Bay Area Folk and Americana singer/songwriter Zoe FitzGerald Carter released her solo album Waterlines in Spring of 2021 exploring new sonic directions and also bringing forth her trademark storytelling with an eye for imagery and the emotional intensity of inner worlds. In addition to a career as a writer, and her work teaching both memoir writing and songwriting, Carter has played and performed with numerous Bay Area bands. Her first album, Waiting for the Earthquake, featured Sugartown, an Americana string band.

We’re delighted to debut the video for “Like A Drum” today at Wildfire, a single from Waterlines that captures the contained ferocity and uneasy tension that exists in humanity’s long history of caging wild animals and even forcing them to perform in a circus setting. Carter’s lyrics not only reflect a great deal of empathy for the confined animal natures in question but also make the concept universally relatable by reminding us of the depths of the “captive heart” we too may feel at times. The video for “Like A Drum” was directed by Tina Silano.

Zoe FitzGerald Carter has delivered a real treat for readers by composing an essay tracking the inspiration and development behind the song “Like A Drum” and also taking us, step by step, through the video filming process to achieve the final result you see below. Below you’ll also find Carter’s complete essay and full lyrics for “Like A Drum”.

“Like A Drum”, Essay by Zoe FitGerald Carter

Like A Drum” was inspired by a quote from the 19th century French novelist, Gustave Flaubert. I stumbled across it somewhere and emailed it to myself — a weird thing that I do – and then come across it when I was cleaning out my inbox months later and decided to make it into a song. 

The funny thing is, I never use quotes as inspiration for songs. As a longtime professional writer, I’ve written a ton of personal essays and even wrote a memoir (Imperfect Endings, about my highly imperfect family), so I’m generally in the habit of mining my own material as a writer, including in my songs. But there was something about Flaubert’s quote that intrigued – but also annoyed me! I wanted to argue with it and I guess writing “Like A Drum” was my way of doing that. 

The quote, which I’m slightly paraphrasing, reads: “Language is like a big drum that we beat for the bears to dance when what we really want is to move the stars to pity.” 

I loved the idea of “moving the stars to pity.” Who doesn’t want to feel their writing or music reaches that level of lofty transcendence?  But, for me, there was also a heartlessness in the image of the dancing bears, especially given that their sole purpose in this equation is to represent artistic failure. The bears are lumbering, clumsy and crude, undeserving of our interest or empathy. But how did they feel about their circumstances, I wondered? 

To be fair, Flaubert lived almost two centuries ago, long before organizations like PETA came along to raise our awareness about animal cruelty, and he can perhaps be forgiven for his lack of sensitivity. (Plus, I do have fond memories of reading Madame Bovary back in college.) But the way he dismissed and demeaned the bears rankled me. I’ve always found wild animals in zoos and circuses disturbing. The fact that these animals have been removed from their natural habitats, from their animal lives, and can no longer run or hunt freely but are forced to live in confined, artificial spaces, breaks my heart. And the circus is the worst as it also forces them to behave in ways highly unnatural for them, all in the name of making money and entertaining a crowd. 

As a kind of throw down to Flaubert, I started the song with the quote itself, but then immediately focused on the bears who are seen “dancing claw to claw, wearing little hats, riding tricycles around the ring…” 

The circus imagery felt rich and colorful so I continued with it into the second and third verse, moving on to lions and then clowns. And in each of these verses there is a sense of menace from the animals and performers; they are all poised to escape, to fight back, to reclaim their animal selves. The lions are “waiting by the doorway, claws tucked out of sight/ It’ll only take a second, they won’t even have to fight.” And the clowns will make the children laugh but then they’ll make them cry. “They’ll squirt you with a flower, they’ll hit you with a pie.” 

And escape they all do in the chorus, breaking the bonds of servitude and running free even if it is only in their heads. Using repetition and a driving, Latin rhythm, the animals “run in the night, cry like the rain, chew on the bones,” and ultimately, “tear down this broken house and fly.” The refrain “beat like a drum” is repeated as well but in this case, it’s not Flaubert’s big drum that is beating, it’s the desire for freedom beating in these captive hearts – and, I would argue – in all of us as well.

In the bridge, which slows and opens up, the bears are “dreaming of forests, of fish wet in their hands/Gracefully running, their four feet on the sand.” For me, it’s the saddest part of the song. It’s where we see them living how they were meant to live. Peacefully and in nature where they belong.

As soon as I wrote and recorded it (it was released on my album, Waterlines, last year), I knew I wanted to make a video. It felt so visual – lions, bears, clowns! And I had this image of an old-fashioned circus, the kind that traveled from small town to small town on a train, like in the book, Water for Elephants, except a little more tawdry and sad. 

