Zoë Lewis: THE MAGIC AND WHIMSY OF EVERY DAY
by Beth Greenfield
photo credit: Eileen Counihan
I HAVE THIS incredible photo of my friend Zoë Lewis blowing a shofar amidst the rolling dunes of Snail Road in the syrupy golden late-day light of September. She is wearing a bright blue T-shirt and gray painter's cap, and just out of the frame is her beloved Sharon, my partner Kiki, and our daughter Lula, who was age four at the time and had been captivated by Zoë since she was eighteen months old.
When I look at the photo, I can still hear the bleats and tweets Zoë delivered to us—the perfect bit of Rosh Hashanah spirit, from a puckish gentile who just so happened to have this ram's horn in her treasure trove of guitars, ukuleles, harmonicas and keyboards.
photo credit: Beth Greenfield
With her boundless appreciation and curiosity over pretty much anything outside of herself, Zoë's rich, ever-loving songbook exudes joyful and generous affection for Provincetown. You could say that Zoë embodies Provincetown—exudes it, actually, through her poetic lyrics that comprise a gleeful, never-quite-finished love letter to this place and its people, which is part of her larger love letter to the world.
A wash ashore of nearly three decades, Zoë is now and integral part of the community—whether she's playing shows at Herring Cove, Town Hall, the Swim for Life, or her massively popular Speakeasy, a 1920's-themed lineup of local vocalists accompanied by her Bootlegger band and her jaunty, top-hat-wearing self, or biking down Commercial Street with her sights set on a dive off the breakwater.
Her story begins in Rottingdean, England, a small fishing village on the south coast, where her conception came as a shock to her fifty-one-year-old French mother. "The doctor thought I was a tumor," is just one of the personal anecdotes Zoë shares with her audiences, always eliciting a big laugh before taking a deft turn into a more poignant tale, such as the one about the house her mom lived in briefly as a child, just outside of Paris, and how Zoë went and found it after she died. "She made it to ninety-six," she'll say, before launching into an amusing yarn about the search, moving you seamlessly from laughter to tears as she begins the twinkling, haunting melody of her song Barbizon, about imagining her mother there as a girl.
Zoë honed her storytelling skills by gathering material from her early experiences. After a few years of performing with various bands in London, Zoë left England when she was twenty-three years old, inspired by Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, to travel on her own across South and Central America. Then she headed north, landing for a while in San Francisco, where she and her friends were "living on the edge."
"I had my Michelle Shocked and Joni Mitchell cassettes with me, and I said to myself, I'm going to live like that, and we did. I met all sorts of people. I always said 'yes' to everything. Let's jump freight trains. It was thrilling and amazing and dangerous and stupid. Crazy! We were fearless," Zoë tells me in her lilting English accent, via FaceTime from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where she is performing all winter, along with plenty of other P-towners, noting she'd just run into Mark Cortale and Varla Jean.
I ask her why she thinks she was so unafraid. "Because my mum always said, 'If someone else can do it, you can do it.' Traveling when I was twenty-three was most important to me—I laughed and found my freedom. Each day, I could be whoever I wanted to be. If I wanted to be gay, I could be gay. If I wanted to be a musician, I could be a musician. If I wanted to be a vagabond, a street performer, a traveler, an intrepid adventurer—that sense of freedom is just lovely. If an opportunity arose, I went for it. And so, the boxcar is a lovely metaphor for that. I ran along the side and jumped on. Later on in life I told my mum what I did and she said, 'I'm really glad that you didn't tell me that before! Thank goodness!'"
After driving cross-country—fittingly in an old, beat-up Volkswagen camper, writing songs along the way, and settling for a time in Northampton, Massachusetts, Zoë landed in Provincetown.
"My first impressions were: it's beautiful, and it's like my village in England, but gay. I used to say all the men have poodles instead of the old ladies. I remember being stunned by the style and beauty of it all, on this teeny peninsula at the end of the land, and I suppose it opened its arms to me and welcomed me in very quickly."
Soon, she got a regular gig at the Post office cabaret with the Lesbian Lounge Lizards. She picked up more gigs around town, "Making more money than I'd ever made in my life, swimming in the sea every day, meeting friends, and just having a blissful full summer."
In 1993 she formed the powerhouse Rubber Band with Kate Wolf, Sylvie Richard, and Roxanne Layton, and they played around town and across the country, making albums together. Zoë has recorded nine studio albums and has a tenth coming out soon called Always a Sixpence, with tunes focused on Provincetown.
photo credit: John Thomas
Zoë and the Rubber Band at the Swim for Life in Provincetown
(Left to right: Roxanne Layton, Zoë, Julie Wolf, Kate Wolf and Sylvie Richard)
"I like to write on buses or planes—I feel like my mind moves when I'm moving," Zoë tells me, which makes sense when you learn that she's traveled to more than 70 countries. Zoë's work powerfully conveys motion through rhythm, such as her song Breakfast in Bangkok, about a Thailand train ride; Gringo, a cinematic scene on a Guatemalan bus; and Bicycle, about Provincetown, of course.
