By Sabina Mollot
For this self-taught musician, the city is her muse.
The evidence is “These Streets,” an album of folk rock music released by Zoe Kessler, a recent Harvard graduate and lifelong Stuyvesant Town resident.
The album was a result of four years of experience learning to play guitar and write music, though she became even more focused on it after graduating last year. Kessler, now 23, never had any formal training in music, but taught herself to sing and play guitar in college. Not wanting to annoy her roommates, Kessler got her first audiences and her earliest practicing in at once when she’d play guitar at a courtyard not far from her dorm. Encouraged by the response, she soon moved on to playing her own music at a local Starbucks.
“I felt like it was a good place to play, because it was very low-key,” said Kessler. “The only people who were there for me were my friends, and if they weren’t, it was no offense. I was paid one latte per show. It was literally coffee house music.”
One day after playing her music for a friend, William Wu, he mentioned he produced music so they set off to campus to record. Knowing time at the campus studio was always in high demand, the two managed to record the entire album in the span of one very intense day.
The 13-song album was released at the end of March and is now available on iTunes as well as the music app Spotify.
“These Streets,” both the song and album, are, for Kessler, “a reflection of the streets of New York and how I feel a sense of comfort in the chaos. I have found it both comforting and exciting to be back in New York, and back in Stuy Town for that matter, as well. There is something extraordinary about this city that could inspire me to write 13 songs in less than four months!”
The album cover is a reflection of this, with a photo, taken by Kessler’s younger brother Reed, of her standing in the middle of the intersection at First Avenue and 14th Street on a snowy day this spring. Despite the traffic chaos the street is well-known for, the native New Yorker smiles as she poses, guitar in hand, likely knowing just how many seconds they have for the shot before they need to make a run for it.
In “Running Away” and “Coast to Coast,” Kessler describes moving, although apparently it’s more about moving from one phase of her life to the next, as opposed to moving from place to place. “Coast to Coast” also reflects the uncertainty of the singer’s future, since moving back home following her graduation. Not that she’s complaining about returning to her childhood digs.
“It is by being in New York surrounded by my family that I have been able to see so much opportunity around me and find the inspiration to write and create music,” Kessler said. “What a place and time it is.”
For Kessler, musical influences range from alternative rock bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and The Killers to Taylor Swift.
“I love singer-songwriters,” said Kessler on Swift. “She’s gone from country to pop and I thought that was an interesting transition.”
Her own music, acoustic guitar accompanied by her own husky voice, is of course more stripped down that Taylor’s heavily produced pop, in particular her first song to be recorded. That was “Hey, Nick,” also released on iTunes, in 2016, which she describes as “very basic.”
Following graduation, Kessler had been working for U.S. Soccer on a team trying to bring the World Cup back to North America with a co-hosting structure between Canada, Mexico and the United States. Since her project there has ended, she’s been focused on promoting her music, and recently attended a conference for songwriters in L.A.
On May 31, she will open the season of concerts close to home at Music on the Oval from 6-8 p.m.