Kaia Kater: A Portrait of a Young Quebecalachian

Jun 3, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Tyler Childers to The World is a Beautiful Place..., The Sea The Sea to Qiet and beyond.  But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is coming up (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.

And today, we are chatting with recent Davis & Elkins College graduate Kaia Kater, a singer-songwriter who traveled from Quebec to West Virginia nearly four years ago to learn more about Appalachia's old-time music and culture. We sat down with Kaia in our Charleston studios to talk about her musical journey, her love of bluegrass and R&B, and her recent feature from Rolling Stone magazine.

Kaia Kater's newest release is Nine Pin, now available for purchase, download, and streaming. You can hear more of her music on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVMusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.

Interview Highlights

On being from Canada:

I’m from Montreal, Quebec. I grew up there for most of my life. Then I spent a little bit of time in Winnipeg, Manitoba. And I’m currently based in Toronto, Ontario.

It’s funny because I had very little appreciation for Canada until I left Canada. And then I was like, “Wow… things are pretty ok in Canada!” And so I think, living home was probably the best thing because now I have more of an appreciation for my country.

On falling in love with old-time music at a young age:

Actually my grandpa is a luthier. He used to build harpsichords and guitars, but he cut some of his thumb off in 2013… he’s ok! [Laughing] But I think that sort of cut his career short, but he was retiring anyway. At family gatherings and Christmases and birthdays, we would always gather around and have a kitchen party where we would play tunes. And it was always really exciting for me because it was the time I could stay up past my bedtime to listen to people sing and play. And sometimes I would just fall asleep listening to people singing. It was just really special for me.

I got into old-time music in a really odd way. My mom fell in love with bluegrass music when I was eight. And she was like, “Ok. We’re going to go to a bluegrass festival now!” So I just got carried along, and registration was free if you were under 11. It was actually Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill [in New York], and they ran this Bluegrass Academy for Kids. It’s a really successful program, but at the beginning, it was basically [where] parents could drop off their kids at 9am and pick them up at 3pm and during that time, you would pick either banjo, bass, fiddle or violin. You would bring your own instrument, and all of these kids from 8- to 11-years-of-age would just hang around and learn how to play bluegrass music.

So I tried all of the different instruments. I tried fiddle and bass, and then I settled on the banjo. And I was determined to be a bluegrass banjo player, and somehow old-time swooped in like a hawk and picked me up, so I switched to clawhammer. And I think it’s because a lot of the teachers around me at home were clawhammer players and influenced me that way.

On becoming a professional musician:

You know when you discover your passion is when you trudge through your daily activities and chores and classes, and then at the end of the night, you’re like, “Ok. What do I really want to be doing?” And that was playing music for me.

And I think I was scared because I had seen a lot of musicians around me deal with touring. My mom was the executive director of the Ottowa Folk Festival and the Winnipeg Folk Festival. So a lot of musicians crashed at our house and hung out, and I think it was a really interesting education for me because I did see the darker side of touring, which is not being able to see your family. And some folks had drinking problems (not anything that was overwhelming, but it was a different way of life). And I think I was apprehensive about that, but there is a way to tour in a healthy way, I think. 

Quebecer singer-songwriter Kaia Kater.
Credit Susan Bibeau - Beehive Productions

On deciding on West Virginia for old-time music education:

I had been going to a lot of old-time camps. I went to the Swannanoa Gathering outside of Asheville [in North Carolina], which is a little slice of heaven to spend a week to play clawhammer banjo and living in this community who are nerding out as much as you are. [Laughing] Like “I never want to go back to the outside world!” So I went there twice, and it was really my first introduction to the Southern United States because the furthest I had been was New York State.

I had actually wanted to go to Warren Wilson [College in Asheville, North Carolina] for the longest time, which is the location of the Swannanoa Gathering. It’s funny. I remember the exact moment I clicked on their website, wondering what their tuition was. And it was $42,000 a year or something. And I thought, “What?! Is that even possible?” I took a year off of school, and I didn’t expect to be going to school because I didn’t feel like anything interested me enough and the programs that did interest me, I couldn’t really afford. And I was ok with that. I just played a lot of music out in Montreal.

I casually applied to the Augusta Heritage Center, which is where Davis & Elkins College is. And I got this Facebook message from this guy named Jerry Milnes, who’s quite well-known. At first I thought it was spam. “Who is this person contacting me, offering me free college tuition to go to a school in Appalachia. Are they messing with me? Do they know my deepest dream somehow? [Laughing] Luckily I read through the whole thing, and I called him. My family and I went down exactly four years ago, we checked it out, and I loved it, and they offered me a financial package that made it so that I wouldn’t have to pay $42,000 a year. And the rest is history.

On the meaning behind Nine Pin, her latest release:

It’s named after a particular square dance formation where you have eight people (four couples) and in the middle you have one person, which what makes it a nine pin, and you dance around it. To me, it’s one of the most fun because everybody swings, and then everyone holds hands and dances around the nine pin, and then the caller says something like, “Break,” and basically the nine pin has to try and find a partner. And whoever doesn’t find a partner becomes the new nine pin. So it’s almost like musical chairs.

I started doing a lot more songwriting in my junior year of college, and I was thinking a lot about those formations and the deeper symbolism of being one person surrounded by a lot of people swirling around you (in both good and bad ways).

On her last four years at Davis & Elkins’ Augusta Heritage Center:

In many ways, it was a really beautiful experience. I was not even from this country, and I had so many people offer to have me over to their house for dinner. I don’t have a car, so I had a lot of people say, “Do you need me to take you to Kroger or Wal-Mart?” So I was met with a lot of warmth, and I think that made all the difference for me because there’s a certain amount of challenge moving to a new place and a new school.

There was a certain amount of what I call “ugly face crying,” which is when you cry so hard, your entire face turns red from sobbing and your snotting over yourself. So there was a fair amount of that from the experience of doing that for the first time. But at the end of the day, I settled into a routine, as you do. At the end of the four years, I wouldn’t be the same artist, I wouldn’t release the same music if I hadn’t spent these last four years here because I knew old-time music, and I was good at playing tunes, but I don’t think I understood the communities behind the music or the stories behind the music.  And that takes time. That just takes time.

On her recent inclusion in Rolling Stone’s recent 10 New Country Artists You Need to Know:

My publicist Devon Leger told me, “Listen I pitched your album [Nine Pin] to Rolling Stone, but I don’t know if they’re going to pick it up because they must have people flinging albums at them left and right.” [Laughing] And then all of a sudden, I get this frantic message from him and he’s like, “I need you to answer these four questions… it’s for a certain journalist.” I was like, “Ok...” So I answer them, sent them back. And he said, “That was for Rolling Stone!”

Last May, Kaia Kater was listed as one of the best new artists to watch by Rolling Stone magazine.
Credit Polina Mourzina

So we knew they were going to say something about it, but we didn’t know that they would have such kind words about it. I felt totally honored and excited that more people would be hearing the album.

I almost peed my pants when they said I sounded like Gillian Welch. [Laughing] I was like, “Really? She’s my idol!” If I could have a shrine to Gillian Welch in my house, I probably would.

On advice to folks looking to pursue old-time music in West Virginia:

Go for it. Literally nothing bad can come of it. Classical music, you just have to sit in a room and practice and do scales and scales and scales. But with old-time music, you just find someone, play banjo and fiddle tunes for an hour, and you’ve gotten better at your instrument and having fun at the same time.

Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:

Kaia Kater- "Saint Elizabeth"

Kaia Kater- "Nine Pin"

Kaia Kater- "Paradise Fell"

Kais Kater- "To Come"