The songs on the latest album, Bones Will Last, from Portland singer/songwriter Kathryn Claire exude gorgeous melancholia through violin and strings-based arrangements. Lovely, bold chamber/folk music. The opening track reminded me of the heartbreaking violin melodies played by a character on the television show Treme. Meaningful, profound lyrics delve into existentialism and our place in the world. Just the type of songs to which I most connect. Claire’s deep vocals combine with exquisite layered orchestrations. These dark, provocative, thoughtful songs engage the listener and elicit deep emotions. Claire collaborated with Portland musicians Zak Borden (mandolin), Allen Hunter (upright bass), and Don Henson (piano) on this album.
I spoke with Kathryn Claire by phone last week.
Amy Steele: What do you like about the Portland music community?
Kathryn Claire: So many people are playing music. A lot of people are based out of here and touring extensively. It’s great when I am home because it’s such a thriving scene. It’s a great place to write, perform and record. and be inspired. I love it when I’m out in the world because people are aware of Portland and in the last ten years it has become a popular well-known city. It’s cool to be from Portland. I’m proud of the scene we have here.
Amy Steele: When did you develop an interest in playing music and in songwriting? I think you had some classical training when you were younger
Kathryn Claire: I’ve always been drawn to music and have been very musical from a young age. There was a lot of music in my family growing up. I’m the first person in my family to be a professional musician. My mom was a public school music teacher. My father was a gypsy jazz violinist as a hobby so that is what got me into that instrument. I started studying violin at the age of seven and singing in choirs. I taught myself guitar as a teenager and I started writing. I’ve always been a journal writer and a creative writer. I can’t remember my life without music in it. It is always a vital part of my life. It developed into something that I now do as a career.
Amy Steele: Have you always been a solo artist?
Kathryn Claire: I’ve always enjoyed collaborating. My career has been interesting. Part of what has allowed me to do this full time, to make a living, is that I’ve worked as a side person a lot. The violin is a versatile instrument in that way. I read music. I also have a really strong background in harmony singing. I’ve been hired by a lot of groups and to sing with other singer/songwriters. I like playing solo but I love having a few different instruments and sounds to work with and the energy for collaborating has always been inspiring to me.
Amy Steele: How did the (music) experience you had, working on other people’s projects, help with your own?
Kathryn Claire: I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve put out solo albums but this album has been huge for me. It really is my own. I’m totally fronting it. I wrote everything on it. It was my vision. I made all the decisions. I didn’t even work with a producer. I had this vision that evolved. It was my own and my own voice. I feel that the way I arrived at such a clear place was from working as a side-person for so long because I really have developed an ear in how to accompany other people. I have developed my own clear voice as far as being a side-person and I’ve developed a good ear for listening. I took a lot from other people and I’ve been influenced by my classical upbringing. I’ve played a ton of Celtic music. I’ve played with amazing songwriters. I’ve played in a rock band. I think that gave me an eclectic base and I synthesized that into this album. I feel like it’s a unique sound, totally my own, but inspired by all this work I’ve done with other people.
Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?
Kathryn Claire: Lyrically I tend to like it when you have a personal connection to the imagery and poetry of the connection. You’re writing from something that’s touched your heart but you’re not overly explicit so it allows the listener to make their own connection to the words and images that’s completely their own. I tried to be specific and close to me but letting there be openness to it so there can be some universality.
I think over time I’ve learned how to edit. Not trying to cram in so many words. Editing down so there’s a bit more simplicity in it. I’ve come to value that in a song.
Amy Steele: It seems that a lot of the songs are sad and a bit darker. Is it an outlet or your general mood and temperament? I listen to a lot of dark music but I think I’m very dark and gravitate towards that music. I was wondering what draws you to make that type of music.
Kathryn Claire: I definitely do have a darkness or a pensive side to me but as a performer I have a lot of energy and joy on stage and I really do feel that in my own life. I have a more positive and joyful energy. This music has been a way for me to express sadness and melancholy. The world is really beautiful and really sad. I tend to be compelled especially on this album in tapping into that darker nature in myself and in the world. I put the violin at the center of the album in the sound –it’s a violin/strings-centric album—and the violin has a deep sad melancholy to it as well. I tend toward darker music. I like minor keys. I like haunting melodies. I can get behind a major up-tempo song but my heart is really with the darker music.
Amy Steele: The song “Bones Will Last” you wrote about thinking about death and dying. How did you write that?