Early on, Zoë stumbled into a lucky housing situation in Provincetown that a friend tipped her off about, which not everybody would've appreciated—an old-school, slant-floored apartment in a building that had seen better days, between Spiritus Pizza and the Ranch Guest House.
"I walked up the rickety stairs and there were barking Chihuahuas and this old lady, Diana Henley, came to the door, and I said, 'You know I'm looking for a place,' and she said that it hadn't been rented for years. Apparently, all sorts of things had gone on in my apartment!"
Zoë declines to elaborate on the properties checkered past for this story, but continues, "I walked in and I was like, 'I love it,' and she said, 'It's yours,' for like, four hundred bucks, and I think I said, 'That's too expensive,'" Zoë laughs. "I ended up paying the cheapest rent in the world and living there for twenty years. She was like my patron. I always said thank you to her for being the one who made it possible for me to do music. And oh the stories! She was a wild character. There's a whole list of marvelous characters."
Another pivotal person in her life has been Ilona Royce Smithkin, the fiery–haired artist, chanteuse, fashion icon, and poor Richards landing owner who recently turned ninety-nine years old. She's the inspiration behind Zoë's feat-of-lyrics song Eyelashes, "Those ocular fringes give me twinges so my knees go weak; the size of the visors around your eyes is simply magnifique." For years, she's been Zoë's dear friend and muse.
"I met her wandering along Commercial Street and there was a glow of color coming towards me, and a flutter of eyelashes. And we looked into each other's eyes and there was a connection immediately," Zoë recalls. Ilona, along time artist who had never performed, asked Zoë if she could accompany her on stage. They did some songs by Marlene Dietrich and the duo was an instant hit. "She continues to stun me. She stunned me from the get go," Zoë says. "She's a very wise woman, and she's someone I go to when I need a little guidance."
Ilona, along with other recognizable townsfolk, will sometimes get on stage at Zoë's Speakeasy—her 1920's–themed showcase of local talent in Provincetown. "It's a marvelous era to explore," Zoë explains, particularly the "amazing really gay" songs. "I'd always dreamed of doing a Prohibition era jazz night. Event promoter David flower helped develop it that first year. He said 'Hey why don't you come down and do some little jazz thing?' And I knew exactly what it could be! It was this thing that I've been dreaming of for all these years, and here was the perfect venue, the Velvet Lounge. Since its 2012 inception, it's grown and evolved and we've now moved the show to the Pilgram House."
"Everyone in Provincetown has a voice," Zoë says. And once you've used it on the Speakeasy stage, "you become part of the Bootlegger family. You're in the game, because you share something special. It's brave to get up there. I support each crooner and the audience supports them and it doesn't matter if you mess it up. It's still perfect."
Also lending support, gags, and sexy Funny Girl realness to the Speakeasy is the Cigarette Girl, aka Sharon Topper, Zoë's partner of fourteen years. The two began their romance after meeting at the Pilgrim Monument lighting ceremony on the eve of Thanksgiving 2005. The quirky Cigarette Girl character was born during Zoë's 2011 musical Snail Road. "It's a lovely character," Zoë gushes. "She's the comic foil for everything. And if someone's floundering on stage, the Cigarette Girl comes out with a prop. It's like she's the safety blanket." Zoë's second musical, Across the Pond, debuted in 2013, telling her story of becoming a United States citizen.
The Speakeasy is possibly the most perfect combination of Zoë's time in Provincetown. It's a communal gathering built on generosity, love, freedom, happiness, and a bit of magic, which defines Zoë. She is a ray of sunshine even in the thick of cranky August, who relates in equal measure to a room full of cocktail–swilling fans or a wide–eyed, shell–collecting kid. My own Lula, now 10 years old, who has never had trouble connecting with the child and Zoë.
On holding onto her whimsical self, Zoë tells me, "I lived in the country side, so, you know, it was all nature and magic things, like prawning with my dad or looking at the stars—just simple things. And for me, if I need to be uplifted, that's where I go. And kids see that in me."
photo credit: Eileen Counihan
She wants to pay that forward. "I feel like it's my job to bring that to people in a show. I mean, I never have thought of it cerebrally, but as I get older, I realize it's important to make people feel less harrowed and grab a bubble for a moment, and hang onto it. I think it's healing."
photo credit: Eileen Counihan
Zoë and the Gorgeous Cigarette Girl from the Speakeasy show
It's also the bottom line for Zoe—more than wealth or massive fame. "In the old days, people used to think I'm just fluffy, silly Zoë, playing silly songs. But now, as I get older, people actually listen to the lyrics and realize there might be something else I'm trying to say. And if they see a glimmer of that, that's the world to me. If little Lula appreciates whatever I'm doing and it makes her smile, then that is the biggest prize ever."
photo credit: Beth Greenfield
BETH GREENFIELD has been a part-time Provincetown resident since 2001. She also lives in New York City, where she is a senior writer and editor at Yahoo Lifestyle. Her memoir, Ten Minutes from Home, was published in 2010.