uninsulated with all the rooms covered in thick redwood paneling: floors, ceiling and walls. Until last year, when we insulated the downstairs walls and finished them in sheetrock, my studio would be cold and damp. I had an electric panel heater on 24/7, not to make it warm but to keep the humidity below 100%. WIthout the heat, paper would curl and my cello bridge would warp.

It’s my own space and it’s in MY house, which I still find amazing, but it has been more than a little challenging to record music in. It got even harder when my son was born and now that his play area is over my head.

Meanwhile, I’ve been saving up to build a freestanding studio. I knew I’d get there, just like I saved to buy my lovely new cello in 2007. Every new commercial licensing project gets me several steps closer. The downstairs insulation job was paid for thanks to a Jeep ad, a pair of IBM spots paid for the new roof and my new studio will be constructed thanks to Chrysler SRT.

I don’t solicit these things, they seem to fall out of the sky, and I don’t know if ad agency music supervisors have any idea what a difference they make in my life. Thank you! Thank you for making the house warm and for making the construction of a recording studio a reality rather than a pipe dream.

I’ve found someone to build it and now I’m reading everything I can about acoustics and gathering input from people who know about these things. So if you know anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area who might have good advice on how best to construct a room to record cello in, will you send them my way? Thank you!!

celloly, Zoe


The world's smallest violin: scientist uses proteins to create a new musical instrument

I love hearing about how people listen to my music.

I really, really, really love to hear when someone listens while working on their own project…books, papers, screenplays, cartoons, paintings, games, science projects. So many things. Art making more art. It makes me feel like this is all worthwhile.

So Josiah Zaynor just made my day today. He says my music was the inspiration for how his Chromochord works. What’s a Chromochord? A musical instrument that plays the sound of plant proteins of course!


The sharps and flats of the music business


Pictures of the new hair, by Jeff Rusch

For years I hated my premature gray hair but now I love it. Thanks Di Pietro Todd in San Francisco.


Where do YOU want to see me perform in October?

Hello Listeners,

I have a private gig in Cincinnati in late October. Rather than fly straight home, I would like to play a few concerts. So…where should I go? Since you’re the ones I want to play for, I’m going to ask you!

Here is a list of cities in the region that I’ve either never or rarely visited. Some of them are North-ish and some of them are South-ish. If you would really come to see me perform in any of these cities, vote and then we’ll crowdsource a week long October tour.

This is still a work-in-progress so thank you for doing this experiment with me. I hope to play near you sooner rather than later.

Celloly yours,


P.S. If you have a reasonable suggestion for a city not on this list, please enter it. By reasonable, I mean a place no more than 500 miles from Cincinnati ;-) We’ll do something like this again for the rest of North America.


P.P.S. If you haven’t already, you might want to make sure you’re on my mailing list so that you’ll know when I have a concert in your ‘hood.


Thoughts on being a lady

I contributed some advice to this article put together by Ariel Hyatt: “52 Female Music Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Advice (part 1)

I meant to just post the link but, as usual, there are always more things to say.

I think I was 8 when I first realized that girls are often treated differently than boys. We had just moved to England and at my new school I wasn’t allowed to play soccer, I had to wear a skirt and on Friday afternoons had to learn embroidery with the other girls. Minor stuff in comparison to what girls in the developing world have to endure but it was a bitter pill for a tomboy and I raged against it.

I’ve experienced my share of harassment: flashed by disgusting old men and groped on crowded buses. I always found the most effective way to protect myself was to laugh loudly at them and walk away. Now I’m older and no longer as interesting to lecherous old geezers but I find I still have to come up with creative solutions to overcome the entrenched attitudes and biases of sexism in my professional life.

In college we had classes on self-defence and how to carry ourselves in the streets of New York, but nothing prepared me for the daily negotiation of being a woman in a man’s world. Do you protest and illuminate every slight? Do you let things go? What’s the best way to both change the status quo and enable your own personal success?

Another anecdote: I spent my 18th summer, between freshman and sophomore year, working at the car parts factory in my hometown. On my first day the hiring manager was extremely surprised to discover I was female. I’d come recommended by a friend who worked there but the manager had misread my name on the application as “Joe”.

I got the distinct impression the first week that they were trying to make me quit but I was damned if I was going to show any weakness. They put me in charge of 2 massive lathe machines. I had to hoist a heavy, rough-cut Ford Mustang steel wheel spindle into the lathe, lock it in place, heave the door shut and press the start button. There was no time to rest because in the minute it took for the lathe to grind down the spindle, I had to get another one into the identical machine on the other side of me. I did this for 8 hours a day, from 3pm until 11pm. As a non-union worker I couldn’t refuse overtime and often would have to work until 1 or 2 am if there was an extra pallet of spindles to work through, which there usually was.

