“I feel like I muscled it into existence. I was the midwife to my own difficult birth in terms of this album,” says Kaia Kater, speaking about her upcoming release Grenades, an album that diverges creatively – instrumentally, lyrically, and emotionally – from her past work: “[It] was really driven from a place where I wanted to challenge myself,” she says.
A year ago, changes were afoot for Kater. Drawn to new sounds and art forms, she found herself abandoning the aesthetic of West Virginian music that defined her previous works. She wanted to write an entire album of original music, but knew that to do so, she needed to become a stronger writer. So she challenged herself to write, whether the muse appeared or not.
“I did a lot of journaling, a lot of sense writing,” says Kater. “I entered this place of trying to be ok with writing ‘bad’ songs. It was mostly lunging ahead even if I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”
What came next was surprising: Kater realized that in order to push forward, her go-to tool – a five-string clawhammer banjo used to write previous songs – had to be reconsidered.
“I wanted to describe the invasion from my father’s perspective as a child.”
“I was getting a little bored with my own interpretations of traditional music, or maybe just moving past them, in the same way I felt I was growing past the banjo as a songwriting tool,” says Kater. “I grew frustrated with the fact that every time I hopped on the banjo, it felt like the same evocations were coming out. And they were nice. I could have filled an album with those songs, but I wanted something different, another feeling, and another palette out of the songs.” It was her guitar and electric piano that provided the shift she needed.
The next step: explore! With the assistance of a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Kater ventured off on a solo trip to the island of Grenada. Raised by a Québecois mother and a Grenadian father, Kater had not visited the island since she was a child, but was now compelled to make the journey. Months before, sensing that Grenada would yield significant power on the album, she spent Christmas learning about her father’s youth, and the 1983 American invasion of Grenada that changed his life.
“I wanted to record my dad talking about it,” says Kater. “My mom actually told me a lot of stories, [but] he never really talked about it. I started asking him, ‘What is your story?’ It was really emotional. The album title, based on the song ‘Grenades,’ is a play on Grenada. There were no grenades dropped in Grenada, it has nothing to do with that, [it’s] this idea about explosion and war. I wanted to describe the invasion from my father’s perspective as a child. The first line: ‘Surf the waves now, taste the metal on your tongue/March the dogs of war into the sun.’ It’s the idea of this beautiful, incredibly fertile island and then, just like, guns and metal and war, and what that does to a child.” Armed with her father’s poignant stories, Kater was off to his ancestral land. Once on the small island, she immersed herself in what she calls “regular days,” rather than weeks filled with beaches and scuba diving. The time there reverberates throughout the album: from the old film photos of the island in its artwork, to colourful expressions like “beat the water” in its lyrics.
The evocative “Meridian Ground” is especially potent. It’s imbued with the stories of her great-great aunt, found deceased in her bed with a joyous smile upon her face, and an uncle who as a child swam out onto the docks where massive cruise ships landed, terrifying tourists with the sight of his small body appearing out of deep waves. It reveals stirring poetic power. The song is reminiscent of the subversive works of Dominica-born British author Jean Rhys, whose 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea – an anti-colonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre – gave voice to the untold story of Eyre’s antagonist, the “mad woman in the attic.” Here, Kater uses her father, via plainly woven interludes, to voice a history long silenced.
“La Misère,” is another stunning song, loosely inspired by the island. Signed to Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Recordings label, Kater visited their exhaustive archives in Washington, DC, hoping to find a song from Grenada. Shifting through their catalogues, she discovered one from the village of Boca, a field recording taken in 1957 by anthropologist/label head Emory Cook. Inspired, she recorded the melody and wrote new lyrics to it, creating a French lullaby with a sound that belies its sadness. In some ways, it sums up the very water that Grenades wades through: how to keep thriving in spite of life’s inescapable struggles.
“I’m alluding to dancing, or moving, despite your broken limbs,” says Kater of “La Misère.” “Being able to push yourself emotionally, or put something into the world, despite how you feel you might be fractured, or broken.”It’s a challenge she captures beautifully.