Kathryn Claire: It’s a really personal song that I initially wrote reflecting upon a loved one. The chorus got written a little bit later. I was just thinking of that image –“we’ll be gone but our bones will last.” The passing of timed. The ephemeral nature of life. That was central to what I’ve been thinking about. I’ve been thinking about death a lot and trying to be present while I’m here. I’ve had a lot of people pass away. Not just grandmas and grandpas but people my own age. You never know when it’s our time. In holding that and looking at that I think what are those things that last? That we leave behind? What are the bones of who we are? It became the theme of the album overall.
Amy Steele: What about the song “Sweet Chariot?” What inspired that song?
Kathryn Claire: One of the famous cemeteries in Paris where Jim Morrison was buried [Père Lachaise Cemetery]. I was in Paris in the fall of 2013 walking through that cemetery just reflecting on all these people that have gone before us. In the end that’s where we all go. The first verse of “Sweet Chariot came”—when I was imagining Jim Morrison. What would it look like to see his skeleton? Just ruminating on our bones. I wrote that first verse there and worked on that song for over a couple of years. I got to be in India doing some work [artist-in-residence at the American School of Chennai in 2015] there and I finished some more there. I wrote it in my journal and I’d sit with it and find a melody for it. I’m also grateful for our iPhones because I can collect these little pieces. That first verse felt like it came though me. It’s an interesting song and people have responded to it on such a deep level.
Amy Steele: What about the song “Never Be?”
Kathryn Claire: That is such a heartbreaking song. That was a breakup song. That one I wrote super fast. I was looking at this person I’d gone through a difficult breakup with. I’d seen some stuff on social media. You see images you don’t want to see. Unfortunately these are aspects of our time. Breaking up is even harder because you have all this access to people’s lives. I wrote the whole thing in a sitting.
I started playing around with my violin and a little loop pedal and that’s where I came up with the actual orchestration of that song. It starts with the pizzicato. It’s so strings-central. That was built on this loop pedal. Everything on that track is me. I’m playing the guitar and the violin and there’s no other person on that track. In the end I love that song so much.
Amy Steele: Over the years how has your music evolved?
Kathryn Claire: As a writer I have become a better editor. I went to Boston University for my freshman year and that’s when I got into writing and going to Club Passim and hearing singer/songwriters. I wrote a lot that year in Boston but I never edited. The songs were like journal entries. I’m now able to write a lot more universally. My voice is deeper and relaxed. My voice sounds like is has dropped into itself. It’s settled. The orchestration of the violin has evolved and grown and changed. I’ve just gotten to be such a better musician by playing with other people.
Amy Steele: Aren’t there fewer music programs in schools now? I played the violin and then I played flute. I didn’t continue it because in my high school it was required that you play in the marching band and I rode horses and it conflicted and also I just didn’t want to play in the marching band. Music and arts are so important in public schools.
Kathryn Claire: I will continue to do work in that direction throughout the course of my career. I believe in music education. We had such a killer music program in Eugene, Oregon. I grew up in the 80s and 90s. In that era you could join orchestra in fourth grade and by the time you’re in high school you’re playing symphonies with your friends. That was normal.
It becomes this elitist thing. Portland is cool to have these alternative programs. I’m grateful to have done that basic classical training.
Amy Steele: What type of challenges have you faced as being a woman in the music industry? I listen to a lot of female artists. I try to support women in music and all arts. women are still not the majority.
Kathryn Claire: It is challenging. The thing is like any work environment is still very male-centered. I get to collaborate with women but when I started out I played in a band and didn’t know how to set up a PA. It has been so important to me to work a PA, to know how to speak the lingo when you go into Guitar Center and there are all these dudes and they make you feel stupid because you don’t know what an XLR cord is. I went through the time to learn all the technological jargon to function. It was important to me to know it. I was talking to a female musician friend and I asked her if she knew of any well-known female music producers. In the studio I’ve never worked with a female engineer. These things make you realize that the music industry is really still male-dominated.
Amy Steele: I’m curious how many women study the business side of music/ the production side of music at Berklee or other schools. [note: Fader piece: Why Aren’t More Women Becoming Music Producers?]
Kathryn Claire: I’m in my late 30s. There probably is a lot of movement forward. I’m basing this on my experience as coming up in this 15 or 16 yrs ago. In that time it is changing but it is also women being able to shred and own it and front-women and to speak the language of music. I know for me in high school so many guys were in bands.
It can be intimidating and that’s where Girls Rock Bandcamp and other programs can get girls past that. I would have loved to have played in a rock band but I was intimidated. Where does that come from?
Amy Steele: our patriarchal society and assumed gender roles.
Bones Will Last is available now.