Years of classical training finally pay off for the gifted Natalia Zukerman
“It was required that I play an instrument. Just like a chore, I had to go practice,” Natalia Zukerman explains. Choice, you see, was never part of the equation for this talented singer-songwriter. Her father, Pinchas, was a celebrated violinist and conductor, her mother, Eugenia, a world-renowned flutist and writer, and her paternal grandfather a clarinetist in klezmer bands throughout Poland and Israel. If “nature” wasn’t up to the task, “nurture” was more than enough to prevent any permanent deviation from a biological imperative.
|Natalia Zukerman: Accomplished singer-songwriter, blinding guitar virtuoso, and prominent mural artist.|
“I don’t think they ever really expected me to become a musician, but I do think they would’ve been shocked if I became an investment banker or a Republican,” Zukerman laughs. “Those two things definitely weren’t in my upbringing.”
Now in her early thirties and recently transplanted from Brooklyn to Boston’s North Shore (blame it on a new love), Zukerman is set to release her third album, Only You, a stripped-down collection of almost-live tracks — slinky, sexy, seamless intermarriages of folk, jazz, and blues. Ten years ago, this album — hell, the first two — would not have been on the radar. Zukerman gave up music while attending Oberlin College, choosing instead to earn a degree in visual arts. That decision has earned her a living and a reputation as a mural artist. But you can only run from your genetic destiny so long before life sets everything back in order.
“I don’t know if it was a decision,” Zukerman says of how her first album Mortal Child (2001) came about. “I let the guitar go in college and for a number of years afterwards. Honestly, I moved to San Francisco and started playing at open mics to meet people, and ended up with a record’s worth of songs and friends pushing me to make one. So I did. It wasn’t so much about deciding to do it. I just kind of found myself doing it.” So she recorded an album by accident? “Something like that,” she laughs.
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The guitar is the classically trained Zukerman’s most trusted companion these days. Her remarkable fingers can pluck more than 30 notes per measure. To hear her perform and watch the way her digits work so furiously is a remarkable experience. It took her a while to find her forte, though, and only after her parents pressed her through a rigorous musical trial.
“I hated it venomously, because it’s so difficult,” she says of the violin lessons she received as a child. “I really wanted to quit, but my mom — and I hated her for this at the time — she made me learn a certain amount of repertoire and practice a certain amount for six months and then decide if I wanted to quit. So basically, get to a certain ability level and then decide — but I still hated it.”
So maybe, just maybe, Zukerman’s parents knew what they were doing. All these years later, Only You is sure to be hailed as her most accomplished album to date. Its unique sound was derived by recording live in her own living room — a trick that worked for Shelby Lynne on her latest Suit Yourself and for Zukerman’s good friend Melissa Ferrick on more than one occasion.
“I thought about doing a live record,” Zukerman says. “I’m such a nitpicky kind of perfectionist, though, the only way that I could do it where I’d be happy with the outcome was if I had a real sound engineer traveling with me for a number of weeks. I would never be happy with one performance enough to put it out. Since that was not economically feasible for me and I still wanted to be creative with a live feel, I recorded everything in one take. There’s no overdub. I just played the songs the way I play them live.”
The experience of recording Only You proved to be a revealing one, too. “More produced albums obviously add so much,” she says, “but also cover up so many of your foibles in the post-production. I didn’t do any of that. I just played the way I play.”
And maybe the way Zukerman plays is her figuring out who she was always meant to be on tape. That is, if albums were still recorded on tape. Whatever the case, her parents certainly are enjoying having a daughter who spends her life on the road much as they did in her youth. Then again, as Zukerman points out, her family’s travels were “certainly not in a Honda Civic and the Hilton is not the Motel 6.”
“Since I started touring a lot, my dad, in particular, gets such a kick out of calling me and not knowing where I am. ‘Where you going next?’ He loves it,” Zukerman says, laughing. “My mom, too, because she used to get frustrated when I was a teenager and didn’t know where she was. They both live on my website, basically, to find out where I am.” •
By Cole Haddon