An Interview With: Skye Zentz

In today’s interview, we chat with a lovely ukulele lady! Singer/songwriter and all around creative entrepreneur Skye Zentz. Skye is a fixture of the Hampton Roads music scene, and a grassroots art ambassador, playing shows in concert halls, nursing homes, coffeehouses and even online. Her love song to her city “The Tide” has been generating a huge buzz lately, and she recently won “Best Busker/Street Musician (2015)” at the Veer Magazine Local Music Awards (along with nominations and wins in previous years).

We admire Skye for her dedication to the hustle; doing everything she can to make and keep creativity a part of her life and the lives of others. Like a modern-age vaudevillian, she has a knack for finding new and clever avenues in put herself and her ukulele out there. Online music concerts, singing telegrams, her work with Tidewater Arts Outreach…Skye does it all, and does it with a bold sense of self and inspirational drive.

It’s almost ten years ago now that I first met Skye, in a karaoke bar by the Norfolk, VA docks. Half the songbook was in Tagalog, and they had hula hoops for use during instrumental breaks. Within a week or so I found myself on an apartment floor with a borrowed melodica, surrounded by folks playing Casio keyboards, ukuleles and even a musical saw. And there was Skye in the center of it all. We called ourselves Mallomar!, sang silly songs, and spoken in British accents (to varying degrees of success). It was fun. At summers’ end I returned to California, but Skye and I kept in touch. In the intervening years I’ve been impressed with the seriousness and dedication Skye has given to the musical life, without losing that Mallomar! sense of fun.Luke
Why don’t you take a listen while reading?

LukeI like that you call yourself a Creative Entrepreneur. It’s a different take on musician than what I normally hear.

SkyeYeah, I’ve been thinking a lot more about that side of things lately. My husband Gabriel is finishing school in his occupational therapy assistant program, and It’s given me pause to think about my career path, where I am and where I want to be. There’s a lot of room for self critique and analysis in that. And I hear the feedback from people of “Wow, you’ve chosen a tricky path for yourself, but it’s cool you are doing it this way.” Lately I’ve been trying take more ownership of my choice. I’m a creative entrepreneur!

Skye, in total party mode

LukeHow did you first get into music?

SkyeI have always lived in a very musical atmosphere Skye’s mother was a music teacher and father owned a small music store – Ramblin’ Conrad’s Guitar Shop! (Solid Gold name, right?!). In a way, music wasn’t a choice for me as a career path, it was just always sort of in me. It was what I saw. The best model I had were these musical creative people staying in our guest room, joining us for thanksgiving dinner – an organic and cooperative network of artists. That is the cloth I’m cut from. So it was clear that was what my life was meant for.

I was given guitar lessons at the age of 8 through my dad’s store…but it didn’t really work for me. My parents were really cool about it. Because of that when I came back to guitar at 16 it was on my own terms, and I wanted to learn…

LukeI’m curious, how many instruments do you play now?

SkyeI’ve never really done an official count. I consider myself really good at ukulele, pretty good at guitar and decent on piano or keyboard. Everything else feels kind of jack of all trades, master of none. I haven’t put in the practice on anything other than ukulele. Ukulele has been kind of like my third arm for the past decade. Even then, I don’t feel like I’m ‘advanced’. My skill level will never be that of a master player. But that’s okay with me. I learned instruments to accompany my voice. My voice has always been my favorite instrument and probably always will be.

LukeWho has been your vocal inspiration?

SkyeOoh, fun! I’ve always enjoyed, from a very young age, R&B. The first CDs and cassettes I had were Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. Then there is this whole folk thing too. I listen to a lot of Joni Mitchell. I love big soulful voices like Etta James and Gladys Knight; voices with the tradition of soul and R&B, to diversify and do a little bit of everything with your voice. I love Amy Grant AND Barbra Streisand. So many people!

LukeI think it is interesting that the singers you say you admire have geared their voices to a specific style. There’s a pressure to define yourself as an artist in a certain way. Do you think it’s a conscious choice, or just how one falls into it?

SkyeI think about that a lot being in a medium sized – well, you know Norfolk – a relatively large city that feels very much like a small town. Sometimes I feel like I have pigeon-holed myself as “the ukulele girl who does fun folk songs.” So I’ve been doing things over the past several years to try to pull myself out of that niche. I like being an expansive artist. I like to pushing myself and challenging myself to get outside of whatever boxes I build.

LukeSinger songwriting is an “established experience”, a certain, known way of conveying thoughts and emotions. If you are able to get yourself out of that, what aspect of the the art form would you approach in a different way?

SkyeLately I’m writing in a different format – instead if my usual “Skye Zentz with the ukulele writing songs filled with words” – I am giving more space for the mood of the song as opposed to just lyric,lyric,lyric. That is something I have noticed about the music I’ve been listening to and enjoying over the past few years – space. I will always have a thing for the guy or girl with a guitar telling intricate stories, filled with words. In this new project, Nevergrove, I am trying to bring the old story telling tradition into modern musical elements. See how folk translates through a new medium.

LukeIf you wern’t a musician what would your artistic outlet be?

