Taking a break from her duties with the New Pornographers as singer and keyboardist, Calder mixes acoustic folk and heady, synth-pop. Her music balances distinct emotional states, contrasting modern alienation with upbeat crystalline vocals and bookish allusions.
I recently interviewed Calder by phone about her creative process on "Bright And Vivid" and her experience with the New Pornographers. Through the course of our talk we also discussed her artistic influences, feelings about touring and her approach to live shows.
Will Kyle: What kind of work goes into producing a song like "Younger Than We've Ever Been," the last track from "Bright and Vivid"?
Kathryn Calder: That one was funny because it was one of the later songs to get recorded. It was one of the first songs we started, but it didn't come into its full shape until the very last minute because I couldn't stand listening to it for about eight months. We kept putting things on it and something wasn't right about it. Every time we went to work on it I'd say, "I don't want to work on this song right now." But then we had a stroke of genius and re-recorded it faster and with a different feel. We finished it a day after that, and now it's one of my favorite songs.
The germ of the idea seems to be the lyrics and the huge drop before the chorus that serves as a hook. Can you talk a little bit more about the creative process you employed on "Bright and Vivid"?
I usually start with a guitar and sit in front of my computer and hit play on GarageBand. I write spontaneously whatever comes to my mind. I'll sift through it later and take out the melodies I like or a lyric or two that's working and go from there. Then I'd have an anchor for the rest of the song. I like the rambling method because you can go back and pick out things you liked that you wouldn't necessarily know you're writing. It's a bit of a subconscious way of writing.
An extemporaneous style of songwriting.
Exactly. I use my critical brain later. I don't start with critiquing it. I just want to get things going and I'll craft it later.
Was this how you fell into "Bright and Vivid's" synth-pop sound?
I actually did fall into it a little bit. I wasn't really expecting that to come out of this record. Of course, there are still lots of acoustic elements, but because the keyboard is my first instrument and the one I'm most comfortable playing, it would stand to reason there would be more electronic sounds coming from it. The first record I was writing a lot more on guitar and playing guitar and trying to stay away from the keyboard, but this record I was all over the keyboard.
What's it like having guests play on your records?
I love having people come in and adding their brains to the mix. It's nice to share the record and get other people playing on it. And usually people are excited to come in and play. They want to help. It's fun. It also means I get to see people I haven't seen in a while. It gives them an excuse to come by and say hi.
If you had to choose one song off "Bright and Vivid" that you enjoy playing live the most, what would it be?
I'm enjoying playing "Walking in My Sleep" live these days. It's upbeat; people seem to like it. I get to wail a little bit.
You've layered so many vocals on "Bright And Vivid." Is it hard to recreate all that dubbing live?
Taking something like a record and turning perfectly into a live show would take insane amounts of musicians and/or technology. I feel like the live show shouldn't be a replication of the record. It should be its own thing. That's something people want. They don't want to hear you play the record, because they have the record. They want to hear something different. So I don't worry too much about replicating it note for note. I've taken sounds from the record that are the essentials and boiled them down for a four-piece band to play live.
On the tracks "If You Only Knew" and "Turn A Light On," you use the word "home" to vastly different emotional effect: One view of "home" as a safe and tangible thing, the other as an elusive impossibility. What caused this change?
Well it's just a different perspective on the same idea. I definitely feel like I have a home. I guess I probably was just writing about home from a different view.
So one day home is something you can't go back to and the next it's something you can find?
Yeah, and that's how people are. One day you feel one way about something and the next day you feel completely different.
Has your songwriting changed much from your Immaculate Machine days?
Oh, I hope so. I've been doing it longer. I have more of an idea now of what I like or what I think is good. I think it's important to keep changing and growing. I was quite young when I started Immaculate Machine, 18 or 19. I'd say it's changed particularly because making solo records is a way to see your songwriting process under a microscope. You have all these songs lined up back to back and when you listen you can see what you tend to do with your songs, what you tend to write about. I found the first record ["Are You My Mother"] was a real eye-opener in terms of my songwriting, so when I approached "Bright And Vivid," I purposefully went out of my way to write songs that sounded different.
