This summer has brought about a massive change for Kathryn Calder, with one very long chapter in her life closing, and another just beginning.
When she’s reached by phone on Vancouver Island, the 30-year-old musician reveals that she’s currently living in the middle of barely organized chaos. In some ways that’s not really anything new. Calder has spent a good chunk of the past seven years travelling the world, both as a solo artist and as a keyboardist with the indie supercollective New Pornographers. Living out of a suitcase while shuttling around the globe on tour buses and airplanes has nothing, however, on what’s she’s dealing with on this particularly fine, West Coast summer day.
“We just moved, and even though everything is out of boxes, right now it’s all just everywhere,” Calder says. “I have this nice vista, as I look out from the kitchen, to the sight of junk everywhere. It’s annoying, but not annoying to where I’m doing something about it.”
The singer and her husband—respected engineer Colin Stewart—have relocated from Victoria to nearby Saanich, and while that’s not a great distance geographically, emotionally it’s been huge. Buying a new house meant selling the home where Calder not only grew up, but also recorded her first two solo albums, 2010’s Top 10–calibre Are You My Mother?, and last fall’s Bright and Vivid. That decision takes on additional emotional resonance when you consider that Calder served as a caregiver in the house to her mom while she was dying from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS). That period would of course inspire many of the songs on the emotionally charged Are You My Mother?, which is just one of the reasons moving wasn’t easy.
“It was definitely a bit difficult,” Calder says of the decision. “There was a lot of ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ The way that I feel about it is that I have all these memories of the old house, and just because I left the house doesn’t mean that I’m no longer going to have them. Also, I did live there my entire life, so I figured that 30 was maybe a good time to move.”
That Calder isn’t averse to shaking things up is made abundantly clear on Bright and Vivid, a record that’s a noticeable departure from its predecessor. Are You My Mother? found the singer exploring easygoing indie rock, lush pop, and countrified folk. This time out, the songs are darker and more dramatic. Consider the way gut-punch piano and metal-clatter drums act as a counterbalance to the otherwise ethereal “Right Book”, or the way “New Frame of Mind” starts off soft and delicate, and then explodes into something noisy but beautiful halfway through. There are also moments of truly audacious genre-mashing, with “Five More Years” drawing, quite delightfully, from both cocktail-nation space pop and ’50s doo-wop.
Calder wastes little time in announcing that she’s not interested in bringing more of the same on Bright and Vivid. The album’s kickoff track, “One Two Three”, is, ironically enough, neither bright nor vivid, the singer instead serving up a ghostly soundscape saturated with subtle daydream-nation distortion.
“It was a conscious decision to start the record off with ‘One Two Three’,” Calder notes. “It was mostly because I wanted people, right away, to know that this was an album that was going to be completely different. Also because I really love that song, and was really excited with the way that it was produced with all the distortion. I love that kind of stuff in music—that’s the kind of music that I tend to listen to, as well as older stuff.”
Calder doesn’t mind admitting that Bright and Vivid has polarized her fan base.
“It accomplished what I was going for, and that was mayhem—controlled mayhem,” she says with a laugh. “I’m really happy with how it turned out, but it was divisive. I think that some people really loved it, and some people preferred the first album.”
Those who did fall for Bright and Vivid can thank Calder’s husband in part. The engineer toiled hard on the record, often alone into the early hours of the morning.
“Colin spent a lot of time on the record’s sound,” Calder says. “I’d basically go to bed, pass out because I was so tired, and he’d be at the computer detailing things with effects and EQs. He was after a very particular sound.”
Happy as she is with Bright and Vivid, Calder figures that her next outing will, sonically speaking, fall somewhere between her first two albums, with the singer planning to enlist a band for the recording. For the immediate future, though, it’s going to be a while before Calder’s new home is put in order, with solo dates to be taken care of, as well as a summer swing with the New Pornographers. She’s also signed on for a documentary that will chronicle her experiences with ALS and her caring for her mother. The chaos of daily life, it would seem, isn’t about to abate anytime soon. “Life is crazy,” she says, laughing again. “I’m trying to come to terms with that, in and of itself. The past few years have been totally up and down. Starting from about 23 onward, which is when I joined the New Pornographers, it’s been pretty crazy. I’m hoping things will be a little bit calmer for the next little while, but let’s be honest: you never know.
“I am happy with the choice that I made to start making solo records,” she continues. “It’s given me a pretty great creative outlet. When I first started, it was like ‘I’ll make one record and see how it goes.’ Now I can’t wait to make another one.”
Kathryn Calder plays the free Khatsahlano! Music + Arts Festival on Saturday (July 21).