When Kellie Loder was 14, their (Loder uses gender-neutral pronouns) older cousin died in a car accident. Inspired by a poem a friend had written in his honour, Loder decided to try setting the words to music – and quickly found their calling. “I realized I could write songs,” they say. “From there it snowballed into me being a songwriter. I knew early on that I felt so much joy from writing songs.”

Raised in a religious household in rural Newfoundland, Loder, 32, used their writing to make sense of their world, including their own sexuality. “Being a closeted Christian person who grew up in a very strict Christian home, it was my only outlet,” they say.

At the same time, however, Loder’s spiritual and musical worlds were deeply connected: as a two-year-old, they learned rhythm from banging on church pews during church services, and by 10 they were playing drums in the church band: “That’s basically where I learned to play music.”

“Whatever my music is, that’s what my life is”

So, when it came to a direction for their first records, Loder, who was by then studying nursing, turned to what they knew. “I listened to a lot of worship music, and I was passionate about my spirituality… I just wanted to sing about it,” they say. They were nominated as Female Artist of the Year at the 2010 MusicNL Awards, and as Gospel Artist of the Year in 2011, with their sophomore album, Imperfections & Directions, nominated for Contemporary Christian/Gospel Album of the Year at the 2012 JUNO Awards.

But after that success, what followed for Loder was a period of introspection – and a decision to step away from their music career for a period. “I was trying to find myself,” they say. “I did a lot of soul-searching and a lot of writing.”

In 2015, they headed back to school to study music performance, connecting with classmate Daniel Adams, an aspiring producer. The pair began collaborating, producing Loder’s song  “Boxes,” which won MusicNL’s Video of the Year in 2017. More recently, the duo worked together to produce Loder’s 2019 tune “Fearless,” which was used in the trailer for IMAX film Superpower Dogs, narrated by Captain America’s Chris Evans.

Now dividing their time between St. John’s and Toronto, Loder – who’s shared stages with Steven Page, Stephen Fearing and Alan Doyle – is excited about the possibility of doing more writing for film, as well as for other performers. And while still deeply spiritual, they’re also intent on establishing a career outside of the genre constraints of those early albums.

“The problem with identifying as a Christian artist is that it pigeonholed me to only reach a certain audience, and that was hard,” they say. Instead, Loder wants to focus on saying what they need to say with their music, and to avoid the labels – just as they’re doing with their gender identity.

In their 2018 tune “Molded Like a Monster,” for example, Loder explores the pain of being born into a world where you don’t feel you fit, and about what might happen if love were allowed to triumph over hate: Singin’ oh my goodness / We are more the same than different / Cut the noise / Oh crack the code / Break the mold.

For Loder, making music is still the most immediate way they have to make sense of their world.

“Whatever my music is, that’s what my life is; or what my life is, that’s what my music is,” they say with a laugh. “My truest form of art is just me and a guitar. I feel the most whole and alive when I sing songs like that, when I present my songs the way they were written. That’s when the true Kellie comes out.”