by Randy Frost
‘World beat vaudeville” is how she is described. Other terms would be part Huck Finn, part Julie Andrews, and “a band in a body.” Great descriptions of the quirky, happy, fun, and downright delightfully entertaining music of Zoë Lewis.
When I asked her to elaborate on “world beat vaudeville,” she answered “I’m a big traveler and have been to over 70 countries. I got the wanderlust! Everywhere I went I soaked in the local music. It was so good to be exposed to so many different grooves and to break the rules of traditional music. Sometimes people describe my music as “music like a map.” I think it’s because my influences are all over the place. I’m stirred so much by rhythm, and most of my albums are a real mixture of world-beat sounds and stories. The vaudeville part is due to my love of the old showmen and carnies who really influenced my performance style. I love to entertain!”
Entertain she certainly does! Go to one of Zoë’s shows and you will have a grin on your face the entire time as she tells her musical stories. She will make you happy because she is so happy. When asked what makes her so happy she says, “Music makes me happy. I feel eternally blessed to have it in my life. It gives me direction, it fills me with joy. I can share it with people and we just connect. I have found this all over the world. I’ve made so many friends through playing music. Just a groove or a blue note can change your day. I see it all the time. It’s an amazing thing. Music is hope.”
Zoë moved from her native country of England to Provincetown, MA, about 20 years ago and it has been her home base ever since. Provincetown is a mecca for music, art, theatre and all things creative. Perfect for Zoë who performs as a solo act, with a few bands, and is the author of two musical theatre productions. She has been named Provincetown Woman of the Year by the Provincetown Woman Innkeepers. Quite an honor in a town full of so many very creative people. Other honors are co-winner of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Folk Festival Troubadour award in 2003, New Folk winner 2002 at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, and 2001 Falconridge Folk Festival Audience Favorite. She has won many song writing competitions, and has had her songs used in films, commercials, and on Broadway.
Her new musical, Across the Pond is back by popular demand for it’s second run at the Provincetown Theatre, October 16-19. It’s set on an airplane in between JFK and Heathrow and six quirky transatlantic passengers sing, dance, and contemplate the definition of “home” high in the clouds. Zoë plays an elderly English lady. The production is directed by Donna Drake, from the original production of A Chorus Line. Zoë’s first musical Snail Road was produced by Counter Productions at The Art House in Provincetown for three sold-out runs in 2011.
Zoë’s music has touched many people and has brought her to the attention of many national performers. She has opened for or performed with the Indigo Girls, Pat Benatar, and Richie Havens among many others. Her tour with folk legend Judy Collins led to her being signed to Wildflower records, for whom she has released seven records.
Zoë’s latest release, Rotary Phone, features Kate and Julie Wolf (Indigo Girls), Sara Lee (B52’s), and Roxanne Layton (of Mannheim Steamroller. Roxanne) is a remarkable recorder player and a regular with Zoë. If you want to see what can really be done with a simple folk instrument like the recorder, check out Roxanne’s playing with Zoë and Mannheim Steamroller. Zoe heard Roxanne on the streets of Provincetown. She couldn’t believe what could make a recorder sound like that! “So pure,” says Zoë. “I asked her to join my band immediately and we have been playing together ever since.”
Speaking of musical instruments, Zoë plays a lot of them. She’ll tell you, “I play many, but how many do I play well? I studied piano from the age of 4, so that’s the instrument I love and know, but at first I found it easier to compose on instruments I didn’t know so well; the guitar and the ukulele. It seemed to flow more directly from me when what I’d been taught didn’t get in the way. I jumped freight trains when I first came to the U.S.A. and that’s how I first learned to play the harmonica, with my legs dangling off a box car! Then I learned the penny whistle, accordion, musical saw, the washboard, and a ton of fun little instruments I picked up on my adventures.”
For Zoë you don’t necessarily need a musical instrument to play music. She teaches a workshop for kids called Music in Our Pockets, which tries to explain you can make music out of anything. The keys in your pocket for example. She also plays a mean “human trumpet.” A technique of making incredibly realistic trumpet tones with just your voice.
Always looking for new adventures, Zoë has formed a new band called Zoë Lewis & the Bootleggers that plays le jazz hot music from the ’20s and ’30s. This is in addition to her wonderful regular band Zoë Lewis & Her Rubber Band featuring Zoë on every instrument and non-instrument you can imagine, Roxanne Layton on the recorder, Kate Wolf on bass, and the extraordinary percussionist Sylvie Richard on bongo’s, African jimbe, cajon washboard, and anything else she can find to hit to make music. Sylvie is described as “The Queen of the Bucket.” As Zoë puts it: “This is no band! It’s more like a circus!” A very fun circus indeed!
You can check out Zoë at zoelewis.com for her tour schedule, reviews and articles and to purchase her CD’s. You can hear her on her website, and there are lots of YouTube videos. To really appreciate the magic of all things Zoë though is to go see her live shows!
“Sometimes I go far away but then far away becomes here and here suddenly becomes far away. That’s why I’m full of it.” ~Zoë Lewis