Kathryn Calder is an unlikely indie pop star

A quiet classical-music lover as a kid, Kathryn Calder has stepped into the rock ’n’ roll spotlight in a big way

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      The more one considers her decidedly un–rock ’n’ roll childhood, the stranger it seems that Kathryn Calder has ended up where she is today.

      Her often charmed life has her positioned as a potent double threat. Indie-pop addicts know Calder as a member of the New Pornographers, which she joined as a singer and keyboard player in 2005. Not content to ride shotgun with one of the most critically adored bands in North America, she branched out last year with the gorgeous solo debut Are You My Mother?. On the heels of that record comes an as-yet-untitled second solo album that Calder has already recorded and plans to release this fall.

      Hanging out with the Georgia Straight in a tranquil community garden in the shadow of the Biltmore Cabaret, the almost insanely nice 29-year-old admits that she’s learned something about herself as she’s gotten older.

      “I’m a big workaholic,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know that about myself, but apparently I like to bite off more than I can chew. We started the new record last winter. Basically, I was on tour with the New Pornographers, and when I was home we did the recording. So on my time off, I was recording, and on my non–time off, I was touring.”

      Factor in the solo swings that she’s done since the release of Are You My Mother? plus her previous life as a member of Mint Recording artists Immaculate Machine, and the easygoing brunette has spent much of her adult life on-stage as an indie rocker with plenty of cool cachet. What makes that odd is that no one predicted her being in the pop-music spotlight, including Calder, and not just because she was raised in a house where classical music dominated the stereo.

      Looking back, she remembers being one of those quiet kids who excelled at school. “I was always flying a bit by the seat of my pants,” she admits. “But I did worry about upsetting my teachers, so I would always make sure that I got my homework done. I think a lot of it was that I was really shy at school, so I didn’t want any attention brought to myself that wasn’t necessary. So I would show up, do the work, and not make a fuss. I was never an attention seeker.”

      How strange, then, that she’s getting plenty of attention today, the best thing about that being that it couldn’t be more deserved.

      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.”

      In the middle of a dream coming true, Calder’s world was flipped upside down. After leaving Immaculate Machine in 2008 to concentrate on the Pornographers, she began thinking seriously about making a solo record. That record would become Are You My Mother?, and it would eventually arrive with its own built-in story.

      Drawing on everything from bright-eyed indie rock to ramshackle folk to winsome chamber pop, Are You My Mother? is in many ways a celebration of the woman who raised Calder and helped give her what she glowingly describes as a happy and trouble-free childhood. What makes the record’s upbeat undertow remarkable is that the songs came together during a time filled with profound sadness. Calder’s mom was terminally ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease during the recording of the album. Calder was at home with her during her battle, looking after her.

      Her mom was, as one might expect, a devoted fan, putting together compilations of Calder’s songs from her various projects and then distributing them to family and friends. “She’d even make little covers for them—that kind of thing,” Calder says admiringly. “It was totally adorable. And, of course, very embarrassing for me at the time.”

      With her mom dying, Calder decided she would make a solo album, perhaps partly because that was something her mother had suggested she do for years. The family house was turned into a makeshift studio, with producer Colin Stewart overseeing things and members of the Pornographers, Ladyhawk, and Frog Eyes helping out.

      “I wanted to make a record, and I knew she was terminally ill, so I wanted to make it so that she could hear it,” Calder remembers. “When I started writing songs, the fact that she was ill and that we were having this family crisis was, of course, going to come into the songs. How can you avoid that and not write about it all?”

      Still, one of Calder’s goals was that her mom wouldn’t pick up on the fact that Are You My Mother? was about her. Indeed, one of the remarkable things about the record is that it doesn’t play out like a requiem. Instead, the songs are written in a way that leaves plenty open to interpretation. Take, for example, the spectral opening track, “Slip Away”, where, over spartan piano, Calder half sings, half whispers: “I’m holding on to something lost/I should just let go and move along.” Just as mesmerizing is the choir-practice-in-heaven choral-pop number “Low”, which has her angelically singing, “It’s still amazing to me what your cloudy vision will see.”

      “I have this habit of writing songs and not knowing what they are about until they are done, which I think is fairly common, abstract ideas that eventually form into a theme,” Calder explains. “And then when you put it all together, you can read it a certain way. So while I was recording the record, I knew what a lot of the songs were about, and I’m sure that my mom knew too. But I didn’t want the record to be sad for her.”

      Are You My Mother? isn’t without its melancholy side. Poignant and devastating will both do as starting descriptors of the cello-burnished, dark-side-of-November waltz “Down the River”, which contains the bittersweet lines “Say your good nights and your goodbyes/Say them now, it’s getting late.” But there’s no shortage of unbridled joy, from the infectiously sunny sing-along “If You Only Knew” to the chugging country-lite rambler “Follow Me Into the Hills”.

      “From most of the reviews that I’ve read, people don’t seem to get the feeling that it’s a really sad record,” Calder says. “And it’s not. People aren’t glomming on to the one aspect of it and thinking it’s only about that.”

      Besides that, the highest compliment you can pay Are You My Mother? is that it makes you wish you could rewrite your Top 10 for 2010. It’s the kind of pure and stunning from-the-heart work of art that any parent would consider themselves blessed to receive. Her mother must have been impossibly proud.

      With the record, Calder has also served notice that she’s a more valuable player than anyone might have rightly expected when she was drafted into the New Pornographers.

      “It’s kind of nerve-racking when you belong to a group that has so many amazing songwriters in it,” she admits. “I was very aware of the fact that there would be an immediate comparison, and that the record would have to be good. And that if it wasn’t good, if it really wasn’t good, I would be judged because of that.

      “Even though,” Calder adds with a laugh, “it isn’t fair because they are older and more experienced.”

      Having received universally glowing reviews for Are You My Mother?, the full-time Pornographer and newly minted solo success story is understandably excited about her upcoming follow-up effort, which she once again recorded DIY-style, this time in her apartment.

      “It’s a fun record,” she says. “Kind of a hyena synth-pop kind of thing.”

      Even if that’s not entirely true—more electronic-sounding, less organic, and decidedly keyboard-heavy might be a better description—somehow you know her inner classical kid would be wowed by how far she’s come.

      For a complete list of who's performing when and on what stage at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, please go to www.thefestival.bc.ca/.