Laura Zarb laughs, and looks to her left, her hands languidly resting in the cuffs of her three-quarter denim jeans. Breathlessly, like she can still hardly believe it herself, she tells me, “I got a call to do a Rolling Stones tribute with an all-girl line-up in the city. It’s at the Vanguard, which is a pretty damn funky venue!” She clicks her fingers. “He calls and says ‘Laura, we’re doing this Rolling Stones Tribute, would you like to do it?’” She was one-hundred percent in, she tells me, but scrunches up her face and tells him she doesn’t know any Rolling Stones. The man laughs, and asks if she’d still be interested in being a part of it.
“It felt like the time coming up to my final exams,” Zarb says. “You know, you study and study, and completely immerse yourself in whatever the test matter is, but then when the actual day of the exam comes, it almost comes as a relief, because my brain says right, there is nothing more you can do to prepare now so you may as well leave it and just have fun! But in this case the ‘exam’ so to speak, was jumping up on stage and belting out some Rolling Stones - much more fun than any exam I've ever taken... It definitely left me buzzing!”
The time after this has been frenetic. “So now I’ve been working my butt off to get 5 Rolling Stones under my belt”, Zarb swallows, and looks to her left, “so I can play it out to a bunch of Rolling Stones fans.”
A little apprehension crosses her face. “Normally when I learn a song, I listen to the piece enough to get a really good feel for it and then I don’t listen to it anymore. Then I just have the lyrics and see what I can do to make it interesting for me, because if it’s not interesting for me to play it, it sure as hell won’t be interesting for others to listen to.”
Just Laura Zarb Laura Zarb has an exotic-sounding name. As I watch her on stage on a warm, sunny day, I can’t help but wonder if the name matches the girl. Dressed in a black singlet top, and a waistcoat of natural, earthy colours, Zarb is bubbly and even a little crazy. With her cropped jeans, I notice the mismatched socks poking out from under her shiny bronze shoes (blue and yellow on the left, and purple and black on the right, to be precise). Zarb’s definitely got her own style going on and I like it immediately.
As she walks off and down from the stage to where her friends, family and fans are, I overhear her talking to audience members and cracking jokes. People surrounding her are entranced. Shit, I think to myself, feeling more nervous than ever before. In a way, it may have just been easier if she was shy, or even cold, so I (in my unexperienced state) could take charge of the interview and keep control. My uncle introduces us, and I am immediately taken by her passionately quirky loveliness. I took an immediate liking to her. How could I not? How could anyone not? I identified with her reserved yet cheeky nature: a quality I recognised from myself. I felt slightly inferior for a moment, but was quickly impressed by her genuineness. Laura was herself from the get-go. What you see is what you get. Just Laura Zarb.
Becoming Laura Zarb We place ourselves atop a comfortable hill to have a little chat, which quickly turned into an hour of footage on my trusty iPad. Seated with legs crossed and her guitar lazing beside her, I was impressed by her blissfully sweat-unaffected serenity. Blessedly, I soon became distracted by her warm, down-to-earth nature, and less focused on my slightly more sweat-affected state.
Zarb was born in Penrith, west of Sydney, until she moved to Kentucky when she was 15. Initially intended to be three month stay, the time stretched out into six months and led to Zarb living in America ‘on and off’ until she was 22.
With its rich diversity in the music area, and with Zarb’s musically inclined parents, Kentucky was an obvious choice. After studying at an international boarding school in Arizona with 100 other young adults, Zarb came back to Australia to live in Kiama for eight months, where she soon began university study at the University of Wollongong.
At that stage, Zarb still wasn’t sure what she wanted to study, so quickly took to Mexico City for a five month exchange. The music in Mexico was another creative revelation for Zarb, who transferred to the University of Texas after her five month stay to finish her degree and spend three and a half years belly-dancing.
She left with a Spanish degree and a Business minor. Zarb finally returned back to Australia, where she tried doing the ‘nine-to-five job’ as a travel agent, but still felt as if her path lay elsewhere. The siren call of the entertainment industry was too much for her to bear, and Zarb left the nine-to-five grind behind eight months ago to follow her passion.
