• An Interview with Kaia Kater

    It wasn't hard to locate banjo players among the singer/songwriters roaming the crowded halls of the most recent Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City. Just about everywhere you looked, you'd see aspiring young musicians, often women, with an open-back banjo flung over their shoulder. But if you were hoping to hear skilled players amidst the banjo-toting crowd, that required a bit more effort to find.

    That search paid off to the fortunate attendees who caught one of the shows put on by Kaia Kater. The music of this promising 22-year Canadian native is rooted in the Appalachian clawhammer tradition, which she began learning at the age of 11. She's also been honing her chops the past four years by immersing herself in old-time music and traditions at the Appalachian Program of Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. On top of that, Kaia has been maintaining an active touring and recording schedule. Her first full-length album, Sorrow Bound, was released in 2014, and will be followed up this May with the release of her new album Nine Pin.

    Kaia's music sounds mournful and old, yet her song writing and arrangements bring a contemporary feel to the musical traditions that ground her. Just listen to her song "Southern Girl" from her first album to hear a sample of her unique melding of past and present.

    We sat down with Kaia at the Folk Alliance to get some background on this up-and-coming young artist.

    How did you first become drawn to banjo as your primary instrument?

    My mother, Tamara Kater, works with Folk Music Canada and is running a bunch of showcase rooms at Folk Alliance right now. Before that she was a huge music fan. She never played music herself except for a little guitar and singing lullabies to me when I was a kid but she would never do anything public. She worked for National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa for eight years and took a job with the Ottawa Folk Festival. She was a single mom for a long time and after school I would come to where she worked and hang around. I saw Dom Flemons and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops perform in 2007 and I would just bug them for lessons. I was 12 and it was a great experience.

    I'd also come to Folk Alliance every year with my mom as part of her job and eventually she took over the Winnipeg Folk Festival, so yea, I really grew up around a lot of great music and it just seemed normal to me.

    You were hearing a lot of other instruments other than banjo though, right? But somehow, it was the banjo that attracted you.

    Mitch Podolak who is kind of an enigma, he's the father of Leonard Podolak, came to the Ottawa Folk Festival as a festival advisor. He was working with my mother and met me and I had an old banjo in my closet that someone had given me. It was a bluegrass banjo. I was just really interested in the banjo but never had any lessons. Mitch found out I had this banjo and asked me to take it out and gave me my first lesson when I was 11. After the lesson I didn't touch if for a year. He came back the following year and said, "how you doing on that banjo?" I sort of crumbled and admitted that I hadn't touched it and he said, "OK, let's get it out again. You're going to do this." And he kept the pressure on my mom, not that she needed it. He convinced her to hold a garage sale so I could afford to go to the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, North Carolina and I went there when I was probably 13 or 14. That experience of figuring out how amazing the old-time community and music is, that's what really did it for me. That was the moment when I really decided to commit. I was already really liking it but the experience of seeing an old-time jam happen really did it for me and gave me the fever to seriously pursue it.

    Did you have any other teachers early on?

    I'd been asking people for lessons wherever I could, but when we moved to Winnipeg I finally got a permanent teacher, Daniel Koulack. He made a fantastic recording with fiddle player Karrnnel Sawitsky who is performing with me this weekend at the Folk Alliance entitled "Fiddle & Banjo: Tunes from the North, Songs from the South." It's just an amazing recording. And Danny was my teacher for 3 or 4 years.

    What other ways did you pick up the music besides lessons as you were learning?

    I went to Grey Fox music academy early on which is a great experience because it's free and from 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. Thursday through Sunday you're playing music with other young people your age. I'd go every summer and try out different instruments and I did do one with banjo of course, and that was the last one I did because I enjoyed it so much. Festival culture was a huge influence on me of course, but the Swannanoa Gathering camp was the real turning point. I was also just attending a lot of folk festivals my mom ran or others like the Mariposa, Edmonton, Calgary and a handful of smaller festivals.

    Kaia Kater at Grey FoxKaia at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, 2013

    You mentioned picking up things from Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons when you would run into them at festivals. Those were some pretty good teachers to learn from! How did these lessons come about?

    I think they might have just been too polite to say no to me!

    Do you show promise as a player early on?

    I could always pick things up by ear pretty easily. I think that the eagerness was more impressive to them than maybe my ability. You know, like "here's a young person who's interested in playing the banjo."

    Were there other players that you would get these kind of informal lessons from?

    Riley Baugus was one. Every time I saw him, he'd give me a lesson. Dirk Powell was another one who'd give me lessons whenever I'd see him. He would reserve time for me to give me a private lesson and teach me tunes. And Dirk and Riley played a lot together, so I would go to their hotel room and they would work in a lesson for me. It was probably me just being really hungry for tunes that made people more willing to teach me. And I feel the same way now that I'm touring professionally. If a kid came up to me and wanted a lesson, I would definitely make time if I could. Because if you come from a traditional style of music, you recognize the importance of passing that on.

