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Kah - The IndieLondon interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

London-based electronica singer Kah talks exclusively to IndieLondon about some of the inspirations behind her debut album, More Than Dawn, as well as the creative process behind the development of her music.

She also talks about how her career is shaping up, why she likes to include poetry as part of her live music experience and which songs she’s inspired by and listening to at the moment.

Q. We think you’re debut album is amazing! How long did it take to put together?
Kah: Hey. Thank you so much for your review. It’s very special to me … so glad you like the album. It has been a long time in the making … about five years! Mainly because I had a child which slowed things down a bit … it’s hard to write an album when you are so tired you barely know what day it is. But I think the album is better for having taken longer to complete. It contains much more than it would otherwise have done, both musically and emotionally.

Q. What inspired a track like Fugitive, which has some dark lyrics?
Kah: Ha ha. That’s quite funny because I actually wrote Fugitive in the bath! I had run home in a hailstorm and as I was running some of the lines came to me. I think the rhythmic, almost spoken word lines of the middle section were the first bits that came and they came in that way I think because I was running. I was running so hard and relentlessly pushing through pain barriers that I felt as if I was on the run from something or someone and that’s how the Fugitive idea dropped into my head. It’s a very physical song I think. But almost all of it was written in the bath after I got home all frozen from being out in a freakish summer hailstorm with no coat on.

Q. Kite is a really great track and a nice contrast – again, can we ask what inspired it?
Kah: Ah, yes. No hailstorms in this song! All April blue skies and breezes. I wanted to write something beautiful and positive. I think that Kite is basically inspired by the idea of a truly loving relationship … not that I have had one of those to be honest. But I have had moments where I have thought it may be possible. I think that is why the song, although beautiful, is also so wistful. Lines like “I’m earthbound, my love/ I never wanted it to be this way” are there as a kind of memento of my shortcomings as a person, my difficulties with love and the complexities of life, which make having a truly loving relationship so difficult.

Q. And likewise November Song, which we think serves as a lovely companion piece to July Song – what inspired those; did one inspire the other?
Kah: Hmm. November Song came first. That was inspired by one of the darkest nights of my life when I felt totally empty and completely alone. As if I had come to the end of myself and of my world … come to a place where even the idea of dawn, of a new day, is not enough to live for.

July Song is the complete opposite. A song written in a place where you wake up happy, full of hope and every dawn is something to be embraced. It’s written about being young really… that sense of the summer holidays, of the days stretching out before you… of the promise there is in life. Or… to put it another less delicate but very powerful way, November was the month my dad died and July was the month my son was born. They fit together like that also.

But I actually have a quite pretentious and until now secret idea that I will eventually release an album that has 12 tracks on it – one for each month of the year – and that this will be a kind of “greatest hits” type thing! I have already written a song called Christmas Eve and am working on both a Valentine’s Day B-side for that song and also on a January Song, which will go on the next album. Tee Hee. It will be out in about three or four albums time … ha ha. You heard it here first! x

Q. You put so much of yourself into each song – from writing to singing to instrumentation – how long does each song take to create, or does it vary? And is wilfully wrong-footing listeners part of the pleasure of that process?
Kah: Each song is very different. Architect, for example, was a song that came almost complete in about three hours, as if it was hovering above my head and I just reached up, grabbed it’s coat tails and pulled it onto the notebook. It’s nice when that happens and always the initial ideas are like that but the making of a bigger song can take much longer. I average about a month of solid work per track to go from initial scribbled down idea to fully fledged beast with four beats, six vocal lines and orchestral tail.

Obviously, as I never get to work solidly on anything as there is always so much else to do, in real time it takes much longer than that. But the going away from the beast and coming back to feed it and check on it makes for a better song in the end I think.

Yes, you’re right, wrongfooting listeners is exactly what I like doing. In my own experience of listening to music I find that often the bits that throw me initially are the bits I end up liking the best. Also, in terms of an album, I wanted to make one that was more like going to 11 different places on a Tardis than one which is a logical journey or one which sets all its songs in the same atmosphere. Although I do have time for albums that do both of these things, I like the idea that the two second gap between songs is a quick journey through time and space and when the Tardis door opens just before the next song starts you never quite know what you are going to hear.