She has been surviving on music ever since. “It took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do, I guess some kids rebel against their parents by going and joining some rock band, and I”, Zarb says mischievously with her hands on her hips, “rebelled by becoming a travel agent”. We both laugh. “I didn’t do music because my family did it or because I thought I needed to do it, I’ve come back to it with a passion. Like there is a massive drive that comes solely from me not just because ‘this is what I’m supposed to do’, it’s because I love music.”
Zarb defines music as something that has connected her with all sorts of people: “it’s a different language and you can have just as an interesting conversation that way, it inspires me, it affects my moods, my emotions, it’s just in me constantly.” With artists such as Ani Difranco and Johnny Butler, world music derivative of the Balkans and Eastern-Europe, and her musical family, as her inspiration, Zarb is an independent and creative musician.
With this in mind, you’d think she would be a touch cosmopolite. However, she assures me this is not the case. Zarb is not extensively musically educated, “I’ve never been cool in the aspect of knowing what songs were written by musicians, etc , but in saying this I can still enjoy a song without knowing who it was written by. You could say I’m musically illiterate when it comes to the musical side of it. I also can’t read music and I don’t know theory.”
Though some would consider this to be quite an impediment to a successful musical career, Zarb is undeterred: “so it’s my handicap in some ways, but it also allows me to think outside the box. It makes it a little difficult playing with other people sometimes, but as my ear gets better, the easier it is to pick up from other people.”
I have to admit, I was slightly shocked as to how a musician could not read music. She was an odd pea, that Laura, among a massive pot that was stirring.
Those other vegetables were in for a boiling ride, because that was just Zarb for you: different in every sense of the word. Never was this more apparent, it seems, as when she was invited to participate in The Rolling Stones tribute. Though she knew of The Rolling Stones, she tells me, she did not know much of their actual music. “For about 3 -4 weeks I completely delved into the world of Rolling Stones and listened to them almost exclusively for the time coming up to the show. I tend to be an all or nothing kind of person, so I immersed myself in their music and tried to get a feel for what they do, and listened to a lot of their songs, not just the ones I would be performing,” Zarb says. “Being a solo guitar player and singer, there is only so much I can do to replicate a full Rock and Roll band, but I went through and picked the songs I thought I could work with and do justice to and then started breaking them down.”
Part of the musical journey, Zarb tells me, is not only the significance of the viewer but also the writer. Without that, there would be no musical thrill: “part of the Rolling Stones music's complexity comes from having so many instruments and parts all adding their bits and having their say in the song. I didn't have that luxury. The biggest question I asked myself when arranging the songs for my performance, was ‘how can I make this interesting for me to play?’ Because if I'm not digging what I'm doing, neither will the audience.”
Laura Zarb at The Vanguard The night at The Vanguard came, where creative performers were to take to the stage in tribute to the good ol’ days of The Rolling Stones. I took a friend with me who, little to her knowledge, was actually accompanying me on a field-notes excursion to experience one of Sydney’s finest funky folk and blues musician, Laura Zarb, belt out her tunes.
Being a little out of The Rolling Stones’ demographic, I made sure to do a little research on the Stones before I arrived, so by the time I got to the venue I wouldn’t feel so much like a deer in the headlights. For you Rolling Stones neophytes out there, The Stones were formed in London in 1962, and became synonymous with the ‘British Invasion’ of North America in the 60s and 70s.
The relevance of The Stones has stood the test of time, attaining a worldwide fan-base and continuing to assimilate into various musical genres through modernity.
Zarb had been invited to appear as a result of a chance encounter with Anthony Cavallaro, an event organizer, promoter, and agent in the music industry. Cavallaro tells me that he found her to be one of the most vibrant, hard-working and energetic people he had ever met, and someone who could get along with anyone.
Though he did not know her too well before inviting her to sing at The Vanguard, he was not concerned about her lack of knowledge of The Stones’ music. Cavallaro was hoping each artist would put their own unique spin on The Stones and ‘make it their own’. The more freedom and originality Zarb brought, he tells me, the more meaningful the experiment would be.