There were 7 women in the entire factory of several hundred and as far as I could tell, I was the only one with a physically demanding job. The rest stood at a conveyor, wearing lead aprons and looking for cracks in the steel parts on xray machines, which in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t have to do. Men would come by my work station and stand there staring at and making comments about my derriere as I bent over to pick up spindles off the pallet. After a few days on the job the foreman came over and presented me with a baggy worksuit to put on because they claimed my jeans were too distracting to the other workers. In the break room I learned there was a betting pool on how long I would last.

I didn’t mind the job though. I preferred it to waitressing, the pay was good and I somewhat enjoyed the mindless physical repetition, knowing that it would be only three months before I could return to my collegiate paradise outside NYC. I took great pride in finishing my work, in pretending not to notice when the men whistled and in being the nicest, coolest college student anyone had ever met. Eventually people started treating me normally, or at least normal for a factory environment….they treated me like one of the guys.

Going forward, this became my modus operandi for being female in the tech and music industries: to be one of the guys. To do this and be considered equal, I have to work twice as hard, I have to be thorough, I have to carefully craft my position on issues to be unassailable, I have to be cool enough to drink beer with. In short, I have to be perfect.

I had a conversation once with a major label radio marketing guy once that really stuck with me. He was frustrated that he couldn’t get a particular female artist on the radio because, he said, there was already another female artist with a new album out. He claimed radio stations didn’t want to have more than 2 female singers in a 20 minute period because young men might change the channel. He then went on to say that this artist needed to get a radio hit before her 30th birthday, or it would be nigh impossible to break her. Was he making that up? Is all that…crap…really true? I don’t know, but the fact that he even thought so was shocking to me.

I didn’t want to be any part of an industry that forces women to use sex to sell their music, pits them against each other and then throws them away after their 30th birthday. But even when you’re DIY these attitudes can seem unavoidable. Over the last few years, during the time I’ve been considered “successful” I’ve had a publicist, a booking agent and a management firm all, separately, decline to work with me because they claimed they already worked with a solo female cellist or violinist and couldn’t possibly have more than one.

Also I have to say, the recent insistence that musicians focus on making a living touring rather than selling music has, to me, a tiny whiff of sexism. I can’t speak to what touring is like for young men, but whether I leave the family at home or bring them with me, touring as a mother is very, very hard. I choose to focus on making and selling music, thank you very much. Choice.

I’ve used little strategies to get around the tiny biases. For example, I can get more favorable licensing terms by having a client negotiate via email with my pseudonymous male manager “Marc”. Or, on the occasion I’ve been made to sound like a viola onstage, I smile and subtly demonstrate that I understand acoustics by cheerfully mentioning to the soundman how quirky the cello is, that its lowest note is 65hz and that the notch for my resonant frequency should be very narrow because rolling off everything below 160hz will make a cello sound like a viola. Or, prevented by drinking laws from bringing my still-nursing 6 month old into my dressing room (where I needed to nurse him to sleep before going onstage), I just snuck him into the venue under my coat.

But in the end, I don’t tend to dwell on sexism in the music industry. Yes, it exists. It sucks. But things don’t change overnight and I think we’re getting there. Attitudes about what women can and can’t do improve because women are here, doing their thing alongside the men. Lately my husband has experienced the flip-side of sexism as a stay-at-home-dad and has nutty stories to match mine. I’ll wager that as more men experience this, things will change even faster ;-) So yeah, occasionally I will rage and fume against a perceived injustice but in the end I just smile, carry on and find another way around. We’ll get there.


Every piece of music starts with some strong feeling that I get swept up in (I’m sure it’s the same for most artists). To put this feeling into music I have to lock myself in the studio, immerse myself in that feeling and go explore the bleeding edges of it. It’s messy: I cry, laugh, dance, go a little crazy. When I appear every now and then to go to the bathroom or make tea (I tend not to eat when I’m in this state) I probably look a little wild eyed and disturbed. This state is precious and fleeting, so I try to avoid email or talking to anyone so as not to break my bubble and lose it.

Before our son was born it was relatively easy. I could turn off email without my world falling apart too much and my husband would leave me alone, knowing that I’d be fun again in a couple days. But nowadays emails increasingly demand to be answered and how can I ignore my son when he sees me, yells “Mama!” and runs into my arms?! So I have to do my best to efficiently work through whatever I’m experiencing in order to be normal again in time for the family dinner.

