Zoe FitzGerald Carter works as a writer, musician, and songwriter and also teaches both memoir writing and songwriting. Her many years of experience as a performer led her to songwriting with her band Sugartown, and her first fully solo album, Waterlines, was released in late March 2021. It was produced by Jeffrey Wood and features a number of collaborating musicians helping bring to life the wide range of musical traditions at work, including Dawn Richardson, Julie Wolf, Erik Jekabson, Paul Olguin, and Michael Papenburg. The video for the album’s single “I Wanna Be a Teenage Boy,” which debuted here at Americana Highways, has also gone on to win Best Video at the IndieEye Film Awards.
Zoe FitzGerald Carter joins us to talk about the ideas behind the song and video “I Wanna Be a Teenage Boy,” storytelling in music, working with Producer Jeffrey Wood, and also some of her thoughts behind the songs, “One Too Many Days in Nashville” and “Below the Waterline” from the new album.
Americana Highways: Congratulations on winning an award for the video for “I Wanna Be a Teenage Boy.” It’s very well-crafted and considered. I imagine that approaching a song like that could be challenging in making a video because you don’t want to reduce it too much. What did you have in mind?
Zoe FitzGerald Carter: We didn’t want to make it overly political. We wanted to keep the humor and the fun in it. One of the things that I’ve never really expressed about it is that I wrote it with a friend of mine, who’s a woman and a musician as well, and I think we really did have this feeling that there’s a certain kind of musical expression that’s “for the boys.” The whole style of electric guitar playing is so male that you don’t really see yourself in it. It’s that whole cliché that if you are female and can play the guitar and have a nice voice, you’re just going to be that pretty girl strumming the guitar, but not doing lead. Certainly not rocking out with an electric guitar!
There’s some sense of being cut out of that world that I think we were also responding to. We wanted to have that freedom as well, to not worry about what you look like, to not worry how palatable your message is or how appealing you are, but really get out there and really shred. These are things you don’t see women doing very much, and when I do see it, I get so excited. A lot of that is about role-modeling and I think it’s changing. I wish I’d had more role models of women, especially playing the guitar. Bonnie Raitt was one of them for sure. So, part of the song and video was about the oppressive social messaging applied to girls and women that, frankly, continues on. It’s endless.
I get that boys don’t have an easy time, either, but there is not that same constant scrutiny of appearance, for one thing, and also there’s not that constant fear for safety. It’s the longing for all of those freedoms: to be out from under the social messaging, to be freer physically, and to be able to get up there and shred if that’s what you want to do, without apologizing.
AH: I’m so glad that you expressed all of that because when I watched the video, it really did occur to me that there are these stereotypes in music, a kind of bedrock to Rock ‘n Roll, about how guys should look, and act, and be. I love music and I love Rock ‘n Roll, but there’s a point at which some elements of a “rock image” might be part of the problem, and that’s tricky.
ZFC: That’s right. You’re not asking them to cool it, but you are asking the world to be more inclusive of women and stop putting women in these very limited roles on stage. Even someone like Joni Mitchell, who was so freaking talented, was not always held up by the men around her in the way that she should have been. I think they just dismissed her as being overly confessional. That’s in the video and the song, too. But this is inspired partly by opening the news every day of the week, and now it’s this guy Matt Gaetz who’s being written about. It’s somebody, some man in power, every day who’s abusing women who are less powerful.
AH: There’s an underlying thing with the “boys will be boys” attitude, too, that’s kind of astonishing, that youth should get a pass. But the youth experience is the foundation for everything that comes afterwards, for both men and women. It will have results later.
ZFC: That’s the line in the song “Boys will be boys, and then they are men.” That’s exactly what we’re talking about. We are in agreement there.
AH: The song has a lot of perspective. I felt a difference between the complex and convoluted messaging that women receive in society and the almost primal freedom associated with teenage boys.
ZFC: I think for me, where the convolution comes from is that we’re holding up this Platonic ideal of teenage boyhood and freedom, and at the same time, we’re pointing to the dark edge of it. I think the dark side of this is the permission that boys and men are given to do what they want and not have to face the consequences later.
AH: Since you create in both the fields of writing and of music, I was wondering at what stage in your younger years you started thinking of music as having a storytelling element.
ZFC: I think I always responded to the storytelling aspect of music. I was always really taken by songs that evoked a world that I didn’t know anything about or was curious about. I loved the way that songs could evoke a place, or a character, or tell a story. I think my favorite songs do always have that aspect of storytelling. Just like any good story, you’re dropped into a situation, something happens, there’s a shift, and there’s some kind of resolution. That means there’s a kind of beginning, middle, and end. Or there’s a question in the song that gets answered.
All those forms lead to some kind of completed narrative. Often, it’s the songwriter stepping back from the story and letting the listener know what they think the story is about or pointing to the deeper themes of the story. I think it happens in all kinds of writing, including short stories and novels. I think I was always attuned to that. I was a huge reader and very intense listener to music and I think they became part of my internal landscape and understanding of the world.
AH: Musicians like Bob Dylan and Tom Petty really turned me onto this aspect. It seemed like most of their songs had some kind of story to them.
