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Natalia Zukerman: Eclectic Success

by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon May 7th, 2018

Natalia Zukerman

Natalia Zukerman is a multi-disciplined artist working in music as vocalist, composer, lyricist, guitar player, painter, muralist, cartoonist, and sketcher. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has worked restoring frescos and murals in Florence, San Francisco, and New York City. She has recorded seven CDs, her last being Come Thief, Come Fire. While there may be a plethora of women singers in the market, she stands out not only because of the unusual quality of her voice but her appeal that blends and bends pop music from blues to folk to rock and hip-hop. She is a talent with many blooms and she possesses a genial personality. I recently spoke with her at The Farmer’s Wife deli in Ancramdale, NY.  

KM: What are the highs and lows of being a solo artist?

NZ: Being a solo artist is ultimately self-centered in an artistic way. It’s a lonely approach—working without co-workers or staff. In a sense isolation is about time, about learning how to work with your interior, pushing boundaries in a meditative way.

KM: You play a fluid slide-guitar. Who are your favorite slide-guitar players?

NZ: Ry Cooder, absolutely. Bonnie Raitt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Michelle Malone.

KM: When did you start playing slide guitar?

NZ: I had studied in California under Ali Akbar Khan, India’s most renowned surbahar player at that time. He died nine years ago. Playing with him, I raised the nut of my guitar and tuned it in open A.

KM: Do any of your guitars have secret names?

NZ: Ha, ha! I call my 1937 Rickenbacker “Little Ricky” and my acoustic Guild guitar “Gilda.”

KM: When did you discover Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie?

NZ: I’m afraid to say in my thirties when I plunged into American Roots music.

KM: What contemporary, younger singers do you admire, besides your contemporary Ani DiFranco or an older generation performer like Bonnie Raitt?

NZ: My sister, Arianna , number one. She’s an amazing singer. Others would be Susan Werner, Edie Carey, Erin McKeown, Glen Phillips, Willie Porter, Chris Mathews.

KM: How did you become involved in painting murals?

NZ: I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after graduating from Oberlin College. In 1988 I volunteered as a docent to paint murals. San Francisco and Los Angeles was where the mural scene was peaking. In 1999 I worked on restoring a mural on Telegraph Avenue. I started out as a docent at Precita Eyes, the community mural arts center and then in 1988, I read in the paper that the original artists were restoring a 30 year old mural on Telegraph Avenue that had just gotten historical site status. So I rode my bike up to the mural site and met Osha Neumann and O’Brien Thiele who asked if I could copy a photograph. I had never worked from a photograph before, so I took the photo home and memorized it, worked on it all night and the next day, I came back and copied the image pretty exactly. It was an image of a Black Panthers rally- the mural is called The People’s History of Telegraph I guess I did a good job because I ended up being the only other person working on that mural. It took us about eight months to complete and during that time, O’Brien and Osha were often asked to do small projects in schools and children’s rooms, which they really didn’t have time or interest for. I told them I would be willing to do some of these projects that they turned down, so they gave them to me. I began painting murals in schools for children and I loved doing it.

KM: Later, you worked on a mural in Havana, Cuba, in 2001 with Cuban muralist Rodovaldo Rodriguez. How did this come about? How was your work received in Cuba?

NZ: Quite well. My boyfriend at the time had a cousin who had made a documentary on the muralist Salvador Gonzàlez Escalona. We were moving from the Bay Area back to New York, so we decided to go to Cuba before we did that. We went through Canada and stayed with Salvador’s family. I ended up painting a mural with Salvador’s assistant, Rodovaldo Rodriguez about the history of Cuba. It was an incredible experience. The mural depicted aspects of Cuban History as well as the ideas and dreams of some of the residents in this three-hundred person community. I also worked with the children of the community on helping to paint the large, yellow metro bus (a take-off on the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine.") It was an interesting period in my life. I’ve worked on other murals.

KM: You blend, or some say, mash styles together. Where do you think this postmodern sensibility comes from? Is it a sense of improvisation? The way our frenetic pace of life moves in unpredictable different directions?

NZ: Creativity is eclectic—it’s a well-spring of water. Perhaps my eclecticism might be a reaction to hearing my parents play classical music at home, but on the other hand, I’ve learned from them the discipline that classical music demands. So I see eclecticism as an integration of varied artistic disciplines.

KM: What are your earliest musical memories?

NZ: Well, my parents, of course, but also singing songs at my elementary school, the Bank Street School in Manhattan. We sang songs by Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan.

KM: You have done some satire like “Gas Station Roses.” Do you think Americans fear irony or satire?

NZ: I don’t know about that—that song has been one of my most well-received songs. And for me, well, I grew up on Woody Allen movies, so I’d say that satire is in my DNA.

KM: Do you follow music journalism?

NZ: I read reviews from time to time but I don’t know that I follow it. I did just read an article in The New York Times about Liz Phair that I thought was excellent. Her debut album Exile in Guyville , a reaction to the Rolling Stones, is being reissued. It had an amazing impact in the early 90’s and now, in the post #metoo world, it’s taken on even deeper meaning.

KM: If you were offered a television show on Austin City Limits who would you invite to play?

NZ: Whomever I’m playing with at the moment. I’ve been collaborating with an amazing Klezmer band called Isle of Klezbos so probably some incarnation of those players. And I also have a lot of friends in Austin to invite. I’d probably ask Raina Rose to sing with me, and Matt the Electrician to play whatever he wants cuz he plays everything…that’s a fun question to think about. Thanks!

KM: Have you ever thought of teaching guitar workshops in a college?

NZ: I actually do a lot of teaching and I love it so much. I have a few students that I teach on Skype every week, mostly songwriting, but there’s always some guitar involved as well. I’ve also had the privilege of teaching at some amazing schools and festivals like Interlochen in Michigan, the song school at Sisters Folk Festival and this summer I’ll be a guest teacher at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival in Colorado.

KM: What direction do you see yourself moving in?

NZ: I hope that I always grow as a writer and a visual artist. recordings, persist in being a writer, working on my show, The Women Who Rode Away at The Cell Theater in New York City during the month of May where I’m in residence for a month doing a show about historical figures like Georgia O'Keefe, Jane Avril, Edna S. Vincent Millay, and Amelia Earhart. That has been an amazing opportunity to stretch out as an artist and a performer I will be performing a new version of this project as a benefit for the Leaf Peepers concert series on June 2nd in Egremont, MA. Everyone involved in that series is so special and as a fan and concert-goer myself, I’ve seen how much it enriches this area of the Hudson Valley. It’s a real honor to get to perform as a benefit for them.

KM: I’ll be looking forward to that event, also.

A video sampling of Natalia Zukerman’s songs appears below.