Kaia Kater on the personal and political in songwriting

 

Kaia Kater
Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater caught many listeners off guard last year with the release of her latest album, Nine Pin. The Guardian praised it for being “an intense, mostly solo affair, with Kater’s banjo and rich voice supported by bass, muted trumpet and backing vocals. Tremendous.”

Since the album’s release, the Montreal-born, Toronto-based, Davis & Elkins College (West Virginia) graduate has taken to life on the road as a full-time touring musician.

When Kaia plays Daniels Hall on July 7, it will be her first time performing in Colorado. We are excited to have her at Swallow Hill, and very happy that she was able to discuss songwriting and other things with us via email while she continues to tour this summer.

Kaia Kater plays Swallow Hill Music on Friday, July 7, opening for Dangermuffin in Daniels Hall. Complete event details and tickets can be found here.

A lot has changed since you released your latest album Nine Pin in 2016. You’ve embarked on a career as a full time touring musician, the cultural climate has shifted, do you see those changes reflected in your songwriting?

I’m still unsure. I’ve just recently gotten the appetite to write again, but I have noticed that my writing is different than it was on Nine Pin. There are years that are particularly meaningful in the collective consciousness of the West. 1968 for example, or 2001. Years that change the course of things—2016 was one of them. In a larger context, a lot of the ugliness we’ve seen bubble up in people has been present all along. We are complicated and irrational, and poetry is the only algorithm I have to express the inexpressible. When I write, I’m constantly failing. That’s what makes it interesting.

Do you think folk music – however broadly defined – is more politicized now in the wake of 2016’s electoral upheavals in the U.S. and elsewhere? Or do you think it has always been that way, and that more people are paying closer attention to what songwriters are saying at this particular moment?

I think it’s a little of both. People have been political for centuries, but it’s about who has a platform to be heard. Hip-hop artists have been rapping about the school-to-prison pipeline and the purposeful ghettoization of black people ever since the early eighties because the premise of hip hop is inherently political, just as music is inherently poetic. More folk musicians now are approaching their craft in a similar way, but it’s always been there.

On a related note, your song “Paradise Fell” has a timeless quality, and yet it has the urgency of a contemporary protest song. I can picture Nina Simone or Pete Seeger singing it. From the outside, it sounds deeply personal but it also contains aspects of social awareness or protest.

Thanks for the kind words! That song came quite organically. I got the chorus first and then the story came along with it. I wrote ‘Paradise Fell’ as a love story between two fallible human beings trapped by circumstance. Epictetus wrote that humans are little souls carrying around our corpses. In “Paradise Fell,” I hoped to briefly reveal the divine parts of humans as much as the corrupted ones.

As a songwriter, is it difficult to merge those elements – the personal and the political? Or are they already entwined by the time you articulate them?

I’ve tried to separate them, but I don’t think I can. Sometimes I write about personal experiences and audiences interpret them as having a political statement. In the end I don’t really think it’s about me–it’s what the person feels when they listen to the song that matters. And that can be a number of things – it just depends on where you’re coming from. I don’t like to pre-contextualize songs too much at my live shows either, unless the song is strictly political.

Why did you choose the banjo as your primary instrument?

Kaia Kater
Kaia Kater

No particular reason other than the fact that I felt I could write songs more easily with it. I actually started writing songs on the piano first, and still do, though I can’t travel with a piano! Ultimately though, different instruments bring out different aspects of your songwriting, and that’s the most interesting thing to me.

Who are some contemporary artists, regardless of the genre, or medium for that matter, that you turn to for inspiration?

So many. I’ve been listening to Aoife O’Donovan quite a bit. I think her phrasing and poetry is stunning. I’ve also been listening to a lot of up and coming Chicago rappers like No Name and Saba. They also have this lilting poetry in how they write. Frank Ocean is another favourite.

Do you see your music as having a dialog with other artists?

I think so. I really like listening to a record and appreciating the choices that artists have made. I feel like now more than ever, I’m collecting ideas that other artists have put out and using their methods in my own songwriting.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

My very first time playing in Colorado will be at Swallow Hill – really looking forward to it!

This Q&A was conducted via email with Swallow Hill Music Content Marketing & Publicity Manager Barry Osborne.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *