Zoe Muth’s press kit for her new album, Starlight Hotel, reveals several impressive references — everyone from Emmylou Harris, Kitty Wells and Iris DeMent to Merle Haggard, John Prine and Hank Williams — concerning her songwriting ability and vocal prowess. Those are lofty comparisons for someone who’s promoting her sophomore album, but the correlations are completely warranted and hesitantly accepted.
“It’s pretty intimidating,” Muth says from the van she shares with her band, the Lost High Rollers. “Hopefully someday I can live up to the records and go beyond in the live show. I hear Emmylou Harris sing and I don’t hear her hit a bad note or forget the words, which I do quite often.”
If Starlight Hotel is any indication, Muth is well prepared to stand up to the scrutiny. The album is a diverse collection that mirrors Muth’s broad musical interests — Country, Bluegrass, Rock, Roots and all points in between. When she and the Rollers hit the stage, however, the needle pegs more towards the red.
“Songs have more room to get loud,” Muth says of live shows. “It’s not always better for the mandolin player.”
The Seattle native grew up in a home where music was a constant presence; she began writing songs when she was a child, even though there was no musical component to her creations.
“I’ve always written songs and poetry ever since I could write,” Muth says. “My dad’s an avid record collector, we had a jukebox in the basement, and my sister and I had a Fisher Price record player to play 45s.”
Muth learned guitar as a teenager but didn’t find the fortitude to perform in front of an actual audience until her college years.
Up to then, she’d never even sung her songs for her family.
“I was in college when I realized there were a lot of things I was interested in but probably nothing I could ever actually make a living at,” Muth says with a laugh. “I figured I should try doing music and see if I was good enough to make a living at it.”
Three years ago, Muth was going the solo route in Seattle’s active Americana scene when she met mandolinist Ethan Lawton at a Bluegrass jam and they joined forces. Soon after, a friend suggested a live summit between her and guitarist/pedal steeler “Country” Dave Harmonson. Their first tentative show together was the seed of the Lost High Rollers; they recorded their eponymous 2009 debut album, and then settled on the current rhythm section of drummer Greg Nies and bassist Mike McDermott.
The first album drew great praise including a slot in the Top 50 albums of No Depression’s annual Reader’s Poll and being named New Artist of the Year by Modern Acoustic magazine. Eilen Jewell was so impressed with Muth that she helped her secure contracts with Signature Sounds and Jewell’s booking agency. From the first album to Starlight Hotel to whatever comes next, Muth is ready to embrace it all, at a perhaps slightly elevated volume.
“I’ve been gravitating toward making my songs a little more Rock & Roll sounding,” she says. “I love that kind of music as much as I love the classic Country stuff, so I don’t want to necessarily be known as just Country.”
With Muth’s incredible range, it’s not likely that she’ll ever be pegged as any one thing. Starlight Hotel is a grab bag of rootsy goodness: the Texicali swing of “I’ve Been Gone,” the Folk/Pop melancholy of “Whatever’s Left,” the classic Country twang-meets-John Prine smirk of “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart?),” the muted jump of “Come Inside.” The quality that strings them all together like pepper lights on a cantina deck railing is Muth’s wonderfully evocative voice and sense of songcraft.
“I think with this one I tried to make more of a point in the songs of my philosophy on life and work,” Muth says. “But I think that shows through on the first record, too. I think for the most part, almost all of the songs I write have to do with being a working-class person. Like ‘If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter,’ in general if you spend a lot of time in bars, you talk to people about music and if there’s a jukebox you pay attention to what people are putting on. I’ve spent a lot of time in bars where people have really terrible taste in music. But I wrote it mostly because I want to get a show opening for John Prine, so maybe he’ll hear it.”
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