I first heard of Kate Earl years ago while flipping through a woman’s lifestyle magazine, which caused me to listen to her song “Melody.” It’s a feel-good, positive track that made me think of sunny, carefree days when everything is dandy, and it had the ability to instantly put me in a good mood. I also really liked the artist’s natural look and her nature-inspired sound, so I knew she would be one whose career I would want to follow.
A few weeks ago, I was able to watch her perform live for the first time as she finished up a residency at Hotel Cafe, and I also got a chance to learn more about the singer herself through an interview with her prior to her set. I don’t know if it was the venue, Kate Earl herself, or maybe a combination of both, but the performance was very relaxed, the type of environment where messing up just meant you make a joke, rewind, and start again. At one point, she teased her guitarist, saying “Do what you do and I’ll just sing.”
There is something somber and sweet about Kate Earl’s presence on stage, but not in the emo sense; she’s just a blues singer, yearning for something. She sways her body in a lullaby-like motion as she sings in her pleasant, crystal-clear voice, and she looks like some kind of blues angel or a soft-spoken storyteller in a black leather jacket and red-stained lips. Earl is multi-talented, playing both the piano and guitar, but I’ll never forget how goofy she acted on stage from time to time, not afraid to make fun of herself.
After Earl sang her last song, she received a grand applause from the audience, which likely included some new fans. If you didn’t get a chance to catch any of these Hotel Cafe residency shows, tomorrow night (December 14th) she’ll be performing at the Troubadour in West Hollywood alongside Passenger, and while tickets are already sold out, you can always try Stubhub or Craigslist.
How would you describe your music style?
My music style is based on the period of my life that I’m in. I draw from my childhood often. It was probably around the age of 10 that influenced Stronger. I bounced around, but that stood out to me as something I wanted to recreate the feeling of.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Alaska at a gas station (a family business), and my brothers, who were from my dad’s first marriage, they listened to a set of music that was older than what was on the radio at the time. Vanilla Ice was going on as I was a kid, but they listened to Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty. I just got turned on by those albums.
I would play them on a player and ride by bike around. I remember feeling very young, innocent, and free. Just wanting to recreate that for myself because that stuff really tells deep stories without being too serious at the same time. For instance, you can take on any topic without being a downer, and I love that music.
What distinguishes the Stronger album from your past releases?
This is very much a singular thought. I believe that every track on this album is connected to the next. The theme of self-empowerment is consistent. It’s confessional to a degree about certain things that I’ve experienced recently, but I’m attempting never to take any self-pity. I am all about singing the blues and I intend to continue to do so, but this is not the record for that.
If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of experience were you going through that inspired you for the theme of this album?
It was a combination of drawing from my childhood, that freedom there and wide open space, the rootsyness to the music I was feeling, the influence of a certain level of folk music and a certain level of rock and roll. There’s also my daily life as a single mother.
How old is your kid?
He’s two and a half.
What’s it like being a mother and being a musician at the same time?
You know, it’s so easy to second-guess everything when you’re a mom. So easy to worry, and all I can do is try to embrace who I am and always put him first. That’s something very difficult to balance. But if I’m willing to love myself, then I think he’s going to benefit from that because I’m never going to feel that I compromised my own path in life, and yet because I love him more than anything, he’s always going to be taken care of.
Which song from Stronger is your favorite, and what’s the story behind it?
That’s tough. As a recording, I really love “Loyalty.” That song was just a beautiful song that was written by Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow. I’m so proud of the work all of the players — including Brett Dennen, who co-wrote the rest of the record — and I did together as a collection, but there’s something about this message in “Loyalty.” I feel like I really sang it. I really, really sang that song, and that’s why I favor that record because of the soul I poured into that.
How do you get into your creativity zone?