    Kaia's first EP, Old Soul, produced by Chris Bartos.

    You're attending Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia and graduating this year. How did you come to decide to enroll with the Appalachian Program there?

    After high school I took a year off and wasn't even planning on going to college. But my dad, who was a first generation immigrant from the West Indies, really wanted me to go to college. My mom was like, "do whatever you want as long as you're healthy and safe."

    So I moved to Montreal and stayed with an aunt and did a lot of solo performing. I had a friend from Swannanoa who was sending me all of these scholarship opportunities where you could apply for various folk music camps. She sent one about Augusta Heritage Center which is in Davis & Elkins. I had this CD I'd made and sent it in with my application and talked about why I thought I might be a deserving person. I got a phone call about a month later from Gerry Milnes who was the archivist at Augusta and he told me about a new program the college was starting in Appalachia studies. He said they were looking for young people that already had experience with folk instruments and that they were awarding scholarships. So one long weekend my mother and grandmother and I all took a trip down to Elkins and visited the school.

    So are you part of the first class in the college's Appalachian program?

    Yeah. Another musician, Scotty Leach from the Pacific Northwest and I were the test cases in this new program along with Rebecca Wudarski from West Virginia who flatpicks guitar and we were the first string band. There's also a percussive dance team I'm a part of and the two perform together. The program went through some changes in directors. The current director is Emily Miller, originally with the Sweetback Sisters. She's done a lot of ballad singing and she's a fantastic musician. She started recruiting more people into the program so now our string band is up to five people.

    Kaia Kater and Scotty Leach: "Lulu Gal"

    You recorded Sorrow Bound while you were still in school. And like your first CD, your new album features a lot of original songs you've written, in addition to some straight-forward old time tunes. How do you view the differences between your first album and Nine Pin, which is coming out in May?

    I think I've matured in the way that I want to present my music. I definitely still showcase the old time part and Appalachian style I've learned so much from, especially West Virginia music, which is really my base. But I also want to have my own voice within the Americana genre. I wrote a lot more songs on this album than the previous and think I've explored deeper concepts. In our entire ensemble there are only two people of color, there's me and an African American tap dancer named Katharine Manor, and so the school said "Try to write a piece about the black experience." And we were like, "What? (laughs). The black experience is many different experiences!" But they paired us with Laurie Goux, who is one of the professors of dance at the college and is an amazing West African dancer and has done a lot of modern dance. So, on the song "Harlem's Little Blackbird" from the new CD, which Katharine taps on, Laurie came up with choreography for us and we performed the opening of the piece where we're using a lot of West African movements. And then I created the song "Rising Down" for this album, which was also commissioned by my college, and it's based on what we were seeing in the media about what was happening with Black Lives Matter. And it's one of the first songs I've written that's even mildly political.

    Kaia Kater - Sorrow Bound
    Kaia Kater's Sorrow Bound, released in 2015.

    Had you ever written a song before that touched on political matters?

    Interesting, I was just on a panel discussion about diversity this morning at the Folk Alliance International. I made a point to say that for a long time I really did not want to talk about race in my shows, at all. Mostly because it felt very vulnerable to me. Sometimes I didn't know if I could trust my audience or that the audience might even want to hear about it. I also didn't want to put myself in a box like, "oh, this is the black girl talking about black issues now." And so even now I'm just learning how to approach the subject in an honest and genuine way and not alienate my audience, and most of my audiences are white.

    Your upcoming recording and your appearances here at Folk Alliance have you in more of a band setting vs. solo. Is there a story behind that choice?

    I spoke to my agent after Sorrow Bound, my last project, and we had a conversation and agreed we both wanted to get me out of the "girl with banjo" category of performer. There's nothing wrong with that but I felt a lot of people were looking at me when I was doing more of a solo act and tagging me as just that. I wanted to show I could be more diverse because I also dance and blend with other textures.

    You've brought up a couple of times now about boxes people may try to put you in, like you're trying to avoid being categorized. Am I right about that?

    I think so. The challenge for me is whenever I get into a particular mindset like, "oh, I should try to write an Appalachian ballad," or "I should try to do this, or, a song about race," it doesn't come naturally to me and it shows in the songwriting. It feels contrived. I'm really trying to find a niche that's unique to me and people that appreciate music will appreciate my music and grow with me wherever I grow.


    "Hangman's Reel," from Kaia's soon-to-be-released album Nine Pin.

    How does the older style of Appalachian music and banjo fit in the new style of music you're creating? Your music seems to have an ancient and old quality but at the same time it has a fresh and very modern sound.

    I'm so happy you said that because if I was to describe my music in a particular way it would be just that, to take the roots of something that's very old, ancient and beautiful and try to present it in a way that adds some of my own influences. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I like hip hop, soul, jazz, blues and I felt like inevitably whatever I listen to and am influenced by comes out in my music. It's not only Appalachian influence, it's all of these styles influencing me.

