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Heidi Saperstein - Zara


All Music Guide

Heidi Saperstein's 2001 debut showed plenty of promise. But Devil I Once Knew could be a rudderless vessel, sloshing from raw PJ Harvey-isms to sultry big-eyed blues and into cramped portholes of vocal experimentation. Saperstein returns to Kimchee in 2004 with her second effort, Zara, and that wild heel has largely been corrected. Saperstein's voice and songcraft have always been strong. On Zara, those qualities are emboldened by a tight and varied backing band. Daniel Coughlin's inventive percussion rattles with subtle guiding power on cuts like "Put Up Lies," which shifts with equal grace into portions of rhythmic programming. Throughout, guitars grind in reverb or glance off the angles of Saperstein's vocal couplets; opener "Second Skin" is as straightforward pop as she's ever been - is there a Cowboy Junkies influence here? - but the buzzing guitars slide urgently along with Saperstein's multi-tracked vocals. "I (Heart) You" is a brittle Patti Smith meditation, while the brief "Fantasy" is more hopeful, tinged with longing lap steel. Saperstein is like Eleni Mandell in her novelistic approach to songs; in the standout "Rhythm," crafty production allows her voice to play two roles over the song's tense scenes of crazed cello and stuttering electric guitar. She never detours into the insular experimentation of the first album, instead finding ways to insert that same wilding spirit into songs' soft underbellies, whether through interesting instrumentation ("Seven Seas"' organ and lap steel middle is just gorgeous) or a skillfully simple lyric. Extra points for the centaur reference, too. With the predominance of female songwriters willing to settle for Earl Grey when they probably really want whiskey, it's nice to hear Heidi Saperstein ordering strong drinks for the bar. With Zara, she's found a true and unique voice.



Heidi Saperstein has the kind of voice that forces other aspects of her music to take a back seat. I'm not suggesting that Zara's non-vocal elements are lacking; the disc boasts solid songwriting and very interesting arrangements. It's just that Saperstein's voice cuts through a mix like very few singers can. She alternates between vocal doubling and harmonizing on almost every track, shifting between a haunting lower register and beautiful, airy high notes. The result, as heard in the superb "Fantasy", often sounds like two very different singers performing a duet. The songs on Zara, although definitely accessible, possess a darkness and weirdness that steers Saperstein well clear of Natalie Merchant territory. The arrangements are lush (organ, vibes, cello, and trumpet), yet often eerie and idiosyncratic -- far too interesting to be mere background music for a beautiful voice. On a similar note, Zara boasts some of the most beautifully recorded acoustic guitar I've heard in quite a while.

Within a genre that can be extremely forgiving of less than perfect voices, Saperstein is not afraid to sing well. Her performance lifts Zara's unique and pleasantly fresh brand of indie rock to an even higher level.


The Boston Phoenix

Zara (is) a darkly alluring indie-pop triumph with a stellar cast.


Indie Workshop

I love dogs.and out of all the gazillion breeds there are out there I have a particular fondness for German Shepherds. I, after all, have one. Well, if I have to get technical he's a quarter Chow but you can hardly tell. German Shepherds have that admirable blue-collar stateliness that has no equal. He's a bit of a freak, overprotective and unaware of his size. Mine is named Casey. Heidi Saperstein's is named Zara. There's a painting of her on the cover of the album, which is named for her. She is thanked in the liner notes alongside several other Shepherds that have come and gone in her life. You've got to respect anyone willing to dedicate an album to their dog. And, yes, I'm being serious.

Zara is really great, as I'm sure it's namesake also is. Saperstein is a rare breed of songstress who is not afraid to mix it up a little. She takes risks both with her melodies and her sound in a way similar to the great female personas of the late nineties. Her voice is fully backed up, rather than naked and acoustic. And those who accompany her are right to be there as she was right to invite them along for the ride. With a backing band made up of TW Walsh, Come's Daniel Coughlin and Andrew Mazzone on upright bass along with more contributors joining in on cello, piano, organ and trumpet, Zara certainly has a great, full sound.

With Saperstein's vocals, the album often brings the Cowboy Junkies and Margo Timmins to mind. That is if you took away much of the alt-country influence and replaced it with a great balance of modern and classic rock. However, in the songs "Second Skin" and "Right" she really summons Timmins vocal depth.

