Sunday, November 13, 2016

Music talking with Kat

Ty: Betty, Rebecca, Stan, Elaine, Jess and I are talking with Kat about music -- specifically about what she covers in her music writing.  Alicia Keys' new album HERE came out this month and you've reviewed it.


Ty (Con't):  You seem to think it's one of the best.

Kat: It's easily one of the best, in fact, barring something else coming out, it is the finest album of 2016.

Betty: I'd agree with that -- and that really surprised me because, for me, her best albums have been her live ones -- especially VH1 STORYTELLERS.  But this is such a musical album.  You raised Laura Nyro in your review, Kat, and that's such a solid point.  What I love about her two live albums is her piano which is much more free and inspired than on the studio albums.  Or on previous studio albums.  I love her playing here -- on HERE.  And Laura really is the subtext for Alicia's playing.  It's about colors in the same way Laura's was.

Elaine: Taking nothing away from Carole King or Stevie Wonder who both play keyboards brilliantly, Laura really saw colors in the music and Alicia does seem to share that.  There's also an approach that's more true to the musical moment than to a musical form -- she shares that with Laura as well.

Stan: The grunt issue.  I'm laughing.  I'm glad you raised that.  I think that's got to be the thing you hear the most -- at least in the African-American community -- when you hear detractors.  I'm talking about certain listeners who'll insist that, say, Ariana Grande is a better singer and insist that's the case because Alicia grunts.

Ty: I've always felt Alicia is a little too real for some people.  And, to be honest, a ton of her earlier work seemed to me to have a lot of gloss sprinkled on -- or heavily applied -- to take Alicia away from that reality.

Betty: Really?

Ty: Yes.  I can't stand the first album.  I love the songs but love them more when she's doing them live.  It's just too sugary, the production.

Jess: The weekend before, Kat, you were reviewing the new album by the band Pretenders ALONE.  You really loved that.

Kat: I did and do.  Prior to Alicia's album, I would've picked ALONE as the year's best.  It's still among the year's best.  But I really think Alicia's gone beyond it.

Rebecca: This was your tenth review for the year and there's a good chance you'll do at least one more, right?

Kat: Right.  There's an album that I'm hoping I'll want to review.  I haven't heard it yet.  I have it.  But I didn't want to listen to Alicia until after I'd reviewed Chrissie Hynde's new Pretenders album and I didn't want to listen to this one before I'd reviewed Alicia.  I'm hoping I love the album.  If I do, there will be at least one more review.

Jess:  Can you talk about your process a little?  Writing?

Kat: Sure.  I'm a photographer.  That's how I've made my living.  And it used to be a real pain in the butt to write.  If you go to my blog, you'll see I'm doing one snapshot, one picture.  And my reviews are really more pictures than a cohesive thing of writing.  What helped early one was C.I.'s editing.  I'd try to write these things out from start to bottom.  She'd say, "What are you doing?  This isn't how you produce.  You have your own style."  And she was right.  So we'd go through when I thought I'd failed to complete a piece and she'd help me rearrange the same writing -- so that a paragraph in the middle now kicked things off.  It was very freeing.  She got me to write a paragraph on a page and then, when I think I'm done or near done, I'll start arranging things.  That's how I write now.  I don't know where she got the idea.  Did someone teach her that?

Elaine: No.  That's how she wrote her research papers in college.  She worked throughout college and had limited time -- especially in grad school.  So she'd start her papers before anyone.  And she'd have 100s of note cards, index cards.  She'd pull out three or so and write a paragraph on a pice of paper and then, writing a paragraph or two a day, she'd have a paper in about three weeks and she'd start assembling it.

Rebecca: And she's never stumped.  I don't get that.  She doesn't write like that today.  She doesn't have the time.  She just cuts a vein and lets it pour out.  There are times when I may offer a Tweet at my blog and all I do is five times a week at the most.  I have no idea how she writes like she does.

Kat: I have so much admiration for not only her writing -- which is great -- but for the ability she has to write.  I marvel over it.  Like, Tuesday, the election, okay?  So we're all speaking -- Wally, Ava, C.I. and myself -- and everyone's doing the roundtable for the special gina & krista round-robin.  And at some point, we're all like, "What are you doing tomorrow?  A snapshot?"  You know, asking C.I. if Wednesday morning will be a snapshot.  And she says something like, "Well Ava and I wrote a piece the morning after the last presidential election so we'll probably do that as well."  And Ava's asked and she has no idea what the topic itself will be about.  So I'm eating breakfast the next morning, Wally's mainly flipping through channels and eating toast and in one hour Ava and C.I. come up with that piece ["So, uh, we weren't with her? (Ava and C.I.)"].  And it's so amazing.  And it's like, "How do you do that?"  They did it in less than an hour.  It was really something.

