Miss Americana: Natalia Zukerman
The folk maven on music, art and the environment. Plus, find out how win a copy of her latest album Gas Station Roses!
Photos by: Asia Kepka
Folk singer Natalia Zukerman has seen it all. A New York native, she’s traveled across North America and Europe playing her unique brand of swinging Americana. She’s painted murals in Berkeley, Calif., and she’s even played alongside folk (and lesbian) icon Janis Ian in Japan to hushed and adoring crowds. But despite her nomadic and experience-rich life, Zukerman remains a humble, down-to-earth musician with a deep love of music, the environment, and communing with her audience from the stage.
A product of parents Eugenia and Pinchas Zukerman—successful musicians in their own right—becoming a musician was a foregone conclusion. “The pressure was more of a responsibility; it was something that was required. ‘If you’re going to live in this house, you’re going to play an instrument, god damn it!’ ” Zukerman jokes. “It was such an amazing thing to have grown up with that, as much as sometimes I hated it. It definitely brought music into my life,” explains Zukerman.
While she began as a violinist, Zukerman soon transitioned to the guitar, this decision to switch in instruments was the first step in her transformation into a folk singer-extraordinaire. “I’m primarily a guitar player, and these days I’ve been playing a lot of lap steel guitar, too. I’m on tour right now with Garrison Starr [and] the other night we had enough of a band that I got to just play lap steel on a couple of my songs while she played the guitar parts. What a dream come true. I’m a hack at everything else. I’m a terrible banjo player. I’m terrible at ukulele. If it has strings I can kind of fuck with it, but I don’t know what I’m doing. Don’t ask me to play violin anymore—that sounds like I’m killing a small farm animal,” she laughs.
It’s her dedication and innate musicality that has lead to Zukerman’s successful career as a traveling musician for over a decade. A recent professional highlight was being asked to play along with Ian, after the star heard Zukerman’s music on a local radio station. “A bunch of radio DJs have been very supportive of me. One of the DJs gave Janis my record two years ago. In true Janis form she sent me her autobiography and her greatest hits with a note saying, ‘I love your record, here’s mine in return and I hope we can work together someday.’ I’m like rubbing my eyes, like seriously? Coming straight to my home address? So I ended up opening up for her last spring.”
The two also hit the road together, playing gigs in Japan. “Janis is like the Beatles over there. There were people waiting in our hotel lobby when we’d come back from the shows at night. People lining up to get their picture taken with her. They’re incredibly supportive of musicians,” Zukerman says.
But the more subdued—if fanatically passionate—fans took some time for Zukerman to grow accustomed to. “They’re incredibly quiet—exceedingly so. There were nights they were done clapping before we were even off the stage. Not that they didn’t absolutely love it, they just don’t emote the same way we do, for sure. They clap so quietly. I had some fans of Janis follow me from show to show, in the interim learning everything about me and eventually buying all of my records.”
There is plenty for fans to get excited about, particularly with Zukerman’s latest record, Gas Station Roses. Ambitious, bluesy and polished, it’s an auditory journey through folk, country and blues territories set to Zukerman’s skillful guitar work and paired with her mellow, breathy, Ani DiFranco-esque vocals. Zukerman sets out to span the all-American genres and succeeds, and in doing so helps reinvigorate an oft underrated musical category, folk. “Folk music is just music by people for people and it’s somehow gotten this connotation that it’s going to be boring. I don’t think folk music is boring. To me what it means is people who play their instruments and write their songs and tell stories. I definitely feel beholden to that tradition.”
In taking her show on the road, Zukerman comes in contact with audiences of every sort—from open and tolerant to the conservative and outright homophobic—however, that hasn’t prevented her from being out, except for when safety demands it. “[Coming out is] a little bit of a career cul-de-sac for some people. So yeah, I think there was a moment where I thought, Yikes, I’m afraid of it, but I just kind of went with it anyway. I love it when I get to play for primarily gay audiences and it doesn’t happen that often. So now when it does I’m like, Woo-hoo! Conversely, there’s still times when I feel so many folk followers are extremely straight…there’s homophobia everywhere. So, there are times I’ve chosen to not be out—and that never feels good.”
There is one identity that Zukerman does wish had more visibility: that of Natalia the artist. “I have a degree in art, painting and art history from Oberlin and moved out to the Bay Area and started a mural company. It’s something I’ve done on and off since I’ve been touring full time a lot more often. It was actually something we incorporated into the pre-order campaign…people bought prints and donated money to the making of the record process. It’s the first time I’ve ever combined the two disciplines, they’ve just really for some reason remained separate to me.”
“I’m equally a musician and an artist. Somehow, I always felt like I had to hide one from the other because it just kind of felt like that saying, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none,’ which really sticks in my craw,” she says. “I don’t feel like that’s true. I feel like life is long and there isn’t that much distinction to me anymore. Painting is almost the same muscle at this point as song writing, whereas they used to feel like really different parts of my brain.”
Adding to the growing list of her passions, Zukerman is deeply environmentally conscious—although her constant traveling inevitably makes an impact the planet, something of great concern to her. “My carbon footprint is looming and that’s something that I think about a lot,” she admits. Which is why she does her best to curb it with simple common sense solutions. “I have a travel mug and I get made fun of sometimes still, but I just don’t take a paper cup at a coffee shop. I do not eat fast food ever, ever, ever. I go to supermarkets. I have a cooler that I keep. I really try to do my part as somebody who’s taking from the planet often. It’s a mindset about the way you live your life in general. Every action has a reaction and that’s how I tend of think of my interactions with every human I come in contact with, too. I try to leave the smallest mark possible, spread the joy and do the least damage I can do.”
Zukerman has taken this to the next level with her commitment to The South Bronx Exchange. “It’s an organization that helps schools and other organizations go green. The South Bronx is one of the worst environmental areas in the U.S. and there’s a high instance of asthma happening up there in young children. Post 9/11 the air quality’s horrendous. They’re just doing an amazing job [at the South Bronx Exchange],” she explains, adding, “The environment is one of the things I care the most about and looking around nationally to see if there was a company I can give something to and I thought, well, my environmental mindset would say think globally, act locally. So I looked around locally and found this organization.”
It seems that thinking locally is foremost on Zukerman’s mind these days as the forever-touring musician looks to hang up her travelling shoes in the near future, in favor of a more domestic—if equally musical—adventure. “I bought an apartment in New York two years ago. The good news is it’s awesome and I love it and the bad news is I can’t afford it,” she says with a laugh. “So I’m on the road and that’s my full-time job. I love the live performance and yes I love the travel. It’s something I’ve done my whole life and I feel very much at home doing that. I’m pretty exhausted, it’s been non-stop for a long time, but at least I feel there’s enough variation in my ‘diet.’ ”
“But sometimes I want to see what it’d be like to be bored and well rested. I hope to transition to touring a little bit less. It’s just so expensive and environmentally horrendous and all of the other stuff that I actually care about.” (nataliazukerman.com)