My latest obsession: Kathryn Calder

In 2007, Kathryn Calder decided to explore her songwriting capabilities. Her musical talents had always been leant to a larger group ― either Victoria, BC’s Immaculate Machine or the infamous New Pornographers ― so Calder chose to experiment with her sound and style to see what would emerge. Over the past few years, Calder cut and crafted ten beautifully arranged songs that would eventually become her debut solo album, Are You My Mother? If Calder planned to make a name for herself with this record, one that could stand apart from her past and present projects, she has succeeded. Are You My Mother? is melodically diverse and incredibly easy to sink into. Opening track “Slip Away” introduces you to Calder’s crystalline voice, leading you into her perfectly manicured soundscapes. “Castor and Pollux,” “If You Only Knew” and “Follow Me Into The Hills” are perfect poppy tunes that you’ll want to sing along with, even if you don’t know the words. But “Arrow,” a haunting song with minimal instrumentation, is the highlight of the album. It illuminates Calder’s simple, altruistic approach to music, where primary human emotions are never clouded with spite, selfishness or shame.


You’ve made the leap into the spotlight as Kathryn Calder, rather than as part of a larger conglomerate such as Immaculate Machine or the New Pornographers. What was the transition like writing for yourself rather than for a band?
With the Pornographers, I write my parts and collaborate with Carl and whoever else is there, at the time. And with Immaculate Machine, which I’m no longer with, I’d start writing songs and finish them with the group. What was nice about making this record was that I had full control over the songs. I could start writing it and then could finish writing it and add whatever I wanted and take it in whatever direction I wanted ― all of these creative control decisions that are easier on your own. I had no idea what to expect with this record; I knew kind of what my style was, because I’ve been writing songs for years, but really, up until this point, I’d never been able to fully realize that style because I was always getting input from other people, which would change the direction of the song. But again, it was harder, because you don’t have that crutch, you don’t have other people inputting. It took a bit longer, but I’m happy with how it turned out.

I understand Are You My Mother? is a very personal record. It was recorded at your mother’s house in Victoria, BC and was born out of caring for her when she was ill. What is the story behind the album?
It was 2007 and I was in the middle of Immaculate Machine stuff and New Pornographers stuff. I had this idea that I wanted to make a record, and the year before, in 2006, my mother had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. I had this idea that I wanted to make a record and do it so that my mom could hear it. You hear a lot of stories about people doing things after someone has died and they regret that that person never got to hear it or experience it in that way, so I wanted to do it and have it done so she could hear it because I knew she wouldn’t have very long to live. That was the motivation behind it. And I mean, the record isn’t solely about that; it’s very personal to me to have a lot of that in it, obviously, but there were also all kinds of other things going on in my life because there is never just one thing happening in your life! I just started writing songs in 2007 for it and started recording in 2008. It was one part spontaneity and one part disaster.

So was the entire album recorded in your mom’s house then?
Most of it. My mom has this beautiful character home in Victoria with hardwood floors and high ceilings. It sounds really beautiful in there; it has beautiful acoustics. And it meant that I could be in the same vicinity and close by so I could be working and take a break and check on how she’s doing. The only thing we didn’t really do were the drums. Hours and hours of drums in somebody’s living room can be hard to take.

Your songs sound very lush and grand, but upon closer listening they’re actually instrumentally minimal. Did you negotiate this type of sonic texture for the album ahead of time or is it something that came out of the recording process?
I had these vague descriptions of what I wanted ― some songs I definitely had an idea what I wanted them to sound like and the others I had no idea. They’d just grow out of that; I would just add instruments until I didn’t feel like adding anymore. We’d be adding things until it felt done. I don’t like overcrowding songs most of the time ― that’s not a general rule, because some songs sound great when they have tons of stuff going on ― but some of the slower songs, like “Arrow,” I didn’t want to be too busy. I wanted it to be more about the singing and the song itself rather than all the bells and whistles. I didn’t want it to detract from the point of the song.

I understand you had friends like Neko Case, Kurt Dahle and Todd Fancey of the New Pornographers, as well as members of Ladyhawk, contribute to the record. How did they get involved?
I reached out to all of those people and they were happy to play, which was really nice. Neko was in the middle of recording Middle Cyclone, at the time, and she took a few hours out of her evening in Toronto and sang on “So Easily” and “Low.” It was all very on the fly. As it came up, we’d organize something.

Listening to the record, it sounds fairly effortless. Did the music come as easy?
Some songs, yes, and others, no. “Follow Me Into The Hills” took sooo long. It took so many retries; it was so painful to make that song, and I’m glad it doesn’t sound like it. I wanted to make a lively sounding record, and so we were working on it for so long that we were taking the life out of it. We’d take breaks and come back to it a few weeks later. But other songs, like “Arrow” and “Low,” were so easy. They required some effort, but not a lot of beating your head against the wall. They wrote themselves easily and arranged themselves easily. I don’t know why, but they did.

The emotions on Are You My Mother? are clear: they are sombre, at times, but always highlighted with a sense of joy. What do you hope listeners get out of the record?
I hope people listening to the record get some emotional connection to the record. Whatever it means to them is great, to me. It meant something to me, so I can only hope it means something to other people. It’s hard to get people to care, so that’s what I’d hope for.

Review and interview seen in Exclaim! and on Exclaim.ca

Listen to “Castor and Pollux.”

Listen to “Arrow.”

Listen to “Follow Me Into The Hills.”

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