A Life beyond the Blues: Zoe Muth’s World of Strangers
As a student at Evergreen State College in the late nineties, Zoe Muth spent most her time at the library. But the Austin-based songwriter wasn’t hitting the books. Instead, she was tucked away in a listening room, immersing herself for hours in the college’s large collection of old folk music. She would study Folkways recordings by blind gospel teacher and guitarist Reverend Gary Davis and southern blues master Mississippi John Hurt; music that arose from the American South, a place far different from Muth’s hometown of Seattle.
“It was so foreign to my own upbringing,” says Muth, on the phone from Chicago where she’s visiting family with her husband (who happens to be the drummer in her backing band) before kicking off a West Coast tour. “All of these stories from rural America were so interesting to me for that reason.” The experience was part of a year’s long search for authenticity, for a soul and style not found in much of today’s modern country music.
Muth’s third album, World of Strangers, fully inhabits the lessons learned from those early influences and captures that longed for authenticity. The album shimmers with a slightly sad, slightly hopeful country sound that’s Americana through and through. Simple and arresting, this is music for the end of the night, when the dancing slows and the party winds down, and whoever is left in the bar is forced, with the disappearance of those distractions, to wrestle with emotional darkness. Like the best songwriters before her (Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams come to mind) Muth writes about the underdogs: the mom who waits for her baby to go to sleep so she can have a well-earned drink, the wives of men who’ve disappeared down the road, and the thousands of regular folks staring out the window of a rundown house “dreaming of a life beyond these blues.”
“I think it’s just my personality, my melancholy personality, the way I tend to focus on people who seem like they are struggling in life,” Muth says about her songwriting process. “Hopefully, there is also some humor and hope in all my songs. They are taken from bits and pieces of people I know, or what I imagine someone on the street might be feeling.” World of Strangers builds on the country sound established on Muth’s first two releases with her band the Lost High Rollers: Her 2009 self-titled debut, paid for by earnings from her job as a preschool teacher and from open mic night tips, was followed by 2011’s Starlight Hotel; both titles ended up on No Depression’s Top 50 albums of the year list.
The new album evolved out of major life changes. After struggling to develop bits and pieces of songs between tours, Muth couldn’t quite get the feelings she imagined for the music to coalesce. “At the end of 2012, we made the decision to produce a new record,” says Muth. “But we didn’t know the musicians we needed to know in Seattle or a producer to make it.” Not knowing a soul, Muth and her band decided to make a go of it in Austin. The move gave Muth a chance to create the sound of her dreams and the right connections to make it happen.
Shortly after landing in Austin, Muth was introduced to George Reiff, a producer and bassist who had deep roots in the city’s country scene. Soon, they were recording an album. World of Strangers roster includes Brad Rice (Son Volt, Keith Urban), Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks and Bruce Robison. With Reiff, Muth found a producer who could translate the sound she’d been hearing in her head for so long, one inspired by two albums: Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris and Oh Mercy by Bob Dylan, both produced by Daniel Lanois.
“Lanois took these two artists that had a really distinct sound and made something that was completely different,” Muth says. “It was more ethereal, spacey, and flowy with more reverb. That was something I wanted for these songs. I wanted them to sound less like straight-ahead classic country and more dreamlike. I had this idea for what I was calling “outer-space country,” with more flowing pedal steel, something that reminds people of an open sky, an open road or an open landscape.”
Muth says she’s proud of the album, despite being, like many of the characters populating her songs, “a glass-half-empty kind of person.” With success comes bigger crowds and less of the grind of touring, the incessant traveling to play to nearly empty rooms, the struggle to pay for gas money, all the things that make a band more resilient but can swiftly lead to burnout.
“We’ve been so lucky with the way things happened for us,” says Muth. “Someone introduces us to a great producer who happens to know the Dixie Chicks. I’m trying to focus on all of the positive things that have happened.”