Real bears and lions were out of my budget but I had the great good fortune of working with Tina Solano (aka DJ Rockaway), a Bay Area videographer who has a gift for finding archival footage. In fact, much of the circus footage that ended up in the video was off of an ancient DVD that she sent away for in the mail for $14.95!  In addition to the circus footage, we needed footage of the animals running free and she found some great shots of wild cats and bears fishing and, at one key point in the song, a herd of zebras. 

But we had to figure out how to shoot me. What was my role in this scenario? After thinking about it a bit I decided I should be a narrator, the person who stands to the side of the action and comments on it, like in a Shakespearean play. Except in this case I also wanted to be “in the cast,” so I imagined myself as a kind of soothsayer or fortune teller hanging out in the shadows of the circus tent, addressing the audience. 

For our first day of shooting, I had a professional makeup artist come to my house to help me get the right look. I described it to her as something between “goth and gypsy” but when I looked in the mirror, I was dismayed. I looked more like an aging heavy metal rock star than a mysterious soothsayer. But it was too late to start over so I threw on a bunch of flowing clothes and headed out to meet Tina.

We shot that first day in a gorgeous redwood park in Marin County where there was a large outdoor stage beside a grove of trees. Tina who, despite my reservations, thought my makeup looked great, had me sing into the camera while crouched in front of a giant tree stump, dance around on the stage (which was excrutiating!), walk back and forth across a small bridge and play my guitar on a picnic table. I went home convinced that I’d looked like an idiot and we immediately scheduled another shoot at a different location and with the promise of less dramatic eyeshadow. 

Without access to a circus tent, Tina had the brilliant idea to shoot at a local carousel, a place I used to take my kids when they were little. It’s a magnificent restored relic of a carousel, made back in 1911. It has numerous ornate hand-carved animals — everything from horses to giraffes to frogs — and plays old-timey mechanical organ music. We were able to hire it out for a couple hours, and – happily – have someone there to operate it while we shot.  

As you can see in the video, I play guitar in front of the carousel while it twirls behind me but also ride various bobbing circus animals. The part that nearly killed me was when I was sitting in one of those twirling teacups while the carousel was also moving. In order to make it look slow-mo in the editing, I was trying to sing the song double time so Tina could slow the whole thing down later and I’d be in time with the song. I was focusing really hard on staying in time and staring right into the camera when I suddenly felt violently, horribly sick. I had to yell at the lady to cut the engine and wander around outside until my stomach calmed down! 

Also, at one point, Tina had me to walking against the direction of the carousel, which was like trying to walk up a down escalator. I was hurrying along, trying to stay even with Tina’s camera but couldn’t keep up. I kept getting swept backwards out of sight and we’d both get hysterical. Again, we had to yell “stop” at the operator so I could hop off. If the video had included outtakes that definitely would have made the cut.

In the end, I give so much credit to Tina for her editing of all these disparate elements. I think she really caught the strangeness and poignancy of the circus – the performing animals, the sad, grotesque clowns — but also managed to capture the uplifting promise of nature, the desire we all have for freedom and dignity. All the things I’m sure Flaubert wanted himself and would, I hope, want for the bears as well if he was alive today.

Song credits: Zoe FitzGerald Carter (lyrics, guitar and vocals), Pam Delgado (background vocals), Dawn Richardson (drums), Paul Olguin (bass), Erik Jekabson (trumpet), David Boyden (fiddle), Jeffrey Wood (producer, additional guitar). 

“Like a Drum” Lyrics:
                                  @Zoe FitzGerald Carter                  

What we really want is to move the stars to pity   
but we’re beating a big drum for the bears to dance 

They’re dancing claw to claw, wearing little hats 
Riding tricycles, around the ring, ring-a-ling-a-ling (a-ling a-ling)
They swing from hanging ladders, turn somersaults and wave
spin around in circles, while the clarinetist plays

Beat like a drum, like a drum, like a drum
Cry like the rain, like the rain, like the rain
Break out your firey song and sing  
Run in the night, in the night, in the night
Chew on the bones, on the bones, on the bones
Tear down this broken house and fly

The lions in their cages dream of fleeing zebra stripes                    
black and white turns to red, the crowd roars                                              
They’re waiting by the doorway, claws tucked out of sight  
it’ll only take a second, they won’t even have to fight

Roar like a drum, like a drum, like a drum
Cry like the rain, like the rain, like the rain
Break out your firey song and sing  
Run in the night, in the night, in the night
Chew on the bones, on the bones, on the bones
Tear down this broken house and fly

They’re dreaming of forests, of fish wet in their hands
Gracefully running, their four feet in the sand

Smiling clowns come tumbling, they’re rolling in the dirt                 
Like ballerinas, point their toes to the ceiling                                       
They make the children laugh, and then they make them cry
They’ll squirt you with a flower, they’ll hit you with a pie