Zephyr Ciesar: a singer-songwriter brings her oldies-inspired sound back home

When Zephyr Ciesar was about three years old, she snuck away from her mother at a festival in northern California. Her mother looked everywhere, and when she finally found her daughter, she was onstage with a reggae band. The band had given her a microphone, and she was having the time of her young life with it.

And Ciesar hasn’t stopped singing since. As a teenager at Gibraltar High School, she starred in Anything Goes and Fiddler on the Roof, and when she left for New York in 2014, it was to study musical theater at CAP21. 

She returned to Door County occasionally during her seven years of singing and acting in New York, wanting to reimmerse herself in the vibrant arts community here. Now, after moving back to Door County during the pandemic, she’s here to stay – for a while, at least. 

Ciesar at Twelve Eleven Wine Bar with Dan Smrz (left). Photo by Rachel Lukas.

“I try not to plan too far in advance,” Ciesar said, laughing. “I’ve learned that life has other plans sometimes.”

Striking a Chord in Door County and Beyond

Even before her childhood debut, music was a constant in Ciesar’s life, from her mother’s acoustic guitar to the oldies tunes her grandparents played. She grew up listening to jazz icons such as Aretha Franklin and Etta James, as well as funk artists such as Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament. 

“The house was always full of music,” Ciesar said.

That music helped her to develop her own sound, which would work just as well in a 1940s cocktail lounge as it would in a modern-day bar. During her shows, she plays a fair number of oldies, but even her own songs and her modern covers are infused with the same timeless verve.

Piano and percussion back up Ciesar’s voice during her solo sets, but it’s strong enough to stand on its own: a powerful, five-octave soprano that flows from soft to sharp. She refers to her voice as a “full-body instrument” that needs the same precise tuning and continual care as other instruments do.

Photo by Rachel Lukas

In New York, that voice reverberated onstage as Ciesar performed with companies such as Vital Theatre Company and Dirty Minds Theatre, as well as at venues such as 53 Above Broadway and The Duplex. Now, it fills local joints, with the Sister Bay Bowl and Twelve Eleven wine bar among them.

Ciesar knows that as a young woman, she looks different from many other performers who play those venues. Door County’s music scene is full of older men playing lots of blues and rock, and though her sound differs from theirs, she said she still draws inspiration from every local artist she listens to or works with.

It helps that she loves old music, according to Charlie Eckhardt, Ciesar’s high-school-music-teacher-turned-bandmate.

When Eckhardt taught her as a soloist for the school’s jazz band, he had no idea he’d be performing alongside her years later, but when his psychedelic rock band, Bacchus Lotus – a longtime staple of the peninsula’s music scene – needed a singer, he contacted Ciesar. Even in high school, she had practiced like a professional, so Eckhardt knew she’d be a perfect fit for his band.

“I had more fun playing this summer with Zephyr in the band than I’ve had in years,” Eckhardt said.

In addition to singing for Bacchus Lotus, Ciesar has provided vocals for other Wisconsin bands such as The Makeouts and Out a Time. During her last few solo sets, she’s been backed up by Dan Smrz, with whom she bonded during their time playing together in The Makeouts. 

Though Smrz and Ciesar had known each other for years, 2022 was the first year when they performed as a duo. During their work together, Smrz was continually impressed by the power of her voice.

“She has an angelic quality to her voice that just stops people in their tracks,” he said. “She can easily hush a whole bar up.”

Collaboration with other local artists is one of Ciesar’s favorite parts of being back in Door County. She worked with artists in New York, too, but the community she built there wasn’t the same as the one she had here. Like many other kids who grew up in the county, she felt the whole peninsula was her home, even as a child. 

“The things that I’ve missed and appreciated were just how beautifully tight knit and supportive and just truly awesome the community is here,” Ciesar said. “I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.”

First Album Coming Soon 

Photo by Rachel Lukas.

Rather than going into hibernation mode during the off-season, Ciesar plans to spend her winter putting together her first album.

Much of her musical inspiration is stored in an old felt-lined box that once held silverware but now holds song lyrics and ideas scrawled on scraps of paper. 

“I’m just piecing and leafing through them and rediscovering old ideas,” Ciesar said. 

After that, she’ll start recording. Her living room has served as a makeshift recording studio in the past, though she’s interested in recording at the home studio of another local artist. 

The album doesn’t have a definite completion date, but Ciesar hopes to be done by the spring so she can perform it live. And whenever she does, Eckhardt knows she’ll light up the stage, as she’s been doing for years.

“Zephyr brings to the stage this positive energy,” he said. “That energy shows in the way she performs and in the way that she interacts with the musicians on the stage, and it’s contagious.”

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