    I was actually embarrassed in high school to tell anyone that I played banjo. I just thought I was so lame! I thought, "Oh my God." I really didn't tell anyone, but my best friends would see my banjo when they came over and casually say, "Oh, that's cool."

    Oh, I think they were being honest. I think a lot of people nowadays think it's cool.

    Remember when Mumford and Sons were coming out, and Avett Brothers? And during this period Rhiannon and Dom were becoming well known. It was funny because, me happening to be black and play the banjo it was like, "these two things are interrelated?" because I always thought I was playing a white person's instrument. It was hard for me to reconcile and finally I watched Bela Fleck's Throw Down Your Heart documentary. And I was like crying through some of it because I was realizing that maybe my connection to this instrument is deeper than just that someone happened to show it to me.

    What else have you seen this weekend at Folk Alliance that interests you?

    I got to see Danny Barnes and he's SUCH a huge influence on me. He's always been totally outside the box! Total weirdo, doesn't care (laughs). When I was like 11 or maybe younger I was at Grey Fox festival and he was in this workshop with Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Bill Keith and some others. The workshop was called "Banjo Masters," obviously, and they all go through and play their tune and most of them were bluegrass tunes, and Bela did something sort of jazzy. It comes to Danny and he leans back and says, "I'm going to do a little Snoop Dogg tune called 'Gin and Juice'" (laughs). And it was SO SO good, and everyone was like "what the hell?" (laughs). He is just so cool and such little ego. You know, I think he just wants to make music and hang out and play. Do whatever. It just showed me that even within a world of virtuosic players you can do your own thing. Bela obviously did his own thing and it's beautiful, but I'm also attracted to Danny Barnes' music because some of it is just so weird! But it's so awesome he has the courage to put music like that out into the world.

    You were recently invited to attend the Acoustic Music Seminar led by Mike Marshall at the Savannah Music Festival, which a lot of people apply to but not all are accepted. How did you decide to apply for that, and what are you looking for out of that experience?

    I learned about it quite late, so I didn't really know about it and I found out that the oldest age they accepted is 22. So I realized I would have to apply this year. And I really wanted to. I think the eagerness that I had as a kid is still there. And I've admired people like Mike Marshall, Darrel Scott and Darrel Anger for so long. And I thought I might as well put a bid in, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted. I think I'm just looking for mentorship. Also I'm looking forward to finding new people to potentially work with, and finding people to expand my musical development with.

    Are you interested in forming and touring with a band, or continuing going solo?
    Kaia Kater - Nine Pin
    I like my solo gig, but I'd definitely like to be part of a group. I think I'm actually more into collaborations, if not an actual band. Being in a band is pretty awesome since you don't have to tour alone, but I've also seen the problems that arise with bands. I really like what Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan did with the group I'm With Her. They all have their individual careers but they also came together to do some really cool stuff.

    Tell us a little about your plans after college.

    I graduate from Elkins and Davis in May and my album also comes out then so right now we're ramping up tour dates. I recently signed with Unique Gravity in the UK. They represent artists like Sara Watkins, Tim O'Brien, Aoife O'Donovan, Dom Flemons and many others. It's a good roster! Especially with all the stuff Aoife has been doing. She's not just doing Bluegrass anymore, and she's drifting through several genres and it's just great. I'm currently looking for a U.S. agent and I think once that gets settled into place I can have a proper tour, possibly opening for someone in the UK and Canadian and U.S. tour, some festivals. That'll hopefully be my entire summer and into the fall I'm going to the Americana conference and IBMA. I don't have any idea what the IBMA will be like, but I'm confident it will be a great experience.

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    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Longblackveil's Avatar
      Longblackveil -
      Awesome! I've seen her around, nice to hear more about who she really is
    1. Banjo Cafe's Avatar
      Banjo Cafe -
    1. timacn's Avatar
      timacn -
      Anybody know what kind of banjo Kaia Kater is playing in these pictures? A Vega Whyte Laydie?

      If anybody knows, please let me know.

    1. Banjo Cafe's Avatar
      Banjo Cafe -
      Kaia just pinged us with the following info:

      I use a long neck Gold Tone, a Dena Jennings gourd banjo, and still looking for a permanent open back banjo.
    1. Mike Baker's Avatar
      Mike Baker -
      Missed a chance to see her in Wolfville NS a while back. Ranks right up there with the dumber things I have done in my life.
    1. timacn's Avatar
      timacn -
      Sure doesn't look like a Gold tone in those pictures!

      Anybody know if she's using a Vega Whyte Laydie in those shots? Maybe an Eastman WL copy?
    1. Banjo Cafe's Avatar
      Banjo Cafe -
      Here's a video of Kaia playing her Gold Tone long neck. One of our fav's!
    1. Banjo Cafe's Avatar
      Banjo Cafe -
      Ha! Rolling Stone Magazine reads Banjo Cafe. Well, we're not sure about that, but they are featuring Kaia prominently in an article entitled "10 New Country Artists You Need to Know: 2016."