19 Sep 2020
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Kate Owen - Interview with Kate Owen

04 Sep 2020 // An interview by Mike Alexander

It’s been said that extra-ordinary people are simply ordinary people who put the extra into whatever they do. Kate Owen certainly fits that description. The Lyttelton-based songwriter converted a treasure trove of poetry into the sublime Not A Proper Girl. And when Covid-19 stalled her album release tour, she found an ingenious work-around by creating a series of short films based around each track. Mike Alexander from Muzic.net.nz caught up with her ahead of the release of Behind The Songs, which premiers on September 14.

I gather you have been based in Lyttelton since 2009. It’s been through a lot in the last decade plus one, with two major earthquakes, the mosque shootings and, of course, like the rest of the country, Covid-19. How have those events impacted on your perspective on life?

Yes, very much so. The earthquakes taught me that nothing is certain. Nothing is stable. I grew up in a very unstable environment emotionally but I never knew the earth would move like it did from 2011. It also gave me a huge appreciation for simple things like housing, water and electricity. And then there were the highs and lows of communities rallying together to rescue things – buildings, businesses and even marriages. Ultimately, I have learnt that sometimes desperately trying to save something and get it back to how it was is not always the right answer. I’ve learnt that destruction can bring out the best and the worst in people… sometimes the worst is yet to come … and sometimes we should just let things fall down.

Strangely enough, I still don’t think the mosque shootings have sunk in. It’s like my brain can’t really comprehend that kind of violence. I know my heart jumps into my throat every time I hear the survivors talk on the radio. But I think, on some level, I have blocked out the horror of it all. It still feels, on some level, that it happened on TV. The earthquakes everyone felt. The bullets only hit a discrete group of worshipers. So how has it affected my perspective on life? It has simply reinforced that safety as much as danger is never guaranteed. That we simply don’t know what is around the corner and that there is madness and hatred everywhere.

Your bio says you were born Kate Anastasiou into a Greek/Romanian community. Both cultures have rich musical histories. Were you exposed to music at an early age?

Ha! I know! An interesting fun fact is that when my family were refugees here in 1956 they created their own dance halls and theatres because they missed it so much. I don’t remember Greek or Rumanian music much at all. Mum (who wasn’t Greek, she was Kiwi Aussie) and Dad were your classic baby boomers and played all the classics from their generation – The Beatles, The Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy … oh and they loved Roberta Flack and Barbara Streisand! My sister and I would lip sync a lot to our Grease record (fighting about who got to be Sandy … I was invariably Danny Zuko.)

I remember loving the record player, and dancing around a lot (especially to our Fame (Irene Cara) record. But we only had a few records, so they all got repeated over and over again. As music got more accessible Dad did start playing a lot more "world" music but I don’t remember specifically a lot of Greek music. Dad also kept us quite separate from the Greek community. I think that’s common more for immigrants as they establish themselves. I didn’t go to Greek church or Greek school like a lot of the other Greek kids. I don’t speak Greek either. But something must have got in because I love fado and flamenco and Bulgarian choral music … and so much more. I travelled to Portugal a few years back and trawled the fado clubs, went to Bulgaria and saw the mystics choir and to Spain to see flamenco. Was amazing! I also love gypsy music. Have you heard Yurt Party from Christchurch? They are an amazing group playing this style. They even do a cover of Teardrop! I’m fascinated with other vocal traditions, and how flamenco and fado female singers sing so much lower.

Have you travelled much and if so what’s your favourite memory. If not, is there a place your heart is drawn to?

