The first song Zoe Child shared with the City Paper, “Bad Luck,” was a time machine of a listen. Its 1970s soft rock a la Fleetwood Mac and lush instrumentation reminds the listener of a time when blue-eyed soul was soothing radio airwaves across the nation. You almost expect to hear the vinyl crackles and pops of a 45. Given the bohemian, witchy woman sound, most people wouldn’t guess that Zoe Child (a.k.a. Zoe Whittaker) is a classically trained violinist, who regularly plays in more symphonic settings. But, to Whittaker, they’re one and the same, despite the differences in tone color.
Whittaker’s music venture as Zoe Child began in the rigorous world of higher music education. “I had just been at my final year at grad school playing some music, writing some music here and there,” says Whittaker. After long days of practicing, studying, and performing music, the violinist would go home and work on … music. And, thanks to an old college friend (SUSTO guitarist/ keyboardist Corey Campbell), Whittaker had a place to field-test her original songs. “[Campbell] was super encouraging and supportive and seemed to like it. All this came as a surprise to me because I was really just messing around,” says Whittaker. “He was like Zoe, I think you should keep singing; you should keep writing.'”
Campbell’s support didn’t end at his words. When Whittaker began to take his advice seriously and record in a more professional setting, Campbell hopped on board as a producer. Often, Whittaker writes the songs, shows them to the SUSTO guitarist, and then the duo fleshes them out as a team. “He and I will write the other parts to the songs, and he’ll play a lot of the bass and lead guitar and keys,” says Whittaker.
The sound that they’ve come out of the studio with has been described as “cosmic country” by the singer-songwriter. Take a song like “The Loving Well,” for instance. Whittaker’s soft voice walks around the twangy arpeggios and subtle piano notes. The song is one lap-steel guitar away from being a long-lost Dolly Parton track.
“Some of the songs have a chanty, creepy vibe,” she says. “Someone told me the other day that they’re kind of evil-sounding.” Both “Bad Luck” and “Want” have some of that sinister sound floating around. The latter song’s dynamic structure lets the excitement build through the verse, with a bitter chorus that pulls the electric guitar out from behind the curtain.
Of course, Whittaker can’t stray too far from her classical roots. Violin and synths are the primary instruments for “Sound.” It’s “more of like my nerd songs. It has features of violin,” she says. “It’s kind of about the sound of the violin.”
Whittaker’s songwriting uses a heavy classical presence, although it might not show in the final product. “[Classical] music is so complex and so note-y, and so it can be hard to listen to sometimes because a lot of composers like Bach, who’s one of my favorites, create a lot of dissonance,” says Whittaker. She attempts to put classical music unpredictability in her music; the goal is to always keep the listener guessing.
The songwriter sees the novelty of writing this music, along with her classical background, as an aid to her original material’s energy. “It’s kind of intriguing and driving in that way,” she says. Currently, Whittaker and Campbell are putting the finishing touches on the first Zoe Child release, an EP titled Someplace Golden. At the moment, a May release date is projected.
“It’s been really, really fun doing this. I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing half of the time, and it’s been a huge learning experience,” says Whittaker. “But, it’s been so much fun. It’s nice to be really creative and be vulnerable.”