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The True Healing Found in Kaia Kater’s ‘Strange Medicine’

May 17, 2024

The True Healing Found in Kaia Kater's 'Strange Medicine'

A deep reflection born from a time of the extreme silence and noise of the pandemic, Kaïa Kater’s new album, Strange Medicine (out today, May 17), digs into the feelings society tells us not to feel, imagines healing and revenge from abuses, and reckons with themes of racism and sexism of the past and today. While the undercurrents are heavy, the arrangements are gentle and flowing, juxtaposing our expectations of what we think it means to process the darkness in life with the truth that many emotions can exist simultaneously.

Written from home in Montreal, Strange Medicine takes us on a cathartic journey imagining characters interwoven with parts of Kater and parts of the world she observes. Drawing on inspiration from artists like Steve Reich, Brian Blade, and Johnny Greenwood and partnering with Montreal-based producer Joe Grass (The Barr Brothers and Elisapie), she took a different musical path than in the past.

Leaning into her primary instrument, banjo, Grass and Kater built the framework for each of the tracks slowly, starting with bedroom tracks and expanding to include arrangers like Franky Rousseau (Andrew Bird, Chris Thile) and Dominic Mekky (Caroline Shaw, Sara Bareilles) and musicians Rob Moose (Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers, Paul Simon), Robbie Kuster (Patrick Watson), and Phil Melanson (Andy Shauf, Sam Gendel). Kater spoke to BGS via Zoom.

Hi! How are you?

Kaia Kater: I’m okay! A couple of days ago I dropped my phone directly onto my laptop screen and it cracked. I had to go to Apple. So I am without a laptop, but thankfully have my 10-year-old iPad, bless her!

Apple is coming in clutch. Also, Apple product destroying Apple product is kind of funny.

Yeah, it’s an Apple-on-Apple hate crime. It’s terrible. I feel so weird about it. But I have AppleCare, which is good.

With the couple of sentences that you just said it’s no wonder the Department of Justice is looking into Apple as a monopoly. Vertical integration. Well, how are things going other than Apple problems?

The record is out in a week, so I’m excited. Thank you for doing this piece. I never take any press for granted, especially after the pandemic, when things were so terrible and hard.

What a weird time. Is that when you started writing this record?

Yeah, pretty much. I wrote my first song in April of 2020. We finished the record in 2023. So I would say like 2020 to 2022, was the writing window.

This album is a pandemic baby!

It is. Yeah, I’m proud of my little pandemic baby. Born out of a lot of feelings of stasis and confusion, but also just so fun to record. I think that there’s a lot of grief in the lyrics. But you can still vibe to sad songs, especially when they feel groovy. So that was the intent.

So when did you start recording it?

Let’s see, we went in to record in October of 2022 but the official recording days were preceded by a ton of demo days. So throughout 2021 and into 2022, I would go to my co-producer Joe’s studio in Montreal. We would just track stuff and either bring people in or ship the songs out to people and pay them a demo fee and have them kind of like splash around and see what their interpretation of the song was. That was kind of like how we selected personnel. I think we had a pretty strong idea of what we wanted to do by the time we got into the studio, which is so different from other projects I’ve been part of and other records I’ve done.

How was it different?

I guess, with the pandemic, I had the blessing of time, which I never had before really. With Nine Pin, I recorded on my winter break from college in my senior year, and then Grenades was done from start to finish in two weeks. And so with Strange Medicine, it was about two years. There are advantages and drawbacks to that. It is very easy to start second guessing some choices that you’d made in the previous calendar year, but I think it was to me such a novelty to be able to write and then listen back, and send the arrangement to someone and have them send their work back. It was so much more thoughtful because we had the time to do that.

That makes total sense. So you started writing it during the pandemic. What was your writing process like? Did you have ideas that you came into the lockdown with, or were you processing things in real time?

