What got you interested in music?
Kate Copeland: I grew up in a musical household. My father was a composer and singer/songwriter and he encouraged me to take piano when I was a little girl, so I started piano lessons when I was five and when I was about ten I started to experiment with writing my own songs while playing piano and that got me into taking composition. Then I started taking private composition lessons and studying composition more intently but continuing my songwriting. I think sometime around middle school, maybe junior high, I started to think of my songwriting and composing as two sort of separate branches from the same tree, so I started composing, like, concert music and sort of contemporary classical pieces, but then I would also write songs that felt a lot more intuitive and personal. Then, I went to Oberlin Conservatory and got my composition degree there but continued to write songs sort of between classes so I sort of kept both branches going and I guess I saw that modeled in my dad who was both a songwriter and a composer in his own right; I think that's kind of how I got started. And, just being around music a lot - as a kid it was everywhere and I knew a lot of musicians.
Do you remember what the first song you wrote was about?
[Laughs] Well, the first song with words, oh, it was called "Home" and it was about being lost and trying to find my way home because I get turned around really easily. I have a really poor sense of direction so I think I had a lot of anxiety about going out on my own because I was worried I wouldn't be able to find my way back and my sister has, like, a built in compass [laughs] so she would always be running around independently and always knew where she was, but I was always turned around. I had a lot of anxiety about that so I threw it in a song when I was like ten years old about being lost [laughs].
Are there any artists you're inspired by?
Oh, there are so many artists I'm inspired by. I grew up listening to Stravinsky, the Russian composer, a lot and also Jethro Tull - my dad was a big Tull-head and he got me into Tull when I was young. The Beatles and The Stones, Joni Mitchell and, more recently, artists like Fleet Foxes and Beck and Radiohead and Björk. I don't know, is that enough names? [Laughs]
Which artists are in your playlist right now?
Yeah, so some of those artists, also The Oh Hellos, a band called Big Thief that people should keep their ears open for - a newer group and it's really good, really cool. What am I listening to right now... probably also Baths, yeah, those are sort of some of them. Gosh, I'm sure there are more; I rotate around things a lot. I've also been really enjoying this friend of mine, Nick Drummond, from this group called The Senate. He's just about to put out his album and I got a release, a special secret copy, so I've been really enjoying listening to his album - Nick Drummond, Seattle based guy. Yeah, so that's kind of been my current thing. Oh! And POWERS, a really fun pop group that I'm recently very excited by.
How would you describe your own sound?
Well, I think of myself as a musical chameleon. I think that I really like experimenting with what my sound is, specifically with production and arranging, so most of my songs, I sit down with a mandolin and I write something that's generally pretty folky but then, when it comes to actually recording the songs, there are so many options that open up when you introduce the recording studio. So, with my LP that "Far Away Place" is on, I collaborated with my friend Alex Overington and we sort of co-produced the album and he helped me integrate a lot of electronic components into the songs, into the arrangements, and I wrote a lot for orchestral arrangements. So, "Far Away Place" for example has bass clarinet in it instead of a bass - there's no electric bass, just bass clarinet, so that album sort of has a lot of unconventional arrangement choices that were produced by my mind and Alex's mind, so there's a meeting in the middle at this interesting place that I call electro-orchestral. I would sort of refer to that album as being an electro-orchestral folk album or pop folk, something like that.
But, more recently, I've been recording an EP of five songs that is primarily just me singing and playing mandolin and it's much more like how the songs are when I first write them. It's sort of a way of following up the LP - which is very dressed up production wise - sort of a way of following up with something that's more exposed and a little bit more bare and is something that reveals, essentially, the origins of my songwriting process; people can sort of see that I also encompass that sound. So, my sound, that was your original question, is an always evolving, morphing thing and I'm really excited about experimenting with it and collaborating with other artists to sort of stretch it this way and that way. The EP is definitely what I would call acoustic folk. It's just me playing mandolin and singing and one other musician friend of mine, Doug Wieselman, playing bass clarinet and a little bit electric guitar, so very stripped down and very honest and vulnerable.
How has your sound changed since that first album?
