“I live in quite a nice house/It has parquet wooden floors/ I’m too loud for the neighbours next door” –‘BLACK GUITAR’
On arriving at her home, Karen and guitarist Don whip me onto a comfortable couch; here’s the DVD they want me to watch – a live performance of the legendary Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac. (“Fleetwood Mac?” “I listen to Radio 2000” she grins.) Her own taste in music includes Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Koos Kombuis, Bernoldus Niemand and Bonnie Raitt for her guitar playing. “I would also like to be 53 and have a 24 year old discover my work”, she says. More current listening includes Queens of the Stone Age and the Foo Fighters. She believes that people who do something that they want to do, and not what other people want them to do, is what makes for stardom. When I ask her what she thinks about mag mate Britney Spears, Zoid is surprisingly generous in her response “All music comes from one place and at least she did a lot for Joan Jett with her cover of I Love Rock ‘n Roll. Not that Britney’s version’s that great, but she made a lot of money for Joan… Three years ago I might have said she was an idiot, but I know what it feels like to be dissed. You have to put the mirror in front of yourself.”
“You can stand up/ be counted” – ‘VERANDERING’
The first time I saw Karen Zoid perform was at AFDA, the film school in Johannesburg, where the singer had gone undercover as a student. The evening consisted of a handful of record company suits, a bunch of sycophantically cheering mates, a rapidly empty bottle of Jack Daniels, a bellowing blonde and a decidedly crap amp. (Hey, did I ever tell you about the time Valient Swart’s young son, suffering from an infection that made his ear buzz, whispered, “Pa ek het ‘n amp in my oor”? But wait, before I deviate down the ‘donkerpad’ of another talented Afrikaans rocker, let me get back to that bellowing blonde.) Thereafter the artist formerly known as Karen Greeff was to be seen performing alongside the likes of the long deceased Abstract Evil Barbie and Damn the Icebergs at the Abelard Sanction in Brixton, a small poke apparently run by an ex-mercenary with a very large gun.
At this point it’s probably important to point out the crystal method in the madness of this fairy tale, because Ms Greeff, the fairy princess, was a damn sight smarter than her running companions were. After all, ‘Karen Zoid’ has a better ring to it, than most of the band names that made it out of the gates at the time. As the singer says, “A Zoid is a person who doesn’t comply with the norm, with society… it also means that you’ll be able to find me more easily in the CD racks, between Zietsman and Zwan.” And it seems fitting that in between an Afrikaner icon of sorts, Elsabe Zietsman, and ex Smashing Pumpkins vocalist Billy Corgan’s new outfit, Zwan, there you’ll find Karen Zoid…
More history – her enormously successful debut album ‘Poles Apart’, apparently sold more than 18 000 units and is still climbing, mostly on the back of the track ‘Afrikaners is Plesierig’, an ironic ode to the traditional folk song. But let’s go back to the future. Just prior to the release of Karen Zoid’s sophomore album ‘Chasing the Sun’ (the title refers to her international ambitions; “My career must take me to every single country in the world before I die” she says), the rumours ran amok about it’s less than average beauty. Oh, it was recorded in some strange studio, it’s rambling they said; it’s not half as good as the debut, the record company are nervous, they said. Zoid herself admits it was a hard album to make. Listen to that album once though and you’ll think twice; listen to it twice and you’ll set your CD player onto replay; on listening to it a third time you’ll know you’re in the face of a classic, an album which has greater depth and diversity than the debut album could ever offer. Karen Zoid’s talent was starting to shine through…
“I lead this gypsy band/ All across the land” –‘GENTLEMAN’S SONG’
(“If anyone’s a legend who should get into this magazine, its guitarist Albert Frost”, says Karen Zoid. Sure, Albert Frost, currently playing with Arno Carsten’s latest project New Porn, is legendary in his own right, an extraordinary guitarist of such magnitude and grace – but his is another story for another time.)
The return of faith in punk rock and guitar music internationally, as exhibited by the White Stripes, the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has provided a breath of fresh air to a musical landscape over-subscribed with urban sounds. And, in South Africa, artists like Tweak and Karen Zoid prove that there is still an extraordinary cache of rock talent to be unearthed.
Over the last couple of years I’ve checked so many bands – great rock bands – amongst them Sunways, the Springbok Nude Girls and Sugardrive. Some have drifted off into the land of ‘Whenwe’, others have metamorphosed and some have followed the trade winds to the pubs of Ireland. Others are still battling to make even a pockmark on the turgid face of South African radio. So what’ll make Karen Zoid different? Perhaps it’s the fervour of her countless, ever-present Afrikaner fans. After all no fans, no success, no legend; if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it fall…. Karen talks of her luck at having been born Afrikaans. She says it’s a safety net and a privilege. “The English South Africans don’t actually have an identity. If you sing in a vernacular or Afrikaans you’ve already got a massive foothold in a loyal market.” It’s interesting that Zoid perceives herself to have more black fans than white English fans. She also says she finds the English rock bands to be strangely antagonistic. And yet it’s her ability to cross over into these markets, other than the one inhabited by Steve Hofmeyr and Theuns Jordaan, that has made Zoid the success she is. Conversely and impressively she’s also retained credibility whilst cracking the all-important mainstream market.
