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Kathryn Calder details the workings of her many creative lives

April 8, 2015

Like many working musicians, Kathryn Calder sometimes leads several different creative lives.

Though she first made her mark in Canadian indie rock in the early-mid 2000s with the trio Immaculate Machine, Calder is perhaps best known for her work with the New Pornographers. Since joining the alt-pop supergroup in 2005 she’s become an increasingly prominent presence on the band’s records and tours. But she’s also developed an accomplished solo career alongside, with 2011’s Bright & Vivid in particular showing a real ear for engaging hooks and swoony keyboard sounds.

Maintaining both musical directions means that sometimes obligations run up against each other — such as right now, when after several months of heavy touring with the Pornographers, she’ll barely be off the road a few weeks before heading out to tour her new self-titled album.

“You have to take the opportunities when they arise,” says Calder, the morning before the final Pornographers show of 2015 at South by Southwest. “I knew what the [the New Pornographers] schedule was going to be like, and I knew April wouldn’t be terribly busy, and it felt like a good time to support the album. That’s why I chose that time: logistics!” she laughs.

Her new self-titled album, out April 14 on File Under: Music, may be her best yet: it’s more atmospheric, more spacious, with engaging reverb-drenched soundscapes that prove a compelling fit with Calder’s country-tinged vocal melodies. As accomplished as the songs seem — particularly highlights like the epic “When You See My Blood” — their genesis was often strained. During the writing and recording of the record, Calder abandoned nearly an album’s worth of material and embraced a different songwriting process, one more focused on keyboard loops and home studio experimentation.

“I was doing it the same way I’d always done it before, when I first started recording this record, and it wasn’t working,” she explains. “It took me a long time to realize it wasn’t working… it should be a struggle to solve the problems, but not a struggle to like the songs, and that was what was happening: I didn’t like what I was doing, and I didn’t know I didn’t like what I was doing until I tried something else and liked the feeling.

“It’s almost like when you think you love somebody, then you actually fall in love with somebody and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what falling in love feels like.’ It’s like that experience.”

[pullquote]It should be a struggle to solve the problems, but not a struggle to like the songs. I didn’t like what I was doing, and I didn’t know I didn’t like what I was doing until I tried something else and liked the feeling.[/pullquote]

Speaking of falling in love: like Calder’s previous albums, Kathryn Calder was co-produced by her husband, Colin Stewart, who’s also worked on records from the likes of Black Mountain and Dan Mangan. (Mangan actually contributes to Kathryn Calder, along with other notable artists like Jill Barber and Hannah Georgas).

“He’s a really good filter,” says Calder of Stewart. “If I wasn’t sure about something, or if I had some doubts about something, I could show him and he would have an opinion about that, which is invaluable when there’s all these tiny decisions to be made at every moment in the recording process. It’s nice to have somebody else to confirm or refute what you’re thinking. He was really good for keeping the record true to what I wanted to be.”

Yet even as Calder prepares to roll out a new album, a big part of her life is still focused back on her debut, 2010’s Are You My Mother? She recorded that album while living with her mother, whose body and mind were slowly failing as a result of ALS (often known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease). A few years ago, Calder was approached by the Yellow Bird project, an organization that collaborates with musicians to raise funds and awareness for charities. Their proposal: a documentary about the album and Calder’s experience caring for her dying mother, culminating in a benefit concert in Victoria on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.

Calder had her reservations, but ultimately saw it as an opportunity to help others better understand the disease and its impact on people’s lives. Filming began in 2012, followed by the benefit concert and, subsequently, a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $65,000 for the film. Titled A Matter of Time, the documentary is nearing the finish line: when I spoke with Calder, she had recently completed writing and recording its score, and the hope is for it to begin making the film festival rounds later this year.

“It’s been really cathartic,” says Calder. “It’s been a slow process, making the film, so it’s allowed me to catch up emotionally. I’ll be talking about it a lot [during the promotion] and it’s always good to talk about those kind of things, because they help you process. Even now, several years after my mom passed away, it still can be hard to talk about. But I feel like I’m getting better at it.”

“Even if it makes one person more aware of ALS, then that’s a good thing,” she adds.

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