Victoria -based musician Kathryn Calder has had a rough five years. Her trio of solo albums – Are You My Mother, Bright & Vivid and Kathryn Calder – chart the process through mourning and acceptance that accompanied year-apart deaths of both her parents.
Though best known in the states for her involvement in The New Pornographers, Calder’s solo album’s have been a quieter force. The artist’s biggest strengths – evocative atmosphere and vivid, emotional lyrics – have evolved since 2010’s Mother into the mastery shown on this year’s S/T. In every way it is a forward-looking piece of art.
This interview was conducted on September 8th in a van behind Adelaide Hall.
Zack Rosen: I’ve been listening to all three of your albums and it seems they have an arc from numbness to processing to acceptance. It’s like a trilogy, with the new album marking the end of your five-year disaster period.
Kathryn Calder: Right? It was very much the process of those five years, reflected in my music. There’s almost no escaping that. It’s funny — when I first started writing the album I wrote all these songs then I scrapped them all because I didn’t like them and started again. I think that part of the reason I didn’t like them is because they didn’t feel as honest or genuine somehow. I was just getting into the writing process, I thought it would take me ten songs to write a new album but it turns out it took me 30. That was part of it.
ZR: What was it about the first set of songs?
KC: They weren’t right and I knew it. They just were songs I had to get out before I could write the songs I wanted to write. [During this time] I got a gig to do the music for a web series called “Everyday is Like Sunday.” The director Pavan Moondi was like “I just need indie rock” and I was like “I can do that! I can do that! I got this! I can do indie rock!”
So I wrote a bunch of songs. I didn’t have to worry about words or reflecting in some meaningful way and it was an epiphany moment. I was working too hard for songs that I wasn’t really that into, so I started again. I just started with the atmosphere, the atmosphere and the sounds lead me to the melody, melody leads me the structure. I was trying for striking atmosphere. I wanted to try making a record that is very cohesive from start to finish. The other two records were much more all over the place and reflective of my musical tastes. I like all kinds of music. I get bored.
ZR: Well you are a New Pornographer.
KC: Yeah and I get bored quickly with writing the same kinda songs all the time. If I write too many slow songs in a row…
ZR: I can hear that on the album. You start with “Slow Burning” and “Beach” but then “Take a Little Time” really picks it up. It’s like you said “I need this to be faster now!”
KC:I gotta balance myself. If I’m getting too melancholy I’ll need to clean the slate and do something different.
ZR: “Slow Burning” has a line that really sums up the album for me, which is “not a wall but a bridge between.”
KC: I was going for the idea that we tend to think of our skin as something that is very solid, but actually is not very solid. It’s an organ and it’s breathing. It’s transferring molecules in and out of your skin! We don’t have this outer wall. If you get down the molecular level, it’s not a wall it’s a bridge between our inner and outer world.
ZR: In “Beach” you say “Don’t leave me on the sidelines.” Considering the album it’s on is self-titled, it’s like you’re putting yourself back at the center of your own life.
KC: Where was I when I was writing that, mentally? I think there’s always this idea of being worried about getting left behind in a relationship. It’s like OK, let’s go together rather than being left on the sidelines. It isn’t reflective of my relationship with husband, but that was just where I was thinking. It fit rhythmically, it fit the vibe. I’m trying to be a good person, trying to be useful in some context rather than being not sure.
ZR: Did you not feel useful?
KC: No, I just didn’t think about it before. All this stuff with my mom and dad both passing away — my mom in this really dramatic kind of way, my dad very suddenly. That really got me into philosophical thinking. I was looking around thinking ‘I don’t really know what I feel about life. This is so crazy, what’s happening? What are we doing here? What’s going on?” It’s like something broke and I was like “what do you mean? Of course I know people die but oh my god” It hit in this very dramatic way.
ZR: Did that take a few albums?
KC: No, it started happening when my mom was diagnosed. I think this record has a lot of how I feel about life in it. It’s philosophy in that way. A lot of things about “A Song in CM” are similar to “Beach” in that way. It’s about how you find these people to go on this journey through life with you. You find your people and you all go together, but inevitably you’re still on your own.
But finding the people you really love is super important to move everyone along. It’s a love song in this way where it’s recognizing the melancholy. The reality is we’re going through on our own, but in order to go through without losing your mind or suffering severe depression, it’s helpful to find people to support you through it.
ZR: “My Armor” hit me the hardest. I thought it would be about not being vulnerable but it wasn’t and that really got to me.
KC: There’s a lot of songs about being vulnerable on this record. There’s an interesting TED talk about vulnerability and it really truck a chord with me. So actually “When You See My Blood” — that’s very much about not being vulnerable, being vulnerable and our attempts to control.
ZR: It’s an aggressive song, telling people aggressively you have no weaknesses.
KC: It was. It’s funny it turned out so dark.
ZR: It is called “When You See My Blood…”
KC: It’s about being vulnerable. It’s about just trying not to control everything. Same with “My Armor.” You have to be totally vulnerable, especially with someone you love. That’s this scary thing, it’s hard to be vulnerable, but ultimately that’s the only way.
ZR: Coming out the end of all this, would you say these three albums have a lesson?
KC: My philosophy is that we don’t really have any control. So to pretend that we do is just tricking ourselves. So my record is very much about being guided by my own intuition as I’m recording, so the atmosphere is “What sound do I feel like, what does this make me think of melodically?” Trying not to be in control of the process, making into this specific thing I think it should be for some vague reason. I wanted to make as beautiful record as I could possibly make. At least I know I’m adding something to the world, even if only a few people hear it. That’s all I can do.
ZR: What’s next for you besides some much-need vacation time?
KC: I don’t have any specific plans next. I think that the documentary we’ve been making for a few years on ALS and me new joining The New Pornographers and my mom’s story is going to come out soon. So that’s going to be next and then I don’t know. I’ll make up some project, something to do.
ZR: You don’t like time off?
KC. I do really like time off, but too much and you start going antsy. Going on holiday will be good, then I’ll be ready to do something else.