By Susanna De Martino
Photos by Kasia Idzkowska
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RC: I was at your show at Aviv a few weeks ago. There was definitely a theatricality to your stage presence at some points, and not others… do you enter a role or character onstage?
Ziemba: Maybe. (Laughs). I don’t feel like I’m being anyone other than myself when I’m on stage, but I think it’s pretty easy for me to inhabit kind of a dream world or fantasy. Even like, I’ve had various points where I babysat more often—a couple years ago—and I realized how easy was for me to play make believe. I’m really not very distant from that component of my childhood. I like the transportive quality of playing music, and it becomes more infectious when you can really commit fully to it. I think one of my goals when performing is trying to inhabit the song space as fully as possible. And so that lends itself to theatricality because it’s not ….I don’t feel governed by the rules of the real world when I enter the song world, cause its kind of an alternate reality.
RC: At that show, while you were singing “With the Fire,” [a song about your childhood home,] you lit incense you made out of flowers from your childhood home’s backyard.
RC: I watched your videos afterwards and I was wondering … well, you sing and star in the “Rapture” video, but I read you made some of the dresses in the the video as well, right?
RC: Do you ever feel like—because you create a holistic, multisensory art experience to accompany your music [through things like scent and clothing]—do you ever feel like releasing an album is a limiting medium because you can only offer music?
Ziemba: I think that releasing an album in the form of incense is an attempt to upend that. I’m actually working on a new release now, and I think I want to do that as an incense as well, because I really enjoy playing with the olfactory sense and how that shapes your listening experience. So much of music is shaped by context, and it’s fun and exciting to play with the experience in many other ways.
Clearly I love playing with visual media, I love making music videos and trying to flesh out the song in as many ways as possible. So I think that’s a goal of mine, and I don’t necessarily find it very limiting… because especially in 2016, the physical form that you choose to release music in can be kind of irrelevant. You don’t have to release vinyl like you did in the past because technology limited you to it. You can create whatever artifact you want, and that can be liberating, because you have the option to like…. make a line of lipsticks that’s like…. your musical beauty line. (laughs.)
RC: Right, and also there’s ease of distribution …your music video can go with the album on the same website, in a way that it couldn’t before the Internet.
Ziemba: I think there are even less rules now than there ever were. And there have never been very many rules. Like if you’re trying to break the rules, then you’re probably doing ok.
RC: It was so interesting to see you perform the song “It Curls Itself” live…I’ve never seen a loop pedal used in that way. Those very sparse minimal phrases being layered like that—was that inspired musically by something?
Ziemba: I think my harmonic sensibility is integrally linked to having grown up singing in choirs. I’m sure that the way I constructed those harmonies has a lineage from choir. I sang in choirs from the age of five to my early 20s, and sometimes do even now. I’ve sung with New York Choral Society, and my friend Colin Self has an experimental choral group. So yeah, I think choir is very embedded in the way I approach singing. In some ways, I wish I could shake that.
RC: Why is that?
Ziemba: I would compare it to the dilemma I see some dancers have—[ones] who grow up trained as ballerinas, and then go into a contemporary dance context. You want to forget that training, because in some ways it tethers you to certain habits and techniques that maybe are holding you back.
In general I’m exceptionally grateful to have grown up singing in choirs. I have very good relative pitch and that level of ear training is a consequence of growing up playing piano and singing choir. There’s lots of things for which I’m very grateful to it, but I do notice at times that I have habits built into me with the way I think about singing, or approaching a melody…. I think it adds another filter that sometimes I don’t want.
RC: In the making of this album, were you drawing inspiration primarily from musical sources or other places? You have a very multifaceted approach to music, and I’m wondering where that comes from.
Ziemba: It comes from all over the place, not singularly music. A big part of the fun of it for me is conceiving of performance in a very layered, multiple way. I don’t really think of sounds as disconnected from the other senses. Or like, I don’t think of myself differently as a musician than as a dancer or an artist in general. I’m very interested in performance in general. I’m very curious about movement unbound, and all the different ways that you can shape space
RC: Do you ever feel a pressure or importance to brand yourself as one thing over the other?
Ziemba: Yeah, I guess. I think I’m frequently labeled as one thing or another, depending on the context I’m operating in. Normally I don’t find it too limiting. Sometimes I think the way I frame what I’m doing is so broad that it can be confusing for people--and maybe there is pressure in status quo, especially in music, to be very singular in a genre, and I don’t think I am. Especially this recent album, it covers a lot of territory and I like feeling free in that. But I don’t think that is helpful for if I were trying to brand myself, that it doesn’t align itself to a particular genre.
RC: I also think that’s sort of a hard question anyway, asking a musician what genre their stuff is….
Ziemba: I really like to tell people my genre is “adult contemporary” (laughs)
RC: Do you think of music coloristically at all?
Ziemba: I think about music very synesthetically. The way I write text is very visual. I think about a lot of songs in terms of color. Actually, every music video I’ve made has had a very dominant color story embedded into it, and that’s very intentional.