Jess: It really was.

Betty: Well one of the keys C.I. will tell you is that you just do it.  You can't think about it.  You can't think, "Oh, X number of community members and visitors are expecting me to have something written" because it will paralyze you.  You can't obsess over it or think over it, you just have to do it.  Which is why she's been able to post new content at THE COMMON ILLS every day since the site started in 2004.  Every day, she's been there writing.  It's the 12th anniversary right now, I think.  12 years and every day, never a day off.

Kat: And no greatest hits!

Ty: (Lauging) No greatest hits.

Kat: I love that about her.  She won't just sing the same song.  She could.  But she's like, "I've done that already.  I have to grow."  There are people who would love her if she'd be a party organ who only took on THE NEW YORK TIMES.  To this day, her pieces on NYT continue to get hits.  But she got tired of that, she felt she'd done it and she moved on.  She's not going to hop on stage and sing the oldies.

Rebecca: Bob Somerby does.  Kevin Drum does.  Most of the male bloggers/writers do.

Elaine: But she'd never do that.  She didn't do it in her real career and she won't do it online.  It's about integrity and daring to grow.  And she'll always surprise you.

Kat: And I try to grow.  I think she pulls a lot of us along with her.  For which I'm very grateful.  I'd hate to be fixed and non-thinking.

Stan: One thing that she's done -- she's done a lot -- is she's put women front and center.

Kat: I don't think people get -- even those who know she's a feminist and are feminist themselves -- just how radical and revolutionary what she's done is.  The music canon, for example, was built by men.  They do the same articles over and over.  I mean does COUNTERPUNCH know a single female artist they cover?  They do several pieces on Bob Dylan a year.

Stan: And Bruce Springsteen.

Kat: Yes.  But C.I.'s mixed music into her politics and it's been women.  She's used the songs of Carly Simon, india.arie, Melanie, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Roberta Flack, Tori Amos, Rickie Lee Jones, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige and so many other women.  That's the point of reference.  It would be so easy for her to follow everyone's lead and go with men -- Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce, etc.  But she's used women and not in a begging, imploring, please here us manner.  She's done it in a way that says these women matter.  No apologies, no begging.

Ty: Haven't you tried to do that with your music writing as well?

Kat: Tori Amos and Carly Simon are my two most reviewed artists, yes.  I've tried to make sure that women get an equal shot.  I'm reviewing bands as well as solo artists.  I try to make sure that women get that equal shot at coverage and, when I'm writing about a female artist, I try to do some context as to where they line up among their peers.

Jess: And you do review male artists -- before anyone wonders.  I believe your most reviewed male artist is Ben Harper.

Kat: Ben Harper is probably my favorite male artist.  He's also one of the few that has really challenged not only the listeners but also himself.

Rebecca: And you've had praise, over the years, for Wilco.  You've also reviewed Bruce and not been impressed -- repeatedly.

Kat: I do like TUNNEL OF LOVE.  That was a great album, probably his last great one.  But, I'm not a big fan of his current work, no.  And he really had a fit about something I wrote.  He just hammered me to C.I. and she was like, "Uh, it's  a review.  Not a death sentence.  You got plenty of praise, I don't think one review destroyed you."

Ty: Talk about that, when this happened.  I don't think it's been shared outside of the community newslettters.

Kat: Sure.  He walks up and I'm thrilled.  C.I. knows him and he's coming to speak to her and I'm right next to her thinking, "Oh, I can't wait for her to introduce me."  Because I hated that folk album -- or faux folk.  But I did like Bruce.  And he comes up and starts snarling about that review and immediately I'm thinking, "Oh, God, don't introduce me.  Please don't tell him I wrote it."


Kat (Con't): So when he comes up for air, C.I. first notes it's just one review, second that she was glad it went up at her site, third her friend wrote it and fourth she's not going to bash her friend.  He kind of backed down.  When she was done, he tried to change the subject.  And he was with someone -- Sting? -- and his wife and started saying that she should come over and have a drink and she was like, "No, I don't think so.  Thank you."  So that was my non-meeting of Bruce Springsteen.

Elaine: What are you happy about?  We're talking about how C.I. has now done 12 years at THE COMMON ILLS.  That's amazing and worthy of praise.  But in December of 2014, you started posting your writing there.  So you're on the verge of 12 years yourself.

