Kathryn Calder is an unlikely indie pop star
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Before she was an Immaculate Machine, a Pornographer, and a DIY indie queen, Calder looked headed for the recital halls of North America. She was raised in Victoria by teachers who played the piano and had their daughter follow in their musical footsteps.
“I was in all kinds of lessons as a kid and I loved it,” Calder reminisces. “I gravitated towards it and was happy as a clam, practising piano all the time.”
The family moved to Holland when she was nine, leading to a hiatus from the ivories. Calder notes that she was more focused on learning a new language and making friends than on mastering, say, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Returning to Victoria three years later, after her father’s teaching contract expired, she took a while to come back to piano but eventually embraced it with a vengeance.
“When I was 16, I don’t really remember why, but I decided I wanted to pick it up again,” Calder says. “So I powered through my classical piano training—I couldn’t progress fast enough. I was practising all the time, motivated by a little bit of embarrassment. When you’re 16 and in Grade 5 piano, there are two-year-olds who are in Grade 5 piano. There are six-year-olds in Grade 5 piano.”
Calder—who plays the Vancouver Folk Music Festival this weekend—was also discovering that there was a world beyond Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Although there was no one act that changed her life enough that she wanted to drop everything for rock ’n’ roll, she remembers liking Aussie one-hit wonder Natalie Imbruglia and, for the longest time, absolutely loving the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”. Later, David Bowie and Paul Simon would top the list of her all-time faves. In high school, she joined a couple of R & B–indebted groups, where she met guitarist Brooke Gallupe and drummer Luke Kozlowski, with whom she’d go on to form Immaculate Machine.
Enrollment at the University of Victoria followed, with Calder doing her best to find something that she was excited about, taking classes in math, biology, geography, Italian, art history, French, calculus, and German. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I was desperately trying to find something that I liked enough to stick it through until a degree,” she says. “And I didn’t really find anything. I enjoyed it and liked learning, but there was nothing there that I was really passionate about.”
So Calder eventually decided to drop academic life for art, something that, funnily enough, didn’t bother her teacher parents in the slightest.
“I fell into it as a job,” she says of her music career. “And my parents were really supportive of what I was doing and happy for me. My mom was always worried about me driving across the country in an old 1984 van in the middle of winter, but in terms of not finishing school, she was of the same mind as I was—that it was something I could do later.”
Kathryn Calder: solo goddess and sometimes Pornographer.
Calder would tour and release four records with Immaculate Machine. But it was when she was 23 that she hit the rock ’n’ roll jackpot. As a teenager, she discovered that her mother, who was adopted, was related to Vancouver-raised indie icon Carl Newman, who followed his influential ’90s bands Superconductor and Zumpano with the world-beating juggernaut known as the New Pornographers. With one of the Pornographers, Neko Case, often busy with her own successful solo career, Newman realized that the group needed a female pinch hitter. Out of the blue, he dialled up Calder.
Baptism by fire would follow. Calder, who was still playing clubs with Immaculate Machine, suddenly found herself thrust onto a much bigger stage. “The third show I did was at Prospect Park in Brooklyn in front of 10,000 people. It was the biggest show that I’ve ever played. At the time, I was taking it in stride, but it was all so bizarre.”