Acoustic Music, Saturday Soundtrack
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The authenticity of Kaia Kater

Roots music would not exist without Black folks. Without the Black musicians, artists, creators, and storytellers, who give rise to each of these constituent genres we hold so dear.

The Bluegrass Situation

In honor of Black History Month, I am exploring the work of musicians of color who are reclaiming their musical heritage while taking us forward musically and socially. The first in this year’s series (a preview) featured Allison Russell. For the MLK weekend, I featured the work of Ruthie Foster. Today we’ll celebrate the music of Kaia Kater.

The Grenadian Canadian artist Kaia Kater is a talented young musician who brings influences and history from Canada, Grenada, and Appalachia into her music. Being biracial is part of her identity, but it was not until her most recent album, Grenades, that she deeply explored the Grenadian part of her past. Kater grew up between two worlds:

(O)ne her family’s deep ties to the Canadian folk music scene; the other the years she spent soaking up Appalachian music in West Virginia. Her father grew up in Grenada, fleeing to Canada in 1986 as part of a youth speaker program, after the U.S. invasion. 

Kaia Kater began her musical and songwriting career early, releasing her first EP Old Soul in 2013 when she was just out of high school. She then released two additional albums with similar themes and sound, 2015’s Sorrow Bound and 2016’s Nine Pin. The latter album won a Canadian Folk Music Award, a Stingray Rising Star Award, and “sent Kater on an 18-month touring journey from Ireland to Iowa.”

Saint Elizabeth and Rising Down, both from the album Nine Pin, showcase her work from this period.

Rolling Stone described Kater’s music as “plaintive, mesmerizing. … She writes and performs with the skill of a folk-circuit veteran.” You can see that folk-circuit vibe in the instrumental Fine Times at Our House and in her cover of the Frank Ocean song Swim Good.

An NPR review from 2018 speaks to the changes Kater has worked through in producing her most recent album, 2019’s Grenades which came out on Smithsonian Folkways.

During her formative years, the 25-year-old Grenadian-Canadian singer-songwriter worked at reconciling her interest in the banjo and folk festivals run by her mother with her affinity for hip-hop compilations made for her by her father. She visited his side of the family back in Grenada, served as an ambassador for Appalachian old-time music on the behalf of a West Virginia college, and toyed with applying traditional templates to the writing of original material. All the while, Kater’s awareness that she was complicating, even destabilizing, notions of cultural heritage sharpened. “Like many people, I have felt alone and out of place for most of my life, stumbling forward blind and rootless,” she reflects in the liner notes for her new album. “I wrote Grenades to trace the life line from my palm and find my way home.”

This most recent album “weaves between hard-hitting songs that touch on social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and more personal narratives speaking to life and love in the digital age.” It is a decidedly different direction for the artist. What “started out as a search to discover the roots of her identity became a physical and emotional exploration of history, in particular her paternal ancestry, and has led to bold new heights of imagination and creative expression.” 

NPR had this description of the title track:

She has ways of invoking the past that are more impressionistic but no less affecting. In the dusky soul-jazz title track, her phrasing flits over a woozy, swinging groove. Musically, it’s supper club fare, its silky, sensual sound persuading listeners to let down their guards, but the lyrics imagine her father’s jarring experiences when military force intruded upon his childhood. Here and elsewhere, Kater favors vivid, sensory images and poetic language; she’s meditating on the ways that bodies absorb, carry and transmit memory.

The chorus is especially evocative of the disruption to her father’s young life.

Two seasons invade | Tremor and sway | With hands on grenades | Drive the light from the shade | Like an orange blockade — we always seem to get played | See the men on parade, see the men on parade

The Paste Studio session from 2019 features three songs from Grenades, interspersed with interviews with Kater. Meridian Ground is a beautiful melody that underpins the exploration of her family’s history. In between that song and Canyonland she talks about how the clawhammer banjo attracted her due to the introspective nature of the sound. Canyonland — the second song of the set — is about love and about being imperfect, and “being 25 and not knowing what life is about yet.” In between Canyonland and Everly, she speaks to the work of reclaiming the banjo by individuals who are not white Southerners. The final song of the set, Everly, is described by Kater as “a dialogue between two women.”

Kaia Kater is working on a full-length album for release in 2023. In March and April of this year, she is playing across the U.S. at venues in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New York. Check out this impressive young artist when she comes to your city.

More to come…


Image of Kaia Kater by Raez Argulla credit

This entry was posted in: Acoustic Music, Saturday Soundtrack


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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