PROVINCETOWN – Her live shows are wondrous things.
With a charming British accent and a contagious grin that holds just a bit of mischief, Zoe Lewis woos her audience with ease. Her well-honed often humorous stories of adventure, love and joy are used to introduce her large catalog of catchy original songs.
“I’d never seen anyone perform like her,” said musician Kate Wolf, who lives in Seattle, of the first time she ever saw Zoe Lewis on stage. “She was musical, theatrical, and hilarious… Her humor and cadence reminded me of old funny British humor like Benny Hill.”
Lewis spins plates atop a stick while introducing songs with stories of her childhood on the coast of England, her worldwide travels, and her life in her beloved Provincetown. Her musical style veers from jazz to Latin to worldbeat, folk and more. There’s some cabaret and vaudeville in her act too.She plays keyboard, ukulele, guitar, washboard, accordion, harmonica, and bicycle bell, as well as stomping her feet.
I don’t like to be put in a box,” said Lewis, a recording artist who lives in Provincetown. “That’s always been a problem. No one knows how to market me. They should play me on the Zoe [radio] station. But they don’t have that station.”
If that Zoe station was ever invented, it would be a heck of a listen. Lewis’ CDs of original songs exude her joyful wanderlust personality with catchy arrangements that vary and mash her many influences into something that is, well, pure Zoe.
Lewis, 58 (“but 27 on the inside”), has opened for Pat Benatar, the Indigo Girls and Judy Collins, and recently had original music picked up by a Netflix children’s program.
While Lewis does not want to be put in a box, she has very much situated herself, both musically and personally, in a specific town – Provincetown. And next month are her final shows of the summer for her most recent musical that she wrote, “A Slice of Ptown.” It is the second musical she has written about Provincetown.
“I come from Rottingdean, near Brighton on the south coast of England,” said Lewis. “Rudyard Kipling lived there for a bit. It was a smugglers’ village,” she said.
“My mom and dad had me later in life,” she said. She had two siblings, a brother and a sister, but they were two decades older than Zoe. “I grew up with grandparents, but they were my parents,” she said.
That difference in years meant that her older parents gave Zoe the freedom to roam and explore in her seaside village. “I was always jumping in the sea, running over the hills,” she said.
But it was music, from the very beginning, that captured her soul. “I was a musician when I was born,” said Lewis. “I played when I came out of the womb… I always played music. I had this urge. I just had to play music.”
When she was very young, she said, “I kept picking up things to play.”
Her father, an electrical engineer, had an electric organ that Lewis said he could play by ear. She soon wanted to play it.
When she was 4 years old, Lewis began piano lessons “once a week in a rickety old house with a 95-year-old lady who would rap my knuckles if I played the wrong note,” said Lewis.
Her name was Violet Wooten. “Miss Wooten” wanted her students to read music. “I would cheat all the time,” recalled Lewis. “I didn’t read music, but she would think I was reading music.”
Lewis, instead of reading music, played by ear and by watching Miss Wooten’s hands when she demonstrated a piece of music.
She didn’t read music, but she was obsessed with music. When Zoe was about 7 or 8, she said, her parents took her on a vacation to Cornwall and “I took a drawing of a piano keyboard with me and I kept playing it in my head,” she said.
“I loved to play the keyboard. I wanted to play. I had to play,” said Lewis.
Lewis’ sister had married and moved to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao and when Zoe was 11 she was allowed to take off school and traveled with her parents to visit.
“That changed my life,” she said. “I realized you could be warm. I heard calypso and steel pans. I knew there was a whole world waiting for me out there.” She added, “I’ve got a lot of rhythm in me.”
In the meantime, while growing up in her seaside village, she kept working on her music. “I was always writing, making up songs,” said Lewis. At 14, she won a talent show for a song she wrote called, “Lazy Afternoon.” She won a cassette recorder.
Around the time that the Broadway musical, “Cats” came out, Lewis wrote her own musical, her first. It was called, “Pests.”
In school, she said, “No one encouraged me to be a musician. No one said in a careers interview, ‘Oh yeah, you can follow music as a career.’”
She joined a punk band called Namaste in Brighton. She was playing “all these strange synthesizers.” She got the job after seeing an ad in the music magazine, Melody Maker.
“I was really sticking out like a sore thumb in the punk band,” she said. “But they liked me and they thought I was funny.”
At 20, Lewis’ horizons expanded to London, where she moved to join a nine-piece Latin pop band called Avanti.
The band members were all going to school for performing arts. Lewis would later learn from what they learned. Also, she took adult education classes in pantomime and juggling and other circus arts, along with jazz workshops. She was experiencing and absorbing all she could.
“I just learned off people who went to school,” she said. “Or I would stand behind other piano players and watch their hands.”
In those early years, she played piano in English pubs, which helped her develop her style and confidence.
