Zöe Ruth Erwin went through a tunnel, long and dark. Forced herself to make radical choices in her personal and musical life. Now there is light again at the end of the tunnel. With a view of the beautiful Icelandic landscape. Where the American found their freedom between reflecting glaciers and dark lava fields. The majestic freedom of Zöe.
The singer-songwriter and producer, who releases her songs under the name Zöe, has her musical roots in Los Angeles. ‘I was in a band there for six years and had a relationship with the guitarist. We were very active and were often on the road.’ It almost sounds like an American dream, but suddenly everything changed. ‘The relationship ended. Then the band broke up and shortly after that my father passed away…’ It all became too much for Zöe. ‘I just wanted to leave. Be somewhere else.’ That eventually became that small European island, dangling from the Arctic Circle: Iceland. ‘Of which I thought it could only be dark and very cold over there. But that suited my mood, so I went. First for three weeks. That became three months. And then I settled down here forever. This is my place. I want to live here. This is where I want to make music.’ She feels completely at home, as a person and as a musician and producer. ‘There are also many more opportunities here to develop yourself. In the US it is very difficult to get in. There are already millions of people who call themselves producers.’
In her new hometown Reykjavik she discovered a lively scene, where everyone knows and inspires each other. ‘Icelandic artists have a pretty unique sound. It’s hard to describe, but you seem to hear the overwhelming nature in their music. From the dark, frightening lava fields to the cheerful green meadows. It also overwhelmed me.’ Zöe becomes lyrical about her new homeland. ‘It calms me down and it inspires me. From the first day I came here. It penetrates your body and forces you to write. Not composing, but a natural feeling that is in your body and has to get out, it seems.’ In this environment, the use of the metaphor is not strange. ‘Especially when I first arrived, I translated my feelings and thoughts into the natural environment that I saw and felt, as powerful metaphors, as symbolism. Certainly water and wind can represent a lot of emotion. I’ve also learned here to really feel what I’m writing, much more in-depth than I did in the US.’ Despite its grandeur, or perhaps because of it, her music is rather dark. ‘That’s always been the case. Also as a kind of therapy. I mostly write when I’m feeling a bit unhappy or even depressed.’ She smiles carefully: ‘I’ve been writing fewer songs lately…’
This week the single “Savage” was dropped, the fifth in total. As a prelude to her debut album, which is scheduled for mid-October. ‘An album on which I reduced the original seventy songs to fifteen.’ All written in a short period of time. ‘It was a very difficult period, I can say. I was in a very difficult relationship, which fortunately came to an end a year and a half ago.’” Zöe recorded the existing songs, with the help of her musical buddy and drummer Gulli Briem, also a member of the well-known band Mezzoforte. ‘We had even gone to a big studio in Denmark. Then Gulli came with an insight that put my life and music in a different light. “You should throw everything away and start over. There is so much dark energy in the album. Your ex is still so deep in it. You can hear it, you can hear it in the songs. It must be your album. It needs new oxygen, and color…” He was right. We ended up re-recording the entire album.’ With mostly the same songs. ‘Yes, but emotionally edited in such a way that there is hope again from the dark side. The songs are now really mine again. It seems as if I also got my life back because of this.’
Especially when you know that everything is made and produced by ourselves, layer by layer. ‘I write the songs in a short time. They come out of me and I immediately feel whether it is good or not. I’m not trying to control that process or really work towards something.’ She has now released five singles. ‘ “Shook” was the first and turns out to be the most popular, perhaps because of the upbeat tempo. But “Feed the Wolves” is my most typical song. In it I used my voice in different ways, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, sometimes in layers. And I’m proud of the construction: from quiet almost creepy to a final eruption five minutes later. Yes, it feels really good.’
When asked about her inspiration, she is very clear. ‘David Bowie is really my number one. But also Peter Gabriel, his application of the voice in the production. Both are so innovative and creative; such strong musical personalities and pioneers in so many fields.’ She also scours music history. ‘But also the dirty angry nineties shit: Rage against the machine, Nirvana. Hole’s first album…But the late seventies were even better. The natural period between the stunning lyrics of the sixties and the pop of the eighties. The seventies had the best of both worlds: great lyrics, but also wonderfully creative and catchy. A nice weird one. A band like Electric Light Orchestra still drives me crazy!’
Zöe Ruth Erwin knows her classics. She gets inspired and you can hear and see that. But in complete freedom, in her one-woman band Zöe. ‘No, I wouldn’t want to play in a band anymore, be judged by other band members for what I’ve written. That freedom is very important. Musical freedom without restrictions.’ In Iceland. In an infinitely grandiose setting full of natural metaphors. The majestic freedom of Zöe.