Ha! Think I answered that a bit above. Portugal. That’s where I feel drawn. I met a wonderful fado singer, Katia Leonardo, in Lisbon a few years back and she gave me a few fado singing lessons while I was there and we became friends. I’m so very drawn, unsurprisingly to Europe. God, I hope we can travel again! My favourite memory is when I met my friend Tui Mamaki (Mamaku Project) in Sofia (Bulgaria) and she took me to see Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares in Sozopol. I even got to see the dress rehearsal. She took me on this amazing road trip from Sofia to the mountains (music festival) then to the Black Sea then to Sozopol, then back through Plovdiv where she had studied. I remember her pointing at the mountains and saying, ‘Romania is just over there’. Oh my god! The pink tomatoes, the food and the villages and the people. What a magical untouched place Bulgaria is. I was very lucky for her to share it with me. She had been there studying Bulgarian choral music for three years.

You get into an argument. Does your heart or head rule?

It depends how afraid of my opponent I am. I would say my heart rules but if I don’t feel safe with the person I will pretend I am in control and you would be forgiven for thinking my head was in charge.

Your debut album Not A Proper Girl is lyrically very poetic. Do you have any favourite poets or poems?

"you tell me
I am not like most girls
and learn to kiss me with your eyes closed
something about the phrase - something about
how I have to be unlike the women
I call sisters in order to be wanted
makes me want to spit your tongue out
like I am supposed to be proud you picked me
as if I should be relieved you think
I’m better than them"

Rupi Kaur

Look at me,

he said

your scars are not your shame

they are your story

he smiled

and I love stories

Atticus

You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens.

Rumi

Andy Coyle (Lyttelton). I can’t find his poems online. Here are his books and here he is reading my lyrics from Lullaby as a poem.

Although the album title is almost self-explanatory, what is the emotional statement of intent behind it?

Not A Proper Girl is not a commentary on gender or sexuality. It’s about not fitting, not fitting in. All the expectations I have of myself, and that the world has of me. It’s about that. Especially, as a childless, un-married woman. Did you notice my record label I called it SPIN STIR’ … hee, hee, hee. An unmarried woman of a certain age with no children.

I really feel that women in society STILL sit on the outside if they are not with someone and if they don’t have children. Well that has been my experience. But I also realise that is part of my conditioning from the patriarchal Greek culture I was brought up around.

Not a Proper Girl could be taken as self-depreciating or a ‘fuck you’ statement. Sometimes it’s one. Sometimes it’s another.

Ultimately I don’t know if we should be proper. How we have always been ... especially in relationship to nature. So, I like that I have found a new way to define myself. Not Proper.

Living in Lytellton, I imagine it’s hard not to know who producer Ben Edwards is and where The Sitting Room is? How did you two meet?

Ben Edwards. What a privilege to know that man. I guess I knew about him by reputation as a producer through both my networks and the media. But to be honest I wasn’t confident he would want to work with me. I never felt much part of the Lyttelton originals scene because I made most of my income playing covers. And Christchurch is very tribal. If you don’t know people from school you don’t really get past chats at gigs. Not that they aren’t great chats! And I would say the musical community here is supportive.

So, funny story. Ben said to me, and I’ll never forget this. (You see, I had a habit for a while of being obsessed about being too late/too old to record). And Ben said: "I want to work with you not despite your age, but because of your age. I want to hear what a woman your age writes about".

I can’t really remember meeting Ben before we started working together. But I’m sure I did cause it’s Lyttelton! I might not have known who he was.

Did the songs on the album evolve more fully in the studio or were they pretty much complete on arrival?

I demo’ed everything in Garageband. My demos were track-laid with live vocals and guitar but midi drums, bass, synth and strings. A lot stayed. Ben refined things, especially tempos and keys. And he works a lot on improving lyrics and phrasing. He also makes the arrangements more interesting with chord substitutions. He knows how to make a song keep its dynamics.

The song that did change was Clean. Ben stripped that right back to just keys and vocals. We even kept some of the midi guitar and synth from the demos.

But the musicians. They were the real surprise, the way they elevated everything in my eyes. Ben is amazing at focusing people and pushing them to do better, do more, do less. Whatever is needed. It’s pretty exciting that that energy can be captured in a recording.

A planned album release tour was cut short by the lockdown. You haven’t been idle though and through a CNZ arts community grant, have created short films to accompany each of the songs on the album. Can you talk us through this project?