The thing about Saperstein that is perhaps the most appealing is that she sounds just as good slowed down as she does rocked out. My favorite track is probably the mysterious, prog-influenced "I Heart You" but I do love the ballad "Right" just as I love the beautiful, melodic "Seven Seas." Don't get me wrong though, the tempo doesn't change up as much as I may be implying. Zara's flow is perfect. And even though she seems to jump around a bit with her influences, she never falters.

This album is perfectly accessible, and I mean that in a good way. It's not as experimental as Saperstein may have been in the past but that doesn't mean she has compromised. There's not a whole of people (of whatever gender) doing what she's doing right now. I, however, hope many take heed from both Saperstein and Carina Round; many listeners love to hear a powerful female vocalist get loud enough to be heard over her backing band.

All that and she's not just a front.this is her stuff. She fits no mold created by the boys of indie rock. As Saperstein opens her mouth and sings you can hear the voice of someone unaffected by the rest of the music community. And when her voice rises above the trumpet sounding on the song Shadows you will know what I'm talking about.


The Boston Phoenix

The word "mysterious" tends to come up a lot when people describe Heidi Saperstein's stage presence. No question the singer-songwriter/guitarist knows how to use a disarming stare as well as anybody. "I've been called mysterious a few times, and part of me has to laugh," she explained over a drink at the Abbey Lounge the day before celebrating the release of her new CD, Zara (Kimchee), at T.T. the Bear's Place. "I also have an oddball sense of humor, so when I'm on stage, part of me wants to be really crass and make high-pitched, silly noises. But I'd rather be mysterious than obvious."

There are no silly noises on Zara. But there is plenty of pop music that's emotional, lovingly crafted, and yeah, just a little mysterious. It's the first real pop effort from Saperstein, who spent much of the '90s in Shiva Speedway - a bass-less band who anticipated Sleater-Kinney's brand of bracing punk (and in fact opened one of their first Boston gigs). But Saperstein didn't sing much in that band, and her first solo effort, The Devil I Once Knew (Kimchee), had the dark tone you'd associate with Thalia Zedek (who guested) and PJ Harvey.

The new disc embraces melody and lush arrangements, with help from local roots figures like bassist Andrew Mazzone and guitarist Duke Levine. At the T.T.'s CD release show last Thursday, Saperstein used a different band - drummer Shawn McLaughlin, bassist Emily Grogan, and Runner & the Thermodynamics guitarist Michael Oor. They helped split the difference between the new album's lush sound and the previous disc's rawer leanings. In both cases, her voice - warm and flexible, with a hint of punk aggression - is the star; on the disc, it's often multi-tracked into layers of harmonies.

"I tried to make a pop record last time, but I'm not sure I accomplished it," she says. "But this time, I can finally listen to the album and not hear anything I'm dissatisfied with. The difference is that I'm probably a more relaxed person than I used to be. So I wanted some good hooks here and there, a number of songs that could conceivably be singles. And I realized a while ago that I really loved singing." The mysterious part is in her lyrics, which allude to a handful of emotional crises without spelling anything out. "Some of it was in response to a relationship I was in, one that wasn't very satisfying. But it's not always about that when you think it is. 'Put Up Lies' sounds like a relationship song, but it's really about putting my dog to sleep."

Saperstein was in fact going through some struggles that didn't have much to do with relationships when she wrote much of Zara. She was the victim of an eating disorder that reached its peak around the time of her last disc. "I was high-functioning, but yes, it was there. An eating disorder is a sickness of the mind, but it becomes about your body. For one thing, I had this bizarre fear of aging, of getting old and having my body change. I felt removed from everyone around me and in some ways very small. There was a point where I was sure I'd never get better, where I'd be no different from this troubled, sad, and extremely food-obsessed and body-size and shape-obsessed person. So I barely went out for a while, and there were a lot of things I wouldn't do if I thought they'd affect my appearance. And that's why I didn't work the last record the way I should have. I wouldn't let myself lose any sleep, be in smoky clubs all the time, or not get this pristine food that I'd been able to secure."

Neither did it matter when people said nice things about her looks. "It just made me think that I'd fooled everyone, that they thought I was this attractive person and I wasn't. It's a pretty warped way of thinking, but even when I felt attractive, my fear was that it would vanish, that I would be unattractive and old. So I avoided challenging myself in terms of performing when I was really desiring to be a working musician. I'd see people around me who were able to go out and do it, and all I could do was feel jealous."

Saperstein doesn't draw directly on those experiences for the text of the songs on Zara. Even now, she admits that talking about her eating disorder is a challenge. "I do have this fantasy that I can have some power to help other girls and women deal with similar problems. But no, it didn't come out in the songs - except maybe 'Right' [the disc's acoustic closer]. It's not about getting better, but it's a positive song. Otherwise, I'm prolific: tell me, 'Write five songs today, Heidi,' and I'd do it. I'm not good at math, I'm not a good public speaker, but I can do that."

