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Artist of the Month: Kaia Kater

May 1, 2024

Artist of the Month: Kaia Kater

BGS first had the opportunity to work with singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Kaia Kater all the way back in 2016. She appeared on our inaugural Shout & Shine showcase stage that year at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s business conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the first ever showcase celebrating diversity at the headline bluegrass event and it was also where I met her for the first time in person. We were both panelists for another first-ever, IBMA’s round-table style panel on inclusion that was convened the day after Shout & Shine. Partially planned in response to North Carolina’s just-passed transphobic measure, HB2 – one of the first anti-trans “bathroom bills,” beginning what would become a nearly decade-long and as yet unfinished battle in state houses around the country for equal rights for trans folks – the panel’s format was all about direct conversation and reaching folks where they were at.

A grassroots collective of musicians, artists, and industry professionals who represented often marginalized identities in bluegrass had decided enough was enough, we would have to stake out and hold space at IBMA’s conference to have these long overdue conversations about who is and who isn’t excluded from these roots music genres and what we can do to make all folks feel safe(r) and at home in these communities we love. Kater was right there, engaging and often leading dialogues on these important subjects. A handful of days later, she published her first byline on BGS, an incisive, compassionate, and necessary op-ed on Breaking the Wheel of Silence – calling out all too common “closing of ranks” and music industry status quos that reinforce and protect misogyny, patriarchy, and systems of sexual harassment and sexual violence and their perpetrators.

In short, Kater has long been a thought leader in roots music, especially in bluegrass, old-time, and our BGS family. We’ve been fortunate to get to collaborate with her in various ways on that vital work, from having her writing published on our site and in our year end round-ups to covering her own art and roots music creations.

Luckily, the music she crafts and the messages within it make it infinitely easier to spotlight these often touchy and incredibly nuanced issues. From her debut, 2015’s Sorrow Bound, to 2016’s impressive Nine Pin – which some call her “break out” record – Kater has been spinning complex and entrancing roots music threads that draw on her lived experiences as a Canadian-Grenadian banjo player and lifelong folk musician, turning over and examining what are often called “thorny” or “divisive” issues. Her music grounds abstract and theoretical concepts in the past, present, and future. But her songs don’t sound mired in these issues or concepts at all, just the opposite.

Over the course of her career, from her teens and young adulthood to today, on the cusp of releasing a new album, Strange Medicine (out May 17 via Free Dirt Records), this singular perspective Kater has cultivated continues to blossom, grow, and come into sharper focus. 2018’s Grenades, a sort of concept record placed decidedly in the Caribbean and tracing Kater’s roots back to the beautiful island of Grenada, processes generational traumas, the machinations and intricacies of culture, the nebulousness of belonging, and so many other colors and textures decidedly at home in folk music, but enlivened constantly through Kater’s creative lens. Grenades is a master work, demonstrating a creator and musician who knows who they are – even when they do not.

Six years later, enter Strange Medicine, another album masterpiece that finds Kater still more confident, more at ease, and just as convicting. Genre parameters, her prior records, and her strong positioning of community are all present here, but perhaps not as directly. Instead, Strange Medicine seems to be grown from the fertile, rich, and dense soil of Kater’s career to this point. There are indirect touches of all of the above, but overall this collection feels brand new. It is a novel synthesis of her values systems and worldview, one that feels assured while still exploratory, firm but flexible, responsive but not reactive. Strange, indeed, but never odd (or estranged).

With stunning collaborations with Taj Mahal, Allison Russell, and Aoife O’Donovan – who is featured on “The Witch,” a track made available today – Kater demonstrates how, more than ten years since she began her professional trajectory, her music shines with cross pollination, positioning the community members who helped shape her own music within that very body of work. It’s part of why her new band, New Dangerfield – with Jake Blount, Tray Wellington, and Nelson Williams – can be called a supergroup, though that moniker immediately feels reductive. Kater and her cohort are no longer simply adding their voices to an ongoing conversation, they are the conversation. The center of gravity – in folk, old-time, bluegrass, Americana, and beyond – has shifted, and with that shift we see Kater, many of her peers in her generation, as well as those collaborators and influences who came before continually advancing these discourses.

Her medium, as always, is music. Her dialogue, as always, is not simply with those who choose to consume her art, but specifically with those who engage with it, try it on, turn it inside out, and kick the tires. This is music that will stand up to that sort of holistic interaction. It’s infinitely listenable, incredibly fun, and grooving, too; Strange Medicine might be the danciest record in Kater’s catalog. It’s intellectual, yes, but more than that, Kater shows us that music can be nutritious, challenging, and dense while effervescent, joyful, and soaring.

All month long, we’ll be celebrating our pal, collaborator, and constant source of inspiration Kaia Kater as our Artist of the Month. Below, enjoy our Essential Kaia Kater Playlist and watch for an exclusive AOTM interview coming in just a couple of weeks, too.

Back then in 2015 and 2016, when we were just introduced to Kater and her music, if you had asked any of us if we’d expect her to be our Artist of the Month someday, down the line, I think almost any of us would’ve responded with a resounding, “Yes!” So we’re especially proud to celebrate Strange Medicine and Kaia Kater as our May Artist of the Month.

Photo Credit: Janice Reid

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Artist of the Month: Kaia Kater
Artist of the Month: Kaia Kater