Sonoma County cellist Zoë Keating an artistic dynamo with an activist bent
Composer and cellist Zoë Keating first started performing with her eyes closed to ward off profound anxiety that plagued her as a younger woman and initially deterred her from pursuing a professional music career.
These days, her stage fright long gone, Keating, 43, says shutting her eyes frees her to go inward, allowing her to connect emotionally with her music in a way that she says resonates more strongly with audiences.
Swaying, leaning in and relating physically to her instrument in a manner that suggests a wordless conversation, Keating produces intricate layers of melody and rhythmic sound that listeners characterize as evocative, hypnotizing and transporting.
“I love performing, now that I’m not afraid of it,” Keating said, sitting in the renovated yet rustic Camp Meeker cabin amid the redwoods that she shares with her 5-year-old son, Alex. “It’s like the one time that I can really be myself.”
Twelve years after launching herself into music full-time during a stint with a “cello rock” ensemble called Rasputina, the classically trained Keating has established a solid international touring and solo recording career that’s all the more remarkable because she’s done it without the support of a record label, through a do-it-yourself approach orchestrated from her rural west county home.
She has built one of the largest Twitter audiences of anyone in Sonoma County. The 1.2 million followers of her account - @zoecello - trail only Sebastopol tech pioneer Tim O’Reilly and Santa Rosa celebrity chef Guy Fieri.
At the same time, she’s become a well-known artists’ advocate, tangling with such online media distributors as YouTube and Spotify, the music streaming service, over rights to intellectual property and fair compensation for musicians. Those discussions are taking place in an increasingly free-wheeling digital marketplace where creative content is often up for grabs by unlicensed third parties, and commercial interests and corporations set the rules.
Keating has drawn notice as a strong voice - and touchstone for others - in the fight against insurance providers for greater patient say over medical care. That role developed out of the battle she waged with her husband’s insurer over its refusal to pay for emergency cancer treatment in the aftermath of his diagnosis.
Jeff Rusch, 52, Keating’s husband and the father of their son, died in February following a painful, nine-month ordeal. Like many of Keating’s struggles, it played out somewhat publicly through her posts on social media.
Her campaign found sympathizers and went viral online, attracting national news coverage. Since then, Keating has become a repository of consumer health care horror stories, receiving calls “from people who don’t have a news crew come to their house, so they can’t handle it,” she said.
“I wish I had multiple lives, because there’s a whole other level of advocacy that I could do,” she said.
Keating continues to be outspoken about fairness in the music industry, saying the Internet’s promise of leveling the playing field for independent artists can only work if they actually have input on par with record labels and corporations.
She’s blogged about a YouTube content management system that’s identified 12,000 or more files using her music, mostly without permission, for everything from student demos to amateur dance performances - which doesn’t especially bother her - to technology ads and TV programming produced by major broadcast networks without authorization or payment.
Keating often is cited in press accounts on such issues. Earlier this month she was tapped to speak to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee during what was dubbed a “Copyright Review Listening Tour.” Committee staffers said she came recommended by a variety of sources.
Keating says it’s a difficult topic when most of those participating in the conversation stand to gain commercially from expanded freedom to use other people’s work. “I’m just asking people to think about those relationships more,” she said.
As a composer and performer, Keating’s music defies easy labeling, though avant-garde is a frequent descriptor. On her Facebook page, she playfully lays claim to the “post-everything” musical genre.
She bows, plucks, brushes and knocks on the cello, using multiple microphones, a laptop and foot pedals to record textured musical themes in real time, on stage. Then she plays back samples, while adding and recording more, looping strand upon strand of music and creating a depth of sound some liken to that of a cello symphony.
It’s complicated to build this music in a studio, let alone before an audience.