Q. Is your Macbook one of the most important devices at your disposal?
Kah: That’s an understatement. Quite simple really – without the Macbook Kah wouldn’t exist. She would be like Doctor Who without the Tardis. The Macbook is more than a tool to me… it’s like being in charge of a musical space ship… and, of course, most of the time I’m flying by the seat of my pants – but it’s a joy to be at the controls. I love my Mac and they are welcome to offer me an advertising contract anytime they like!


Q. What’s it like going out gigging and sharing your songs with a live audience? What kind of buzz does that create for you?
Kah: That is really where I come alive. Where I feel like I’m a real musician, whether I get paid or not, whether there is a huge audience or a handful of people. That doesn’t matter. Music is such a powerful communicator and playing live is where you see it at work in it’s most direct way. As I create on my own at home I would otherwise never see those moments where the music gets through to people… and those moments are really one of my primary reasons for being a musician, indeed for being at all.

Q. What made you decide to include poetry as part of each gig? You often write fresh poems before each show – your mind must be such a fertile place, your imagination so rich…
Kah: Well. The poetry actually came about because I felt uncomfortable talking in between songs. So, I thought I would tell a story or write a poem to do that job instead. The first gig I did with the pieces in between songs was nothing short of a revelation. For the first time I really felt like me when I performed… it was as if I had found the missing piece of my live jigsaw and I was now performing something complete. People’s reactions were extraordinary and so overwhelmingly positive that I knew I had come up with something that really worked.

The poetical pieces I read are written so that they end where the song starts, or they are a way into the song, or they tell one of the stories that lie behind the song. It’s as if each song is a rope made out of different strands of thread twisted together. Each piece is one of those threads and each song is made up of many threads, so someone coming to a gig will get a different thread of the song each time they hear it. I like that idea because it means that someone would really get something out of seeing me live as opposed to putting on the CD at home and it’s very important to me that that happens. Also, it means I get something new and fresh out of each performance as well and that helps me be a better live artist.

Q. Conversely, have you ever been stumped for a poem before a gig?
Kah: Nah. As you can maybe tell I am not often stuck for words! But these aren’t pieces which I scribble down on the train or in the bar beforehand! They are always about the song they introduce so I haven’t ever had to look hard to find a subject. I think that some people think that they are maybe random jottings as if I was a headteacher thinking of something to say in assembly whilst driving to school, but they are actually very focussed and deliberate pieces of work, even though they come to me very easily.

Q. You’ve been compared to artists such as Lykke Li and Bjork? How do such comparisons make you feel?
Kah: Tee Hee. Both of those ladies are artists I love so I am very happy with that. I’m especially happy to be compared to Bjork. She has been probably the biggest female musical influence on me. Her maverick nature and her independence and the way she has managed her career are all massively inspirational … as is, of course, her amazing music. Vespertine is probably my favourite album of all time (so far) and to be described as being a little like her is a huge compliment that I shan’t ever get tired of hearing.

Q. Who inspired you musically?
Kah: Well, I grew up on a diet of almost exclusively classical music. We only had a few pop albums in the house and if you combine these with the classical you pretty much get the roots of Kah. So here we go…. the complete works of Beethoven and Bach and all the others up to the early 20th Century, plus Queen’s Greatest Hits, plus Abba’s Greatest Hits, plus Eurythmics’ Greatest Hits, plus Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel equals baby Kah!

Then add Bjork, Tori Amos, Stina Nordenstam, Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead and you get teenage Kah. Mix all that up with a good dose of contemporary classical music, a very large spoon of some more hard core electronic artists like Four Tet and Squarepusher and sprinkle with a little Rufus Wainwright and you’ve pretty much got me. Hah!

Q. When did you know you wanted to become a singer-songwriter and poet?
Kah: I only ever wanted to be on the stage but when I was little I was obsessed with becoming an actress and this continued until after university. It was university that started the poetry but in truth I have always been singing and writing and it was a friend who suggested I combine it all – use the poetry to write songs and perform them on stage. She whispered that idea into my drunken ear one night after I had got a little tipsy and took it upon myself to do an impromptu song or two for the customers in the cafe in which we were working at the time. (She was the cafe manager so she could do what she liked!) In the sober light of morning it still seemed like a good idea and so I got down to it, found I liked writing songs more than I had thought possible and never looked back. Although I must admit I’d still quite fancy a turn as Lady Macbeth!

