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.

But Keating’s followers continue to multiply and have put several of her self-released recordings at the top of the iTunes classical charts, earning her performing opportunities around the United States and abroad. Recent concerts include a November fundraiser in New York City in which she shared the bill with composer Philip Glass and Grammy award-winner Shawn Colvin.

Utilizing skills honed partly while working at an early Silicon Valley startup, Keating has used the evolving Internet landscape to her advantage, marketing and releasing music she produces herself directly to consumers online and developing a strong presence on multiple social media platforms.

She says she was able to buy a home and create financial stability for her family through digital sales of her music on iTunes. Rusch, her late husband, handled cover designs and photography. Keating keeps her fan base informed through Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.

Though her songs have long been heard in television programming and documentary films, a break last year into scoring for cable TV, including the series “The Returned” and “Manhattan,” is helping her reach new admirers.

Los Angeles agent Randy Gerston, whose clients include a variety of Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy award-winners, said he reached out to Keating last year after learning that two television pilot producers seeking composers were using her music as temporary soundtracks, a situation Keating says was also the case with CBS’ “Elementary” and other programming.

Gerston, part of Fortress Talent, now represents Keating and said her music is obviously well suited for television and film, where he hopes she’ll have more opportunity to work.

“One-hour television dramas tend to be quite moody,” Gerston said. “They like to express tension, especially these police dramas and hospital dramas or science fiction dramas. And hers is dramatic that way but it’s also incredibly modern sounding.”

Keating said she thinks her music connects with people in part because of her instrument: the cello.

“Frequency-wise, it’s the range of the human voice,” she said. “That’s my theory about why it really speaks to people.”

But friend and sometimes collaborator Amanda Palmer, a New York-based musician and performance artist, said the music itself is unpretentious and accessible despite its classical underpinnings.

“She has nothing to prove, and just wants to make you feel things, simple and deep things, with her songs,” Palmer said via email. “Everyone I know who listens to Zoë listens to Zoë on repeat.”

Born in Guelph, Canada, and raised in Britain and the eastern United States, Keating was 8 when a teacher at her English school suggested she might play cello. Keating thinks being tall was a factor.

She took to the instrument and practiced without being told. She and her family moved often, but the cello stayed constant. “I think no matter where we went, it was my friend,” she said.

But despite professional, classical studies at the Eastman School of Music in high school and scholarship offers that might have furthered her music education, Keating said her extreme fear of failing on stage drove her instead to take up liberal studies at Sarah Lawrence College outside of Manhattan after high school.

She still studied cello, composition and electronic music there, and learned the art of recording and producing music.

But “I didn’t have any sense that I would be a professional musician,” she said. “I didn’t think I had the nerve for it, or the discipline.”

Moving west after college, Keating eventually got work as an administrative assistant at a tech company where her creative skills outshone her performance as a receptionist, which she concedes was awful. She was given an opportunity to learn coding and worked on user interface solutions as an information architect.

When the company sold in advance of the dot-com bust, Keating made enough money to take the year 2000 off without working. It was a time when she found herself approaching the end of her 20s and rethinking her life choices. She had moved a year earlier into a South of Market warehouse in San Francisco with a half-dozen other artistic types, including the man who would be her husband come 2001, Rusch, a photographer and graphic designer.

Keating was picking up gigs as session player and joined several rock bands. She also discovered that the shared brick-and- timber warehouse, which could seat 200, lent itself to experiments in performance. She and a violinist friend began hosting what they called “ambient brunches” on Sundays.

“It was just a really creative time, and that’s when I started making music like I’m making now,” Keating said.

When she joined Rasputina in 2002 and was quickly aboard a whirlwind tour, she was forced to confront the crippling stage fright.

“We were opening for the Violent Femmes, and I was scared out of my mind,” she recalled. “I was so afraid that I was going to be afraid on stage.”

But “as soon as my eyes were closed, I was invisible. It became my way to escape the pressure. As soon as I closed my eyes, I was in my own world,” she said.

While Keating’s overall shyness makes her choice of professions a challenge, she says it’s ironic, particularly, that she has become such a public spokeswoman for artists and other causes.

But she says she has a natural inclination to try to fix what is wrong, and is valued for views she says contrast with people who “are extremely polarizing.”

“I tend to see things more nuanced,” she said. “I can talk to both sides.”

Keating seems to prefer finding middle ground rather than some all-or-nothing solution. She seeks transparency and follows her own call for it, periodically disclosing details of her earnings.

A squabble a few years ago with Spotify, for instance, was based on marketing claims assuring subscribers to the music streaming service that artists and musicians were to be fairly compensated for their songs.

But Keating and others said the company had not negotiated with individual musicians and songwriters, only with record labels and publishers.

With YouTube, her complaints involve complex contractual agreements that make significant demands over control of past recordings and new releases. Keating said she produces and releases her own music precisely so she can maintain control of her image and catalog.

She chafes against having her music and videos used as vehicles for advertising of products she can’t support, generating revenue for corporate behemoths such as Google and YouTube.

Keating said she strives to control her message and associations that come with her music. She says she longs to see the Internet regain some of its earlier egalitarian, non-commercial promise.

Her focus at the moment, however, has turned especially personal as she and her son try to regain their bearings after the sudden loss of Rusch, Keating’s partner of 17 years.

After his May 2014 cancer diagnosis, Keating documented her outrage and fear over Anthem Blue Cross’ initial refusal to pay for emergency treatment. That regimen called for draining fluid from Rusch’s lungs, performing various procedures and scans, and repairing a fracture caused by the cancer in his femur, Keating said.

Anthem Blue Cross reversed its decision, but not until the news media got hold of its earlier denial of coverage, in which the insurer argued that the services in question did “not meet the criteria for ‘medical necessity’ under your description of benefits.”

Coming on the heels of Rusch’s terrifying diagnosis, the Anthem notice seemed especially inhumane, she said.

“We’d just had this train wreck happen to us,” she said.

The TV work was a godsend while ?Rusch was in treatment, allowing Keating to stay home with him and Alex and still make a living.

She eventually got help from another composer, Jeff Russo. The two collaborated on “The Returned” and “Manhattan,” both 10-episode series.

Keating is still trying to balance the demands of unexpected single motherhood with writing and recording, touring and meeting deadlines that come in rapid succession in the TV world. Fall appearances in Oklahoma City, New York and Chicago marked her re-entry to touring. She took Alex along.

She’s writing a new piece, as well, to play in Davos, Switzerland, next month during the World Economic Forum. Keating was named one of the nonprofit foundation’s young global leaders in 2011.

She has settled enough after Rusch’s death to begin contemplating a new album - her first since 2010.

Now she just needs to find enough uninterrupted time “where I can just get into that sort of fugue state of writing,” she said. “You kind of have to remove yourself from life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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