Kat: I'm glad I got to write about Carly.  There's Stephen Holden and a few other perceptive musical writers.  They've praised her.  But I think she's getting more of her due in the last decade -- due she's earned.  And I'm glad if I've been able to contribute to that in any small way.  She's one of the most talented artists and one of my favorites.  I'm glad I've been able to champion Ben Harper.  He's big but I don't understand why he's not bigger, to be honest.  I'm so thrilled that I got to review a new album by Joni Mitchell [SHINE] and that the Afghan Whigs got back together for a new album while I've been reviewing because I love them. I'm proud that I covered Melanie -- especially her EVER SINCE YOU NEVER HEARD OF ME.  She's a mystic.  I'm glad I go to say that publicly, to provide that context.

Betty: "Space cadet" was a term critics -- mainly men -- used to tear Stevie Nicks down in the 80s and you did a great job defining her art in your reviews in the '00s and in this decade.  But, at the same time, there was enough of a backlash towards the sexism that the world had turned already.  With Melanie, you provided the context that no one wanted to provide.  I think that's the sort of thing you should feel really proud of.  I also loved how you reviewed Prince.  If it was a strong album, you sang his praises.  When he was off somewhere else, you said so.

Rebecca: One thing I'll especially praise Kat for is not confusing politics with music.  If she agreed with someone's politics that didn't mean she gave weak music a pass.  Too many reviews in the last decade have embraced bad music just because we were simpatico with the politics of the artist.

Stan: I like how she's taken on pop tarts.  Especially Justin Timberlake.  He acts like he overthrew Michael Jackson but he's nothing compared to Michael.  Hell, he's nothing compared to Tito Jackson. And I'll also applaud Kat especially for getting Janet Jackson's last album when so many reviewers seemed not to understand it.   And in terms of context, her series on Cher really provided context:

  • Cher's far from over
  • The 80s: Where Cher Proves Them All Wrong
  • Cher and the too far gone 70s
  • Cher's 60s recordings

  • Kat: I'm proud of that series.

    Elaine: I was reading this really bad book on CAA and in it Nancy and Ann Wilson are going on about how 2010 was their comeback and that it was the White House performing "Stairway to Heaven" in 2010.  I don't know what they were smoking.  2009 was their comeback and Kat was among many praising their album.

    Jess: When you look back on your reviews -- other than the ones we've already discussed in some form -- what stands out?

    Kat: I praised the Rolling Stones A BIGGER BANG but I wish I'd praised it more.  I loved it in 2005 but my love for that album has grown.  I really find it to be one of the classic albums from the groups.  I also praised Aretha Franklin's 2014 release but I don't think I praised it enough either.  It's an amazing album that I can't stop listening to.  I'm glad I wrote about Richie Havens, Etta James, Prince and Nina Simone before they passed away.

    Ty: In terms of providing context, I'd praise your review of Janis Ian's FOLK IS THE NEW BLACK. It's a great album.  But the thing that stands out was how I could grasp why she mattered beyond that album and what her career was because of your review.  That's true of a lot of them, to be clear.  But I had no idea who Janis Ian was before that album.  As we wind down, you had no idea, back in December 2004, that 12 years later, you'd still be writing about music did you?

    Kat: Hell no.  I thought I'd be done by now, easily.  No offense but I hope I'm not still at this in 12 more years.  It's been fun but it's been a long time.

    Betty: Do you have a musical memory that stands out from the last 12 years?

    Kat: A lot of great concerts -- mainly by Tori Amos who remains the best live artist.  Other than that? Going around the country with Wally, Ava and C.I. is a great deal of fun.  The first time I hear music is often via the car.  "Pawn It All," from Alicia's new album, for example, I heard that first in the car, no music, just Ava and C.I. singing it off the top of their heads.  Or Wally or C.I. will have a guitar in the car and start strumming something and we'll sing along.  One of my best memories was one of the coldest.  It was winter.  We were speaking to some groups on the eastern seaboard.  We were in a beachfront cabin, staying there, of a friend of C.I.'s.  It wasn't built for the winter.  You walked in the front door and stepped down into what was a long rectangle room, a kitchen and a living room, you then stepped further down and were in a living/media room and there was one bedroom behind that but we all crashed in the middle room -- the living/media room because it was in the middle with two walls not exposed to the outside.  The front door had big gaps where cold air poured through.  It was so cold.  But the next morning, when we got up, we had so much fun playing in the snow while we let the car warm up.  I can remember getting in the car and we were singing songs by the Hollies, the Mamas and the Papas, Joanna Newsom and a few others as we drove through these snow littered streets and roads.  Being from California, that was a really different kind of experience.

    Creative Commons License
    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
    Poll1 { display:none; }