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Singer-songwriter Zoe Boekbinder explores themes of empathy and equality

Zoe Boekbinder is interviewed by Fabulous Flip Sides columnist Warren Kurtz about a new two song release.
Carly Zoe

Righteous Babe Records has released a double single from Zoe Boekbinder joined by Gracie and Rachel, which we discuss with the Upstate New York singer-songwriter. 

GM: Welcome to Goldmine. Let’s start with Gracie and Rachel. I love their music. I interviewed them in 2020 and their album Hello Weakness, You Made Me Strong was in my Top 10 Fabulous Albums of 2020. Their songs, like “Trust,” are filled with soothing beauty and that is what I hear from you as well with “I Am Yesterday.” It is subdued pop, with harmonies and strings. The title sounds like a 1960s classic. I really enjoy this song.

ZOE BOEKBINDER: Thank you. You hear a lot of Gracie and Rachel in there, since they produced the track. I sent them just my voice and guitar, and maybe some harmony ideas. They created the depths and the texture of that recording, doing a lot to it.

GM: The content includes, “Saw you out with your new guy. I am yesterday. Didn’t even say goodbye. I am yesterday.” Those are some classic lines.

ZB: I think that these themes visit us all no matter what time we live in.

GM: Thank you again for your words on Julee Cruise for our recent Goldmine In Memoriam article on her and your love of her music with the Twin Peaks soundtrack. You mentioned marginalized people, and I know you have been an advocate for people for some time.

ZB: Equality in every way is something that I care deeply about, and I am working toward that as much as I can. Specifically relating to the music industry, I was invited to do a talk a few years ago at a university in Switzerland about the work I did in New Folsom Prison with music. The person who invited me suggested that I talk about gender inequality in the music business, which is something I hadn’t talked about before, but is something I had experienced. I did some research in preparation for the talk and learned a lot about lack of representation for women and gay musicians. It inspired me in my career to give opportunities as much as possible.

GM: Your music program at New Folsom Prison had to positively impact the inmates there. I think about the film Walk the Line, where the prisoners were entertained, uplifted and inspired by Johnny Cash, which was true for Merle Haggard when Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin State Prison.

ZB: Let’s hope I had a positive impact. I certainly tried. In 2009 I visited New Folsom Prison for the first time to play three concerts in one day and I didn’t imagine that it would go beyond that. Witnessing the environment in a maximum security prison really changed me to my core more than any other experience I have ever had and started me on this path. I knew in my bones that no place like this should exist from witnessing the dehumanization inside of that place. My reaction was to go back and visit as much as I could, playing music and teaching workshops. I felt that I could bring a humanizing element from the outside to treat these human beings as human beings. I did that for almost five years.

Zoe Boekbinder

Fabulous Flip Side: Cut My Heart in Two

A side: I Am Yesterday

Debut: July 22, 2022

Righteous Babe Records

GM: The second song, or digital equivalent of a flip side, is melodic. Recalling 1990s alternative rock and a bit of Sarah McLachlan. The vibrato in your voice is very pretty on “Cut My Heart in Two.”

ZB: Thank you. It really reminds me of Cyndi Lauper and Julee Cruise. It is interesting to hear you say Sarah McLachlan, who I also have a lot of respect for. The production especially reminds me of a Cyndi Lauper aesthetic sound, which I love. That was an interesting track to work on with Gracie and Rachel. I was thinking of these two songs, sort of as a test run of an idea to produce a record with only people of marginalized genders, meaning no cisgender men. Being in the music industry as long as I have, it is easy to work with cisgender men, especially with producer and engineer roles, because most of those people are men. I wanted to see how hard or easy it would be, so I thought I would try it out with a couple of songs first, and it was so awesome working with Gracie and Rachel on “Cut My Heart in Two.” I didn’t tell them what I wanted the song to sound like. They asked and I said, “I just want to trust you on this. You do what you think is right. I don’t want to steer you.” When they came back with how it turned out, I would have told them Julee Cruise and Cyndi Lauper, but I didn’t and that is the sound they created. I felt that we have this intuitive connection, which resulted in more than what I was hoping for.

GM: I assume you learned the level of compassion and empathy you have from your grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor.

ZB: Yes. He was a complicated man and one of the greatest loves of my life. He passed away just a few years ago, living to age 96, which is incredible considering what his body went through. He lost his whole immediate family and much of his extended family in concentration camps. He barely survived, weighing seventy pounds when he got out of the camp, when he was in in his early 20s. He carried around a lot of trauma, and it came out in a lot of ways, including righteous anger. He could not stand to see injustice, witnessing people treated as less than they should. The Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere. There was a build-up of hatred of Jewish people, and he went through all of that as a child and teenager before the war. He lived in a variety of places after the war and one of the places he saw injustice was in Australia in the early 1950s where he was a shepherd and cowboy for hire, witnessing the way indigenous people in rural Australia were treated. He wrote an article about it in a Dutch newspaper, published in The Netherlands, where he was originally from. After it was published, some Australian official came out to his sheep farm, a several days drive from the closest city, and politely asked him to leave the country. Closer to his retirement age in the 1970s, he and my grandmother lived in Louisiana and witnessed racism against the black population and felt a lot of anger. While many Holocaust survivors would suppress talking about it, my grandfather was different. He would tell the cashier at the gas station his stories. He was so outgoing. Anyone who would sit next to him on a bench in a park for two minutes was going to hear about the Holocaust, which was a lot to drop on a person. He would deliver his stories in sort of a lighthearted way and would win over almost everyone with his outgoing personality and his love of telling jokes.

GM: Like your grandfather, you have also moved around a bit.

ZB: Yes. I now live in Upstate New York, and I love it here.

GM: I have spoken with a few artists in your region recently, and I am enjoying all the creative music coming from your area. I enjoy your pair of new songs so much and look forward to sharing them with our Goldmine readers and hearing more from you. Have a great tour with Gracie and Rachel.

ZB: Thank you. I really appreciate your interest in my music, my stories, and my family. It was so nice to chat with you. 


Related Items:

Goldmine In Memoriam June 2022 with Zoe Boekfield on Julee Cruise