“I knew the rest would see in time/That baby you were born to shine” –‘BORN TO SHINE’
Karen Zoid’s behaviour as a rock star has reached legendary proportions –you’ve surely heard and read the stories of how she succumbed to a series of drug overdoses ending up in rehab rather than dead; she once showed a lot more than her great smile at a charity gig in Potchefstroom and then there’s the story of how she burnt her guitar on stage. (She says she was responding to her partner, both in time and crime, guitarist Don Reinecke, threatening to leave her and the band. Perhaps. Ever the cynic, I think the last time I saw someone genuinely destroying his guitar, and evoking some kind of true, palpable incendiary rage, was Kurt Cobain’s stunt, during Nirvana’s final performance in Los Angeles. Nowadays axe-trashing mostly reads like a chick beer, rock ‘n roll lite, a bit like a Pop Idols finalist slaughtering a Red Hot Chili Peppers track… or as Zoid sings on the track ‘Ons Soek Rock& Roll’; “Jy met jou rooi rok en bandolientjie /Jy met you pragtige drum masjientie”) But then these are the symbols of which legends are supposedly made. Having said that, there’s more than the obvious in the brightness of Karen’s star.
Compared to a female vocalist like say, Karma from Henry Ate who is a taut wire that reverberates like a tuning fork, Zoid is an explosive and animated live performer. She’s a volatile mix of Courtney Love and early grunge mistresses L7; her work an ode, both musically and stylistically, to the past and the future, to international and South African tastes. Zoid makes sense of her lyrics when performing live, offering up the sum of herself to her audience, and she believes that writing music is like meditating or praying.
When I tell her ‘Beautiful’ is one of the most complete songs I’ve heard in a long time – it aches, it yearns, but it lifts you right up there. Zoid responds, “I play music so that I can be complete. It’s like PMS – it s a beautiful time, a time to reassess and think about things.” She explains that her songs are like her children or pets, developing their own quirks of life. “You expose yourself and anything could happen. Sometimes you can hear a pin drop after I’ve just finished a song or people will simply scream throughout,” she says. “Either way, I get it enough to keep on doing it.”
“I’m not your little girl, honey/I know a pig from a pearl” –‘FORTY-SEVEN’
Zoid’s actions might have provided grist for the ubiquitous media mill; in fact she references it in her ode to Ralph Rabie, more commonly remembered as Johannes Kerkorrel. In ‘Foto Teen Die Muur’ she sings, “die media steel my drome”, but it’s her growing and generally astute business acumen, which is lifting her head and shoulders above other South African rock artists.
Music journalist Jason Curtis wrote of Zoid, “That she has broken the mould of what traditionally constitutes Afrikaans music may be true, but her role of leader is not a premeditated one.” With all due respect, I would probably disagree. There is no doubt that Zoid is striving towards the top of the pile; that she believes, and perhaps rightly, that it’s owing to her. Whilst she claims not to see the music market as competitive, ultimately it’s the leader of the pack who eats the tastiest morsels. In keeping with her comment, “I’m interested in seeing myself as a brand” Zoid has recently signed a sponsorship deal with clothing brand, Levis. She’s also become one of the faces in the Momentum TV commercial, alongside producer/presenter Batsetsane Khumalo and cricketer Graham Smith. By choosing the commercial route Zoid says some people think she sold out. I think at the junction between public and private persona, realities become blurred. Some might ask, can you still achieve rock and roll fury, when you’re writing songs from the signs of your successes – the comfort of your suburban home, the faint soundtrack of washing machines and housekeepers? Yes, you can, says Karen. Whilst she believes that “the losers were always the cool guys at school”, she’s on a winning streak, and entirely cooler for it.
“You’ve come a long way, Karen” “Fuck but we’ve got a long way to go…” she replies.
That’s why you should look out for Karen Zoid, but now let me tell you why I do. I believe in Karen Zoid because she recognises that Jeff Buckley’s cover of the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah is a beautiful thing; because she sings ballads more sweetly than most; because somewhere in our conversation, she breaks her equanimity with a small detail about one of her fellow performers – Karen Zoid confides in amazement that singer Amore Vittone farts like a trooper, loudly and publicly. “But then again, if it wasn’t for the likes of Amore we wouldn’t sell CD’s” she says cheerfully. And finally I believe in Karen Zoid because both she and Don believed enough in me, to play me three unfinished songs, after the interview. Without wanting to mangle the lyrics, the tale of two people swimming in a small fish ball, has ‘single’ written all over it, with hooks big enough to catch even the thickest of skins. Thanks guys. Oh and before I forget, I believe in Karen Zoid because although she invited me to her home for tea and cookies, saying let’s just chill out and do the interview on the couch, it was really our good friend Jack who ended up as sustenance on that spring afternoon. Now that’s legendary.