Well, originally I was like, “I’m never gonna play banjo again.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I think I was trying, to a certain extent, to escape my roots, transform, or do this phoenix thing. Where people are like, “Whoa! She was a banjo player and now she’s an electronic pop musician.” That was maybe a facet of my mid-20s to late 20s, having that crackling feeling that all the different paths your life can take feel like they’re narrowing. And so you’re kind of like fighting against that and going, “No, I still can transform again, musically.”

Really what led me to write more songs on the banjo, especially for Strange Medicine, was that it was really comforting to me. I think I went back to it after wanting to spread my wings. Once I was alone in a room I was like, “What do I want to do right now? I just wanna play banjo.” And for a long time that’s all I did. I didn’t really write. The songs trickled in bit by bit. But you know I definitely gave up that idea of trying to metamorphosize in the way that I thought I was going to. I think I did it in a different way.

Can you talk a little bit about what it meant to be in Montreal writing this record and just in general? What influence did the town have on this particular record? And how does the music community there influence you?

Well, it’s very experimental there. And there’s a kind of freedom and risk-taking. People are not afraid to have things fail or to have things not quite work. Even now, I’m sort of deconstructing the idea that I grew up with, this idea of what a songwriter is, which is that you work really hard at your craft, you play the song down. And the way that you improve every night is how you perfect and tighten the song as much as possible. I’ve been getting into this idea of improvisation.

I don’t know if it’s because the rent is cheaper there, so you don’t have to hustle as much. I just felt so much more space to play around.

While we’re on the subject of Montreal, you collaborated with Allison Russell on “In Montreal” about your shared hometown. I was curious since Aoife O’Donovan is from Massachusetts and you’re talking about witches on “The Witch” – was that a purposeful choice?

No, but that occurred to me about a week ago. I was making dinner, and I was like, “Wait. Aoife’s from Massachusetts!” It must have been in some way subconscious. I kind of see people as the roots that they’ve grown from. And definitely, when thinking about the features I wanted, I wanted it to make sense with who that person is. For example, with Taj Mahal, he’s who I learned about the black roots of the banjo from first. He was doing that in the ‘60s, and he has a lot of Calypso and Caribbean influences and heritage. Bringing him into a song about a Caribbean revolutionary felt like, “Well, of course.” I even wrote him a little letter explaining the song, because he’s 80. He doesn’t need to be on anybody’s record. And so I was like, “Let me tell you what the song is about, and maybe you’ll want to sing on it.”

That’s so cool. And how did the collaboration on “The Witch” come about?

Aoife has always been really supportive of me as a person and as an artist, going back to 2017. She’s kept me in mind for a lot of things and she’s suggested me for opportunities. She’s also really community-oriented. She’s very cognizant of supporting women musicians and young musicians. I’m a mega fan of hers.

I had written “The Witch” and I thought she would sound great on it. Fast forward to the end of the process, when all we had left to do was harmony vocals and I was really nervous to ask her because I think I was scared to get a no. But I’ve been practicing. You have to ask, because if you don’t ask you don’t receive anything. I texted her, and she immediately responded yes without even hearing the song. Then she laid down all these like really intricate harmony parts. She’s a genius.

Your voices are beautiful together. It works really well. And the Massachusetts thing — it’s perfect. While we’re on the subject of that song, what connects you to the stories of these women who were accused of witchcraft or adultery and were punished for it?

To me, it is the juxtaposition of having this perceived power in the minds of men as being capable of influence, capable of seduction and luring, and superseding a man’s high intelligence and thoughts of himself and overtaking will power. But then, when women were accused of being witches, their already limited power just absolutely disintegrated and they were executed by mobs. I was thinking a lot about these kind of polar ideas of women having so much power over men, but then we’re struggling to be taken seriously in a workplace or struggling to feel like we are on equal footing.

I think sexism and racism today are much more insidious – as are homophobia and transphobia. It’s so palpable. Being able to give voice to someone in history who may meet a different fate; maybe they try to kill her, and she’s like,”Ha! I survived. And now, aren’t you scared of me?”