One of the coolest thing about gigging live is that you get to connect face to face with people – tell the stories behind the songs and let them see who you really are. I knew that video was going to be the way musicians connected during Covid times. But live-to-airs can only go so far with story-telling.

I was a video editor for about nine years and knew how to tell stories with pictures. So, I wanted to see if I could let people in behind the songs and get close to me with video, using the story telling I know how to do from my time in film and TV. I wanted to use cinematic techniques for the story telling. I’m no DOP so I guess it’s more through the cutting I can do it.

So, I’ve made 12 short films – one for each track on the album. All of it is shot in Mapua where I did lockdown. *The footage and IV from Mapua is intercut with archival footage from creative commons websites, live performances and photos from my years of playing. My website is designed to be video-centric, also relying on those cinematic devices to break down the walls and distance we all feel at the moment.

I applied for the CNZ grant while in lockdown and when I got it, it was like, ‘oh! Now I have to do this!’ I have an amazing team – Emma Dilemma and Katie Thompson (both kick-ass musicians in their own right) for website and online marketing and Leanda Borrett is doing publicity. That has been a game-changer and CNZ funding has made having a team as well as the films possible. Up until now, I have done everything myself, apart from distribution (Southbound).

*I was living in my studio in Lyttelton at the time. It had no toilet, running water or kitchen. I wasn’t’ supposed to be sleeping there FYI and had had to find somewhere to live and a holiday home was easier to get than a residential rental.

When life gets difficult what keeps you motivated, enthusiastic and inspired?

Workaholism and a fear of old age and death – and a splash of white middle class entitlement. I want to make things. I want to do things. I want to see things. I want to experience things. That drive just seems to have always been there. Life has always been difficult, so I guess I have just learnt to use that energy to create. I want to live. Even when my chronic pain syndrome was super bad in 2017-2019 I just wanted to squeeze the stuff out of life. So, I travelled. It was like, ‘ok so I might have MS, so best I see the world before my legs drop off’. Now that Covid has happened, I’m so glad I did!

As a performer do you prefer small intimate shows or more expansive spaces?

I don’t know because I have always played intimate shows. I’d love to try an expansive space but with a band. I love my touring band – Thomas Isbister (drums) Moses Robbins (guitar) Kurt Preston (bass) – but I did the album preview show for album donors with an eight-piece band, where I added violin, backing vocals , keys and a second guitar to the touring band. It was epic. I would love to do more of that. So, I guess expansive band means expansive space!

It’s increasingly becoming a digital/virtual world on so many levels. How have you had to adapt as an artist?

I’ve had to think a lot about flexibility and closeness. How can I get closer to people online and how can I find the energy to book gigs that will often be cancelled and have online alternatives. I am hoping to tour in October but have booked a live recording with Alex Harmer with my band in Christchurch so that if the Auckland and Wellington shows are cancelled I can push out a live show online.

What’s the most inspiring thing anyone has ever said to you?

Man, this is hard. I don’t think I know. I think I am more inspired by lyrics and poems. But I do love Ghandi’s "Be the change you want to see in the world"…but he didn’t really say that to me.

You have the power to change any one thing in the world. What would you do?

I would change the way we treat animals and nature. I would change our technological focus from feeding the capitalist profit model to one that does not put people over and above nature. We have the technology to change. We just need to change our hearts and minds.

Get the 'behind the songs' short films here

 

About Kate Owen

A singer with a poetic, restrained intensity, Kate Owen has been song-writing for twenty years and performing live for a decade, but until now has never recorded an album. Her sound ranges from stripped-back laments to 90’s pop anthems. Her debut album Not A Proper Girl showcases Owen’s songs with rich textures including synth and strings, and strong rhythmic pulses from live kits and drums machines. Owen lives in Lyttelton.




Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Kate Owen

Releases

Not A Proper Girl
Year: 2020
Type: Album
Buy Online @ Mightyape

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