Zoë Keating Needs an Audience

Returning to the stage after more than two years, the rock cellist plays TACAW

Cellist Zoë Keating will headline TACAW on Friday, May 20. (Courtesy photo)

Editor’s Note: This show has been canceled due to winter weather.

Zoë Keating made her name playing cello for indie rock and pop music crowds and going it alone onstage. In her signature style, she always performs solo and constructs songs live with looping effects, stacking up recorded cello sounds to form a rocking one-woman symphony.

But the past two years have underscored, Keating said, that she actually can’t do it alone. She needs a crowd with her.

Keating will headline the Arts Campus at Willits on Friday night, just her second live show since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020. She made her return to the stage three weeks ago in Brooklyn.

“I think what I’m really looking forward to is just that feeling of being in the same room with people making something in the moment,” Keating said in a recent phone interview from home in Vermont. “In my music I always leave a part up to improvisation. So I never know exactly what’s going to happen. And it can only happen when I have a live audience. I can’t just conjure up that feeling myself alone in a room.”

After not playing for a live audience for more than two years, it is a thrill to be back in-person with listeners.

“It was just so amazing to be in front of a live audience and remember what that was like,” she said.

During the long shutdown of the live music industry and the more restrictive stretches of the pandemic, Keating did not fit into the phenomenon of virtual performances.

“I really struggled, like a lot of artists during the pandemic, with that lack of connection,” she said. “And I didn’t really take to virtual concerts. I think I did two of them and they just left me feeling kind of hollow inside”

Cellist Zoë Keating will headline TACAW on Friday, May 20. (Courtesy photo)

After Friday’s show at TACAW, Keating will head to Chatauqua in Boulder on Saturday night. In November she will head out on a long-delayed national tour that was canceled in 2020 and then again in early 2021.

Keating first emerged as a member of the hipster-beloved cello rock band Rasputina in the 2000s, and then set out on a decidedly DIY solo career with the 2012 debut “One Cello x 16: Natoma,” which found an unexpectedly wide audience and topped classical charts. Her latest record is the dark and indelible 2018 EP “Snowmelt,” created in the wake of her husband’s untimely death from brain cancer.

While she hasn’t been touring, Keating says she still has her chops, sharpened by composing film and television scores, including her 2021 Emmy-nominated score for the HBO film “Oslo,” co-written with Jeff Russo. She is currently working on a series for PBS (and if you listen to the podcast “On Being,” you’ll recognize the theme song as a Keating composition).

She is proud of that work, she said, and pleasantly challenged by the collaborative nature of film scoring. But it doesn’t have the magic of a live show, Keating said.

“That feeling of being able to kind of escape time, that’s what happens in a concert for me,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Did a minute go past or an hour? I’m not sure.’ I’m really looking forward to doing that.”

Her time at home during the long, early stretches of the pandemic was largely devoted to parenting her son, now 11. With no performances, and composing late in the night while her son slept, Keating found herself grappling with a loss of identity.

“It was a very ego-annihilating experience,” she said. “It was this sense of, like, if I’m not doing the thing that I defined myself by, then who am I? That was really difficult.”

Cellist Zoë Keating will headline TACAW on Friday, May 20. (Courtesy photo)

Looking back now, Keating sees her creativity and self-image has been reshaped by the pandemic: “One way I feel different is that I do feel like I’ve had something healthy happen, which is I’ve separated my sense of self from my career. … If you had told me in March 2020 that I wouldn’t perform live again for two years, I would have said, ‘That’s gonna wipe out my career, how is that possible? How am I gonna survive?’ And here we are, and it’s more than two years and I survived.”

Keating has been a regular in Boulder as a solo artist and with Rasputina, but hasn’t played the mountains much. She previously played Belly Up Aspen — opening for Amanda Palmer in 2008 — and is excited to come to the home of the Aspen Music Festival and an open-minded audience.

“My music should work for everybody,” she said, asked about classical audiences versus pop crowds. “I don’t really make the distinction between all the different kinds of music. I listen to classical and I listen to top 40 radio, and I listen to avant-garde. It’s all music to me.”

She likes surprising audiences, Keating said, whether it’s challenging a classical fan’s expectations or showing a new listener that the cello can be cool.

“But really,” she said, “I want people to just experience it and not to have any judgments or any preconceptions.”