RC: Yeah, your music videos are very vibrant…
So yeah, that’s definitely something I think of, and something I feel on an intuitive level. I would say that the color associations I have with those songs, it’s not a decided thing, it’s just like, “Oh, that’s what this song feels like.”
RC: Do you write vocals first?
Ziemba: It’s not one process. There’s a lot of different ways that my songs have come into existence. Some take a really long time, and it’s a really drawn out process, and some the text and melody all come together. I have a lot of different notebooks that I accumulate ideas in, and collage and play around in if I need fodder to work with, though I don’t always feel like I need that, and sometimes the text will happen directly as a result of the melody.
I think one of the goals I’ve had, as I’ve gotten more confident as a songwriter, is to not try to project too many expectations on how a song should come to be, because it’s really nice when they surprise you. Like I had this song—I started a country band recently called Rhinestone, our third show ever is September 16th at Market Hotel--but I was working on a song [for that], and I’d written a good chunk of it a while before, and felt really stuck. Because there was this hook that I really liked, and an idea that I liked, but I couldn’t find what it needed. And then I was working on totally disconnected stuff, and I came upon this other melody, and I put the two together and I was like, “Oh my god this is totally the fulfillment of that idea.”
Or like, my song “El Paso,” I had that melody in mind for a really long time. I wrote the melody in the first verse years and years ago, and kept it in mind. I really liked it, but I didn’t have any idea of what form it would take. And then it was like four years later that I sat down and wrote chords to it and wrote the rest of the song.
Sometimes you can’t rush it, and that’s a hard thing to accept, because you really want to…you’re like, “Ugh, I really like this thing, I really want to finish it, and I don’t know how.”
RC: I was listening to [your latest album] Hope Is Never, and it’s not a sad album, but it does have these strong lyrical themes of loss and death. Is that something you gravitate towards in all the art you make, or is it something you’re exploring primarily through music?
Ziemba: I don’t think that my subject matter is going to always be focused on death, the way it was on this album. It hasn’t been before that, and the stuff I’m working on now isn’t so much. But it was kind of a product of the moment—at the time I was making it, I’d had a couple really significant losses. And in general, I’ve been very fascinated with nihilism in pop culture.
RC: What do you mean by that?
Ziemba: To me the dominant ideology that’s embedded within a lot of media I see…it contains this message that humanity is doomed, so you might as well party and be very decadent. And it’s kind of tied into capitalism and consumption. But also…I don’t see a lot of hope. And even things that have a message that is hopeful, or is utopic, [I see them] being denigrated because it’s much easier to be fatalistic.
I did research in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico for my masters, and I started thinking a lot about nihilism in the context of drug violence. The way that people operate in an urban space like that, where there’s a persistent threat of violence and you can’t trust the police… in some ways I see that as microcosmic of what’s happening in general, maybe to a lesser degree, but the same sorts of feelings of general distrust of your fellow human.
I think that the levels to which young people have been participating in organized religion has something to do with it. Not that I’m out here advocating for organized religion...[but] growing up as a young person that isn’t taught that there’s meaning outside of you and now, it does have ramifications. Part of what I’ve been working on is just not needing a singular vision for what happens after death, or what life means, in order to find meaning in your existence as a human.
Looking at death, and processing death, and processing these deaths that were kind of the jumping off point of this album, it was like… “How can I locate hope and meaning in the constancy of decay and transformation? And that’s the opposite of nihilism, because nihilism is like, “well everything is constantly in a state of decay, everything is constantly fading away and passing into nothingness, and so therefore what you do doesn’t matter.” I think the intention of this was to upend that notion.
RC: You mentioned you were working on a new album—what’s next for Ziemba?
Ziemba: I have an EP that I’m going to put out pretty soon that’s almost done. That’s like a 4 song, shorter thing. I think I’m going to put it out this fall, but in a more low-key way. And then I’m also working on a new full length and I don’t know what the time frame will be for that. I’ve been playing around with different ways to release things, but I’m not sure what’s next in terms of the physical release process. But I mentioned to you I was looking at making more incense--I really like doing fragrance.
RC: You had candles at your show too; are those are scented like the incense?
Ziemba: Yeah, the candle and the incense for this last album are derived around the same fragrance, [which is] the album fragrance. It was nice for [that album], because there were so many songs about fire, to have things to burn while I was singing—it’s a nice symbolic act.
Here are some of her other upcoming shows
Oct. 6: Copenhagen, Denmark; Operaen Christiania
Oct. 11: Vienna, Austria; Das Werk
Oct. 13: Rotterdam, Netherlands; Wunderbar
Oct. 17: Berlin, Germany; Schokoladen
Oct. 18: Prague, Czech Republic; (A)void Floating Gallery
Oct. 20: Gdansk, Poland; Kolonia Artystów Gdańsk
Oct. 24: Paris, France; Le Pop In
Oct. 25: Paris, France; Le Motel
Oct. 27: Brighton, United Kingdom; The Marwood
Oct. 29: Bristol, United Kingdom; Roll for the Soul