An Interview by Laura Hemenway
Kate Graves’ quirky, vulnerable songwriting style is exemplified by "Clubhouse," her contribution to Santa Barbara Literary Journal’s Volume 1, available on Amazon here. As a person, she is warm, funny, and constantly soul-searching to create slices of life in her songs. In this exuberant and thoughtful summer evening conversation, Kate reveals a bit about her Santa Barbara childhood, her musical influences, and the inspiration and renewal she receives from attending the annual Song School in Colorado, sponsored by Planet Bluegrass.
LAURA: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person?
KATE: My dad is a visual artist, and he’s also a really big music lover; he doesn’t play an instrument. But he listens to a lot of different music, and all the time. So, I think he was probably my first. I wouldn’t say he was an encourager (laughing), but I would say that he exposed us to a lot of good music and just creating, in general. I remember we would sit on a Saturday, and he would want us to draw a still life…an apple, a bowl,…so I think I was exposed to the arts through him. And then when encouragement came when I went to Santa Barbara Middle School, and I got into Theater, and singing. The music classes were taught around the piano, by Maureen Hazard. And we would sing like, David Byrne songs. And none of us knew how to sing, but it was so fun. I think that it really sparked the joy that I think was necessary to get me more interested in continuing to sing and practice.
LAURA: Since we’re talking about creating, did you have something that you gravitated towards, that was your favorite method of creating.? Painting? Music-making? Singing? Acting?
KATE: I loved acting. I took every theater class I could. It was kind of improvisational, taking a lot of creative liberties with the plays, not structured in a lot of ways, but with enough structure to hold it together. So in thinking about it now, that does correlate it with performance, too. Because, I was very shy, and I still am shy, in certain situations. But I was still compelled to get on the stage.
LAURA: Did the stage feel comfortable, like home?
KATE: It felt terrifying. I’m very sensitive to environments. And with the stage there is this separation. It was a way that I could still communicate with people. So I could have enough distance, yet still connect. For instance, I’ve always liked coffee shop jobs, rather than waiting tables, because there’s a bar between me and the customers. I think I would probably love bar-tending. I like that boundary. But you still get to have that connection.
LAURA: When did you start to create songs? Was that a natural extension from theater and what you were getting at school?
KATE: I wrote my first song in Middle School. It was a little song called “Gonna Get Away.” It was definitely full of angst; I was probably 14 or 15. But my teacher, Marco Andrade, helped me (because I didn’t play any instrument at the time) write the music, and he put a drum track to it, and we recorded it. It was a really lucky experience, for a kid. And after we recorded it, they gathered the school one day, and they played it in front of the school. It was my rock star moment, at age 15. I was so proud of that song. And then, I didn’t write again for a long time. I had my one big hit! (laughing)
LAURA: What songwriters are touchstones for you?
KATE: Well, Joni Mitchell. Her poetry and her musical prowess. When I first heard “Blue” when I was 17, it was just very monumental. Like when I heard Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” those two albums. It was the first time I remember playing a record on repeat. And I just played it, and played it, and played it.
There’s a songwriter named Christine Kane. If I need a cathartic experience, I just go to one of her shows. I remember going to the bathroom at one point, during one of her shows, and wondering, “Can I go back out there?” Because she’s somebody who definitely hits something sonically emotional, for me. And of course, Mary Gauthier, is one of the best writers around. She and Christine are both mission-driven, at this point, to give back, not just do the “selfish artist” dance that I’ve done a lot of my life. There’s a lot of selfishness to being an artist.
LAURA: You kind of have to be selfish. It’s a double-edged sword, for sure.
KATE: Yet there’s a kind of gorgeousness about it.
LAURA: What’s your favorite kind of venue? Is there a specific favorite that you’ve played, so far?
KATE: Going back to the stage, I really enjoy good light, and good sound, and intimacy in setting. I’ve played enough gigs with terrible sound, to know that when you have good sound and someone running it, it is a real gift. I like Soho, here in Santa Barbara. I love their family, I love that they’ve done so much for musicians over the years. They’ve had really great, caring sound guys. I also like living room shows, house concerts. And I know, for practice, that there’s nothing wrong with a coffee shop gig, It has its own important value, in terms of getting over myself, and being able to just run the songs.
LAURA: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: creating a song, performing a song, or recording a song?
KATE: My favorite part is once I get into it, once I get into that river. And I start the song. The hardest part is always starting, like doing anything, right? But my favorite part is, once you kind of get rolling with it, and you’re not yet editing, you’re in flow with the ideas coming and forming.
LAURA: You enjoy that even more than performing it, when it’s finally realized? Or recording?
KATE: Well, I do love performing. I’m actually not that great in the recording studio. I get antsy. Sitting all day long, and going over each note, I’m like “Let’s move it along!” Which is why I always need a good engineer! (laughing) I need someone that cares about it. But I love when I’m writing, and it’s coming, and it feels like time is in a different place.
LAURA: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?
KATE: My ego. (laughing) No, it’s not true! Well, it’s true and it’s not true. I feel connection, on a higher level, when I’m able to perform my songs. I feel connection between me and the audience; that is a big gift to me. Someone listening to you is a really big gift in this world, where there are a lot of people talking. So that communication is really powerful for me. That keeps me wanting to write.
But also, as a practice, writing is a healthy way for me to stay connected with myself. It’s a really good way for me to uncover how I feel about something , or to process something. I’m actually interested in working more with people, in writing, because I think that writing is a really cool way to get in touch with ourselves, in a cathartic way. Just to access ourselves. Life is so busy in the modern world. It’s really easy to lose touch with ourselves and others.
