Knowing oneself is hard enough, so imagine growing up with the long winters and early sunsets of Toronto while half your roots are on a tropical spice island 12 degrees north of the Equator. That’s part of Kaia Kater’s complex story, but clearly deeper issues than climate are on the mind of the Canadian folk singer as she peers out from palmy greenery on the cover of Grenades, her third album in a fast-moving career.
“I wrote these refrains through the fog of a search for identity and belonging,” Kater writes in liner notes for the project. There, and in the interview presented here, she talks about some landmarks on that journey. Her father Dino fled his home on the island nation of Grenada in the wake of the 1983 invasion by the United States when President Ronald Reagan grew alarmed that it was becoming a Soviet/Cuban military stronghold. He was fourteen.
On the album, we hear a few of Dino’s Grenada memories from a taped interview as spoken word interludes. But mostly we hear music of rare precision and vision from his 25-year-old daughter. There are passages of woozy folk poetry punctuated by crisp pop choruses with background vocals and heady pedal steel guitar. She sings an a capella love song in “Hydrants.” She lends original French lyrics to the traditional “La Misere” done in Calypso style.
Most conspicuous though is an embrace of the luxuriousness of language. Kater is an artist who hopes you’ll sit with her lyrics and contemplate rather than demand impatiently that a message be spelled out. Her lead single “New Colossus,” a riff on the Emma Lazarus poem of that title at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, includes lyrics such as: “Every tortured day a praying mantis green / Every hiss from you a glimpse into the creep.” That’s not exactly “If I Had A Hammer,” but in our conversation, Kater says that same anthemic pride and passion is in there: “It’s a song to me that encompasses the anger and this kind of ferocious presence that I feel women can have, especially reflected in that statue.”
Grenades marks growth and change from her first two albums, which were more specifically trad and banjo driven. Those recordings and her assured but subtle stage presence got the attention of John Smith, associate director of Smithsonian Folkways Records. Though getting signed to that venerable and important label didn’t come with restrictions on what she ought to do next.
“For 25 years old she’s very worldly. She’s seen a lot and she’s got a lot to teach and to offer people,” Smith says. “It’s just such a pleasure to see someone that focused and deliberate telling (her) story and having the talent as a songwriter that Kaia does. She’s phenomenal and it’s hard not to want to share that with the rest of the world.”
Kater also fascinates with her stature as one of a handful of artists of color adopting the banjo as a primary instrument and Appalachian balladry as an important influence. She recalls how the Carolina Chocolate Drops helped accelerate that trajectory. “I was maybe 13 or 14 and I still remember the buzz of people freaking out” she says in our talk. “People were freaking about how truly crazy it was to see three black Americans who were in their early 20s playing this music that was not only considered to be backwards but also considered to be white. That was an interesting revelation for me and the beginning of me sort of giving myself permission to like the music that I like.”
Today Kater has the support of Chocolate Drops alum Rhiannon Giddens and many more besides.