Artist of the day: Rebecca Zapen
Hanging in Rebecca Zapen’s home is a balalaika, a triangular, three-stringed Russian instrument that’s a bit like a guitar.
“The only book I had on how to play it was in Russian, so I kind of gave up on it,” she said. “One of these days, I’m going to find an excuse to play it out. But for now, it’s just very pretty on the wall.”
The St. Pete singer-songwriter and her husband, Jeremy Douglass, are both working musicians, so their home is full of eclectic instruments — violins, guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, pianos, a Brazilian string instrument called a cavaquinho.
Zapen’s melodic home life is evident on her fourth and newest album, Nest, 13 tracks of warm indie folk and acoustic jazz. The title is a reference to the changes in Zapen’s life over the past three years — her whirlwind romance with Douglass; their decision to settle in St. Petersburg; the birth of their first child, Joel. Zapen began recording when she was six months pregnant, and finished the disc when Joel was 20 months old. “I still feel like I’m settling in, in a way,” she said.
Like many multifaceted musicians, Zapen, 37, grew up surrounded by artists. Her grandmother played accordion, her grandfather was a jazz and blues guitarist, and her mother, father and stepfather were all members of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. She picked up the violin at age 2. “I was told I could quit when I was 18,” she said. “But at that point, I was already at Florida State, studying violin on scholarship. So the whole notion of quitting when you’re 18 — I was like, I think I’m in this.”
Zapen received a biology degree and applied to medical school, but gave it up to play music instead. She lived with friends, played “experimental world lounge music,” and traveled abroad, performing in Switzerland and Italy and busking on the streets of Israel and Portugal.
When she returned to Jacksonville to record music, a friend put her in touch with Douglass, a pianist and recording engineer in St. Pete. They met in the summer of 2008 and bonded immediately. “There was a ring maybe a month later,” she said, “then I moved in December, we married in March, and we had a boy by Thanksgiving.”
Zapen and Douglass both teach at the Bringe School of Music in St. Petersburg. Zapen performs at weddings and private events, but also gigs around the state, and does violin session work for artists ranging from country singers to death metal bands.
Recorded in the couple’s rented home, Nest is a hushed, delicate collection that captures some of Zapen’s eclectic tastes. (Asked what she’s listening to at the moment, she mentions a mix CD that contains 16 different versions of Waters of March, by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.) The clarinet-driven waltz Grandfather’s Song, she said, is a nod to her Jewish heritage. (“I spent four years playing klezmer music. I love music that’s in a minor key.”) There’s a bossa nova version of Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love. (Radiohead’s No Surprises is another favorite cover.)
The album ends with Colorado, an Appalachian ballad sung like a traditional Irish hymn.
“I never write songs like that,” she said. “I was in North Carolina doing some shows a few years ago, and I think it’s osmosis. The Appalachian vibe was in the air. I’ve never written another song like that. It would be interesting to visit places with the purpose of being influenced by the environment, to see what I could write.”
Zapen said Joel, who turned 2 this week, is already adapting to the family’s musical household. He likes Fleet Foxes, and loves banging on the banjo. “Here we have the son of classical and jazz musicians, and he loves banjo,” she said.
For now, Zapen said, the banjo just sits on a stand. It’s one of the few instruments she doesn’t really play.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*