Nelly Kate works hard as hell to make music the way she wants to and only the way she wants to. She holds an uncompromised vision for her music and work that was created from the ground up. She is equally obsessed with music as she is typography and currently lives and works in Richmond, VA. When asked, she describes her sound…”If Paul Simon wrote songs for Bjork and recorded them in Tune-Yard’s home studio.”
We discovered Nelly Kate through one of our designers, Will Godwin. Will introduced us, and Nelly ended up performing at our Meet the Maker series with Collina Strada, CourtShop, Dusen Dusen, and In God We Trust. We quickly fell in love.
NS: You just independently released ISH ISH, how did you celebrate?
NK: Four ways. Wednesday – Sunday; Old Chub + Andre; with SoftSpot, my favorite contemporaries; surrounded by friends, one–Matt Gauck–was in from Europe just in time for it all.
NS: Tell us what goes into releasing an album independently.
NK: Technically, it’s a very unromantic process. It requires a lot of undivided (+uncompensated) time, research, collaboration, support from your friends, and hustling. But above all, you have to establish an uncompromising vision; no one will be doing that for you.
NS: How has Richmond, Virginia helped shape your sound?
NK: Tremendously. The community of artists and listeners alike have been incredibly supportive and encouraging which has made me feel like I can improvise and create intimate experiences for them when I’m performing live. Feeling like the audience is truly connected with my work has made all the difference in the world.
NS: You walked away from formal musical training. What was your reason for this?
NK: My first piano instructor taught me to play by ear. I was getting a lot of joy and creative impetus from learning classical pieces in this way. Then, my family moved and my new instructor pulled the plug on that style of teaching and tried to strong-arm me into site-reading only. By that time, I had already started performing my own compositions and I had been taught by the Suzuki method for over 5 years, so I felt cornered and left the formal training behind.
NS: Would you consider your musical “training” to ever be over?
NK: No, learning never stops; I have become more intrigued by electronic instruments in the last 5 years, so I have new things to master. An understanding of these kinds of sounds are more physical and less theoretical; I want to grow more abstract with the sounds I create through intentional experimentation.
NS: Describe the tone of ISH ISH. Was there a general, underlying theme throughout this project?
NK: The tone of this record is really paradoxical. Musically, it’s bright, melodic and minimal pop but lyrically it’s relatively dark, realistic, and complex. -ish is used as a indicator of relativity, I wanted this project to be antithetical to that. So, I am wrestling to reconcile the memory of people who have suffered tremendously with my own narratives of loss.
NS: In the best way possible, I keep wanting to hear large percussions in ISH ISH. Was it your choice not to bring in heavier sounds on this project?
NK: Full and detailed productions are a luxury and noise is power. Rhianna rules the airwaves because her work is really noisy. On a basic level, it’s just as minimal as anything else I make, but I’m not interested in that kind of power. When there’s less going on in a mix, there’s more room for interpretation and people start to take the work personally; they harmonize with it when they’re driving alone, and the beats and bass lines they imagine that can lead to new creations all their own. That’s the kind of influence I’m interested in instigating within people. Big productions are for later, when I find out if that influence is taking root.
NS: Why is ISH ISH made entirely in analog?
NK: Firstly, because I view this generation as the torchbearers of analog media. I shoot film and record on tape, it’s only natural. There’s an unparalleled authenticity that can only be represented by digital information. I’m not a Luddite but I believe we have to maintain an understanding of how to make things by hand if we are going to try to emulate them digitally. Secondly, because I found an incredible audio engineer, named Brent Delventhal, who works almost entirely in analog and I knew that if we worked together he’d do things beautifully. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Thirdly, because I love the quality of the sound of analog recordings; the darkness and the imperfections.
NS: Because you’re an independent, solo performer, do you see yourself lacking anything at the moment? (speaking in terms of sound and production here).
NK: Sometimes, I feel a little bit hampered by my setup. I’d really like to find ways to incorporate more bassy-rhythms into my live performances and I’m thinking of scraping the loop station and making tape-loops instead.
NS: What are some advantages and disadvantages of being a solo performer?
NK: The main advantages are simplicity and control. With so few variables, it’s easier and more affordable to travel, practice and perform. On the other hand, I get lonely on stage sometimes and when I have a bad night, I am really hard on myself and have no one else to blame. I love sharing experiences with others, so I do wish sometimes like I had the ability to share the sweeter parts of this lifestyle with someone else; nevertheless, people encourage me to continue to go it alone because I think that’s part of the magic for the audience…there’s a lot of tension in the air, it can be really electrifying.
NS: What has it been like to be hardcore DIY for over seven years now?
NK: Hard as hell–it’s like having holes in every pair of shoes you own; it’s like drinking a forty of Molson alone under a bridge; it’s like sleeping on a concrete floor; it’s like driving through a hurricane. But also, totally exhilarating–like a sold out show; or like collecting stones from the shores of Maine one a summer day; like a constant state of breathtaking anticipation.
NS: Is ISH ISH just the beginning of a long Nelly Kate story? What can we expect in the future?
NK: I guess the short answer is yes. Releasing ISH ISH has been really tough; it was much more of a financial burden than I projected…I bit off more than I could chew. Then, I was booked up for a cross-country tour by an agent in RVA who turned out to be full of lies and that set me back even further. I’ve been living in Portland this summer, walking through forests, writing new melodies, riding an old Twenty, taking odd jobs, and meditating on things. When I get back, I’m working on a 7″ with Brent Delventhal and Jonathan Fuller; we’re recording it on a reel-to-reel 8-track. After that, I’m going to shift gears toward more visual work and start a new project called Genders.
NS: What do you see your role as in the music industry at large? And then on a smaller, more local level?
NK: Within the whole of the industry I am very unnoticeable, I am in a slipstream, trying to do a very particular thing without becoming dragged away into the trends. So, I hope to be an example within that context, of someone relentlessly pursuing their dreams. On a local level, I like to curate unique bills that people will remember forever; the community has really given me some incredible leeway in this and I think it has been really successful.
NS: Tell us a bit about the smaller labels that you’re putting music out on and how they all tie into your personal vision.
NK: Obsolete Media Objects put ISH ISH out on tapes and their mission is so consistent with my own; they try to tie physical objects with their releases, from putting download codes into PEZ dispensers to Polaroids. That is more on point with my own vision than I could have imagined. My 7″ will be put out on Vanish Records and they want to put out ‘handmade’ music, so…that’s perfect.
NS: What do you do to take a break from music? To vent?
NK: Work on illustrations, shoot photographs, make films, ride bikes, walk in rivers, share a meal with friends, lay in a hammock, go for long drives in The Valley…
NS: You do your own graphic design and packaging. How does your musical style and graphical style mesh?
NK: Well, I’m a little obsessed with typography and the approach to those studies I do in graphic design are also pretty similar to the process I go through to create music. It’s all very iterative and starts with a general concept, gradually meandering its way toward the truth and something solid that I can identify with. In my illustrations, I start with something that is abstract, essential and almost unrecognizable and I then unleash my perfectionism all over it; it has a really paradoxical quality, just like the content of my songs.
NS: What other Richmond music should people outside of Richmond be listening to?
NK: Everyone should check out Warren Hixson. He has a deep discography already and it’s all around the internet; depending on which album you’re listening to, you’ll get a touch of surf-influenced tones alongside hushed and incisive lyrics. He’s about to put out a record on Vanish and perform live with some members from Sports Bar. I seriously love his stuff.
Photos by William Godwin, shot on film with his Canon AE-1. And as a special thanks from Nelly, we’ve got a little track available for download:
MP3: Nelly Kate – Drink Up The Clouds [download]