It’s a long way from Seattle to South Africa. The snowcapped Olympics to the West, and Cascades to the East, the towering peak of Mount Rainier to the South, looking over the moss covered rocks, and soggy tree bark with a maternal gaze. Then, cutting through the region with an icy touch is puget sound. It’s a landscape that is even farther away from South Africa, a country that just seems bright and full of colors, the idea of months on end of gray washed out skies might be inconceivable to its inhabitants.
This is a duality that plays out in the hands, mind, and voice of singer/songwriter Zarni de Wet, who was born and raised in South Africa until the age of eleven, when her family moved to New York. After finishing school at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Zarni followed her boyfriend out to Seattle, and by the years end she not only ended up with a burgeoning solo career, but also found herself as a member of the band Campfire Ok. It seems unlikely, or implausible, and maybe in another city or for someone with less talent, it would be.
Zarni’s music is like a cross section image of the earth, from the cool outer edge of the Crust, down through the Mantle, the Outer Core, and into the boiling Inner Core.
The Crust is this beautiful clean and jazzy piano. Played with flickering hands that flutter over the keys with melodies at a methamphetamine level of addiction.
A level down at the Mantle you hit this unexpected edge to her music, like the notes are catching fire. A dash of punk bass, or distorted guitar, even a surprising grind of her otherwise flawless voice.
Down even further is the Outer Core, where her exceptional voice meets with the music. This is where I assume her years of studying at Berklee come into play, her technical proficiency taking hands with the warmth of her voice and dancing together.
Finally you reach the molten Inner Core, the emotional beating heart of Zarni’s artistic vessel. You could peel away everything above the Inner Core and you would still have something special and unique.
It’s in that emotional core that you find at the center of all Zarni’s work. It’s where her scholastic and theoretical knowledge of music, and her physical ability and talent, meet with naked emotion. Skinless, it feels honest, unguarded, and vulnerable. Zarni channels her raw feelings and emotion into words and sound, in a way that few artists do, or even can.
Few artists have lived an easy stress free life, free from often overbearing emotional weight. What that weight is or where it comes from is different for everyone, and in Zarni’s case it seems to originate from a feeling of being an outsider. At age eleven Zarni’s step-father got a job in New York and so she, and her mother left their home in South Africa, and moved to the United States. She left behind her father, siblings, and a country and culture that she would write about nostalgically years later. Over time she acquiesced into American culture. Her native language, Afrikaans, was neglected, her South African accent, ever impossible to place, faded, smoldered, and vanished.
She attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she released two albums. The first was Friday Night Lights, a mostly Jazz inspired album with pop vocals. The album was self-produced and released. For her second effort she enlisted the help of a producer, Straight Forward is far edgier with rock beats, she contorts her vocals, and breaks free from tradition.
As if moving from South Africa to the United States wasn’t enough, after graduating from Berklee, Zarni followed her boyfriend to Seattle. The culture shock once again was significant, and now she wasn’t just an African immigrant, she was an African immigrant from the East Coast. She dealt, not only with the feelings of being an outsider, but with the challenge of traversing an entirely new musical landscape.
Some will tell you that regional music is dead, that the internet has homogenized music to a point where any band could be from anywhere. Yet, what is happening here in the Pacific Northwest is different, it’s unique to this region, whether you’re homegrown or a transplant, you still manage to find the threads that run through all this wonderful music. Zarni navigated her way with an EP that subtly exploits that Northwest sound. The songs are more simple and less pop driven, and folk melodies are gently woven in.
Zarni wasn’t just jockeying to find her place in a music scene that’s exponentially expanding, she literally landed right in its midst, as the keyboardist for Seattle indie rockers, Campfire Ok. For someone who knew so few in this especially tight knit music community, it is incredible that she found herself in a band as special as Campfire. Her career is still so young, and her time in the PNW so brief that she has so many places to go yet, whether it is within Campfire or out on her own.
I’m always on the lookout for new music, in fact it’s become a debilitating addiction. I can always manage to distract myself by searching for a brand new band with a new sound. Anyone can submit music for our consumption here (firstname.lastname@example.org) and while I try and get around to all of them, it’s not all to often that I get a submission that really strikes me, at least one that strikes me so much that I immediately turn around and send an email back. But that is exactly what I did.