SkyeAs far as jobby jobs. I would love to – and have been thinking about doing – some admin and social media service for other creatives. One of the things I’ve noticed having so many creative, artistic, musical friends: Often, as artists we are really good at the creative side of things but not so great at the networking or staying organized side of things. I have been doing personal assistant and office managing things for my day job, making newsletters…that kind of work. I would love to do that for other people – small businesses, bands, other creative people.

LukeWhat is the balance between being an artist and making things for your own sake, and needing an audience? Music is a performative art, but in the world we live in communities are kind of online and ephemeral.

SkyeAn interesting trend in my community over the past several years is how many different ideas there are about what a show is. What one walks away with after a show, energetically, financially, whatever. I am trying to make my income based on my creative musical life. I take my music very seriously and shows very seriously. I am very selective at this point about what I play. When done for the right reasons, it’s very admirable to play just to play. But sometimes I get a little restless around the idea. When there are too many people who give all their music away for free. The challenge it creates within the musical community is a sense that music is not an actual commodity. I get really annoyed when people get to a show and are like “Five dollar cover?!” You have to place value in art. It’s not just the show you’re seeing live that you are paying for. Or buying a CD or downloading the album; it’s not just the album your paying for, you’re paying for the artist’s time, and learning to play their instrument, and however many drafts there were to that song before it was complete. It has given me a large appreciation for the various online platforms of support that are coming along. [R&T: the future is now]

LukeWhen is creativity play and when it is work?

SkyeFun! Sometimes, really good work can end up being play. I guess it’s work when you are doing it because you know you have to, and it’s play when it’s only because you want to. Sometimes those two can overlap, like when you know you have to, but you also really want to.

An example of this happened last fall. I was going to do a show at a coffee shop the day after playing a weekend long music festival. I knew I would be exhausted, and the exhaustion would not have much financial reimbursement. On my way to the gig I was thinking “is there something else I can do other than the sets I’ve been playing at the music festival?” Then it came to me: I could do a tribute show – only songs of one artist! I decided I would do a whole set of Destiny’s Child! It was amazing, and I had so much fun. I didn’t care if I played them perfectly, nor had any real reservations about what the audience thought, because I was just having such a great time.

Play/work! My goal in life is to have as many opportunities for play/work as I can.

This month I’m going to a show for my birthday – I am turning 31 this year – and I was thinking (this is really out there) that the opposite of 31 is 13. I’m going do a show of all songs that were popular when I was 13. That’s 1997. Which was a great year for songs. Mmmbop was out that year, Spice Girls were out that year, Criminal was out that year – I was just learning that before this interview.

LukeWhen do you feel like your true self?

Skye(laughs) When I doing things like singing Destiny’s Child for 45 minutes in a coffee shop! Also, on the couch with my husband, my cats and a mug of tea. Or walking alone in the woods on a sunny day.

LukeTell me about the scene in Norfolk?

SkyeCool. It’s really cool right now. It just established an arts district last year in downtown Norfolk.  Team Better Block, a company based in Dallas, Texas. They come in and there are urban designers and developers who do projects in the community, a flash urban revitalization of a neighborhood. The city pays them to come and give a neighborhood an extreme makeover in a few days. The public gets to help with it. The idea being they help the you create the space and the community continues to uphold it.

It’s helped create appreciation of all the different art in Norfolk, having a dedicated arts district. The scene is growing. A lot of cool performances. An arts community, and people willing to collaborate cross disciplines. A wider canvas.

I love having a musical network of friends, and the experience of a jam session with everyone coming from a different musical background, nobody knows where the sound or movement is going. It’s a really cool experience as a musician. The biggest soul rush for me as an artist is to see music bring someone out of a dark space or quiet space, reanimate them based on a musical memory. I love to get people singing together at my shows. I do that because of the example shown to me by my musical hero Pete Seeger. I think singing together has a magic connective power. It’s a neutralizer and makes us all the same. When we’re having any type of spontaneous musical moment…we’re all ‘one’ in that.

LukeWho’s your biggest fan?

SkyeUhh…I wanna say my cat, but I can’t speak to their true feelings, only try to interpret, you know? My biggest fan…his name’s Bernard Conda. He’s a video artist in the area. He’s known me since I was an 18 year old barista at Fairgroundsa coffeeshop. He’s like a godfatherNot in the mafia sense, an uncle, or a family friend. He comes to my shows, buys copies of my album to share with others, he’ll remind me of songs I put out that I forgot about. He’s like the head of my fanclub, and I’m so happy to have that.

LukeAny advice for our readers?

SkyeI can share something I learned in improv comedy class. The whole basic rule of comedy of this sort is to say “yes” to creative situations. When you are in a scene, in order to move it forward you have to say “YES, AND” then add some information to it. If you say no, the scene usually falls apart.

It applies to life by saying “yes” to spontaneous creative situations as they arise. As adults we forget to play. Go out and see music! You have to see whats happening around you. It helps you feel intrinsically motivated to create by seeing other people doing it as well. Say yes to situations when the come up. Keep your artistic tool kit out and available to you instead of locking it away on a “from my youth” shelf in your closet. Make your space and your life creatively ready.


Wanna know more about Skye?

Skye is currently working on a new mutli-media electronic pop project called Nevergrove. She describes the theme as “a dark modernized take on old folk tales and fairy tales.”  Can’t wait to hear it! In the mean time, check out her song “The Tide”: