Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Breakfast "Nice Conversation" with Singer Kate Lamont and Writer Hank Nuwer

"Yeah, a hero always beats against the current. I guess I still want to be a hero." --Kate Lamont
         A Breakfast "Nice Conversation" with Singer Kate Lamont and Writer Hank Nuwer

Born in England while her father studied for his doctorate at the University of Birmingham, singer Kate Lamont came back to the States and spent her teen years in Anderson and Muncie. After 15 years singing with Hoosier bands MabLab and Blueprintmusic, she just has released “After the Traffic,” her first solo album with the online digital distribution label Audio Reconnaissance.  


Nuwer: I hope this one is going to work because it's a new Marantz.
This other is my old one. You're my my first interview [on the new one].

Lamont: OK.

Nuwer: Christening it.

Lamont. All right, stereo. Whoo-whoo. Recording.

Nuwer: Let's jump right in.

Lamont: OK.

Nuwer: There's a danger in listening to music and trying to interpret it just as there is with poetry. A critic once wrote about poet Hart Crane that you could miss the whole poem by listening too closely to the lines. Having said that, I think there is a theme that runs all the way through this album. What would you say that theme was in terms of vision?

Lamont: The quote you said explains the first track entirely, because if I listen to the lyrics too carefully I don't know what it means myself. The title ["After the Traffic"] came during the recording of the very first song. You'd have to have a good stereo and good headphones to hear the background noise for Track Five. That's the only song we recorded off site. We recorded it at the Earth House Collective downtown, a 130-year-old brick German church [Lockerbie Central United Methodist Church] downtown. Well, I wrote that song half an hour before a friend's wedding because I was supposed to sing something. We recorded it and it's right in the middle of the day at East and New York downtown, so every forty seconds you have this huge slue of diesel trucks going by. My recording engineer would say, "OK, I'm ready, go," and I would say, "After the traffic?" He'd say, "Yeah, after the traffic."

Nuwer: That's neat.

Kate Lamont next plays the Chatterbox in Indianapolis on August 10, 2010
Photo by the Rev. Rebecca Craver

Lamont: That's where it came from. I heard that [conversation] when I played it back and I thought, this is the theme of the whole album. When I heard that quote I thought, well, it represents where I am after 15 years of performing and now embarking on my first solo project. After all this energy and synergy and creativity and collaboration comes this other thing that still means something.
Nuwer: Then there's old church. From oxcarts to diesel trucks going by. There's a lot of time passing in this album also, forward or backwards, and in one song, someone missing a connection by four or five years.

Lamont: That's true and maybe you did just touch on the theme there--in track three on "Adeline." I wear a class ring my grandmother gave to me. In 1922 she graduated from high school. That song is about the generational connection between me and my grandmother and then her relationship with her Aunt Adeline, which was so strong. This ring is the most fun conversation piece because it has a B in the center and everyone wants to know what the B stands for. Well, rubbed off in the top right hand corner you can almost see a 2. So it's B Square and that was their class motto. It meant be strong, be solid, be a rock.

Nuwer: That's interesting, the culture they had back then. You knew her?

Lamont: If I knew her it was as a baby; I don't remember her. But because I have such a strong connection with my grandmother I feel like I know her. I have a lot of her things. [Adeline] was like my grandmother's mentor. When my grandmother was 14 or 15 she took her on a trip with her to South America. Adeline, and what the song represents too, lost her fiancé in a boating accident. Actually, her fiancé and her brother went out on a boat and only her brother returned. She never married and she kept the same job as an accountant-bookkeeper in Philadelphia. But every year she would travel for three weeks and she went all over the world. Se took my grandmother with her when my grandmother was about 14. That spurred my grandmother's love for travel and she traveled here entire life. That in turn inspired my dad's love of travel….Likewise, I have that traveling spirit.

Nuwer: Did you write all the songs on this album?

Lamont: Oh, yes, yes.

Nuwer: What was the time frame in which they were written?

Lamont: Pretty much within the last two years. I had a son in 2005 and while I didn’t quit doing music—in fact the Blueprint heyday for my music was after he was born—but your life changes really drastically.

Nuwer: Sure.

Lamont: I started playing piano a lot more. I started teaching piano. That really changed my view of myself as a piano player. I’ve always put more stock in my voice. But when I started teaching small children, they made me a better player.

Nuwer: Because they asked questions you didn’t think of?

Lamont: Yeah, but kind of pounding those basics back in my brain reminded me that I did know everything I needed to know fundamentally. I used to give myself a hard time: you know, you’re not that great of a piano player because I didn’t excel at sight reading. Pounding those basics back into my brain made me know that I knew what I needed to know fundamentally…to be a good piano player. I just got better, and that’s when I started writing these songs on the piano.

Nuwer: Your album reminded me of spiritual or churchlike music. Which is interesting because of your connection with the church.

Lamont: Well, I’ve spent the last two years at this church as a founding member of the Earth House Collective. The Vonnegut connection is huge with us…We’re all big fans because of his connection to theology. Last year’s service was really great. I did a bunch of music for that. Yeah, I’m glad [the church sound] comes through, but it wasn’t intentional to make this album sound like gospel or like a church. I like the fact that it’s coming through naturally.

Nuwer: [In the album] there are so many lines that are so poetic, so literary.

Lamont: Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. "Warm bodies, crushed dried leaves, were gathered like children under heaven."

Nuwer: It's all metaphor. "The voice of God--

Lamont: "The voice of God comes sometimes when I listen to the people who breathe music like it's oxygen."

[Conversation goes off track to a time when Lamont and Nuwer were part of the same Kurt Vonnegut memorial celebration, him reading and lecturing and her singing].

Nuwer: Where did you go to college?

Lamont: I went to Ball State for architecture for two years. I joined a band the summer after my freshman year. I loved [architecture, I adored it, but I joined a band and just couldn’t go back.

Nuwer: But architecture is so creative.

Lamont: Architecture gave me that first year an understanding of composition that transferred to music like butter on toast. It shaped my songwriting.

Nuwer: If your music were a single building, what would it be? A cathedral?

Lamont: I hope it would be like the Guggenheim, always growing as it goes up. It’s a fabulous building. I’m constantly evolving.

Nuwer: You’re a born storyteller and you also love the first-person—the number of times the word I appears.

Lamont (laughter): You could also say I’m self-centered. I like how you said that. Next time I’m feeling self absorbed I’ll say, “It’s just that I have an affinity for the first-person.”

Nuwer: (laughter) There is no more grassroots coming up in the music world. Cliché and the banal seem to rule our lives.

Lamont: That’s what my music is about. It’s a reaction to the state of everything—the music business, the corporate world. It’s all the same.

Nuwer: Part of a culture? Do you suffocate and go along with it or beat against the current with your oars?

Lamont: The hero always beats against the current. I guess I still want to be a hero.

Nuwer: I like the purity of someone alone listening to music or reading a book at night—a one-to-one connection of an artist creating and someone actually being moved by the creation of your words.

Lamont: Kurt Vonnegut is a great example. When you read Vonnegut you don’t see him with chest out, chin up, a leader of the revolution. He’s an everyday man, slumped with his Pall Mall and coffee, talking to you like he’s just sitting across the table from you. Musically speaking, that’s what moves people too.  Eric Brown gave me a compliment on this album. He said, “When you listen you can’t help thinking she’s speaking to you or for you.”

[Lamont says something about NPR on end of tape that is unintelligible.]

Nuwer: Disappointed with NPR? Especially with the news?

Lamont: Yes, and it's not that I don't think they have some good programs on NPR, and certainly it's the best mainstream news there is. But for me, I realized it is still a mainstream news source. It's like going to church on Sunday and thinking that's what Christianity is about. Feeling good about listening to NPR because it's the best news source out there for getting the story? Well, guess what folks, it's still not getting you the story. If you want something a little closer [to true news] and you have a satellite you can get Link TV. They actually give you programming from the Middle East and all around the world.  The problem is that NPR still has that American filter.

Nuwer: In my investigative journalism class [Franklin College] we use Open Secrets to look at political donations. Look at it sometime and see who from NPR is donating to which political parties. And they are supposed to be objective?

Lamont: It's not really "public" radio.

Nuwer: Well, let's talk a little about music and marketing. Going back to Adam Smith, you can be a manufacturer making the best hand-produced pins but [consumers] are going to buy mass produced pins, not perfect pins. Whether it is music or books, the industries are all about mass production now.

Lamont: For me that's no different than the flow of American culture and why were backwards. It's no mystery to me how we got buried under all these layers. Honestly, the marketing piece of the puzzle is not something I'm interested in. Right after I had my son I came to these huge realizations that motherhood or parenthood teaches you what you didn't know before but needed  to know to get things done. But now you know what you need to do to get things done, but now you have this huge responsibility and time commitment to someone else. So you do learn how to be more efficient, how to get things done quicker, because you've only got 30 minutes to get it done.  I feel like I've gotten a hundred times better at all these things but it is still a juggling act to try to promote yourself.

Nuwer: You take a [musical gospel] group like the Gaithers up near Anderson and they are so good at self promotion.

Lamont: They are. Frankly, the kind of music I write doesn't really sit well with being great at promotion. The two aren't necessarily married. I guess my point is that Eric Brown--who I still play with on a group called Mab Lab --he started an online digital distribution label called Audio Reconnaissance. My album is being released through him. He has distribution outlets all of his channels go through and you can also buy them through Rhapsody, Amazon, I-Tunes, and all the online music distribution sites. That's the label I'm putting [the album] out on. So whether it's your new book or my music, things have changed and we have to adapt to new marketing. We have to learn from the past but we also must do something completely different. Things aren't always obvious. I feel like it's taken me like seven or eight years to accept that I was in the end of an era. When I first started performing there were shows where there were A & R reps from BMI. We'd have conversations with these people afterwards. They thought we were great, but then they were going back home to their jobs and getting fired the next day. People were moving around and the music industry was on fire. It took me a long time to realize that the musicians who had quote-unquote made it in the way we wanted to make it by making a living playing music --well that world no longer exists in the way we saw it.

Nuwer: Now there is instant success through American Idol. It isn't a grassroots coming up. It's the cliché about new books that bothers me whether it's a series like Twilight or one on vampires. Clichés rule our lives.

Lamont: That's what my music is about. It's a reaction to the state of everything. The state of the music business. The state of the corporate world. It's all the same issue.

Nuwer: So do you go along with it or beat against a current with your oars?

Lamont: Yeah, a hero always beats against the current. I guess I still want to be a hero. There are a lot of heroes. I used to be cynical.

Nuwer: You weren't cynical?

Lamont: Oh, yes, I was. Maybe it didn't show in the music but I was for quite some time. Yeah, I think so. But I realized there is no future in cynicism.

Nuwer: Especially if you have a kid.

Lamont: That's why I feel every single human still has that power to go against the grain. We thought we felt that with the Obama campaign. A lot of people got real excited about this idea that we can stand up and have a voice. Now let us not get into the politics and what is really going on now, but that is a fact….People still have the power. They're just not using it.
Nuwer: I like the purity of someone listening to your music at night or reading a book all alone--a one-on-one connection--between the artist's creation and someone actually being moved by it. Take [the late] Kurt Vonnegut as an example, where he actually moved people with his words.
Lamont: Vonnegut is a great example. When you read Vonnegut you don't see Vonnegut with his chest out, chin up, leader-of-the-revolution type. You see him sitting back, an everyday type of man, slumped, with his Pall Malls and his coffee as if he were sitting across the table from you. Musically speaking, that's what moves people too, I think. When it feels like a conversation. Eric gave me a compliment on my album. Said that when you finish this album you can't help but think she's singing to you or for you.

Nuwer: This was perfect for a friend of mine who listened to the album yesterday after her stepmom died. She was so moved by it.

Lamont: I tell you I want to get into the funeral music business.

Nuwer: When you think of it, so many great compositions were written for funerals.

Lamont: Yeah, ok, well it's almost as if in this life, this culture, where no emotion is allowed for everyday stuff, we're still allowed to show emotion during times of death and birth. And even with birth, we've taken all ceremony out of that. But yeah, death--someone dies and that's the saddest thing anybody's ever heard. Take the guy who flew off the luge during the Olympics. That's all anybody could talk about was how sad that was. I'm quirky. I didn't think it was sad. The guy died doing what he loved, and he died instantly. What's sad about that? To me, nothing. But there is that notion that we're allowed to have that feeling emotionally and collectively as a people to express certain things still.

Nuwer: He [Nodar Kumaritashvil] knew all the risks, as did I when I went bullriding four years ago.

Hank Nuwer riding on the bull, Celina, Ohio rodeo

Lamont: Oh, wow. I'm trying to think of anything I've done that is remotely as crazy as that. I jumped off a cliff once.

Nuwer: You did?

Lamont: Yeah. Into a quarry. Into water, outside of Muncie. It was 40 feet, which doesn't sound like a lot--

Nuwer: --Did you do it alone or?

Lamont: No, there were tons of idiotic college students there.

Nuwer: So, what was the feeling as you went down? Amazing?

Lamont: Yeah, it was great until my ass smacked the water at a bad angle.

Nuwer: Oh, no. Could have been a belly flop.

Lamont: I started straight and I went in at an angle. That may have been the craziest thing I've ever done.

Nuwer: What about your job at Earth House Collective? I read its goal is reaching peace, wellness and culture?

Lamont: To be more specific, it's developed into an organization that hopes to provide space for people who are trying to listen to "that" voice. Who are trying to shed layers. Who are trying to do something outside nine-to-five…

Nuwer: Who are trying to do something as traffic passes?

Lamont: Yeah, exactly. I think that sometimes just as protesting war gets into an anti-soldier conversation, I think there's very much a spirit of that in this cultural problem we have, too. When you protest against a corporation or protest the system, people feel you're attacking the nine-to-five worker. But that couldn't be farther from the truth. I think my music and Earth House and everything I'm involved with and my close friends are involved with is all about liberating people.
Nuwer: But now were back to capitalism and getting the maximum amount of profits whether it's the music industry, a book company or Bill Gates. The way you maximize profits is to get people at the bottom to get the lowest amount of compensation unless you also want those people to buy your products.

Lamont: Well, it works.

Nuwer: Capitalism?

Lamont: Oh, yeah, capitalism works well. It's a well-oiled machine. But it's not about being Democrat or Republican, it's about self expression.

Nuwer: That's what it was supposed to be about in the 1960s. I covered Woodstock as a reporter.

Lamont: Nice. But just like any movement, there are things that get tagged on. Like "Oh, that was just a drug-induced whatever." Well, that was tagged on. Yeah, I think it is our responsibility to go against the grain. Usually the current is not where it's good for the people. It would be nice if it was.

Nuwer: It's so interesting how we've never had so much communication in terms of email, Facebook. People walk out of a class and their hands go automatically to a phone.

Lamont: Well, I don't think you can call all that communication. I think we need a different word.  Seriously, we need a different word because it's not communication. I don't know what the word is, but it's not the same word communication. We have to come up with a new word for whatever this technological thingie is. Communication has gone way down since all of this has come about. People are working on their laptops during a meeting, on their I-Phone, which is a computer, a full work station. I mean, email started when I got to college, and now I do have a cell phone, though I didn't have one the whole time I was pregnant with my son, right up to the point he was three-and-a-half or four. Texting I actually like because you don't have to get on the phone. Even with texting you're missing something. Someone is trying to talk with you and you're trying to write. It's distraction, not communication.

Nuwer: Maybe that's the word we're looking for--distractification.

Lamont: Distractification?

Nuwer: Distractification.

Lamont: All this new-fangled distractification. Sounds like a hip-hop lyric.

Nuwer: Well, how should we end? Do you want to ask yourself a question?

Lamont: Hey [Kate], how do you feel you did in this interview? Well, I think I did pretty well. I had a real nice time talking to Hank. I stopped thinking about what was the right thing to say or how to market the album, or how to make myself sound cool, and I just had a nice conversation over some coffee with white sugar.

Nuwer: With Jesus looking on--in velvet.

Lamont [looking up at a velvet painting to her right] Oh, we have a blond Jesus on velvet. Walking on water.

A small portion of this interview appeared in the May 2010 Indianapolis Monthly.