Anyway, on Wednesday I had the feeling and I acted on it. This one is vaguely about standing on the top of a mountain and being irresistibly drawn towards the edge. What if I leap? Will I fly? Will I fall? Will someone catch me?

It’s not done, but I want to share it anyway. I don’t normally like to play music for people before it’s finished because to me those tiny endless details that take weeks to polish are what take a piece of music from ordinary to special. That said, there is always something compelling about my rough first pass, when I’m just feeling it and not worrying about technique or sound mix or how it will be perceived. I think that’s one of the reasons why I love performing so much, because I get to feel each piece of music anew every night. So before I flesh this one out, polish it, turn it into something album-worthy and give it a proper title, here is the last 48 hrs in musical form.

I still do puffy heart the cello. (Photo of a young me, on Dartmoor with my cousin Anna).

I still do puffy heart the cello. (Photo of a young me, on Dartmoor with my cousin Anna).

Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which
to shape it.
- Bertolt Brecht

How time flies

10 years ago yesterday, Steve Jobs launched the iTunes store with 200,000 songs at 99 cents each.

Back then, I didn’t have a solo project yet. I was playing in a cello-rock band called Rasputina and working as an information architect at the Research Libraries Group. I had an iPod though. I listened to it on tour, lying in the back seat of the van as we hurtled across America.

iTunes opened it’s doors to unaffiliated artists in 2004 and as soon as I had a recording of my own layered cello thing ready in 2005, I put it up there through CDBaby. It was not an auspicious beginning. My music didn’t actually appear in the iTunes store until several months later in early 2006. Multiple emails went nowhere, but a trip to the CDBaby headquarters in Portland eventually revealed that my iTunes submission was getting rejected every day: spit out of a daily upload process because of an illegal character…..the dotted “e” in my first name.

It’s hard to remember what an amazing thing iTunes was at the time. My music…. recorded in my house, on my laptop with a single microphone….could appear in the same store alongside albums from major label artists.

Later that year I got some press coverage, sales spiked, iTunes made me a banner and my album went to #1 on Classical (a few times). That year, my husband and I bought a house. I’ve been paying my mortgage with that monthly iTunes check ever since.

iTunes has been more than just money though, it’s helped expand my horizons. In 2008 I was invited to perform my music with the Ballet de la Generalitat in Valencia, Spain. How did they find me? The choreographer had searched for “cello” in iTunes, fell in love with my music and created a ballet called “Llebeig”. I’ve met so many interesting people this way.

I’ve been incredibly lucky and honestly never expected this to last so long. I still believe it will all end tomorrow and now a lot of people think the same. That monthly check from iTunes will eventually dry up, either because everyone has moved to streaming or because my run is over ;-) But it’s ok, I’ll roll with it. The people who love music will always be out there, I’ll just have to reach them differently. And when my run really is over, I’ll get a real job.

Happy Birthday iTunes and thank YOU listeners for buying all those downloads.


I know, you’re thinking….why is Zoë posting a recording of the Star Spangled Banner???

Let me explain. It’s a long story. Sorry.

Two years ago I got a call from Chris Wiltsee of Bandpage. He was on the board of the SF Chapter of the Recording Academy (you know, the GRAMMY folks) and said, “Hey, there’s an opening on the board in the next election. You should apply!”. I never paid much attention to the GRAMMYs honestly except for the years that Imogen Heap was nominated (I was on tour with her in Europe when she got the news in 2007, and onstage with her again when she got the news for 2010), but my post-production friend Count was already on the board. So was Minna Choi from the Magik Magik Orchestra and some other music folks I vaguely knew. I live far from the city in the forest and often my only interaction with other artists is through the interwebs. I said yes.

Since then, separately from the Academy, I’ve unwittingly become involved in larger ongoing discussions on topics like statutory royalties, streaming payouts, DIY careers, etc. I don’t think my position on issues, when I have one (usually I’m just figuring things out for myself), lines up with that of any organization, as far as I can tell. It’s hard to say what I am: an advocate for the little guy? a gadfly? a naif? It is certainly true that it is easy for me to be a ‘renegade’ when I’m not dependent on anyone (other than my fans) and very few people are dependent on me. But I like it that way.

Anyway, I am curious about how sausages are made, and of course I have opinions, so when the opportunity came up to go to Congress for the Academy’s annual Grammys on the Hill event, I signed up. Yeah, I want to meet my elected representatives! I planned to blend in with the rest of the SF Chapter and get a glimpse of what lobbying looks like. I don’t blend in very well apparently, because shortly after I signed up to go, Daryl Friedman, the Academy’s advocacy chief in DC, asked me if I would play the national anthem at the awards ceremony the day before.