The influence came from a lot of different places; the witches from Macbeth, and the Roald Dahl witches. They are all in our popular consciousness to a certain extent, and I think we have a fascination with them.

Absolutely. Let’s talk about the song “Floodlights.” It reminded me of Joni Mitchell for two reasons. One is the sonic palette and the orchestration reminded me of her. Second, I saw a video of her recently and she was talking about how a good song should make a listener think of themselves rather than of her. That’s obviously an objective idea, but this song, though focused on a romantic relationship, reminded me of some of my own, but also friendships and working relationships and how the dynamic of one person’s power over another can be so incredibly detrimental. But there is hope and life on the other side of that. It is a special way you tell the story in a cafe where the protagonist is feeling herself rise over a past love for the first time. I was wondering if you find that you have clarity around power dynamics yourself as you grow older as the protagonist does?

I’ve recently turned 30. And to me, that seems to be the absolute blessing of your 30s, that you have this kind of clarity and understanding of who you are and what you are willing and not willing to tolerate. That song itself is about an age-gap relationship that I was in. We had an 11-year age difference. I was super young. I was 18 or 19 when we got together, and this whole conception that I had was, “I’m mature and I’m actually better than the other women my age, because I have someone who is super mature and who thinks that I’m interesting. I’m also better than the women his age. There’s something special about me,” like I felt chosen.

That was such a powerful feeling at that time when so much of my self-esteem was dependent on what other people thought of me. Slowly, through the course of this relationship, I realized that he chose me, but not for the reasons that I thought I had been chosen.

I mean he was a walking red flag and I just did not trust my intuition to understand that. This wasn’t a good scenario, and now, on the other side of it, at 30, I couldn’t imagine dating a 20-year-old. There’s an inherent power dynamic there. I wrote the beginning of the song two years before I finished it, because in the beginning, I couldn’t think of an ending. I couldn’t have seen him at a bar (which really happened) and just been scared and left. I wanted to give the protagonist a better ending than that.

It sounds like you did a lot of processing on this record through your writing, like maybe you released some frozen anger. I think most women can relate to that in general, because we are so often encouraged or told to suppress that emotion. I was wondering how your relationship with anger and revenge evolved and shifted through the creation of this album?

I think therapy seems to be a theme in a lot of artists’ albums these days. I didn’t realize how much anger I carried until I went to therapy. I had always grown up thinking that any kind of anger is debasing yourself. You’re losing power and you’re not being your highest, most evolved self.

Every time I got angry, I felt like I’d failed to access my more evolved emotions. It was through therapy that I learned that anger is, in many ways, necessary. We are refusing to be treated a certain way.

I think adventuring through these ideas of revenge where it’s like, “Well, what if I don’t choose forgiveness? What about that? Why do I have to be the peaceable one? Why do I have to be the one to absorb all of your violence, and then somehow process it out so that we’re good?” I have to say, it was really fun to write these lyrics and not shy away from some more violent imagery, especially in “The Witch.”

I heard someone say something like, “Anything that’s human is mentionable. And anything that’s mentionable is manageable.” I think singing it out is so nice because it’s mentionable. It’s manageable.

Speaking of, this is a great segue. How does it feel to perform these songs live?

It feels really good. It feels vulnerable too, having lived with them so long during the pandemic. It’s interesting to start sharing them with people. I have this ritual where the day before a single comes out, I listen to the song on a walk. And I’m like, “Okay, this is the last time this is gonna be only mine.” I think that ritual has really helped me. It’s a really personal album in a lot of ways for me.

I’m looking forward to trying it out in many different configurations, continuing the idea of play that we started out with this record, and seeing the different ways it can evolve and change.

Photo Credit: Janice Reid

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The True Healing Found in Kaia Kater's 'Strange Medicine'
The True Healing Found in Kaia Kater's 'Strange Medicine'