All the while, she worked on the craft of songwriting, and performing. “Open mics are great,” said Lewis. “I started learning my performing style at open mics.”
Hers is not just a musical style. There is also a lot of theater in her performances. “I love vaudeville,” she said. “In England we had music halls,” she said. And so she took some ideas from there.
“I love the stories they tell in folk songs,” she said. “And I love the circus.”
After about a year in London, Lewis said to the band, “Sorry band, but we’re not huge stars,” and she left to see the world. “It was probably to go find myself. It was probably to be gay. I didn’t know that at the time.”
What she did know, she said, was that, “There’s a whole world out there. You’ve got to go see it.”
There is a recurring sentence that Lewis uses when telling her story; “I was very Zen, very in the moment.”
She headed to Curacao, where her sister lived. And then it was on to South America – Venezuela and Peru. “I had wonderful times meeting people, staying with people.”
She relied on “the kindness of strangers.”
For a while, Lewis worked as a tour guide in the Amazon. “I helped show people the anaconda that had recently eaten a small crocodile,” said Lewis. With spectacular sunsets every night, she had a recurring thought each evening: “This is gorgeous.”
“The more you travel, the opportunities are endless if you are open to them,” said Lewis.
Her next adventure was the American West. She had a specific idea of America. “Me, being a romantic, I came to America thinking it would be like Bob Dylan songs and Jack Kerouac novels,” said Lewis.
With Dylan and Kerouac as her reference points, she of course wanted to jump freight trains. She met other train jumpers, other romantics. “Charlie Chaplain jumped trains. Buster Keaton jumped trains,” said Lewis of her inspiration. “It was romantic. I had a book of beat poets in my bag.”
She learned hobo songs, which were perfect for jumping trains except that she needed to change instruments. “I learned harmonica jumping freight trains because you can’t jump a freight train with a piano,” she said.
She traveled across the USA in an old blue van.
She traveled to Asia, and to Africa, and Central America and South America. “I’d stay in countries for six weeks, maybe two months… I like to go places for six weeks, then you either move there or move on,” she said.
All along the way, she picked up musical influences. Lewis, who “can play all the old jazz standards till the cows come home,” has been influenced by music from all over the world.
But her biggest musical evolution went back to that first visit at 11-years-old to Curacao in the Caribbean. While traditional musical styles are on the downbeat, she discovered in Latin music that it was on the offbeat.
“When my hips started moving to the music, I noticed the whole of your body moves differently and your whole way of looking at things changes. You realize all the opportunities there are. It’s the spice of life. It was me breaking away from England and all that tradition and experience,” she said.
“I was happy when I found the offbeat,” she said. “It’s a great metaphor for life.”
“I have never moved anywhere. I’m just passing through and fate will have its way with you if you let it,” she said.
Lewis kept traveling and supporting herself by playing music. By 1991, she found her way to Provincetown.
“I have to be by the sea,” she said. “I traveled the world and I found this gay, crazy, wild, beautiful little town, so it’s just perfect for me.”
“I took the bus up with my friend Kevin. We were going to sleep on the beach,” said Lewis. The two of them played music on the street when “Lea DeLaria (comedian, actress, jazz singer, now owner of The Club in Provincetown) walked by and put a dollar in the hat and said, ‘You guys are great.’ We didn’t know anyone in town. She said, ‘Come and be in my show tonight.’ We sang in her show. She let us stay at her place.”
At the time, Lewis was living in Northampton. But the next summer, she came back to Provincetown, got a gig playing music and an apartment next to Spiritus Pizza, where she lived for 25 years.
“Spiritus is sort of the nucleus of the town,” she said.
Spiritus, as well as all of Provincetown, is the setting of her new musical, “A Slice of Ptown.” There are three more shows left, on September 11, 18 and 25 at the Post Office Cafe.
She has previously written two other musicals that were produced in Provincetown, “Snail Road,” which she called, “A valentine to Provincetown,” and “Across the Pond,” in which Lewis said compared the countries of England and the United States.
“When you are creative, you can make a thing and make it happen in Provincetown. You don’t have to go to Broadway and schmooze for seven years,” said Lewis. “You have a dream, you can make your dream come true.”
The new play, “A Slice Of Ptown,” is a musical memoir of those years living next to Spiritus, where Lewis witnessed the gathering of people just after the bars closed. Some were looking for love.
“I’ve got all these songs. People coming in for their last slice of love, or pizza. It’s a double entendre,” she said of the overall concept. “It’s about Provincetown being many people’s home for so many reasons. It’s a magical town. It affects people profoundly.”
“The longer you live in Provincetown, the more you realize there are so many layers to it. There are writers and fishermen and whale watching and scientists, mushroom experts, waiters, performers. There’s always something new to learn,” said Lewis.
“I love it here because it’s old and I grew up in an old place,” she said. “There is incredible natural beauty… It’s a beautiful way of life.”
