"Nine Pin is a record about loss; it's a coming-of-age story" Introducing: Kaia Kater
Hey Kaia, how the devil are you?
Hello! I am as well as one can be on a Wednesday, which is certainly better than a Monday.
What have you been up to today?
I’ve been working from my desk in my quiet apartment in Toronto, planning flights and itineraries for my summer tour through Canada, The States and the U.K.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? And how you first got into music?
Sure. I come from what they call a ‘folk family’; my grandfather is a luthier and builds guitars. Each person in my family has one—I suppose they’re our family heirlooms. On holidays we used to play music in the kitchen. We’d sing tunes by Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Penny Lang, old blues tunes, you name it. I remember thinking this was so normal, until I figured out that other peoples’ families skied or went to Cabo on holidays. I still prefer our version of doing things though. I think I gained a pretty huge understanding of songs and lyrics before I could really articulate what they meant to me.
What can you tell us about Nine Pin?
The long and short of Nine Pin is that it’s a record about loss. I see it as a coming-of-age story. I felt like I entered the songwriting process almost accidentally, and pulled these songs out from various nooks in my brain. But when I laid them out flat, I realized that they were all different pieces of a larger statement, about the fear and joy of being.
And how do you approach that songwriting?
I really don’t know, honestly. I collect things: phrases and sentences I hear or passages that I read in books or magazines. Usually my songs require work. They don’t come easily and I’m highly critical of them, so I’ve tossed a lot of things out. Lately I’ve been trying to finish the songs I know I won’t ever play, just as an exercise. Then I look at them and harvest their organs. Figure out why they didn’t work, or what within the lyrics was never said that should’ve been. Usually a good song has everything come together without it seeming like work. Just like Usain Bolt’s sprints look like the most organic thing possible, but you know in the rational part of your brain that he’s spent hours untold figuring out every detail, every micro movement, to become stronger and more graceful.
It’s a really stripped back sounding record, was that a conscious choice?
It was. I have a lot to owe to my producer Chris Bartos, who I view as a genius of sound and orchestration. We’ve been friends for a long time and Chris was the first one to hear most of these songs. Often artists make the mistake of letting the sonic filling get away from them. Chris was always reminding me that the pillar underneath the arrangements are the songs themselves. He always wanted to leave that part exposed, maybe inferring that the songs could still stand alone if everything was stripped away.
Songs like ‘Paradise Fell’ seem to be really borne out of some of the issues we have in the world today. How important to you is it to use your music to shine a light on inequality and unfairness?
'Paradise Fell' actually is a love story. I was thinking a lot about Neil Young’s song ‘Pocahontas’ when I wrote it— he sings about the history beneath the concrete. What happened in the grasses below Broadway? What was Manhattan before we knew it as itself? There’s a lot to think about there, mostly concerning inequality and the pillaging of lands and people in order for the conqueror to spoon-feed the conquered his saccharine syrup every day in schools. I wanted to talk about those whose stories are forgotten, even if they are imaginary.
Hurray For The Riff Raff sing about gentrification on their latest record, is that a big challenge in North America?
Gentrification has been happening for hundreds of years. It’s an extension of gerrymandering and segregation. The Chicago rapper Noname puts it the best way in the song 'Church/Liquor Store':
"They kept the melting pot inside the slave plot, watch
They gentrified your neighbourhood no need for cops, watch
Look at the yoga pants, coffee shops and yogurt stands
Consumerism holy land
And on the other hand my momma land..."
‘Harlem’s Little Blackbird’ completely exposes your songwriting and voice, it’s a brave song in that respect. Do you see it that way?
I do. It was a song that came about because my friend and colleague Katharine Manor (an incredible tap dancer) was fooling around one day with rhythms. She did this one rhythm that I latched onto. I remember hearing it and asking her to dance it again, so she did. I recorded it and went home and looped it. Nothing quite seemed to fit until I sung this melody. I like the song because it was written on the backbone of the rhythm, which supports the song the whole way through.
What’s the one song that best represents you in 2017?
Damn, hard question! Well alright, alright…I would say TLC’s new song ‘It’s Sunny’. It’s all disco and funk and I feel like that’s me. Grooving on up in 2017.
What have you enjoyed most so far about the whole recording / releasing cycle?
Probably the touring. I was able to go to Spain recently. While swimming in the bright blue Mediterranean, I had one of those rare grateful moments. Thinking like, “Okay. Music got me here”. It’s a beautiful thing when you can slow down and recognize the good days.
What’s your favourite song on the album? For the record, mine’s ‘Saint Elizabeth’.
Shucks. Thank you! I think mine will always be 'Nine Pin’, mostly because it was the most truthful and honest, and also the first song I wrote on the record. It feels vulnerable in a way that the others don’t. I’ll still get emotional from time to time singing it.
What does the rest of 2017 hold for you?
Many more shows, including two tours through the UK! Also some more writing for the next album, which will be nice.
You’re touring the UK again at the moment, so my question is have you got a place you’ve loved? And hated?
Haha! These questions get funnier and funnier. I really loved London (which might be obvious). I didn’t hate anything, mostly because these towns are one thousand times more beautiful than any I’ve been to in North America.
What’s the toughest thing about touring?
Probably missing the people you love. Touring is a weird mix between absolutely loving your life and then wishing you were anywhere but a lonely hotel in X town. Everything comes in waves. I try to ride it out and also to take care of myself. Everything seems grey when you’re underslept and hungover. I try to avoid both of those things, since I’m already putting myself through emotional extremes just by virtue of being on the road. I also try to exercise to release those endorphins.
And what makes it all worthwhile?
Probably the soaring moment you feel when both you and the audience are riding the same wavelength. There’s this feeling that you’re all floating four feet above yourselves, collectively forgetting all about the minutia of your lives. It’s like a deep breath and an exhale. And another deep breath, and another exhale. You’re swimming in this orb together and nothing else matters.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve played live?
I played this corporate gig, a Wal-Mart employees Valentine’s day mixer in Arkansas once. Luckily I was with some friends (and excellent musicians), so it was manageable. We would play a set, and then there’d be a speed-dating round. We’d dare each other to say depressing things like “love is an illusion” and “loneliness is the heart’s only mistress" just to see if anyone noticed. We were mostly background music anyway, so I don’t think many people did. We got as much all-you-can-eat mini tacos as we wanted, so that was a redeeming aspect.
You’re coming back later in the year to play with Rhiannon Giddens, who I love and know you’re a fan of, how great is that going to be?
So great! Rhiannon is a pioneer and has been really supportive of my career and those of other women I know. I’m really looking forward to getting on the road with her.
If you could only listen to one song this week, what would it be?
Probably ‘Bad Blood’ by Nao. She’s so cool.
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
If I do anything besides playing music, which I do! I write about music for No Depression and have some articles coming out soon. I also like to exercise and follow many bodybuilders on Instagram. Which is crazy but also really inspiring.
What are you doing next today?
Going to the gym (thanks for reminding me!)
Finally, how do you take your coffee? (Or alcohol?)
Black…sometimes with coconut milk if I’m feeling fancy or want to seem more elegant than I actually am.
Thanks so much for your time Kaia and I hope you enjoyed the UK.
Thank you! Looking forward to coming back for many years to come.