“I’ve had a lot of anxiety about this album. It’s not like anything that I’ve done before. I’ve had to dig quite deep for the songs and they come from very vulnerable places. But I think that process of being totally scared shitless is a good thing because how else are you going to grow? If you just do the same thing it becomes comfortable.”
Kaia Kater is a folk musician, born and raised in Quebec though now living between Toronto and the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia where she studies. There she learns many old-time traditions such as clogging, Irish step and hambone, as well as being part of the university string band.
Between all that, Kaia is putting together her second album Nine Pin. “The record’s title has a double meaning. In a square dance formation, a nine pin is a girl who is in the middle of a circle of people turning around her and she is in the middle alone. It is also one of the pins in a bowling formation that keeps getting knocked down.”
Her debut Sorrow Bound, released in 2014, fuses the old-time traditions she has learned while studying in Appalachia with her own personal experiences. For her new release she is taking inspiration from other mediums and relating them to her own existential crises.
“A lot of my music has come from the poetry I’ve written. The album’s title track contains certain lines that I pulled from one of my poems and made it into a song to try and glue its essence together. At the time I was reading a lot of W.B. Yeats and he wrote the line ‘This is no country for old men’.
“He was writing about his experiences of growing older and his want to live in the summer of his youth forever. Finally he decides that he doesn’t want to be flesh anymore, that he wants to be a golden bird that sings to kings and queens. I think I really identified with that while I was going through some personal things in my life. It made me think of the futility of time and how difficult it is to hold on to something.”
Now 22-years-old, Kaia has grown up around music her entire life, learning piano and cello at the age of six before turning to the banjo. Though grateful for the opportunities granted to her through the sacrifices made by her family, it was dedication and days on end of practice that resulted in her mastering the instrument’s clawhammer technique.
After initially taking lessons from Mitch Podolak – a prominent figure in Canada’s folk music scene – she was guided further by producer Chris Bartos whom she worked with on Sorrow Bound. Kaia fondly recalls one of her first jams with Chris: “I remember at one point he just kept telling me to play faster and faster. So even when I was 12 he was totally challenging me and turning my world sideways which, in my opinion, is what a producer should do. To constantly be supporting you but challenging you and trying to help you add more dimensions to your own music than you even thought were there.”
Those sessions also influenced her to begin writing her own material. While Sorrow Bound was an amalgamation of original songwriting and traditional songs learned while at university, on Nine Pin – where she will again team up with Chris Bartos – Kaia is ditching her take on traditional tunes in favour of pushing the boundaries of the old-time genre to its limits.
“I’m doing things a lot more intentionally with this because there’s a very big difference between an old-time record and one that’s inspired by it and maybe based more in Americana. Most of the songs are based in banjo but we’re expanding on that.”
By introducing juxtaposing instrumentation, such as military drums on one track, she intends to challenge her listeners. “We’re trying to ride this fine line between acknowledging the traditions while also pushing them forward. Some people may have the reaction ‘Does this belong here?’ and my goal is to convince them that yeah, it belongs there. We’re going to be turning it as far as we can within the limits and reason and parameters that the songs will thrive best. Adding a trumpet, a horns sections, drums, as wells as baritone guitar.”
As she lists her influences and the direction she is taking her music, Kaia expresses herself with enough maturity and conviction to fool anyone into believing she is older than her years. Perhaps this is why her debut EP Old Soul was named as such. And even though she knows which parts of her repertoire to discard and which parts to evolve, she is fully aware of what really matters in a song.
“Some of the thematic elements are going to return from the EP and from the first record, but it’s going to be far more orchestral and have a far bigger sound. The way it will be recorded and the way we approach the songs is going to be to get the maximum amount of feeling out of them.”
This was a piece of coursework as part of my MA Multimedia Journalism course.