Denver singer-songwriter Zoe Berman belts out soulful, jazz-inflected Americana tunes on her debut EP, Freezing Heat, but the lead single, "Lilac Hour," seems almost incongruous to the other six tracks.
“That one is definitely very different,” Berman confirms. “We took a very different approach to that one recording. It was the only song on the EP that I wrote a cappella, without any instrumentation.”
Berman says that when she took “Lilac Hour” to the studio, she used found objects for percussion and combined that with synthetic sounds. She remembers some confused looks at first, but everyone involved eventually found the exercise to be fun.
“The backbeat of that song is me plucking a string on the inside of a grand piano,” she says. “A lot of the percussion comes from sweeping along the side of a lampshade, bending a garage door, shaking sugar packets and tapping a mallet on a whiskey jug.”
The lo-fi production approach lends a futuristic quality to the record. The other tracks were recorded with a backing band and possess a jazzy flair — one that avoids the clichés that can befall music with a jazzy flair — but the songs wouldn’t feel out of place in a speakeasy that only exists on the holodeck of some forgotten Star Trek episode.
Berman performs a little less than half the time with her backing band as Zoe Berman & the Love Seats, and is just as comfortable taking a one-woman-band approach to live performance. That can mean singing and playing her keyboard, or strumming the guitar and stomping on a suitcase drum that she built in Fort Collins with the help of a luthier friend.
The suitcase drum is modeled on one used by Austin-based Americana musician Shakey Graves. It imparts a troubadour vibe to live performances, she says.
“We cut a hole in the suitcase, and I think we used a tom,” she recalls. “Then there’s a door hinge on the bottom that I use to connect a kick pedal. I have an attachment that’s a tambourine also attached to another kick pedal.”
Berman says the songs on Freezing Heat span about five years of her life and carry a mix of synthetic and natural sounds. She writes a lot of her lyrics while on hiking trails or riding her bike, and some of the songs possess Colorado-specific imagery. Lyrically, some are autobiographical in nature. “Lilac Hour,” for example, sprang from a sunset bike ride in Fort Collins and features bird sounds she recorded at Mount Hood in Oregon.
“It’s a nature appreciation song, really,” she says. “It’s about the time after golden hour and before dusk, when everyone is home eating dinner and the roads are really quiet. There's just this sort of ethereal sweetness at that time.”
Much of the EP deals with the trials and tribulations of modern romance. Berman says “Manuka Honey" is a “gooey love song” about someone in New Zealand, while “Edit, Delete & Save” is about reclaiming the joy of a favorite hiking trail from the memory of an ex with whom she used to share the trail. She borrowed the story for “Luna Lune” from a friend who looked up at the moon with a long-distance romantic partner. After that relationship ended, her friend was down on the moon for a spell. It's a pretty accessible concept: Who hasn't had the memory of something cool ruined by an ex, at least temporarily?
“Something Better," meanwhile, is “a feminine anthem of feeling you can demand better for yourself,” Berman says. “The meaning of it transformed over time as I performed it live. People would take interest in that song and ask questions and share their own stories. It sort of took on the narrative.”
Berman also declares the importance of independence with "Freezing Heat," an idiosyncratic song about unapologetic self-love. “There’s certain things within my personality that don’t align or things I like or dislike,” she says. “But it’s a package deal. I’m standing for those qualities and appreciating that they constitute my personality and my being. It’s pretty person-specific, but I think it could be a shared experience.”
Freezing Heat is now available to stream. Zoe Berman plays the Globe Hall, 4483 Logan Street, Friday, March 4. For more information, visit zoebermanmusic.com.