Black Creators to Watch – Alumni Spotlight: Kaïa Kater

Posted: Feb 2, 2023

kaia kater alumni spotlight

Kaïa Kater is a Juno Award-nominated and Polaris Prize longlisted singer-songwriter of Grenadian-Canadian heritage. She began her career at the age of 18, fresh out of high school, with the release of her first EP, Old Soul. She has since released two more albums, Sorrow Bound and Nine Pins. Her most recent album, Grenades, weaves together powerful songs about social issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and her own personal experiences. Her raw talent and authentic songwriting have earned her well-deserved recognition from CBC, BBC Music and Rolling Stone

Since completing the Slaight Music Residency in 2022, Kaïa has released a new single “Parallels,” toured internationally – complete with a notable performance at NPR Tiny Desk Concerts and Carnegie Hall – and has grown her career in film and TV, working on original music for the Emmy-nominated Black-led series The Porter, and placing a song on Global TV’s Mary Kills People. She is currently working on a full-length album, due out in 2023.

We had the pleasure of catching up with Kaïa to discuss her upcoming album, career journey, and what’s next for this multitalented artist. Read more in the spotlight below.

Let’s go back to the beginning. When did you realize you wanted to become a music creator?

It wasn’t anything I completely consciously chose. I grew up in and around music; my grandpa built guitars, my mom ran festivals, and my aunt sang a lot and wrote songs around me growing up. I played the piano, and then the cello, and then I randomly got into the banjo too. At one point when I was quite young I remember thinking everyone’s family played instruments and had kitchen parties during the holidays. Ha!

And so making albums felt really natural; I launched a few Kickstarter campaigns to fund my records when I was going through college. Once I was slated to graduate, I just figured that the most natural thing to do was become a musician—a songwriter specifically, because I was most interested in songwriting at the time.

What do you love most about making music?

The complete and total creative freedom of it combined with the fact that you can elicit very complicated emotions through melody and a few words. It’s magic… it’s like you get to live your regular life of errands and chores, and then make music and transcend all the petty things. This is a tad corny, but at its best, playing music really feels like getting closer to the divine.

How would you define your music? Your style, your sound?

I absolutely love storytelling, so my rule in my job as a composer or songwriter is really to get out of the way and support the telling of a story. Instrumentally I play the banjo, and acoustic guitar and I sing, so I’ll work with a lot of manipulated acoustic sounds. I also have a background in percussive dance so I’ll do some body percussion, or non-traditional percussive sounds to add to the score or song. Though, anything I do is always driven by pulling out the right emotional thread of a scene or making sure the character is represented properly and accurately on screen through the music. 

You completed the Slaight Music Residency in 2022, can you tell us about your experience and some of the highlights?

My fellow composers and I came into the Slaight Program at a really weird time; we all started working together online during the deepest lockdowns of the pandemic. So we bonded very quickly because of the strangeness of it all. I think we were happy to learn about screen composing and at least get to make art during a time that felt deeply existential and frightening. One of my highlights was getting to write a score for a small chamber orchestra to play, and getting the cue recorded. The best memories I’ll carry with me are the friendships I made with the other residents and mentors.

What are some opportunities that have manifested for you since completing the Residency?

I got to write a few songs for the CBC production of The Porter, which is the biggest Black-led tv series in Canadian history! I was so grateful to be a part of that, and I thank Kaya Pino from The Wilders for suggesting my name as a songwriter for the show.

Can you tell us about the song(s) you created for The Porter and what it means to you to be part of this celebrated series?

It meant a tremendous amount to me. I was born and partially raised in Montreal, where the series takes place. Prior to working on the show I had no idea of the Black history of the Little Burgundy neighbourhood. I was previously completely unaware of the roles that Black porters had in the Civil Rights Movement, so I learned a lot about Black Canadian history while helping to craft the original songs for the show. 

I wrote several songs, mostly for Loren Lott’s character Lucy who is a young woman who faces racism, sexism and colourism while trying to become successful as a singer, songwriter and dancer. I used metaphors seen in 20th-century literature and music, including Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” I wanted Lucy’s words to feel powerful; she was such a complex character, and I wanted the music and lyrics to be equally as complex and imagistic.

Due to the show’s success, it’s easy to forget the amount of pressure that Arnold, Bruce, Annmarie, Marsha, Charles and RT had on them with this historic, Black-led series. Often, Black-led series are subjected to so much more racism and scrutiny in the media landscape than series with white creators and showrunners. The entire creative team on this series, from writing to production to costume design, is making sure that all these characters had depth. It’s for us, by us. I just have such deep respect for everyone who worked on this show.

The music industry has changed radically with rapid technological advances and the evolution of social media. What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of these changes for artists in today’s musical climate? 

I think it’s easy to say that music has always been dying, and in a way it has. There has always been something heralding the end for us, and right now it’s AI-generated music. But I think that we’ll all still find a way to survive. I’d personally love it if granting agencies could become less prohibitive to apply to so that more creatives could have their projects approved. I also believe that fighting for our publishing rights as composers is incredibly important.

What does the future of music look like to you?

All sorts of things! Maybe songs become one-minute-long, or film cues get released as albums, like Japanese Breakfast’s album Sable. I think the future of music is more collaborative, with more and more opportunities for everyone. I see creatives pushing back against their rights being eroded, and making weird and lovely films and albums.

What changes would you like to see in the music industry?

Less exploitation of musicians, fairer contracts. Everybody knows their rights.

Who are some artists who have influenced your musical journey? 

Too many to list! But offhand, Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Buffy Sainte Marie, Moses Sumney, Aoife O’Donovan, and many filmmakers, including Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, Hannah Yohannes and my CFC colleague V.T. Nayani, as well as my 2021 composer cohort—they’re ALL badass musicians and I’ve learned so much from each of them.

Any words of wisdom or advice for aspiring creators?

You’ll be scared. There’ll be fear and that little voice that tells you you’re going to fail. Do it anyway. “Walk on air against your better judgment.” – Seamus Heaney

What’s next for you? 

I’m making a record! And then I’ll tour it for a while. I’m open to song commissions or film composing projects as well. Bring on 2023!

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