Kathryn Calder is the visage behind the keyboards of long-standing Canadian indie rock band, The New Pornographers. Brought into the band by her mother’s long-lost brother – Carl Newman, as a stand in for Neko Case, she has become a familiar face in the power-pop group’s line up.
Unlike Case, Calder appears to not have the knack for stealing the headlines or perhaps even the desire to be in the spotlight, yet in 2012, she thrusted herself center-stage and released her first solo album, “Are You My Mother?”. Her mother who was dying from ALS (the same disease that Stephen Hawking suffers from) at the time had a dream she would see her daughter write her own solo album.
A sprightly collection of songs, it was followed quickly by her more accomplished second album, “Bright and Vivid”. It also marked the passing of her father.
About to go on tour to promote her latest solo effort, her eponymous third, Calder talks to zoomdune.com about recognizing that she needed to find that proverbial ‘spark’ which can understandably be elusive through the quagmire of ongoing grief. An album of already recorded material was thus, scrapped. She felt simply that she didn’t like the songs.
Calder describes how her debut album was light but she was in the midst of a dark period. Her second album was well-received and boasted inspired collaborators but she admits she barely remembers it as she was lost in a dense fog of grief.
“Kathryn Calder” marks a change in direction, in sound and the method in which the songs were written. Gone are the layers of chamber-pop instrumentation and jangly-guitar melodies, in its place is a New Age-y, Eno-esque quality.
“Slow Burning” has strains of Enya. In the sparse but melodic “Blue Skies”, she sings “I’ve been digging bones for far too long,” reflecting her want to come to terms with all that has transpired. “Song in CM” let’s her voice and all it’s vulnerabilities filter through – choir-like, gentle and soothing.
“When You See My Blood” has a trip-hop foreboding in it is chorus while her voice sings so sweetly through the eastern synth wash. “Pride By Design” questions life and existence while her light-as-ether vocals layered in the chorus has a pretty Elizabeth Fraser/Cocteau Twin’s quality.
The perkiest in the bunch is the delightful “Take A Little Time” which has the big horn/keyboard sounds echoing The New Pornographers. It’s a triumphant little song with an anthemic quality towards its end, as she sings “How many times can I hate the way I feel/ I’ll forgive you, I’ll forgive you.”
Apart from, “Take A Little Time”, it is “Beach” and “Arm in Arm” that are in possession of that lightness and uplifting quality. And it is where as a listener we like to see Calder at – not just because it sounds brighter and seems to suit her personality, but ultimately as fans, we want our heroine to feel better.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Calder sing you these songs live in the intimate setting of the Hotel Utah on Wed, April 29.
You said you were channeling your inner Brian Eno and experimented with ‘sounds and textures of early synth music’ – did you know when you set out to write this album that this was the path you were going to take?
No Definitely not. It was one of those serendipitous and maybe circumstantial. It was done entirely different from any other record. I had written an entire catalogue of songs and recorded them but I didn’t like the songs. I had started dabbling with producing it myself and always had my synthesizers with me. The sounds being created set the atmosphere then triggered the songs. So the recording and writing process was happening at the same time. The songs’ melodies were being influenced by the synth sounds and the atmosphere created the lyrics. It allowed me to shape the songs in a particular way. For the last two records, I would play on an acoustic guitar and take the songs into the studio to record but it just didn’t work this time. I don’t know maybe because it was record no 3, I was getting bored, or I didn’t like the sounds, or I was looking for a way to change things up. I didn’t have the vision for this record, just felt like I needed to do it – maybe I was not ready? And just forcing myself? So I had to find my vision as it went along. It always takes longer when you have no concrete vision. With the first Kathryn Calder record I had no idea what a Kathryn Calder record sounded like – I hadn’t ever recorded one. I wonder if novelists know what kind of writer they are before they write their first book? But once I found that vision… I doubt that I’ll ever go back to writing with an acoustic guitar, unless a song requires it.
The album also came on the heels of losing your parents and a creative meltdown how did you resolve to climb out of that period?
I think I just kept going. Kept working. Kept writing. I’m a big believer in doing other things that can feed your creativity. I was asked by someone to write some music for a web-series and I had carte blanche to do anything, as long as it was quote, “indie rock”. It was totally liberating and I had the best time creating it. It was not this heavy thing – when I work on my own record there’s always a lot of torment (laughs). It has to be meaningful, there is a lot of consideration and thought put into it, and it has to reflect me. On doing this other project, it was fun, it wasn’t about me, there was a spark and I realized that I was missing this spontaneity. And when I scrapped the album and re-wrote it, I tried to keep that feeling of spontaneity and fun. Of course, it still took so long, and it’s such a roller-coaster and at points I was tearing my hair out but I had that spark. It wasn’t just work.
What was it like co-producing this album with your husband?
It was really cool. A lot of the recording was done here, upstairs – so he was in the house all the time. It’s cool. It’s easy to speak to him and say ‘what do you think?’. To have that sounding board. And I found it really helpful to have a team of at least two because you can easily lose perspective on your own.
Was it recorded on Vancouver Island as I understand that Hive Studios has since closed, and on the website it says Colin Stewart has a new studio?
Yes half of it was recorded in Vancouver Island, and the other half here in Victoria.
Was there something that you learnt about yourself in the course of making this album – about grief or have you figured out the meaning of this short life we have?
