Zoë Eve Nutt, child of Knoxville TN, lost hearing in her right ear – all of it - by the time she was eight years old. So she had time to assimilate that fact into life as an adult and as a musician, singing in choir, studying voice and pursuing a performance degree at Belmont University. Her left ear’s troubles came as more of an unnerving surprise.
“It was kind of a funny turn of events, where I found out what I really wanted to do, and at the same time, the universe seemed to be telling me NO,” Nutt said in a recent interview.
Her discovery was the creative field of songwriting, which lured her away from the structure and rigors of operatic training in her junior year and into Belmont’s nationally recognized songwriting major. And it was there, as she remembers it on the day of her first songwriting class, that her mono-aural attachment to the world suddenly frayed.
“I went to class one day and I couldn’t talk to anyone. I’d woken up and my left ear wasn’t working anymore,” she said. “I felt like I was in a fishbowl. Everyone I spoke to was just kind of this blur. That lasted for like a month or two.”
That was about five years ago. Her left ear has bedeviled her ever since, working then not working, ringing perpetually with tinnitus, with no clear pattern or prognosis. Doctors can’t definitively explain her hearing loss or even decide if her right ear and left ear disabilities are connected. Theories have been floated. A virus. A hard-to-identify hereditary condition. But as of now, Nutt has had to learn to live with not only a disability but ambiguity as well.
What we know for sure is two-fold. Zoë Nutt is a working, touring singer and songwriter with a loyal backing band and a second album on the way this year, signals from the universe notwithstanding. And Zoë Nutt has gone bionic, with a cochlear implant giving her audio perception in her right ear for the first time in almost 20 years.
The band is The Union, a four-piece that can be heard and seen in performance videos configured as a closed in circle, as if to give everyone the best chance to listen. Nutt says she’s careful to position the bass player to her left for a harmonic anchor, and lately she’s been wearing headphones on stage instead of the typical on-stage “wedge” monitors, which even hearing musicians can find disorienting and noisy.
“I remember her having a really positive reaction to the headphones,” says her guitarist and sometime co-writer John McNally. “Her confidence was great, and it looks pretty badass too. It worked out really well for being able to hear herself and know what is happening and being able to dig in with total confidence.”
McNally has been making music with Nutt for about three years, with numerous local gigs and some regional touring to their credit. “I’ve played some shows where she sounded great and (afterwards) she’d say she couldn’t hear anything,” McNally says. “It’s a testament to her muscle memory and her musicality. There are a lot of variables you can’t control at venues, and she’s a total trooper about it. She always seems to find a way to work with it.”
Asked why he’s made such a commitment to a songwriter with an apparent and unpredictable musical disability, he says he doesn’t see it that way. “I believe in the music and I believe in the messenger,” he says. “I’ve gotten to talk with her about her struggle and how scary that can be. Hearing her story and understanding where she she’s coming from makes me believe in the music harder.”
While she can’t always tell if her guitar is out of tune (her band will subtly point that out if need be), Nutt says pitch perception in her singing is not a problem. That’s because the voice sends its frequencies through the ribcage, the sinus cavities, the skull. “It does resonate in your body. That is wonderful for me,” says Nutt, noting that her classical voice training lent her advantages in that respect. She was taught to be more sensitive to the vibrations inside her than her ear’s external discernment. “Sometimes you just have to trust yourself and the way it feels to sing something versus the way it sounds,” she said. “That’s been one of the most helpful pieces of advice when it comes to singing and having hearing loss.”
Where biology falters, technology often steps in, and now Zoe Nutt is growing accustomed to a cochlear implant surgically installed behind her right ear. A microphone outside picks up sound and translates that into impulses that fire her audio nerves across 16 frequency bands. Compared to the thousands of frequencies our cochlea is capable of receiving, it’s highly pixelated impression of the world, but it can convey speech. “Everyone sounds kind of like a robot,” she says, and even that’s after weeks of getting used to strange new impressions.
She goes back to Vanderbilt’s world-renowned audiology department about once a month to have each frequency turned up infinitesimally, easing the transition and entraining the brain to make sense of the signals. Sharp sounds such as putting dishes away feel particularly harsh and uncomfortable, she said. She can turn the device off any time she wants. “It’s gotten better. I’ve started to actually enjoy it,” Nutt told me. “It’s been a long road to finding enjoyment in it. It’s still somewhat difficult. It feels like someone’s got a little microphone blaring in your ear. But when I’m not wearing it, I find I miss it.”
So now, as always, it’s about adapting. Having the first signals in her right ear in years is a shot in the arm. A hearing aid is proving useful in the other ear. Writing and rehearsing and recording continue, with developing plans for a release later this year. She reports her confidence as an artist at an all-time high, even if her left ear’s inconsistency is frustrating.
“Hopefully I’ll never have to deal with total silence in my life,” Nutt said. “But I guess not being able to communicate is scarier than not being able to hear. I don’t know sign language. That’s why I write songs - to communicate in a way that I couldn’t do otherwise. Being deaf is not the end of the world. A lot of people live very happy lives. But I think that fear of how do I express myself with music when I have no reference point – how do I sing these songs that I really want people to hear? That would probably be the scariest part.”
On her 2016 debut album Like You, the title track offers a wistful view into the loss she lives with and the hurt of knowing in the years to come, she’ll not hear her children’s voices with the clarity other mothers do. “Don’t know how to make things right if the switch goes off tonight,” she sings, with a ring of the tinnitus she lives with etched into the song’s soundscape. Anxiety is not the vibe that the ever-smiling, ever-hopeful Nutt carries with her to her work or a conversation with a reporter. But fine art is often made with one foot poised out over a precipice, and this uncertainty is uniquely hers. The sound of her owning it is loud and clear.
THIS IS THE FIRST IN A SERIES CALLED 'PLAYING THROUGH,' PROFILES OF ARTISTS DEALING WITH CHALLENGES TO THEIR HEALTH AND WELL BEING. WATCH FOR MORE IN THE COMING WEEKS.