And yet, she still has a need to travel. In recent years, she has gone to Puerto Vallarto, Mexico to play music in the winter months.
“I do get itchy feet,” she said. “Right now, I’m happy as a clam here in Provincetown. But I get itchy feet in the fall. I like it, knowing that I am going somewhere.”
“There are so many ways to touch people’s hearts,” said Lewis.
When she spins plates atop a stick as part of her act, she said, “I found if I drop a plate, people like it. People run up to help you. It’s lovely. The more things that go wrong, the more you make a mistake, the more the crowd is with you… It’s human nature to want you to succeed.”
“She’s an entertainer,” said Provincetown artist Jay Critchley. “That’s just the bottom line. She connects with her audience.”
Critchley, who for years has staged the Swim For Life, a harbor swim and fundraiser that honors those who have died of AIDS, said Lewis has performed for free at the Celebration Of Life concert that is held the evening before the swim.
“It’s hard to imagine Provincetown without her,” said Critchley.
“She’s a special gift to this town, and to the world,” said musician Roxanne Layton, who plays recorder and is one of the more permanent members of Lewis’ revolving cast of great, yet different musicians that play in her bands, Zoe Lewis & The Souvenirs; Zoe Lewis & The Rubber Band; and Zoe Lewis and her Elastic Band.
Layton was featured, through the window, of Lewis’s many virtual shows that she streamed live from her house during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. That band, with Layton and others through the window, was the Zoe Lewis & the Social Distancers.
“That was the only gig I was doing for a year,” said Layton. “It was a highlight of my last year… We did 45 concerts last year. Through the window on Thursdays; I wasn’t allowed to go in her house. Sometimes I’d be outside in the freezing rain.”
“People from all over the world watched,” said Layton. “Every single person who watched the show said, ‘You saved us. We would make dinner and watch your show.’”
Lewis said of her many collaborators, “I play with some great players… “It’s great to jam with other musicians. It’s a bit like jumping on a train playing with me. Jump on board. We don’t know where we’re going, but let’s have an adventure.”
“If people play with you a lot, it’s very rewarding because you can finesse your art,” said Lewis.
Kate Wolf, a digital media producer and project manager in addition to being a musician who sometimes plays with Lewis and has co-produced some of Lewis’ albums, said of Lewis, “Over the years I’ve experienced her songwriting and her stagecraft as it continues to grow and extend into all different directions.”
“I’ve been playing with her for almost 30 years. I still love it. She still makes me laugh,” said Wolf. “It’s kind of unheard of that somebody’s bandmate would be thoroughly into their music for so long.”
And while Wolf acknowledges that band members are taken on a journey playing with Lewis, she said, “She keeps things fresh with different musicians. And she’s always reading the audience, and taking them on a journey.”
“She’s so positive and upbeat. Her songs are inspiring and hopeful and funny,” said Layton. “I put them on just to lift myself up.”
‘She’s authentic and she’s really, really, really funny,” said Wolf. “Bratty funny, and I mean that in the best way.”
“She’s just such a gift,” said Wolf. “One of her life credos is, Go see something beautiful every day. On Cape Cod, that’s not hard to do. Or go experience something beautiful every day. That is what is the key to her sunny, cheery, optimistic disposition.”
“My job, I was born to entertain people and maybe cheer them up,” said Lewis. “I have a need to connect and a need to make people feel joy for a minute… And music has such an amazing ability to connect us. If you can find a way to connect with people, isn’t that what life’s all about? It is for me.”
*** Click here for tickets to “A Slice Of Ptown”
“Peking Duck For Christmas” from Cape Cod Wave’s first year, 2013 at the Cape Cod Cavalcade For The Homeless. This catchy song is an all-time favorite as we find ourselves singing it around the Cape Cod Wave worldwide corporate headquarters every holiday season.
“78” from the Truro Green in August 2015, Lewis and her Elastic Band play this time-traveling nostalgic ode to old 78 RPM records. As Lewis sings, “Life is full of scratches, especially these days…”
“These Shoes” from August 2017 at the Cotuit Center for the Art. Here are Lewis and The Souvenirs, featuring an all-star Cape Cod band of Chandler Travis on bass, Liam Hogg on drums, Kami Lyle on trumpet, Mark Chenevert on clarinet, with special guest Sarah Swain singing backup. This song is about what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
“Bicycle” from First Night in Chatham, New Year’s Eve, the last day of 2017. Just Zoe on this one, a band in a body, singing about riding her bicycle in Provincetown. This is great!
“Hell But Swell” from WOMR’s birthday party in Provincetown in April 2019. This song is about it being hell when one’s love is away and yet it is still swell knowing one has love.
“Beja Flor” from June 2022 at The Club in Provincetown. This beautiful song is about hummingbirds, featuring the line, “You little honey sipper, makes love to the flowers all day.”
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