Courage to write songs came from life experience
It had been fired there by Leonard, her playfully exuberant young son. Most parents would have removed it, with maybe a little scolding to boot. Zonn, however, was content to leave it in place for a while. In fact, she treasures every moment she can share with Leonard, having stood by his side as he survived dangerous brain surgery just a few years ago.
On this particular afternoon, Leonard is out with friends, though he insists on calling his mother every few minutes to report on his adventures.
Her apologies for these interruptions are unnecessary; it’s easy to see how happy she is to have him fully in her life. That’s clear too from the picture of the two of them that adorns the liner copy to her new album—and, as we’ll see, from the music it offers as well.
Since moving from Illinois at age 16 to study at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, Zonn has built a reputation as a violinist of unusual depth, even for Nashville. Five years later, country-superstar Vince Gill welcomed her into his band Pure Prairie League.
Later, she would record and tour with artists including Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, Yo-Yo Ma, and Alison Krauss, a friend since they met as children and fiddle contestants at the Champaign County Fair. Since 2003 Zonn has also worked steadily with James Taylor, whose aesthetic mirrors her emphasis on simplicity and melody, tone and taste.
It’s been 12 years since her first project, Love Goes On. Only now, having drawn from her work with other artists and weathered the challenges that she faced with Leonard, has she felt called to take her second step as a solo artist in her own right.
“I started thinking about doing it right before I found out I was pregnant,” Zonn says. “But now that James [Tayor] is taking some time off to write, the timing was perfect. I also realized it was finally possible to get [bassist] Willie Weeks and [drummer] Steve Gadd in a room together. I adore both of them, musically and as human beings. So, I really wanted to make that happen.”
With Weeks and Gadd anchoring the rhythm section, Zonn recruited a stellar cast of musicians, as well as high-profile guest vocalists. Together they created Rise, released September 25 by Cutting Garden/Compass Records, a collection of tunes that reflect, among other attributes, Zonn’s originality as a writer.
“I don’t presume to have the gift that James [Taylor] has,” she admits. “That was enough to keep me from trying. But after Leonard had to deal with his issues, songwriting seemed a lot less scary than dealing with a sick child, like, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’”
The worst would have been for Zonn to have not written at all. Highlights throughout Rise are many: “No Reason to Feel Good” pairs her with blues icon Keb’ Mo’ on a hymn to surviving trying times, set to a gently funky beat. Over artfully crafted chord changes, “Another Side of Home” looks beyond “bed and chair and table” to find deeper meaning in everyday places. Life and whatever lies beyond, a barroom on the ocean’s edge, an old woman closing her eyes one last time as a child laughs nearby—Zonn’s honeyed vocals paired with Trace Adkins’ rumbling basso conjure thoughts of loss and sparks of hope on “Ships.”
On these tracks and throughout Rise, she plays her “no-name” violin. The instrument dates back most likely to the mid-1700s and was owned previously by country fiddle legend Buddy Spicher. Zonn acquired it about 30 years ago. “It’s probably Italian—you can see by the shape of the scroll and the kind of varnish that was used,” she says. “You have a chemistry with an instrument when it responds to the way you play. I felt that with this violin.” [Zonn also prefers Morizot bows and has lately been using Larsen strings.]
On Rise, Zonn’s solos are few and brief, conceived not to set off fireworks, but rather to blend into the music, with long notes chosen to complement the composition. “To me, solos are places where you can let the lyrics sink in and the story unfold,” Zonn says. “A time passes before the next chapter begins, especially in ‘Another Side of Home.’ There’s a reason for that pause, to set up the events of the next verse. Hot solos haven’t ever felt authentic to me. I would much rather use the violin as a voice than as a fiddle: If I were going to sing it, how would it go?”
Much of Zonn’s performance on Rise stems from her experience with classical repertoire. “It definitely informed my sense of voice leading and how those voices support a melody,” she says.
“The Bach solo partitas and sonatas taught me not just about the violin but about music. My dad would analyze them, using the Golden Proportion and the Fibonacci Series. He wrote avant-garde music and taught theory and composition at the University of Illinois for many years. And I loved the Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte, the Prokofiev violin sonatas, the Brahms and the Tchaikovsky concertos—really meaty stuff.”
She brings her instrument up front just once, in an instrumental episode during the last minute of “Where the Water Meets the Sky.”
“It just felt like a nice way to connect the dots because that song is this happy thing and then you have to go from there into ‘Rise,’ which is this really dark place. I had this little melody in mind and I was thinking, how can I support this? So there are four tracks of pizzicato and two pairs of vocals; it kind of overlaps.”
Her cellphone rings again. She smiles before answering and adds, “We call that ‘The Cat Song,’ my son and I.”