Zoe Boekbinder bids farewell to the left coast with wispy, looping folk-pop
hen she tells you that she “escaped from the circus” to start her solo act, Zoe Boekbinder is talking about parting ways with her previous band, Vermillion Lies, which she formed and played in with her sister, Kim, from 2004 to 2009.
But Boekbinder could easily be talking about other episodes in her life when she decided to break from the norm to pursue other passions. She has lived much of her life like a gypsy—bouncing from town to town practicing different forms of performance art all the way.
And on Friday, fresh off a European tour, her travels will lead her up and over the hill from her current camp in Oakland to perform her brand of wispy, looping and percussive folk-pop at The Crepe Place.
Born on a farm in Ontario, Canada, the singer/songwriter traveled all over North America with her family “in a big red truck, pulling a trailer.” They lived in communes and other “hippie kinds of places”—”I grew up naked by a river, pretty much,” Boekbinder says.
After high school, she studied to be a clown and learned to travel on the cheap. Though she hasn’t used her clowning abilities much, she says they have been incredibly valuable to her as a musician. “Clowns are very vulnerable,” she says. It’s a character trait she clearly appreciates and one that shows itself in her own music.
“At your bidding I fell 50 feet into salt water,” she sings on “Salt Water,” from her latest album, 2011’s Darling Specimens. “I scrambled to hold on or be lost forever/You said it was for my own sake/and watched as I was swallowed in the wake.”
Boekbinder delivers the words in a high, quavering voice—resonant and clear as a bell—over crisp finger picking and a clickity-clacking rhythm that sounds like it was built somewhat haphazardly out of an open palm gently thumping on acoustic guitars and chopsticks clattering on dinnerware. “How was I supposed to know I would end up in the undertow?”
In many ways Boekbinder’s act is reminiscent of Merrill Garbus’ project, tUnE-yArDs. Both are denizens of Oakland and both write and perform songs using looping pedals, which they deploy to sample their voice and instruments, building phrase upon phrase until they’ve constructed the entire foundation of a song. And then they sing over that. They even have similar haircuts.
But where tUnE-yArDs is explosive, Boekbinder is subdued and delicate, owing more to folk and Americana than the hip-hop-referencing Garbus. The two have never met, though Boekbinder thinks they may have mutual friends.
Darling Specimens has proven to be somewhat of a departure for Boekbinder, who has been accustomed to working on her own, since putting out her three-song demo, Over the Top, and full-length, Artichoke Perfume, both in September 2010. A five-song EP was recorded some time ago, but now is completely out of print.
While the previous album was acoustic, with few contributors, Darling Specimens, produced by Shenandoah Davis, features intricate arrangements performed by a large group of players and beats—all of them composed of found-sound samples and performed by a percussion trio. “We recorded all the beats using random stuff that we could bang on,” Boekbinder says.
After living in Oakland for six years—the longest she has ever lived in a single place, aside from the town she was born—Boekbinder is making plans to move to New Orleans. “The show in Santa Cruz is part of my goodbye to California,” she says.
It would seem that Boekbinder is preparing to flee the circus once more.
Zoe Boekbinder performs at 9 p.m. Friday, July 13 at The Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8. For more information, call 429-6994.