13 Feb Karen Zimmer Finds Her Voice in Love and Motherhood
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
I had a hunch I’d like Karen Zimmer as I watched her chopping wood in the opening moments of the video for her fiery folk song “Watch Me Go.”
And I was right. She’s cool — and damn, can she sing! Her voice — warm, angelic, and harkening back to the late ’90s/early 2000s coffeehouse era that put songbirds like Lisa Loeb and Norah Jones on the map — keeps listeners intrigued long after the last note.
Her most recent single, the sweet, acoustic “You and Me,” with its rich, pretty harmonies and nuanced acoustic instrumentation, is one of my favorites. The track, a love song penned for her husband Ethan Isaac, is universally relatable to those of us who need a gentle reminder to be grateful for partners who are easy to love, especially on hard days. It’s the perfect soundtrack for Valentine’s Day, whether you’re creating a TikTok love collage or setting the mood for a romantic dinner — which, these days (for many of us) also includes young children in tow.
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Yet Karen’s ability to mine challenging moments, too, has also inspired fresh, relatable material. For example: Her new song “She” (out February 17) is all about coming to term with life’s responsibilities and limitations, even when we pine for escape from the monotony of everyday routines.
We recently caught up with Karen, who lives in Ridgefield, Conn., with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, to talk about love, motherhood, and finding inspiration in small moments.
Rockmommy: Can you tell us about your start as a musician?
Karen Zimmer: I’m from New York State, just across the border. Hopewell Junction in Dutchess County. It’s kind of a small town. I just always loved listening to songs, you know, dancing around with my sisters and singing.
I’m the youngest of three, and because my parents grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, I grew up listening to all the oldies, and playing all their records in our living room. I love the sounds of Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Mama & The Papas — all the greats. I played piano for a couple of years in fourth and fifth grade and then I played clarinet in the school in band. When my parents bought me a clarinet, my mom said, ‘If we get this for you, you better keep playing through college!’ So I did. And that’s kind of when I got into jazz finally, which I always loved listening to — you know, the big band music like Glenn Miller Orchestra. My grandmother lived with us, so Frank Sinatra was always present.
Rockmommy: You’ve also mentioned Norah Jones as an influence.
Karen Zimmer: I started playing guitar when I was around 25, after I had gone to a Norah Jones concert. She played guitar for a couple of songs and mentioned she had just started learning! I thought to myself, “Hmm, maybe I can do that too!” That was the beginning! I [bought] a few Norah Jones piano/guitar/vocal books, and started teaching myself.
Rockmommy: What kind of guitar was it?
Karen Zimmer: It was an Ovation and I play lefty.
Rockmommy: How did you get into singing?
Karen Zimmer: I just always loved to sing! We went to church every Sunday and I loved to sing the songs at church; I’d also sing in my room and stuff. In high school I would always try out for the musicals. I tried out for a cappella groups in college, and I just got rejected a lot, but I kept trying!
Rockmommy: I’m glad you are saying this out loud, because there’s an assumption that people are born sounding like songbirds. But not everybody has the privilege of voice lessons as a child or, like, really learns that technique they need to join an a cappella group.
Karen Zimmer: I think I always had natural pitch, but I wasn’t great at projecting, I’m sure. The lyrics of the first song I wrote came from a poem I wrote years earlier after my cousins lost one of their children. It was such an emotional, grieving moment and it felt right to put it to music. This was around the time I started teaching myself guitar, just sitting in my apartment trying to learn by myself and realizing that it was very difficult! All of the songs that I liked had all these crazy chords that I couldn’t play. So, I took the three chords that I knew, and I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll just write my own song because I can’t play any of these.” And then I just, I don’t know, I just kept writing after that.
Rockmommy: I just watched your video to “Watch Me Go.” I’m seeing you chopping wood and it’s awesome!
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Karen Zimmer (laughs): It was definitely [my husband’s] idea to do the opening scene! I wrote it at the desk of a previous job where I had an awful manager who found something wrong with everything, down to not using the right font in an email. Everything was wrong. And I was just completely miserable. It was the kind of job where you go home and you cry every night. The lyrics kind of just came out. And, you know, I vowed to myself that I was going to get out of there, and I did. So that was my breakup song — with my job!
Rockmommy: You’re married to a professional musician and producer, and you’re a musician. What’s that like?
Karen Zimmer: It’s super helpful. I’ve progressed a lot, I think, with my singing. But I will say it’s not always easy. My husband, Ethan Isaac, is a vocal coach, and he’s very direct. When you’re dating someone and they’re critiquing you, it can be challenging, and it took me a bit to get over that hump. I think still, at times, it can be hard to hear certain things, but I know he means well, and, you know, his critique is worthwhile and always makes me a better singer.
Rockmommy: Do you guys jam together on, like, the piano and the clarinet, or other instruments?
Karen Zimmer: I play a lot more than he does at home. After my daughter goes to bed is usually my time to practice or write. I always want him to play with me, and when that happens, sometimes we get on a roll, but then you always stay up too late. And then you’re like, I’ve got to get up and raise this child!”
Rockmommy: How else has motherhood impact your music or songwriting process?
Karen Zimmer: I definitely took a long break after my daughter, Norah, who is 5, was born. When I recorded the music with producer Ryan Hommel for all the songs you’ve heard, and also “She,” which is due to come out soon, I was pregnant. So, we did all the music, like, six years ago and I wasn’t really doing any music for a long time.
And then I kind of had to gradually get back into singing. I worked a lot at home, which was helpful for me, especially in the early days of motherhood, when I could do things during Norah’s nap time. It’s so hard to make time, but on the flip side when she starts to sing along or asks to hear my song, that just melts my heart! It inspires me to keep going.
Rockmommy: Let’s talk about your new music! I love your recent song “You and Me,” especially with Valentine’s Day right around the corner!
Karen Zimmer: “You and Me.” I wrote that about my husband. I had a kind of a bad breakup in my ’20s, and it was one of those relationships where it was, like, really high or really low. I remember when I met my husband and we started dating, I felt so much more steady. The first time that I wanted to express my feelings, he was so understanding. It was just such a relief, because the previous relationship was not like that. And I thought, ‘This is what it’s supposed to be like!’
Rockmommy: You have a new song, “She,” coming out soon.
Karen Zimmer: Yes, “She” is about the idea that it’s so easy to get so consumed by day-to-day life or being a mother and taking care of other people and, you know, keeping the house nice or going to work. It’s easy to forget about doing something for yourself. And I think that’s the message — the idea that you need to kind of live your life without being afraid to put yourself or your dreams first sometimes. Now that I have a daughter, that message seems even more important to share.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor of Rockmommy.