Q. How easy was it to then pursue your dreams?
Kah: Writing the songs came easily but I was tied up with traditional ideas of how to approach the industry and this mean that firstly I got trapped in the idea that you have to have a band to create music. This meant I used up some time looking for the right people to work with and then I would invariably get frustrated with the results, which always seemed to be a little unimaginative for my liking. When I started working with computers and on my own the music got a lot more interesting and strange but then came the problem.

The second trap I fell into was the “making a demo and sending it to record companies and waiting” trap. As the music was by now pretty odd, and I didn’t have a band, I would end up the other side of the table with the major companies and they would basically tell me I had to get a band together, get more commercial and get a stylist and then they would be able to “market” me.

After a while I realised that this was really dispiriting and it was starting to destroy my faith in what I was doing and in my abilities to do it. So, I gave up. No record company has had a demo from me in some years and the freedom which I have gained by forming my own label and signing myself is what makes my album what it is. Of course, it’s not an easy path to choose and I would still consider a deal with a record label if they took over all the admin and let me do the music the way I like it done… and didn’t ask me to form a band or get a certain type of “marketable” haircut! Maybe there are deals like that but quite possibly not!

Kah, More Than Dawn

Q. What was touring with classical choirs in Eastern Europe like? How much did you learn from that experience?
Kah: This was my secondary school choir which, rather remarkably for a non public school choir, did tours which involved amazing things like concerts in the summer palace in St Petersburg. I guess that choir was really where I learnt to sing although I never had any formal singing lessons as such. I certainly learned that I had a good voice and a great musical memory but the experiences I had in that choir were really so much more valuable than that… they were the kind of experiences that make your heart bigger, that give you belief in something bigger than yourself and that is a hugely important thing to have a teenager. Music is bigger than the ego. That is still a lesson which I lean on when writing and performing and I think it makes me a better performer, a better writer of songs and a better, more grounded human being.

Q. Likewise, your experience on the UK jazz circuit? Any particular memories you’d care to share?
Kah: I didn’t really fit in on the Jazz scene although I had some great times and sang some amazing songs. I really wanted to write my own songs and I think my frustration with singing the same old stuff in a standard way began to come through. I found it very difficult to sing with maximum emotion and keep my voice smooth, which is what people seemed to expect and like from their Jazz female vocalists at that time. This was encapsulated very nicely when I lost my regular slot in a bar in Newcastle because my rather intense vocal performances were “putting people off their food!”

I would have thought that would be something to be proud of, not something to lose a job over but there we are. The scene at that time, especially in the tiny bars where I worked, was not a very radical one and the owner of the bar wanted a kind of background Jazz lite music that encouraged the eating of french fries and I really wasn’t able to provide that. But after I lost that job I came down to London and gave up Jazz singing and started writing my own songs so really… I guess owe the guy.

Q. How does living in London inform your songwriting?
Kah: London is my life partner and my soul mate. Even though not that many of my songs are set in London it is often London that picks me up when I feel I can’t go on. I don’t have a guy to massage my shoulders but I can get on a train and go spend 15 minutes in the National Gallery and I’m immediately restored and calm. I can go to a concert in King’s Place or a walk down Brick Lane and I can always find musical inspiration. It has a place for every mood and a cure for every ill. It feeds every one of my passions, from walking through parks and along rivers to sitting with coffee and notebooks, to digging around markets and little shops for cheap treats for the soul.

It is also never late, never stands me up or lets me down and is always surprising me. London keeps my heart beating and my head held high and without it I would be in a pit from which I fear I would not emerge. Certainly I think my live self would struggle to find an audience anywhere else .. there is space for every kind of artist here and I really do believe that my music owes its existence to the support I get from living in one of the most exciting, creative and stimulating places on Earth. So there. x

Q. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned through success at this point? What advice would you give to fans wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Kah: Well… I’m not that successful as an artist if you measure it by levels of fame and fortune. But I’ve made an album which I still like listening to. The songs from it even stand up on the iPod when shuffled next to some of my favourite artists. That is a more successful thing in my book than releasing an album with which you are not happy and on which you were perhaps forced to compromise a little too much.

