Andrea Zonn lives in a house filled with sunlight. Odd-shaped rooms, cozy touches, old school architecture. Her laughter fills the room as she reminds you “and it’s officially on what was considered the wrong side of the tracks.”The almond-eyed beauty, as exotic as she is wide open when she smiles, mocks East Nashville’s reputation gently. Pushing a shock of ebony hair from her eyes, she reminds you she’s been living on the bohemian side of Nashville since 1986.
“I walked into this house — all harvest gold and avocado green, the original paint job and tube wiring — but the space was so inviting,” says the acclaimed violinist and vocalist who has worked with Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, and the past dozen years, James Taylor. “I just somehow knew. This was the medicine I needed after my divorce. It was a healing up house.”
It was also a refuge for her son, who required several intense brain surgeries. And the place where the classically-trained musician, who has performed at Lincoln Center and the Library of Congress, found her voice as a songwriter.
After touring and recording with George Jones, Linda Ronstadt, Amy Grant, Trisha Yearwood, Gill, and beyond, the trials of being a woman coming into her own and facing her son’s life-threatening health crisis, Zonn started writing songs at her kitchen table. Before too long, she realized those songs needed to be heard.
Rise, her new album, is also something of a miracle. Scheduled for release by Compass Records on Sept. 25, it marks a coming of awareness for the in-demand vocalist-violinist. Capturing resilience, hope, and life’s embrace in 10 songs, she moves from introspective singer-songwriter and throwback jazz to country, subdued blues, and warm adult pop. Then there’s the fantasy band Zonn assembled.
Start with the legendary rhythm section: Steve Gadd on drums and Willie Weeks on bass. Both masters of their craft, both musicians who’ve toured with the dusky-voiced Zonn in different bands.
“Every call was intentional, … everyone on here,” Zonn says. “I wanted to call it The Love Record, because that’s what we all share: for each other, for the music. Willie played bass with Vince the very first time I went out with Vince, and he’s incredible. Now I’m touring with Steve in James’ band — and I knew, even though they haven’t really recorded together, Willie and Steve loved each other. It seemed right.”
It’s one thing to have a notion, another to invite them to your party. But trying to align the schedules of musicians who record and tour at this level is a lot like trying to make planets align.
Zonn laughs at the thought, nods her head. Ever the humble artist and songwriter, she allows, “I figured what I can do is ask. And it’s still scary.
“Steve came to town with David Sanborn, and I went to see him,” she recalls. “I told him I’d started writing, and his name had come up in a discussion with Janis Ian about fantasy rhythm sections. He was like, ‘Call me.’
“There’s the right chemistry and intention to both (Gadd and Weeks). They allow a lot of space, a lot of room for the listener to participate, which these songs need. But there’s also a deep groove and a pocket so delicious — and (playing with) that seasoning takes time to develop.
“They really understand songs that way, versus great players who have a tendency to fill up every possible space, to chart out every single thing. They have technique, but lack imagination. But Willie and Steve . . . ,” she says, her voice drifting off, clearly enraptured with the skeleton they gave her songs. And also the incentive to keep writing, keep plumbing her depths in a new creative zone. “History has a way of teaching you,” she admits. “For me, the closer you get to a deadline, the more productive you get.”
Writing with Tom Jutz, Bill Lloyd, Peter Cooper, Lovett bandmate Luke Bulla, and Kim Richey, Rise started taking shape. Out of her trials and her defeats, fear and occasional loathing, Andrea Zonn conjured an album of deep hope and reassurance.
Lyle Lovett, a friend as well as her former bandleader, hones in on her essence as a creative. “Andrea is a great listener,” he says. “She’s so sensitive and intuitive: her tone, her intonation, her choices. And she’s always had great respect for the arrangements, but her ear — for life, as well as music — gives her a grace that lifts her up beyond a great player or singer; she engages.”
She also called some more of her friends, who were only too happy to come make music with her. On Rise, you will hear Gill and Keb’ Mo’ playing guitar and singing. Dobroist Jerry Douglas, Newgrass Revival mandolinist and solo force Sam Bush, Newgrass vocalist and current Doobie Brother John Cowan, and award-winning musician Mac McAnally also make appearances on the record.
But with a dream band, there are always parameters. In this case, “We only had two days to cut all the tracks.” Prepared with good charts, knowing the keys and tempos, Zonn hit the studio with gusto — and just enough Midwestern doubt to make magic.
“I remember thinking, ‘I hope I’m not over my head . . . ,’ ” she marvels. “It’s one thing to imagine this band, another to get in a room with them. Going in the studio any time is a surprise, as it should be when you’re creating. I tried to remember: I’m bringing in people knowing their essence as a musician; I’m going to allow them to do that, let them enjoy playing together on these songs.”
It helps that Zonn, who studied with Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile as Vanderbilt was building its Blair School of Music curriculum, was mentored by bluegrass legend Tony Trischka. Trischka advised the classical/bluegrass-straddling artist: “Don’t limit yourself with any one kind of music. Don’t wall off your possibilities, or you will never learn what you were put here to do with your talent.”
She honored those truths, signing with Compass Records. Owned by progressive banjo sensation Alison Brown, the label’s entire team understands music that’s not intrinsically about neat little boxes — and they strive to support the best music that is possible.
“They let a relative unknown artist (me) cut songs by a relatively unknown songwriter (me) — and that’s amazing. Everyone at Compass recognizes there’s more to music than a format, and Alison encouraged me to do this.”
Thankfully Zonn, whose voice evokes Shawn Colvin, Karla Bonoff, and Trisha Yearwood, is one of those artists who is comfortable where the songs take her. It’s the underlying theme of Rise, a theme that emerged from Zonn’s
“Above all the surrender involved, you have to let go of intentions,” she explains. “It’s not always what people wanted or expected, but if we’re being honest or respectful, people will recognize that. ‘Rise’ — to me — that’s what we did when faced with adversity, and it’s a good way to live.
“When we got four songs the first day, and knew there were six more, that’s what we did. That’s incredible — and funny. The remarkable thing of this music (being made) had me pinching myself, it was so good.”
Even getting Taylor on board for the friendship-as-healer “You Make Me Whole” was a “pinch yourself” moment. “I’m not the kind to over-ask, and I wanted to pad it with a way out, so it wouldn’t be awkward. I started just asking him questions, trying to feel him out . . . and he said ‘yes’ before I even asked.”
The day after Taylor played his annual Fourth of July show at Tanglewood, Zonn stayed over and went in the studio with her “boss.” The result draws you in the same way Sweet Baby James did so many years ago: Taylor’s response vocals affirming the notion of how friends hold us together.
And for Zonn, who won the National Fiddle Championship the same year she was awarded a prestigious violin fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival, it seems to come down in many ways to truly finding a home. “For the first time in years, I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she says. “I’m solid and grounded, happier than I’ve ever been in my adult life.
“I love where I am,” she continues. “Since motherhood, I don’t get out and soak up the nightlife like I used to, but the mixture of culture and classes, the cross section of community here and the creative circles I live in, that exist in East Nashville, inspire me. Jen Gunderman is over here and Audley Freed; but instead of seeing them at the bar, I see them at The Turnip Truck.
“Just everywhere you go, there’s something to inspire you. That’s absolutely the best way to live.”