I also work as a producer and an arranger with other artists so I really like thinking of an album as its own kind of medium, its own art form, you know? I think you can, if you're an artist, you can just go into the studio and say, "I want to create as realistic of a rendition of what I could do if I just picked up my guitar and played live as possible," but that takes a lot of the fun possibility of the recording studio out of the project so, for me, as a producer and an arranger, of course I'm going to take full advantage of what I can do with the studio, because I particularly love the thing that having a recording studio affords you. Like, why would I want to go in and do something that's exactly like what I do live when there's so much more available to me?
"Far Away Place" is your most recent release, what was the inspiration behind that song and its video?
The inspiration behind the song was, I was going through a pretty large transitional phase in my life about four years ago - I think I wrote this song almost exactly four years ago - and it felt like a time where I was having to let go and say goodbye to a lot of things and people that were important to me but that I recognized I couldn't take with me where I was headed in my life. It's very much about that sense of nostalgia that you get when you visit happy memories of a time or a place or people that you've had to let go of. I really do think that if I could define the song in a word it would be nostalgia, like, that was really the thing that I was driven by and it was a way of coming to terms with where I was at in my life, transitionally, and sort of the letting go of one thing and walking forward to the next.
And the video was actually, most of the footage is me wandering around the Oregon County Fairgrounds, which is place that I've been performing at every summer since I was a year old with a Vaudeville Troupe that I was born into, so that location is very deeply personal to me and has meant a lot to me just sort of in my formation as an artist and performer, because that's where I learned to perform and that was a huge part of what inspired me to do music, was being at that festival every summer. I think I chose a meaningful location that would sort of reference the nostalgic feeling of the song, that I'm sort of surrounded by memory and meaning in that space. Then, the other shots are me in Port Townsend which I've been splitting my time the last three and a half years between New York City and this little town so, of course, the town means a lot to me too and I've become a member of the community in a very beautiful way.
What do you hope listeners can take away from your music overall?
I think that, as a songwriter, the most important thing for me, in terms of engaging with a listener, is that they find something that resonates with them personally. I think about the times when music has meant the most to me, when I've really connected with the song I'm listening to - you know those times, I'm sure you've had them, we all have - where we have to put on that one song and we have to put it on repeat 1 and we have to sink into it and it's sort of the only thing we can hang onto, right? And there's no words that can express what you're feeling, there's just this feeling and the song is this incredibly cathartic way of connecting with that feeling when it's hard for us and I think that, if I can create music that does that for other people, that's huge. Because, that's when music matters the most, I think. And that can be a happy feeling too, I think sometimes you're bursting with joy and you just want to dance around your room to that one song over and over again but, more often, I find that it's when things are more difficult that I'm really going to music as a form of medicine and healing and I would really like to be able to offer that for my listeners.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
I guess, what do I wanna say... Well, maybe that it's interesting to notice, over the past couple of years, that I'm really just as happy working on other people's music as I am my own, that the projects I've done in the capacity of being a producer and arranger have been every bit as fulfilling as when I go into the studio with my own music and I get a lot out of that process - the process of partnering with a songwriter and helping them fulfill their vision with an album. I've most recently been doing that with an artist, Doug More, and I did this also with a singer/songwriter named Abakis, and I have a few other of these kinds of collaborations coming up in the future that I'm really excited about because it's a different form of being creative and there's less pressure on me, specifically, because it's not my songs, so I'm just there as a translator between the ear and the mind of the songwriter and what their ultimate vision for their project is and trying to tap into the psyche of one of these songwriters and pull out of them what it is they're really trying to create, what experience they're really trying to create, what their record is, and then make that happen; help guide them through the journey of making that happen and then use my own skills as a composer and arranger and producer to really make the most of what it is the project can be.
That's fun, it's not just the Kate Copeland show. I really, really like to make it about other artists too and I would say that, if I had to choose between the studio and the stage, if I could only have one or the other, I would definitely choose the studio. I like performing for people, but there's something about being in the recording studio, in that space, and just the limitless possibility that really excites me and I just get so much energy from that; you know, fourteen hour days, no problem [laughs].