I think I’ve talked about this before, but fancy galas and I are not a good fit. Put me in a meeting room or a beanbag lounge where we can talk big ideas, but to stand awkwardly in a party with a cocktail in my hand making polite smalltalk? Let’s just say that I’ve been known to hide in the bathroom. Luckily, I have this thing I do with the cello and I totally use it as a crutch. Playing the cello at an event is like getting magic fairy dust sprinkled on my head. Suddenly, I have confidence! I can go and talk to anyone! I said yes.

But now I had to learn the national anthem. I have a difficult relationship with patriotic songs. Maybe it started when my family moved to America when I was 10 and I didn’t want to go, but in high school I stubbornly refused to sing the anthem and opted out of the Pledge of Allegiance. So first, I tried playing it straight, in a variety of key signatures. This was unsatisfying. The music just didn’t mean anything to me and I couldn’t muster up the necessary amount of cheese and bombast to pull it off. It’s that kind of piece: major key, essentially a hymn. Maybe I wasn’t patriotic enough to play this thing? Then there are the words. Boy, did I pore over those words. How to match the music with the meaning of the words? Eventually I tired of playing the melody (everyone in the house was tired of it too) and I started improvising. But when I focused on rendering those words into notes, I ended up with horror movie music. I decided to give it a rest for a week and work on my own damn music, which arguably is what I should be doing anyway.

Over the weekend I thought maybe I should educate myself in how other people had rendered this vexing song. I fired up Youtube and watched Jimmy Hendrix, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Nirvana (theirs was my favorite actually…a staggering Kurt Cobain plays the anthem while the rest of the band trashes all their gear). Watching the endless variations I came to the realization that the most patriotic way to play the Star Spangled Banner is to make up your own damn version. Only in America can you remake the national anthem to fit YOU. That was the permission I needed. I spent a day (the horrible day after the horrible Boston Marathon) working out a looped and layered version of the Star Spangled Banner.

The result is rough around the edges, has moments of hopeful exuberance, doubt and a little bit cheese in the middle. Just like me. Just like America.

We have our issues, but this is a great place to be.

(p.s. this is essentially a live recording and isn’t mastered or anything proper like that, so listen at your own risk.)

Next post, my day in Congress…..


An experiment in crowdfunding a concert

Dear Londoners,

I am coming to Europe this summer to visit my old school in Italy (I spent my junior year abroad in Florence). While I’m all the way over there on that side of the pond I would like to play a concert or two.

Where should I play? I usually travel to a distant place because a venue or organization has invited me, often for a private event, and the fee is enough to cover my travel. This is wonderful and I love it…but I rarely manage to arrange other concerts in the area. Sometimes I feel like a ping pong ball, ricocheting around the world with no plan. Plus, there are a lot of places where I know I have listeners, that get left out.

Digging through my accumulated data (Nielsen Soundscan, zip codes from iTunes and Bandcamp, my mailing list, Facebook insights, Google analytics, etc) I’ve discovered that my listeners are spread all over the globe….but I’m not in direct contact with the vast majority of you. And because I operate outside the standard music industry, even when my research tells me there are many of you in a particular city, it’s not always easy to for me to convince concert promoters I will have an audience.

Songkick is trying to help artists solve these problems with their new service, Detour. You might have heard of Detour. They got some press recently when Andrew Bird and his fans used it to bring him to play in Latin America.

Songkick and I have discovered that I have more than a few listeners in London so we’ve decided to try a little experiment and use Detour to crowdfund a concert in London.

Here is how it works…..you pledge to buy a ticket to my hypothetical London show (and you set the price). Once enough people have signed up, Detour works with concert promoters to make the concert happen.

Shall we try it?

If you’d come to my London show, go to this URL

Click where is says "I have an invitation"

and enter this invitation code: 75TQMRY8

(You’ll need to sign up with Songkick Detour if you haven’t already. You can use your Facebook login or sign up for a new Detour account.)

How to tour intelligently is a problem I’ve been trying to solve for a long time. Maybe technology can help?


Musicians and nerds working together

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, join me at SF Music Tech on Feb 19 to discuss the path towards creating a public database for music credits, rights, and licensing.

The panel is with David King, formerly Head of Content ID and Licensing at YouTube, Rob Kaye from MusicBrainz, Kevin Lewandowski from Discogs and moderated by Brian Behlendorf, the primary developer of Apache and a champion of open-source software.

You don’t have to be there in person. The entire conference will be live streamed and I believe you can ask questions and contribute to the discussion. Tune in at SFMusictech.com.