Between writing and performing her own music, playing with Campfire Ok, teaching piano lessons, and pounding the keys for tips at a local piano bar, Zarni found a sliver of time to meet me at my house for the interview. Our discussion was literally sandwiched between a piano lesson, and her shift at the piano bar. She ate on the run and I am very grateful that she took the time to sit down with me.
As always, the following interview excerpt is just a slice of what Zarni and I talked about, I strongly urge you to check out the full audio podcast. You can download the episode here, in itunes, or even bandcamp if you like.
Of all the places you could have moved after graduating from Berklee, why did you choose Seattle?
zarni de wet
To be honest, my boyfriend was from Seattle, we met at Berklee. A lot of my Berklee friends had moved to L.A., Nashville, New York, the typical ones, and they were really struggling to pay rent and make a living doing music. It was just one of those serendipitous things because eyes are on Seattle, in terms of the music scene.
There’s a lot of cities you could move to in this country that won’t have strong music scenes, but Seattle has a really nice scene of bands who are either from here or developed here.
There’s a flavor here, I feel like I can hear it. And everybody uses it in a different way. I was surprised with how many bands there are and how they’re all interconnected. Everyone seems to be doing their own cool thing and drawing from each other.
Before you moved from Boston to Seattle, you made a bigger move from South Africa to the US. What prompted that move?
My stepdad got a job transfer from South Africa to Johnson City New York.
In your blog post about that move you mention how much of an outsider you felt like here. Do you still feel that way?
No, once I overcame that hurtle of being like “there’s a lot of things I love about America”- once I started identifying half of myself as being more American, I didn’t feel as outside. In a lot of ways, when I go back to South Africa I feel outside there. I’m removed from everything- I don’t know what’s going on in the news… I’m just culturally out of it. It’s a strange homelessness, to live two separate lives in two different countries.
Even though you were fairly young when you lived in South Africa, did that music culture permeate you much?
The African element of it. I tend to think and play more rhythmically. Somewhere in there the really quintessential African beats and tribal chants stuck with me. I love listening to it, I love the African harmonies. I think that stuck somewhere.
Is that a conscious thing, or is it below the surface?
I think it’s just below the surface. I’ve made one conscious decision on an album to be really obviously African, so that when people in South Africa hear it they can feel pride.
When did you first start writing songs?
I wrote my first official song when I was in South Africa still, so… ten.
I’m interested to know how different a song you wrote in South Africa was to something you wrote here?
First off, it was in Afrikaans, my native language.
You’ve released two albums, and you were in school when you made them, did that help you to make those while you were there?
Absolutely, half of those songs were assignments from teachers. It helped to get thousands of great musicians at my fingertips wanting to record.
There’s a pretty big shift between your first album (Friday Night Lights) and your second album (Straight Forward) what happened in between the two?
I learned what I was doing. The first album I’ve divorced myself from. It’s not that I’m not proud of it, I realize how different it is and it’s not me anymore. The first one was self-produced, I didn’t know what a producer was. I didn’t do hardly any work on the songs before recording. I just brought the guys in the studio and said, “play.” The second album I had a producer, who sat me down from day one and we worked on the songs. I just really started finding my style in how I wrote in that second album.
I was surprised to see that for someone who’d been in Seattle for such a short amount of time, that you were already playing with a band… Campfire Ok. How did that happen?
A few months ago I started emailing bands who played Bumbershoot, Doe Bay, all the big festivals- because I just wasn’t getting anywhere as fast as I would like, just doing open mics and random gigs. I emailed asking “Can I open for you?” Mychal [Cohen] from Campfire wrote back and said “We don’t need an opener anytime soon, but we do need a keyboard player and vocalist.” I auditioned and rehearsed two or three times and then they told me “you’re officially in.”
You’re doing demos right now with Campfire Ok, what are you doing with your solo work?
I’ll probably be doing an album in the near future. I’m working with a producer named Stevie Adamek. I really want to go on tour.***
You can see Zarni performing live at the Sunset Tavern in Seattle on June 12th before heading out on tour with Campfire Ok. You can find her on the information superhighway at zarnimusic.com, as well as itunes/spotify/etc. By the way, searching for Zarni and Zarni de Wet will sometimes give you different results, so try them both.
Again, the above interview is just a little peak into the discussion that Zarni and I had, I highly recommend listening to the full audio podcast to really get the full picture of what has contributed to Zarni’s phenomenal music. You can download the episode here, or in itunes. And now you can also find all our episodes on bandcamp.