Even if that album were to bring the trappings of success, I feel that real personal success through creating something you feel to be genuinely you is a greater type of success in my book, even if it only reaches a small number of people. Hang on to that would be my advice. Be the artist you want to be… not the artist you think will sell the most records. If you are genuine then that’s all that can really be asked of you and maybe, just maybe, the outer trappings of success will follow.

Just don’t go chasing them, assuming they will come, or taking them for granted if they do come your way. Just best to remember like Bob Dylan says: “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning, goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” This album is what I wanted to do and to that extent I’m a success regardless of how much money I do or do not make from it.

Q. What are your hopes for the future? Do you have details of any touring schedules? Will you be back for this summer’s festivals?
Kah: My future hopes include some good gigs, some good radio airplay, some good new songwriting time and some really good time off if possible. I’m starting gigging with a whole new set up (a multi-instrumentalist and engineer/live producer has jumped on board to help the whole thing get more live and less backing trackish)… I’m deeply involved in rehearsing that and getting it really good.

I’m also shooting a video for my new single, July Song. I’ve never done a video before and am really looking forward to getting into that side of things for a change. Gigs will be mainly in London although I’m hoping for some live radio stuff outside of the capital. I’d love to do a festival. Latitude would be the best one for my live thing I think… the poetry and music already combines so well at that festival and I would be honoured to play there. But I haven’t been asked yet… maybe better get on to that. As my gran used to say: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get!” :)

Q. If you could cover any song, what would it be and why?
Kah: I have already covered Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark, which is one of my all time favourite songs and I had a whale of a time doing that (available for free download from the Joy Lane Music website if you fancy a laugh). I’m currently working on a cover of Johnny Cash’s Walk The Line. This is also an immense song and I’m hoping to do it justice.

I only really want to cover songs that are very famous and therefore a real challenge. Also, it has to be said that if the song is so famous that everyone in the audience knows it then there is s great opportunity to wrongfoot people and surprise them and that is a fun thing to do. But it’s important that the song I choose to cover should mean an awful lot to me.

Johnny Cash is one of my heroes and that song is a little bit of a personal anthem for me. Remaining steadfast and true despite whatever life throws at you is something I’d like to sing about and I know that my vocal for this cover will be the genuine and emotional article. That is something I consider to be essential in a good cover version.

Q. Finally, what are the 10 tracks that are never far from your iPod player at the moment?
Kah: I nearly always have my Ipod on shuffle … I like to be wrongfooted myself you know (!) so I’ll just give you my last 10 tracks. Here goes:
Release the Stars – Rufus Wainwright (just love this man’s music .. if I could support any artist on tour it would be him. Dream on girl, dream on!)
Canto Pra Exu – Virginia Rodrigues (if, in my head, I gave God a voice it would be this one)
Hounds of Love – Kate Bush (I have only just discovered her old stuff. Shame alive!)
Requiem – WA Mozart (not actually one track but hey .. you need to hear it all to get it. I just performed this with my choir last weekend. Been on the pod a lot recently!)
Utopia – Goldfrapp (still think the first album was the best… although the new one is very nice indeed. Felt Mountain was a wondrous thing.)
Sakura – Jega ( from last year’s astounding double album of juicy electronics)
Toxic – Britney Spears (shiny pop mastery .. yum yum yum)
I See You Again – Stina Nordenstam (this amazing artist is still under the radar … how can that be?)
Fuel My Fire – The Prodigy – (a man who is tired of The Prodigy is tired of life!)
In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country – Mira Calix and Oliver Coates (a 2009 cover of a Boards of Canada track and a cover of some genius. If you haven’t heard it go do so right now… it’s a lovely track which envelops and enchants. It is a thing of beauty even on the iPod during the busiest hour on the Northern Line.)

Kah’s debut album More Than Dawn is available now. Read our review or view photos

  1. Thank you IndieLondon for opening my ears to Kah. She sounds great and is really interesting. can’t wait to catch her live.

    Sam    Apr 13    #
  2. Anyone know when Kah is next playing live. Got to check this lady out for myself

    Jed    Apr 13    #