Interview: Kaia Kater

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Photo: Polina Mourzina

Born and raised in Montreal, Kaia Kater grew up surrounded by folk music, “My mother was a folk festival director. The apple doesn’t fall that far from the tree,” she says with a laugh.

“My grandfather, a talented and wild spirit, is a luthier. The dean of his university didn’t really know what to do with him; he convinced the dean to let him build instruments for college credit. He adopted a philosophy that he would only build guitars for people he believed in, and wouldn’t charge them for it. He built one for me.”

“Our family tradition was to have kitchen jams on Boxing Day,” she adds. “It was the only time I was allowed to stay up late and hang out. I would sit and listen, and then when I got older, I started jamming with them.”

The natural talents honed in these holiday jam sessions eventually landed Kater a sport-sized scholarship to study music at a college in West Virginia. “I’d been down to the States before—my family would travel to the States for music festivals and folk gatherings, and I loved it so much so that I was like ‘Canada schmanada!’ I didn’t feel like there was anything special about where I was from, and I wanted to leave,” she explains.

Initially rooted in bluegrass and drawn to the Earl Scruggs-Style of banjo picking, Kater found herself in a state of transition and self-discovery; “String band music is a bit of a wily beast; as I grew older and understood the social dynamics a little more—and God bless its heart, I adore bluegrass—but I realized that it can be kind of white and male,” says Kater with a laugh. “It wasn’t a conscious thing on my part, I just felt more of a magnetic pull towards old-time music, it felt more inclusive. The fact that I’m black doesn’t even matter in that circle, there are a lot more women there, it just felt like a good space for me. I also started playing clawhammer style, and that contributed to my attraction to old-time string band music.”

She released her second album, the critically-acclaimed Nine Pin, in May. “My first album, which I put out in my sophomore year of college, was more of a reflection of what I was learning in West Virginia at the time, more traditional-sounding songs, because that’s what I was eating and sleeping and breathing at that point,” she explains. “This new album was a conscious choice in trying to find my own voice. I was writing more introspective stuff based on my life and experiences as a 22 year old human; there was poem by William Butler Yeats that I’d read called ‘Sailing To Byzantium’, about a older man reflecting on his life that really inspired me to strive to make music that was a little more timeless.”

With Nine Pin, she explores the reaches of old-time music, using non-traditional instrumentation like rhythm guitars and keys, and feet, yes feet, on the a cappella “Harlem’s Little Blackbird” , sung to the rhythm of a soft shoe tap dance. “It can be daunting to keep it fresh, because the even the word ‘old’ is in the name of the style,” she laughs. “I was interested in writing my own songs and talking about things that were current, like the Black Lives Matter movement. I had anxiety about putting instrumentation on the album that wasn’t regular in old-time music, like rhythm guitar and  keys, but we wanted to make people realize they have more in common with old-time than they might think.”

Purchase Nine Pinhttps://itunes.apple.com/us/album/nine-pin/id1107439099

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Susan Hubbard

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