Zoo Animal's Holly Newsom: I thought Departure was going to be a dud; release show Saturday

It's all change these days for Holly Newsom and the band she calls Zoo Animal. A few months ago, her longtime bandmates, bassist Tim Abramson and drummer Thom Burton, both left the group. The tireless songwriter has responded with an excellent new EP, Departure, a record she claims she didn't think would go over well because it's such a change of pace from her previous work. Now, as Newsom gets ready to take those new songs on the road, she also has to learn how to a juggle an all-new, and constantly-shifting, lineup of musicians.

As if to keep thing consistent, she even has a new practice space to work with. And that, like so many other things, would appear to be a work in progress.

"This is the first time we've played here before," Newsom says, as she and her band practice inside an old warehouse in Northeast late one night. They're running through a handful of new songs in preparation for a recording session with the Local Show the following afternoon, but around them the walls are lined with exposed drywall studs and the floor is caked with dust and dirt. The drummer is tucked away underneath some wooden scaffolding.

None of that dulls the luster of these new songs, however. Without a doubt, Departure is the strongest record Newsom has put out yet, even if it's slowed, more often than not, almost to a standstill, and barely rises above a hushed whisper. It's short, too, running to a mere 20 minutes from front to back. But more than ever before, Newsom has harnessed her delicate, ethereal drawl into something haunting and hypnotic, a record that thrives on understatement and subtle expression.

Ahead of tomorrow night's release party for Departure at the 7th St. Entry, Gimme Noise sat down with Newsom to get the lowdown on the many changes that have taken over her life in recent months, and to find out how they effected the new album.

Gimme Noise: Departure seems like a pretty appropriate thing to call this album. Did you intentionally start out to do something really different?

Holly Newsom: Originally, I had this idea because Tim and Thom kind of acted like they wanted to be a band, and then they kind of didn't. I made a safety net for myself saying, "Okay, I'm going to start a solo project." So this album started out, like, I thought I was going to release it under my name and kind of do this weird thing on the side and maybe never do anything like it again.

GN: Did you envision them as solo songs?

I had a residency at Nick and Eddie for two months and I played these songs there with a different band every week. Playing with all those different people really helped me grow and understand these songs. So I guess I wanted to say something other than aggression, and I felt that a lot of Zoo Animal music in the past was sort of aggressive.

GN: When you say aggressive, do you mean that from a musical or lyrical standpoint?

I think it was both... I think my writing used to be somewhat philosophical, almost like it followed a logical pattern. And I got to a point where instead of finding emotions out of, like, these mathematical statements, I wanted to set-up an image that would make you feel the same way as I did.

GN: Does that reflect some kind of shift in your personal beliefs over, say, the past couple years--since your last record came out?

[They've] become more private, for sure. As an artist, I still want to have personal music because that's what makes good music, in my opinion... I started to realize that I was so open about things that it was almost like I felt a pressure. That's why this [record] is more cryptic because, personally, I don't want to feel the pressure of living up to something I set myself up as.

Zoo Animal - "Laying and Lying" Music Video from Northern Outpost on Vimeo.

GN: So where do you think that aggression came from? I don't imagine that anyone would describe you as an aggressive person.

I think I've just existed in a lot of conflicting environments. Like I've said before, the rural world and the urban world are completely different cultures. I've traveled a little bit; I've been to Kurdistan and Japan and Ecuador and around the country. I'm obsessive about the big picture, and so observing and existing in a bunch of conflicting places and trying to decide what you are for yourself, I think [that's] where the aggression came from.

GN: How did you expect people would respond to this change in direction, then?

Honestly, when I put it up on SoundCloud, I thought no one was going to pay attention to it, and I was surprised that people were actually interested. I thought it was going to be a dud -- and maybe it will be when I release it.

GN: What about the record did you think would make it a dud?

Even though there's more instrumentation in this record, it's way slower. I gave myself rules for this record that every song has the same chord progression throughout the whole thing. I wanted to do that because it has sort of a hypnotic sense to it. I wanted it to feel like that because that's kind of how I was feeling.

GN: In the past, it's seemed like you have a pretty intense approach to playing music, like you're channeling something when you're writing or performing. Has that changed?

It's more intense... It's scary to play with different people because you don't know if they're going to take what you're doing seriously. I had to play with a bunch of people [during the N&E residency] and it almost gets to the point where, no matter who's on stage with me, I can still get that--I don't know what to call it, but I know when I've got it. When I can hear my blood pulsing in my ears... Because I had to play with so many people, I learned how to get to that place almost every time.

GN: Has it been beneficial--maybe rejuvenating, in some ways--for you artistically to kind of start from scratch?

Yes, because I started out writing all the parts. The idea of being able to compose pieces, I forgot how much fun that was. And the idea that I don't have to write for a 3-piece rock band is really fun. Even playing solo so much made me have to go back to the idea that if you can't play a song by yourself and have it be really good, it's not a good song, so just throw it away. It's made me more picky about my songs.

GN: Aside from the personnel turnover, what made you expand things so much instrumentally on Departure?

I just really wanted to make a sonically interesting piece of work, and to do that I wanted to have weird shakers and some horns... John Davis really did a lot of mind expanding for me. There's a couple months where I played improv sets with him and one with Grant Cutler, and I knew these things were out there, but for the first time I felt like I did them. I wasn't sure if anyone would like it. And then Sharon Van Etten came out with that record and I was like, "Oh, they do." I wasn't influenced by that record when I was writing, but she kind of was the reason I was like, "This is worth putting out."

ZOO ANIMAL releases Departure on Saturday, February 18, 2012 with Is/Is, Gospel Gossip, and Gramma's Boyfriend at the 7th St. Entry. 18+, $10, 8:30 pm.

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