I think I’m always coming to conclusions weekly about life. It’s ongoing. The big theme of the record – acceptance of how vulnerable we are. We try to make ourselves less vulnerable. I recognize that in our minds, we are always trying to control our situations. “Song in C minor” there’s a line ‘if we fall, then we fall’. And “When you See My Blood” that’s me at my most vulnerable when we’ve been bleeding – our skin has been pierced. Blood is life. The loss of my parents made me confront all these big things I haven’t ever had to think about. When you’re a kid and older folks or grandparents die you just think, oh that happens to old people. I’m sure some kids do think about it beyond that but I never took it to the next level. But when my mother passed away – here was someone who wasn’t old, it was jarring. Then it made me think, this is going to happen to me. And that freaked me out. When I was a teenager and even in my early ‘20s, the adage that ‘most people are more afraid of public speaking than death’ was certainly true for me. But to experience death in such a long and traumatizing way … my mother she was so scared.. and the disease was horrible. So I started to think when my time comes I want to be ok. Philosophically, I want to be prepared. I have a different perspective on life and having fun now. I’m starting to come out of the grief it’s taken 5 to 6 years.
Your three solo albums can be approached like a film trilogy – with the theme of how we deal with love and loss?
The first record, my mom was still alive. I was aware it was for her. I didn’t want it to be a downer. There were other things going on in my life as well – my little band was breaking up, my boyfriend and I had broken up and that was dramatic, yet I also just met my now husband. For the second record – I had a plan. My vision was just be crazier than the first! It was like I was in a fog and I can’t quite recall everything on that record – it was all confusing and foggy. When I started the third record, I was exhausted but pretending that I could do it all. We’d also just bought a house and moved in. I was obviously really tired and touring … I just had to take a moment to find that spark again. I can’t control how people feel about it but I feel like it’s thoughtful and positive. I was trying to make a beautiful record that added some beauty to the world with pretty sounds and synth-y melodies. That people can put on in the background and have a listen. I did all the thinking for you.
Can you tell us a bit about the music video for “Take A Little Time” and the sort of mantra “Make Art”? Is it a curse or blessing?
It’s definitely a blessing. The video was a collaboration between a cartoonist, an animator and me in Victoria. It has some monsters chasing me but I’m not really being chased by them – they are just distractions. I always need to clean my house when I have work to do. It’s only in my ‘30s that I have just noticed my tactics for procrastination. When I feel like I need a nap, I think I must be trying to put something off. It’s a nod to procrastination. You think things can’t really happen then you get to another place and you finally feel the flow – you forget about time. I’m always trying to get to that place. And of course I am running on the spot with the green screen. (laughs)
Running on the spot but not getting any where, it’s like an existential crisis – and a good metaphor for procrastination.
Yes, it’s true. I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Is there any news about the ALS Documentary, “A Matter of Time” – I was trying to figure it out from the Kickstarter page – it hasn’t been released yet?
I was doing the score earlier this year and the film is in post at the moment. I’m really happy with it. I don’t know the release date. I imagine they are submitting it to festivals. The timing of it all has worked well for me – 2012 was when we first talked about it but it was difficult to go through it all. Even though I did, it was in chunks of time. The first filming was the concert. Then the Kickstarter project and it was rewarding to see how many people were behind the film. Then working on the music and watching the film back for the score.
In the preview, there is a cutaway of Carl Newman almost beyond words discussing what more there is to say about what you were going through – what sort of support do you get from Carl who is not only a fellow band member but also your mom’s brother?
Oh, just being around. And being aware. Carl visited when my mom was quite far along … and to see someone you love like that, I have a feeling that he was greatly affected by it. I was in it, it was my new normal – towards the end, she couldn’t chew and looked very different but for him, it was a big deal. The band have been very supportive and donates to ALS when we do charity things. The New Pornographers have been very supportive with my fundraising efforts.
“Brill Bruisers” received more radio airplay that they ever had before – how do you proceed with your solo work – is it to get onto mainstream radio? Or just to excise your thoughts and process life?
Radio is an interesting thing, I try very hard not to write for anybody else but I don’t know what the next record will hold. Radio is a great way to get people to listen but it’s very business. Writing for me is organic. This record isn’t actually radio-friendly. I think people like putting music on when they drive, and its upbeat music they want to hear. Still I am very grateful to outlets such as NPR, CBC and other alternative and independent stations who have been so supportive of it.
You were in SF earlier this year with The New Pornographers to headline Noise Pop – what was that like? Are you looking forward to coming back with your solo?
I love going to San Francisco. I love that drive down the coast. It’s going to be totally different to The New Pornographers. But I’ve done this before – it will just be me and a few bandmates driving in a van.
Like a roadtrip.
That’s right! I have a bit of a new band – the guitarist has been playing with me for years but the rhythm section is new so we’re not totally tour-ready. But you play every night together and that’s a very good feeling. I am looking forward to it.
For tickets to Kathryn Calder at The Hotel Utah, please click here. To purchase her latest album “Kathryn Calder”, please click here. See below for other tour dates.
North American Tour Dates
4/27 Portland, OR – Alberta Rose Theatre
4/29 San Francisco, CA – Hotel Utah
4/30 San Diego, CA – Casbah w/ East India Youth
5/01 Los Angeles, CA – The Roxy w/ East India Youth