Though the low-key soul and minimalist electronic vibes of Brooklyn group Wet immediately resonated with alt-r&b devotees, the trio’s success began with an unlikely instrument — the autoharp. “I couldn’t figure out how to play piano, and guitar was even harder,” says lead singer Kelly Zutrau of her beginnings as a songwriter. “So all the Wet songs have started on autoharp. I wanted to try writing songs [with] no plan to show them to anyone.” As she was joined later by Joe Valle and Marty Sulkow, Zutrau’s songs blossomed into synthpop earworms, the electronic production showcasing Zutrau’s vocal acrobatics as she sang about doom-addled relationships and the anxieties of modern romance. With all traces of autoharp scrubbed from the final versions of their songs, Wet went on to release Don’t You, their major-label debut, for Columbia Records earlier this year.
But Zutrau still has a soft spot for those early versions. “I wanted to release some of the demos, not because I thought they were incredible on their own, but [because] I thought fans might find them interesting,” she says. “I’m happy with the album, but in the process of making the songs electronic some of what’s exciting about the originals gets lost.” Just as she was mulling this inclination, Williamsburg experimental music haven National Sawdust invited her to play a solo set for its Selkie Series, which showcases female performers. So on August 24, she’ll perform Wet songs in their fledgling forms — including some new ones that even her bandmates and management team haven’t heard yet. She’s looking forward to having a space to experiment — even if it means a few mistakes. “I’m so grateful that I have my band members with me, because if I stumble, they can tell me where I’m supposed to be,” says Zutrau. “But at the same time, when you’re playing with a large group, it requires a level of coordination that’s really hard. [When] it’s just me up there, it’s a lot easier to recover.”
To prep for her own live solo debut, Zutrau has been watching YouTube videos of other artists whose solo performances have inspired her most. “I’m really drawn to songs and musicians that aren’t immediately easy to listen to but bring you into a world where they make sense,” she explains. “That’s where these [songs] came from, so I think that certain aspects of [my] songwriting will shine in that context.” She’s shared them, with commentary, to give Voice readers a peek into what’s in store for this one-off appearance.
Mazzy Star — “Fade Into You”
Kelly Zutrau: It’s striking to me how little is going on and how captivating this performance still is. She’s so still on stage, and she’s just inanimately singing this song but the song is so good. You can feel a lot from her even though she’s giving almost nothing away with facial cues or anything, but it’s super emotional despite all that. I think it’s always amazing to see if a song can hold up with almost nothing, like if the core of the song is that good. And that is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, I think.
Jeremih — “Birthday Sex”
[When] I’d go into sessions with producers when we were working on our album and talk about things we wanted, I’d put on this video of Jeremih. It’s so beautiful and sad. The vocals are perfect and they’re totally live, but the most interesting part is [his] really unique way of playing the piano. The way it fits into his songwriting has made me want to learn piano, and play it in my own way.
Sheryl Crow & Stevie Nicks — “Strong Enough”
This is a little bit cheesy, but one of my favorite things to watch is this video of Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks singing “Strong Enough.” It’s a sweet performance of two singers that I really love and a song that I really love. I think that’s my favorite Sheryl Crow song — it’s inspired some of my lyrics. I also am a big Stevie Nicks fan. It would be really cool to do a duet with Stevie Nicks!
Sampha – “Too Much”
This is the song Drake sampled [on his song “Too Much”], and it’s just a beautiful, perfect performance. What I’m attracted to in songs a lot of the time is the quality of someone’s voice, and I haven’t ever heard a voice like his. It’s so emotional: Every inflection, every word, feels like it’s conveying 20,000 words. It’s just so heavy, and then the piano’s carrying it all beautifully.
Fiona Apple — “Never Is a Promise”
This song is unique [in that it] doesn’t have a verse-chorus-verse [structure]. It’s more like an unfolding story. She seems really vulnerable when she’s playing it — there’s this feeling when there’s just one person up there, carrying the performance, that it could all fall apart at any second. It feels like there’s a lot on the line when I see people performing that way.