Our panel “Towards a Credits, Rights and Terms of Licensing Database” is at 3:30pm PST and there cool things happening all day, like “How We Will Experience Music in the Future?” and “DIY Musical Devices Using Arduino and Other Prototyping Platforms”.


Without fanfare

I wasn’t paying attention to the internets over the weekend. While I was doing laundry and enjoying a low-key birthday, one of my favorite bands quietly released a new album. My Bloody Valentine put out their first recording in 22 bloody years….which of course makes me feel bloody old both because so much time has gone by and because I wasn’t the first to know ;-)

You can download it directly from them in 24bit 96K WAV files.


I love that they put it out without fanfare, just like Godspeed You! Black Emperor did in October and David Bowie did in January. When it’s ready, send an email. That’s what I’ve always done, against the advice of nearly everyone I know in the music industry. It feels real, natural, and uncontrived. If people like what you’ve made, they will tell others.

I suppose cynics will say that this is now an accepted marketing strategy and we’ll see more albums released this way. But I think you’ll always be able to tell when an artist has something real that they want to share with you.

Warren Ellis wrote about it on Vice, My Bloody Valentine, Bowie, and the URL of Things to Come

I’ll repost part of his article here, but you should follow the link to read the whole thing:

The future of the arts has been here for a while, but I suspect it required the return of an old hand at the occult mechanics of marketing like David Bowie to drive it home for a lot of people. Imagine if he’d presented the piece like a record of old, or like the way movies are marketed now. The long build-up, the teasers, the chatter. Some people miss that slow process of creating anticipation, and, yes, that was a thrill that is largely gone today. But also lost, with the end of that method, is a really poisonous strain of disappointment, a thing that gave a lethal bite to artists on, for example, their third album or their second book. What we have now, with all its inherent difficulties and issues, is, I would argue, a far more life-enhancing, generous, and magical thing.

What Bowie did—what artists all over the world do now—is create a gift. Turning on the net first thing in the morning can be a real grind. Everyone knows that feeling: time to open the door to the Shit Room to find out what went wrong while you were asleep.

People forget—or perhaps didn’t know until a couple of weeks ago—that the internet is also the greatest delivery system for new art ever created. And now we live in an age where we switch on and find we’ve been given a new favorite song for the day.

Talk about the music you love. Support and embrace the musicians you know or follow, big or (especially) small. Because in these early years of global network culture, they make the world a lovelier place to live in than it has ever in history been.


Where does the filthy lucre come from?

Many people wrote to me after the NYTimes article with advice. Most of you had some great ideas and I do thank you for taking the time to think about me and write. Several people advised me to consider touring as a revenue stream since "that is where artists make most of their money".

I do keep hearing that statement and reading it in the press. Is it really true?

The Future of Music coalition has been surveying artists revenue streams and came out with an article challenging the idea that artists make most of their income from touring.

“So, do musicians make all of their money from touring? According to our qualitative and quantitative data, income from live performance/touring is a significant revenue stream for musicians who perform, accounting for 28% of the aggregate gross income of survey respondents. But, it is rarely their only source of music-related income. Indeed, less than 13% of respondents rely exclusively on income from live performance and/or salaried work.”

As for me, I have to finish my taxes before my next tour so today I tallied all my revenue for 2012. In the interest of providing data on how “under the radar” artists make a living, I posted it below. You’ll notice that touring was 26.38% last year. Pretty close to the Future of Music Coalition survey average. While that is significant, I haven’t finished tallying the hefty expenses yet. Live performance is usually my revenue stream with the highest expense ratio: flights, hotel rooms, commissions, crew, advertising, etc…

  • 45.55% Music sales
  • 26.38% Live Performance
  • 23.90% Sync/Master Licensing
  • 2.69% ASCAP
  • 0.89% Soundexchange (i.e. Pandora)
  • 0.38% Spotify
  • 0.21% Google Adsense

Anyway, I know I put myself into this position by highlighting my own numbers but I feel like I’m harping on about the economics of music too much….especially given how little I am motivated by money and how swimingly everything has been going the last few years. Of course I care about making a living, but just so I can live and make MORE MUSIC. Please tell me if I sound like I’m whining (Again, I appreciate them and I have a thick skin, but those were the advice emails that stung), because I certainly don’t mean to. I’m trying to present an alternate path for artists …the kind you make for yourself through the forest with a machete.

I’m really, really looking forward to being on Jonathan Coulton’s cruise next week and I’d like to leave you with this hilarious animated video made by one of his fans. It’s quick but keep an eye out for my cello spaceship ;-)

I write music. I play the cello and the computer. There are dots over my e.

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