What's your involvement in the song writing process when you work with the New Pornographers?
It's usually musical as opposed to songwriting. For example, we did the last record in Woodstock. I flew into Woodstock for three weeks. The first week was listening to the songs and figuring out what the parts were. I hadn't heard the songs when I first showed up because Carl [Newman]'s songs change so much month to month. Even if he did send out a demo months before, the song would sound completely different by the time I'd get there. I'd go in and try out parts, and Carl would have some guiding ideas as to where he thought he wanted things to go in terms of the piano or keyboard. I'd just come up with little lines and we'd collaborate, same thing with the vocals. Carl would tell me what he was thinking, and I'd come up with my own parts. I wrote a lot of the piano parts by improvising and jamming it out. Jamming it out in Woodstock!
What was it like learning Carl Newman was your uncle? Had you heard of the New Pornographers before?
He actually hadn't started the New Pornographers when I met him. I was 14 or 15 at the time, so that was maybe two or three years before the New Pornographers started and two more years before "Mass Romantic" came out. I knew he was my uncle and in the music business doing something. I first heard him singing on Neko Case's first record, "The Virginian." I had that record and thought that was pretty awesome. He certainly wasn't famous when I met him. It wasn't like meeting a long-lost famous uncle or anything. He was part of the family. It's a story that feels like it should have happened to somebody else. Like a story a movie would be based on or something.
Is it an organic process differentiating yourself and your creative aesthetic from the New Pornographers, or is it something you have to strive to do?
I think it's inherent. Everybody has their own style and way of doing things. I'm finding that out as I go. I just sort of jumped in and I just wanted to see where it would go. I wasn't going for anything in particular, I just wanted it to be good whatever it was, because I knew it had to compare to all the other people in the band who are all really amazing in their own right. I didn't want to be the person in the band who was putting out terrible music.
What's your favorite part about being on the road touring?
I love going to Europe. Sometimes you get to go to the really exotic places and see things you haven't seen before. I would never choose to go to western Spain. Before I went there, I knew nothing about it, so it wasn't a place that was in my consciousness as somewhere to go. Having been there I think it's totally amazing. I would love to go back. That kind of thing is what's neat about touring. You get to see a whole bunch of places all in a row, back to back, which can also be the worst part about touring, too. You don't get to really see anywhere in any depth. Everything is very surface. You show up to play, you sleep in a hotel, then you leave. If you only have eight hours in a city, you don't really get a chance to look around, but the hospitality of the people usually makes it worth it.
Who would you consider as some of your biggest musical influences?
I think my biggest influence is Paul Simon. He's very songwriting based, you can always tell that he has the song then adds stuff to it rather than having a bunch of sounds and trying to create a song. He's probably my biggest influence. He's got the most amazing lyrics, melodies and interesting time signatures. I don't know if you've ever tried to play a Paul Simon song; it's very weird, it sounds totally normal when you hear it, but when you try to play it you're like, "What is he doing?" Maybe also Joni Mitchell in terms of who she is. Also, David Bowie, with his arrangements. Those would definitely be my top three.
If you had to pick a favorite record from 2011, what would it be?
My favorite record of 2011 is the new PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake." I just love PJ Harvey. She did a really great job. She has an amazing voice.
If you could remind your fans and listeners of one thing, what would that be?
I like people hearing the music and figuring out their own context for it. I don't really like explaining what my songs are about or talking about why I wrote them, because that's not really why I do it, so that people can understand me or something about me. I like writing so that it's vague enough that people can interpret it their own way and have their own meaning for songs. I'd say listen to the record and think whatever you want!
Kathryn Calder performs at Cicero's on Tuesday, December 13.