LAURA: So, you’ve never gotten to the point where it’s like, “Man, I’ve nothing left to write about.”
KATE: Oh, no! No way. There’s always something to write about, it’s just a daunting task to sit down. I’ve been doing writing for ElephantJournal this summer. I took an online writing course. I’ve been getting into a pretty good flow with just writing, daily, and the ritual of it feels great. It’s amazing how, once you get into that flow, it’s a lot easier. Because you’re generating material, so the next day, you’re combing over something you did last week. All of a sudden it doesn’t seem nearly as hard.
LAURA: Writing begets writing, for you.
KATE: I’m seeing that it does. I used to be of the mind that “I’ll just write when I want to write.” But I’m finding that right now, for me, that’s changing. I’m finding that if I write at the same time of day, in the morning, that sets me off on my day. Then my subconscious thinks all day about the piece. I’m working on it while I’m not working on it.
LAURA: You’re about ready to take off for Colorado. Tell me a little bit about Song School.
KATE: If you say the word “pilgrimage,” I think that describes the experience, for me. It’s where I got into songwriting, after that one song at age 15. I didn’t write another song until I was about 24. I went with my sister…reluctantly. I did not want to go. I had just broken up with someone; I had my heart broken. And she said, “You’ve got to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and get out of the house.” She was doing a lot of songwriting, and she kind of dragged me along. I didn’t play guitar then; I was a fish out of water. I sang, but I didn’t have any songs.
I took a class at Song School; it was a beginner’s class. And we were asked to pair up with someone, and tell that person a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your partner then told you a story. And then we were to spend a week crafting a song, to share with them. And it was such a powerful experience, because I got, again, that spark I had when I was 15. I just wanted to tell her story well. I wanted to honor her story. And it was just beautiful. I wrote a song about her mother, who was a poet, but not a great mother. It was called “Wildflower Poet.” It was kind of the story of a mother/daughter who had this connection through art. And wasn’t really your typical idyllic mom/daughter relationship.
So that’s kind of what Planet Bluegrass is for me. Touchstone is a good word, these places that are kind of central. I found my tribe of people there. That was the biggest thing.
I haven’t been able to go every year. But I’ve gone whenever I could. Every year is different. Every year brings me a completely different kind of lesson. I always have one solid breakdown, in a good way. I always have a break through. I’ve kind of recommitted to making sure that I get there.
LAURA: What’s the structure?
KATE: Long days. 3 classes a day, but there are workshops. You camp by a river, (some people get AirBnBs), and everybody stays up at night. By Day 4, people are tired. It’s good, it’s very much an intensive. The teachers are amazing. Mary Gauthier teaches there; Peter Himmelman teaches there…one year Josh Ritter was a teacher. He was darling, and so sweet. Anais Mitchell was a teacher one year.
LAURA: What kind of workshops?
KATE: They bring in songwriters who are going to be playing in the festival, and they teach workshops.
LAURA: How many people in attendance?
KATE: About 100.
LAURA: Would you recommend it to other songwriters?
KATE: Absolutely. And I would say, get your ticket early, because they’re selling out now, in December, and it’s not until August. Go to the website. They run the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and they run Rocky Grass, which is a bluegrass academy. My friend Jill is going next week to the bluegrass academy, and she’s making her second mandolin. You make your own instrument, and you play bluegrass all week. It’s amazing.
LAURA: Do you have any other performances coming up?
KATE: September 12 at Soho. It’s Natalie D. Napoleon, and her friend Gina VillaLobos, who is putting a tour together with Amee Chapman, a friend she used to play with years ago. I think it’ll be fun. I love playing shows with women. (Tickets available here.)
LAURA: Any advice to give to creative people out there?
KATE: Find something that you love. It doesn’t matter…cooking, …you can be creative in sports…you can be creative doing anything! Creativity is a playful, open way of approaching something. You can be creative in conversation. We all use the same language, but if I wanted to invite my imaginatively exuberant, wild child, mystic bird person…you can open that up, in language. I kind of see creativity as playfulness. A lightness, in a way. LAURA: Do you ever look at a songwriter and think to yourself “if only that person would just do such and such, they would have it all together?” Any advice that you would give to a songwriter, or songwriters in general? KATE: In songwriting and performing, the shorter the better. You don’t need 10 verses. Unless you’re Woody Guthrie. (laughing) LAURA: I’m going to embroider that on something. (laughing) KATE: That’s one thing. Err on the side of cutting your song down. And when you start writing about something, write about something you can access your feelings to and talk about. Because if you write about something that’s too close at that moment, you haven’t processed it yet. You lose your perspective. Write about something that you really care about, and write about something that you can talk about logically. Because when you’re writing you can translate what you’re thinking . Oh! And start off by word association games! This works great if you’re just starting to write songs. Where you just pick a word, and start associating other words with it…that will get you in your poetic side of your mind,. Give yourself 3 minutes, and start with say, periwinkle. Periwinkle reminds me of that yoga mat, which reminds me of the floor, then head, then ear…make this giant list of words. Then go back and circle the words that are coming out for you. That’s a good place to start getting ideas for metaphors you might want to use, to write about. I think the main thing is that it gets you into this creative side of your mind, and not the side that’s “I’m going to write my magnum opus right now!” For me, that works. The clustering works. LAURA: We’ve got some great stuff here! Thanks, Kate! KATE: Thanks, Laura!
Kates' song "Clubhouse" is available in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here.