Saperstein is a little nervous about throwing herself back into the rock scene of late nights and club life to support her new album, but she's also looking forward to it. "I'm excited, I really am. I can't say I'm totally better, but I know how to handle it now; I've had some good therapy. I really don't take anything for granted; I appreciate every show I do, and I' m finally living the life I want to live." So she's not worried about getting old and ugly before the next gig? She flashes the mysterious smile. "Not tomorrow, anyway."


The Weekly Dig

For her latest album Zara on the Ipswich-based label Kimchee, grunge rock guitarist-turned-singer/songwriter Heidi Saperstein drew on an unusual source for inspiration: The pop hits radio station KISS 108 FM.

Normally, an admission like that could be the "KISS" of death for any up-and-coming musician trying to build on their artistic cred. But not to worry; prolonged exposure to Maroon 5 and Hoobastank have not dulled her cutting lyrics and slightly schizo rhythmic sense. Saperstein sounds just as cool and sweetly scattered on this record as she did on her last Kimchee release, the PJ Harvey-flavored The Devil I Once Knew. The only discernible differences seem to be that melodies shimmer a little more on this new album and the tone has shifted from angst to melancholy.

"I feel that it's a combination of things," says Saperstein about her newfound pop sensibilities. "I knew that I wanted certain words and a more relaxed feel. I think The Devil I Once Knew was a little rawer maybe, and maybe even had a little darker feel. For me, the songs on Zara are a little more mature. I guess that's not really the word I want to use, but it's coming out of me."

While her music doesn't seem to be in any danger of knocking Beyoncé off the charts, it most definitely beguiles on a few different levels. "Second Skin," the tune chosen by Spin magazine for a recent compilation, has a catchy chorus, and boasts imaginative harmonies and smooth, interlocking instrumental arrangements, while, conversely, "Rhythm" stutters like a spastic machine gun, constantly breaking out of a safe groove until the whole thing clatters to pieces. Not surprisingly, Saperstein contends that the college radio fans prefer the latter song and the FNX-type listeners, the former.

One of the most haunting tracks, "I Love You," has no drums at all, just acoustic and atmospheric slide guitar with organ and a melodic bass line. It almost falls under the banner of "folk rock," although Saperstein, a grunge guitarist originally with the band Shiva Speedway before evolving into a solo artist, resists any variation of the singer/songwriter label. This seems like a reasonable assessment. Her lyrics are certainly personal, but her approach to putting a song together is so far from formulaic that it would be difficult to place her among the ranks of rootsy songsmiths.

"I've always gotten into just making stuff up and being creative, not overthinking," says Saperstein. "I'm not a technically trained guitar player or singer, so I don't always know what I'm doing, but I like that."

Where in past recordings she's played many of the instruments herself, for Zara, Saperstein has brought some of the most sought-after musicians in town to record with: Guitarist Duke Levine is a smoldering six-string master, and his craft is well evident throughout the CD; as well as bassist Andrew Mazzone, who co-produced the album along with guitarist TW Walsh. The result is a great-sounding record, filled with tasteful musicianship and a wide palette of textures and sounds.

Now Saperstein must take this music on the road, utilizing a whole new set of musicians. She has a rhythm section consisting of Emily Grogan - a well-known singer/songwriter herself - on bass and backing vocals; and Shawn McLaughlin, a drummer renown for his powerful kick/snare combination as well as for his subtlety. Special guests for her upcoming CD release party at T.T. The Bear's will include guitarist Mick Oor (from Runner and the Thermodynamics) and violinist Taro from Victory at Sea.

While she has a long history of being onstage, including a lot of experience acting when she was younger, fronting a full band presents a unique challenge for Saperstein, who has a somewhat quiet and reserved nature when she's not onstage.

"How I am socially and how I am once I'm behind a mike are so different," she says. "When I'm performing, it feels so right. It feels like this is what I'm supposed to be doing."


The Boston Globe

With strong songs, a crack band, and guest appearances by some of Boston's finest and hardest working musicians, local singer-songwriter Heidi Saperstein has good reason to celebrate the release of her second cd Zara out on the super cool Ipswich based label Kimchee Records.

River Cities Reader

Excellent dark and dreamy solo album from the former Shiva Speedway vocalist and guitarist.


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