As I walk into The Vanguard, it’s not as big as I expected, and neither was the crowd. I remained convinced that the performances, however, would be big in every aspect of the word. As Zarb said prior “like a surfer chasing the ultimate wave, I’m chasing the ultimate stage.” Standing upon a grand stage in front of countless people is just as important as performing for a crowd of five people.
Wooden tables with scratches and an old-vintage feel creates the perfect atmosphere. Odd-looking and strange musical instruments are strewn across the stage.
Several performers cross the stage until the most anticipated rendition of the night (for me and my curious friend, at least). Zarb comes onto the stage quietly, looking excited and warm as she pitches and tunes her guitar. She tells the crowd with a cheeky smile, “I don’t know any Rolling Stones songs. I’ve always been bad with the musical history but now I have been schooled in the art of Rock and Roll and I’m going to show you what I’ve learnt”.
When Zarb starts performing her first song, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, members of the audience are taking notice, nodding and smiling in admiration. They start cheering only after the first few verses are sung, clearly an indication that they really enjoy her performance. I can’t help but think that the lyrics, which imply how hard it is to find happiness and that, no matter how hard you try, you will always be wanting more, is somewhat reminiscent of Zarb’s early life.
Now, however, the tide is changing. Zarb delivers an electric performance, turning the song into a light-hearted performance and injecting her brand of funk. As she taps quietly on her guitar and mouths ‘you can’t always get what you want’, the crowd swells. The enthusiasm spills over into her performance of ‘Start Me Up’, weaving between themes of sex, cocaine and cars, and accompanied by an elaborate Iluka. Zarb’s rendition of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ is soulful and instrumental, and as she croons “it’s a long rideeee”, I can sense the audience now sits comfortably in the palm of her hand.
Zarb’s performances of ‘Angie’, a song based on a rumour that David Bowie’s wife Angela saw Bowie and Mick Jagger naked in bed together, and ‘Miss You’, are cheeky and fun. I watch, mesmerised, as she giggles and stomps her feet along with the rhythm, and performs a mini-saxophone solo. Musical training? Who needs it? I am reminded of Zarb telling me that what she loved most about Rock and Roll was that it allowed her to go all out; to sing as hard as she could. “It’s nice to have to sing sweet songs, and melodic songs, but it’s also nice to let it all go and sing as hard as I can – and Rock and Roll has room for that.”
The final performance of ‘(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ was a collaboration between all the acts involved in the night at The Vanguard, allowing Zarb to show off the range of her voice. As the soft melodic tones floated down from the stage, Zarb alternates between low tunes and high pitches. Someone in the crowd next to me screams “OH SHIT”, and I get shivers.
Rolling with the Stones As I walk around the room after Zarb’s performance, several audience members admit they were unaware of Zarb’s existence until her voice belted out onstage. One audience member tells me, “Laura managed to individualise the performance whilst sticking true to the genre of Rock and Roll and The Rolling Stones.” “She was absolutely brilliant. I was blown away”, said another. Zarb’s friend compares Zarb’s sex appeal to that of Mick Jagger’s which, while high praise, was not exactly untrue.
I ask Zarb’s event organizer and promoter, Anthony Cavallaro, what he thought of her performance. “It was terrific… She nailed every song and had the whole crowd cheering for her”, he says. “Even when she finished her set everyone was asking her to play just one more song - they didn't want her to leave the stage!
She had a contagious energy that had everyone hooked as soon as she introduced herself. You could tell she knew how to handle herself on stage too - very charismatic and shared some great personal anecdotes and jokes between songs keeping everyone entertained the whole time. Musically she did a remarkable job of reinterpreting the songs as well”.
The girl herself is excited and riding a post-performance high. “It was a gorgeous room to play with great sound,” she gushes. “The other artists absolutely blew my mind, I love getting the chance to see great acts, and even more so to share a stage with them. I felt like all my preparation paid off, even if it was maybe a little over kill I would rather go overboard and make sure I give a good performance.”
Having spent time with Zarb myself and watching her perform; I can’t help but think that this is the perfect summation of her life. Constantly changing, never boring, but always warm and genuine, Zarb is always looking for the next challenge. Whether it is belly-dancing in Arizona or studying in Mexico, Zarb is always giving it her all. “I don't like to do anything half-ass, it’s an all or nothing sort of deal.”