The word on Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers has been out and gaining considerable momentum with each of their new releases. Solid, well-written tunes paired with stellar musicianship and Zoe's irresistible voice is what inspired her now-labelmate Eilen Jewell to get Signature Sounds to sign her.
It didn't take long for Zoe's second full-length, Starlight Hotel, to generate a well-deserved buzz and devoted following of classic country, folk, roots, and rock fans.
Zoe's newest release, Old Gold, is an all-too short collection of tunes, which are all covers except for one original. I recently had the opportunity to check in with Zoe and ask her about her musical trajectory and development, her writing and recording experiences, and the making of Old Gold.
When did you begin playing and writing music?
Zoe Muth: I've been writing songs ever since I was really young. My parents weren't musicians but we always had a lot of music around the house. Mostly leaning towards classic rock stuff and oldies. It wasn't until high school that I got a guitar but even then, I didn't really play in front of others.
Who were some of the artists that influenced you most early on?
Zoe: As far as influences, after Cyndi Lauper and the Bangles, when I was more of a serious songwriter, in high school, my biggest influences were Bob Dylan and John Prine. But I was also listening to the old folk music stuff recorded by Alan Lomax. As far as guitar goes, I wanted to play like Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt, but never had the patience to practice.
Zoe: I went to college and got a teaching job after that and sporadically played at open mics and country music circles around town. It wasn't until 2008 that the Lost High Rollers were formed mostly with the sole intention of making a record. I had all these songs and I figured I might as well record them and see if people liked them. We had a friend who was working at a great local studio called Jupiter and he did most the engineering for next to nothing.
Ethan Lawton (mandolin) and Dave Harmonson (guitar) had been playing around town forever and luckily were willing to play shows where we were often just paid in beer. I met our first bass player and drummer Miguel Salas and Tim Dunn on craigslist. When we recorded the first album, we just went into the studio and played the songs exactly the way we'd been playing them live. We didn't have much time or money to add much extra or do a lot of overdubs and I think that's why the album sounds so natural and a little rough, but I think that's what people like about it.
The songs from that first record I had been writing over the course of the 3 or 4 years previous. Much of the stuff I had written was really folky, just because I didn't have a band yet when I had written it. I think it could have gone in a lot of directions but adding the styles of Dave and Ethan it couldn't help but end up being "country."
Zoe: We had been playing a few new songs which I knew I wanted to record, and getting some very good press and radio play for the first record, when we opened for Eilen Jewell at a club called the Tractor Tavern. They really liked our stuff and were instrumental in getting us onto our label Signature Sounds, and linking us up with our US booker Mongrel Music. We sat down with Jim Olson from Signature and Brad Madison from Mongrel and they're like "Are you ready for this?" and up until then, we'd barely played outside of Seattle.
It was pretty amazing, I was still working full time teaching preschool and could only dream about the life of being a touring musician. Last year, we did about 40,000 miles going to Texas, and back and forth to the East Coast twice. We just had to dive right in.
How did that experience lead you to Starlight Hotel?
Zoe: I'm not all that prolific and kind of a perfectionist when it comes to making the story in the song make sense. Somehow I was able to get out ten more songs by 2010 to record Starlight Hotel, but some of that was also going back and reworking and finally finishing songs I had started much earlier.
In recording Starlight, we had a little more time and money, but for the most part we recorded things very similar to how we'd been playing them live. With Martin Feveyear acting as co-producer, I think we were able to get a little more of a produced sound, which I think worked on some songs and didn't work as well for others.
I had been writing stuff that was a little more rock and pop driven and tried to add more of a rock element to the record, but everyone still calls it country. I still feel like I'm so new to all this recording stuff that I'm still trying to get the feel for what I want to hear on a record. Plus, you know, at some point you run out of money, then you just have to say "OK, we're done". I'm hoping the next one can be a more of a collaborative sort of free form session, something totally different from the way we made these first two.
You have recently released a new recording called Old Gold. How and when did you decide to do an EP of covers?
Zoe: As far as the new EP, we thought it would be something fun to do, to keep our name out there. We had a small budget, so we just recorded it in our friend Rob Mitchell's home studio. We recorded it in the middle of winter and it was freezing but we couldn't have the heaters on because they were too noisy. Our instruments kept going out of tune.
Zoe: The recording is comprised of songs we'd been doing live this past year. Actually "Heart Like a Wheel" was on my first 6 song home recorded demo that I made in 2008. I can't really say why I chose these specific songs besides that I love singing them. We didn't really set out to have any certain kind of a sound for the EP, it was just meant to be a quick, semi-live sounding kind of thing, which, in that way makes the recording process much like our first two records.
Can you talk a little bit about your own tune on Old Gold?
Zoe: I had written the one original about a year ago and didn't really know what to do with it. We never played it live. I figured it was just kind of a throw away song but recording it has given it a new life. Just recently, we've added the whole band to the live version and it's sounding great. I can see that one being reworked for the next full length record.
Who are some of your current influences?
Zoe: It's pretty much anything I can find at the thrift store for a dollar. I used to have such a strong passion for seeking out new music, but lately, I feel like I just prefer listening to nature and whatever else is going on around me. I think it's just a phase I'm going through. I think it helps me as a writer, maybe not as much as a musician.
What are your plans for the rest of 2012? Any touring plans?
Zoe: As far as touring this year, we spent two crazy months in Europe in January and February. Since then it's been pretty slow. We parted ways with our guitar player, Dave Harmonson, and so it's taken a while to get back into a groove with our new player, Stell Newsome. We'll be touring a lot in the next three months all over the country and I'm really looking forward to getting back out there with a slightly different sound and some new energy. I've been writing stuff for a new album, but not sure when we'll get back into the studio, hopefully this winter.
Thanks for taking the time to discuss your work Zoe. Good luck with the new release and I look forward to catching you live and hearing the next record when it's ready!
Zoe: Thanks a lot!
Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Portland, OR. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.
As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.
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