Zoë Keating is in Las Vegas, cello and child in tow, for the Consumer Electronics Show. "I'm playing every day at the Intel booth," she says. "In between, I'm hiding out in the hotel room. We managed to go grocery shopping, so we don't have to eat celebrity chef dinners all the time."
It's only appropriate that Keating, who uses sound recording and manipulation software to assemble her gothically dense cello compositions on the spot, should be presented as a model of what technology has to offer the aspiring solo musician — although the gig came about more casually than you might think. "I have a fan in the marketing department at Intel," she explains. "That's how a lot of things get set up for me." This is far from her first tech-oriented trade show.
But the bustle of the Vegas strip is far from Keating's customary nontouring life now. After she and her husband were evicted from their warehouse and studio in SOMA during the San Francisco real estate boom — an experience commemorated in 2005's One Cello x 16: Natoma — they moved into a redwood cabin in Camp Meeker, an old logging town in Sonoma County. That's where she wrote and recorded her latest album, Into The Trees, released independently in July. "This is sort of my journey into the forest," she says. "It's me observing my life there, and the experience of what I call the 'ghost forest' — the forest that used to be there before it was cut down."
This helps explain the haunting, haunted sound of Into the Trees, which is suspenseful and cinematic and as fully realized as any number of multiplayer instrumental albums. The cello is an ideal vehicle to convey an atmosphere of foreboding, of course, but it also helps that Keating manipulates it in every imaginable way: bow, pluck, strum, thump, loop. Her playing is expressive but not particularly flashy; what's most striking is the towering choral effect she gets by accompanying freshly recorded iterations of herself.
"The technology creates this little box that you're always pushing against the edges of," she says. "I find it really good to have these limitations of [recording] latency or RAM or even frustration — all those things are annoying, but they actually create the music." This goes double for her live shows, where her compositions sometimes wander off into new territories. "When I make mistakes I have to incorporate them into the performance, so many of my pieces are the result of happy accidents," she admits: "I'll do something onstage that might be a disaster, but I have to save it, and afterward I kind of like the way it happened. There's something about being frustrated with computers that leads to interesting musical forms."
Keating, who plays on Jan. 19 at the Independent with Tycho and Inu — she's headlining, but plans to play second, because "I really don't like to keep people up too late" — works tirelessly to expand and refine her own work, new and old alike ("When I see videos of my performances from like six months ago, I hate them — I feel like I've moved on to something better"). But she also lends her skills out far and wide: She has composed and recorded several film scores; played on studio albums by acts including Tarentel, John Vanderslice, and cello-steampunk ensemble Rasputina; and otherwise collaborated with, to name a few, Amanda Palmer, Imogen Heap, and the Hyundai-hawking Sonoma County duo Pomplamoose. Even becoming a mother early last year didn't much affect her momentum. "I delivered the masters [of Into the Trees] two days before I went into labor," she recalls. "And right after I gave birth, during the first couple weeks when I was in bed with the baby, I was listening to the masters to choose my favorites."
Retreating to the forest has given Keating time to concentrate and experiment, but also put her networking strategy — a combination of personal relationships and social media — to the test. "I'm really well-known in obscure circles," she explains. "Maybe that's how the world is today — everything's kind of fragmented. I think of Twitter and Facebook as a chance for me to be myself to as many people as possible — it just so happens that in this time and place we have social media, which allows somebody totally DIY to have the same presence as somebody who has an army of people working for them." And when you no longer live in San Francisco, as an artist engaging with new technologies, keeping in touch has its advantages. "I need things like Twitter to tell me what's happening," she says. "I can't just hop over to a party when I'm living in the woods sixty miles outside the city."