It’s like daydreaming. I just kind of meditate on what it is I want to say and travel through these images. I use pen and paper; I don’t type. There’s a certain thinking process involved with the movement of your hands. Or I might be driving or doing dishes and humming, and that’ll inspire some melodic leads. I’ll find the support for them. I can start with the bass line, and then I’ll build out chords. Those are some approaches.
What was your experience like collaborating with Brett Dennen?
Brett Dennen is a genius. I called him a “thesaurus.” I called him a “lexicon.” I called him a “dictionary.” He just has so many words in his brain, in his storytelling. I was really humbled to work with a person who can write twelve songs, basically, with the intention of pulling the best pieces to create one. He’ll write, re-write, and re-write in very quick sequence. Any version of that song could be kept, but he’ll just push and push, peel and peel, and try and try. I learned a lot about the songwriting process from being a part of that with him.
Your residency at Hotel Café ends tonight. What are your plans afterward?
I’m going on a tour with Passenger on the East and West Coast, starting on December 4th through 14th. I’ll be in New York, Philly, Boston, Portland, San Francisco, and LA at The Troubadour.
Are you working on other projects?
I’m always writing, and I already know what I want to do next. I’m excited about it. I’m not talking about it too much, but I know what I want.
Do you get butterflies before you perform?
Every time. Sometimes I get such bad stage fright that I don’t know where I am in a song.
What happens at that moment?
Someone will catch my eye or someone is maybe talking too loud. Basically, I feel that almost every entertainer is cursed with one of two things: you either think you’re a god and everybody loves you, or you want everyone to love you. I’m the one that wants the love.
Sometimes this works — I heard about it from Diana Ross. She would reach out to everyone in the room and say, “I’m casting a net over this whole room. I’m reaping this entire room right now.” So I’ll try and do that with my little spidey web, and I’ll reach for the person who’s talking loudly. If they don’t connect, or I can’t reach them, whether it’s not loud enough or my performance isn’t something they’re interested in…
That does happen. People aren’t always there to see you, especially at Hotel Café where there is so much good music. People can just discover you, which is the benefit, but sometimes you have a person that’s just there to drink because of the atmosphere. Sometimes that’ll throw me, and I’ll get lost in a song. Then I think, “Darn it. I didn’t achieve it.” I think if you’re a truly great performer, you can capture a whole room. I’m still challenging myself to meet that goal.
How do you pick yourself back up when you get trapped in that type of situation?
I just take a breath, and then I queue the band, tell them what I want to do with the song like, “Okay, let’s take it back here.” Or I’ll just flub through it and pretend that it’s jazz.
Do you still visit your hometown? How often do you go?
I do! I’m about to go back for Christmas. I’m taking my son to his grandmother’s house. My mom is Filipino, so there is always pork involved. There’s always a good representation of the Filipino clan, and it always involves some roast coming out of the oven in addition to turkey. We have that to look forward to and also the snow. I’m getting him some mini snow pants and taking him out for snow angels and snowmen.
If there’s one musician, dead or alive, you could perform with, who would it be?
Oh, my god. Can I name my top three? I’d have to say Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder would probably be my first choice because he’s someone I could blend really well with.
What else do you like to do other than writing and music?
I like to be outdoors. I like to go hiking. I like to watch movies. I’m in kidland right now, so whatever gets him interested.
From what you’ve learned throughout your own journey, what’s one piece of advice you’d tell female artists trying to get a foot in the door?
It’s a difficult question to answer because when you’re a female artist starting out, you look to others for a path to follow and to help support and bring out the best in you. It’s so easy to trust and hand over your entire voice and power, so I think that when we take care of ourselves, everything else takes care of itself.
This is going to sound a bit hippie-dippy, but when we have self-love, we speak from truth and we speak with strength. It’s not selfish, and it’s not ego-based. We can take direction, and we can be receptive to all the opportunities around us without being domineering. That’s my biggest thing. Be really focused on your craft and the best person you can be to bring into a room and to bring into a collaboration and to bring to the business. You have to have your head straight.
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