The first time I ever saw Keith Zarriello, he walked onto a darkened stage with an antique oil lamp and belted out an a capella stunner about owning the stage and how he was going to die when he is 30. I was instantly captivated, and over the next year dove into the gold mine of his music.
Since their start in New York City in the early 2000s, The Shivers has been everything from a five-piece rock band to a solo act, with Zarriello’s melancholic, beautiful songwriting at the forefront. His songs are often odes to past loves or celebrations of current romances, but the lyrics are much more personal and visceral than those songs about hitting the bottle after a breakup.
A particularly interesting part of his songwriting is that he carries lyric and melodic motifs across songs and even entire albums (see “Love is Good” from Phone Calls and “Love is Good” from Beaks to the Moon, the same song in different styles). But the repeated elements are anything but stale; Zarriello finds novel ways of repurposing them. The Shivers’ albums also are full of twisting experimental interludes that glue the songs together.
Live, his magnetic voice fills the room and his fingerpicking is at times equally aggressive and sensitive. I’ve never heard one person permeate a room like he does. Mining the pain of isolation and lost love for art isn’t a new concept, but Zarriello has been finding new ways to explore it for over a decade. If you’re not familiar, do yourself a favor and start with The Shivers debut album, Charades.
Locally, he’s playing at the Purple Cat Winery in Chepachet on Friday, October 14 opening for Garland Jeffreys. I recently spoke to Keith about his music.
Jake Bissaro: Your guitar playing is a big part of your sound. How did you develop your technique? I would describe it as a sort of fingerstyle and rhythm guitar at the same time.
Keith Zarriello: I never studied formally, so my style is nothing I put together on a conscious level. I did listen to a lot of Mississippi Delta blues, like Son House and Mississippi John Hurt. I also became a big fan of Soul and all things Stax and Motown, especially Steve Cropper’s playing. I guess I sort of just combined the fingerpicking and Cropper-style influences. But I also love noise and experimental music, like hitting guitars with stuff and that kind of thing.
JB: One of the things about your music I find so interesting is you repurpose things like lyrics and melodies in new ways. What made you decide to do this?
KZ: Again, it’s nothing very purposeful; it just sort of happened that way. My songs are divided up into albums, but I guess I tend to look at the whole body of work as one unbroken line, so it makes sense to me to bring things back. I think that once you settle into a song, you also get to figuring out how you can play it better and it morphs over time.
JB: Many of your songs are about the heartbreaking side of romance and love. Do you have muses, or are your characters fictional?
KZ: I’d rather not say. I like to leave things open-ended and let the listener make of it what they will.
JB: Your hometown of New York has a big place in many songs. How would you describe the scene?
KZ: Yeah, I am obsessed with the history of NY rock ‘n’ roll. Like, I want to know everyone who’s ever played Max’s Kansas City and stuff like that. I actually played my first gig at CBGB’s when I was 16, and we got ice thrown at us.
JB: That is the most NY thing I’ve ever heard.
KZ: Yeah, it was awesome. All the places I used to go to are pretty much gone, but it’s interesting to see the cycle: The artists can only afford the shitty neighborhoods, and the yuppies follow the artists and price them out into shittier areas and so on. I’m pumped to be playing with Garland Jeffreys, who is a great songwriter and old-school NYC guy who hung around with Lou Reed.
JB: LA filmmaker Tara Niami is making a video for your new song “The Dirty Shed,” which deals with your sexual abuse as a child. What made you write about this subject for the first time, after nine albums?
KZ: I wrote that song in like five minutes while staring out a window in Mexico, and I was never intending to become any kind of spokesman. But there are so many people who have to live with sexual abuse, that I’m very glad if a little folk song can bring them solace. People have already responded positively to it. Also, I’ve been writing songs for a long time, so I was like, “What is there to lose?”
JB: What are you currently working on?
KZ: I’m working on a new album. I actually had already recorded it, but I’ve been rethinking my whole strategy with albums. I think I’ve included too many songs and made the albums too experimental, without much exposure. I’ve learned that most people don’t give a shit about my weird interludes, maybe because it makes it harder to pigeonhole into one genre. I’m going to go back and make it tighter. I’m hoping that will help me expand my audience.
JB: I actually like the jams!
KZ: Glad there are some people who still do! I will say the fans I do have are extremely loyal and supportive. There have been people coming out to my shows for over a decade.
The Fat Cat Winery is located at 11 Money Hill Rd, Chepachet and show starts at 7:15 on Friday, October 14. For tickets, visit Fat Cat Events website at: fatcatsevents.com/downtownlive