ZFC: I think that everyone listens to music differently as well. For me, it is the feel of the song and the timbre of the voice, and the way that those things come together, but honestly, if I think the lyrics are bad, I’m not interested anymore. You can do a lot with a little, and you don’t need that many words, but they can’t be stupid cliches or incomprehensible. They have to work, or I lose interest.
I agree about Bob Dylan. His storytelling is phenomenal. It was almost as if the music and the melody was just the conduit for the story. I sang in a Bob Dylan band for a few years, which was so great because you got to really study his lyrics. It was like going to grad school for songwriting to be in this Bob Dylan band. Sometimes I’d get frustrated, though, because there’d be so little going on with the melody, or there’d be so little going on with the refrain. I’m a huge fan but sometimes I wanted a little more variety instead of hanging lyrics on a utilitarian melody line.
AH: That’s a great point! Everything in moderation leads to maximum impact on the audience. Lyrics should not be the god of the song.
ZFC: Yes, you don’t want them at the expense of all of the other great things you can bring to a song. There are all kinds of ways that you can flesh out the story in terms of the choices that you make in arrangement and instrumentation.
One thing that was so cool about working on Waterlines with a producer was how much texture and variety he brought in. I’m someone who has been playing and singing in this band that I love, but we were limited in terms of personnel, so to bring in these other instrumentalists and variety was really exciting. Now I’m thinking of songs I wrote a while ago and wondering if I could do new versions of these songs. It’s opening my mind to the possibilities of arrangements in a studio. I have all these new songs, too, that I’ve written during the pandemic, and I’m super excited about them.
AH: That’s wonderful to hear. What form were the Waterlines songs in before you started working with your producer?
ZFC: With the exception of a couple of them which I wrote last-minute before we started recording, most of them were songs that I had been playing with my band Sugartown. We had arrangements but when I went in and met with Jeffrey [Wood], I just went in with my guitar, I sat on his couch, and I just played all these songs to him.
AH: That’s so cool! I expected you to say that you sent him files.
ZFC: He’s an incredible listener. He listens in this emotional way, but I think in his mind, he’s already painting in all the other instruments and imagining arrangements. I have the song “Only Girl” on the album, which is about a high school friend of mine who fell on hard times. I remember feeling so vulnerable sharing that with him when I had just written it and wasn’t sure it would really work. But he just loved this song and really went to bat for some of the songs that I was having my own doubts about. He also really pushed me to have all the guitar parts at this very high level, so I’d be primed and ready when I went into the studio. He really pushed me but he also really lifted me up. I feel that allowed me to really shine in some ways. I felt very lucky to have found him.
AH: Were the different musical styles already there, inherent in the songs?
ZFC: They were. That is a challenge I have really set for myself, to try to write in different genres. I’m not done yet! I’m determined to write a tango, but I don’t know how to write a tango yet. I like to push myself to not just do the usual chord progressions that are comfortable for me. I’m always trying to push out of that envelope.
AH: There’s also a really wide range of ideas and moments on this album. One of them I wanted to call out is “One Too Many Days in Nashville.” There are plenty of songs about people hanging out in bars and being depressed or reflective, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard one of these from a female perspective. It’s not considered as appropriate for a woman to be alone in a bar by herself thinking about her life, I guess.
ZFC: I agree with everything you just said. I have that line, “We can’t all be the Queen,” which is a takeoff on “We can’t all be the King,” because everyone who wants to be Elvis goes to Nashville. But I’m thinking of Maybelle, Dolly, and Patsy. But there’s this idea that sometimes it doesn’t work out in Nashville and you have to pull the plug. I feel like there’s an idea that it’s a loser’s point of view, but I’m saying, “It’s not. It happens.” I feel like I’m turning that a little bit on its head. I had so much fun writing that song and doing a send up of that type of song from a female point of view.
AH: I thought it was really brave to talk about walking away from something that’s seen as this big dream. It critiques that dream. Audiences absorb myths about the music industry because they are romantic, but you don’t hear as much insider critique, and I think it’s healthy to hear it.
ZFC: It’s also about the lie that if you just work it, then you’ll get there. I’d rather be real about it. Most people are going to toil in the wilderness, and that’s okay, too, but let’s not pretend that it’s not happening.
AH: The song “Below the Waterline” references a number of locations but is also about a relationship, which is very relatable. I know that the idea of the album title, Waterlines, brings in elements of the past that are still present. But for me, it also conjures up this idea of zones that are neither one thing nor another, like being neither water nor land, which can be unsettling.
ZFC: It’s really true. Below the waterline is somewhere in between the dry land and the water. It is this “in between” territory where you’re not sure if you’re going to sink or swim. There’s a mystery and a little bit of a threat to it. It’s a kind of an insecure perch that has its own point of view. I love this idea of things that you cannot see but you know are there, whether it’s in a body of water, or in a person that you’re encountering or involved with. They say that we only use ten percent of our brains, so there’s so much going on that we are not conscious of. That’s where a lot of powerful forces are at play. I’m intrigued by that idea.
Find more of Zoe Fitzgerald Carter’s music, here: https://www.zoecartermusic.com/