“You know me. Ain’t you seen me before?” Kaia Kater asks in “The Heavenly Track,” off her new release, Grenades. She answers with, “I’m the comfort of the stranger in the writings on the stall.” The album is full of quietly explosive lines like that, details of life rendered with precision, purpose, and poetry.
“I do a lot of free-writing, which helps get out the imagery that I like,” Kater explains. “That line came from moments when I’d be in bathrooms and see very kind words on the bathroom door. I think the one that hit me was ‘you are beautiful.’ I thought, ‘What compels us to do that?’ Drunkenness, sure, but it has to be something more.”
And that “something more” is what Kater explores throughout Grenades, the searching tied to her family’s past, present, and future. “It’s a mix of writing about love and finding one’s place at 24, but also about home and belonging which, for me, is a search that extends miles and miles — both on the earth itself and in my brain.”
Born in Montreal, Kater studied Appalachian music in West Virginia and dove deep into old-time banjo music on her previous releases, including 2016’s award-winning Nine Pin. For Grenades, she took a decidedly different direction, choosing to lean into a wider array of sounds and styles, in order to convey a wider array of emotions and topics, most notably her paternal ancestry.
Kater’s father grew up in Grenada, fleeing to Canada in 1986 as part of a student exchange program, after the U.S. invasion. His voice can be heard recounting those events during the album’s interludes — a way for the Canadian songwriter to tie his past to her present, in order to understand our current global climate of war, unease, immigration, and displacement. Kater revisits the past in songs like “La Misere” and “Grenades”; touches on the present in “Canyonland” and “New Colossus”; and looks to the future in “Poets Be Buried.”
To fully immerse herself in the story, Kater spent time in her father’s homeland — her first visit as an adult. “Going home to Grenada felt like shining a light into a part of myself previously shadowed,” she says. “I always knew that I had ‘family back home,’ which is something many children of immigrants are made to understand from an early age. I knew I was part of a clan, part of something bigger. But, for much of my life, it was just me and my parents.”
Traveling to Grenada was meant to answer a lifetime’s worth of questions, but only led to more questions which found their way into these songs as she considered “the legacy of lineage, of broken family trees, of immigration.” In “Meridian Ground,” she traces those roughly hewn lines upon a breezy backdrop: “My auntie died in a one room house on the top road with the candles cold, and a smile upon her face. We run inside and place our kites by her bed frame. She surges higher, the hills and the gullies fall.”
The gently lolling “Grenades” is as inwardly observational as it is outwardly political in its bardic take on life in the wake of an invasion. Kater’s vivid imaginings throughout the album give credence to the idea of intergenerational trauma impacting descendants of war and enslavement on a cellular level. “I certainly feel like our history walks around with us every day,” she notes. “I wrote ‘Grenades’ by trying to imagine myself as my dad, when he was a little boy, seeing this all happen.
“Your perspective when you’re a child is so different, so hopelessly anchored in what you hear and what you see,” she continues. “Your ability to process things intellectually is not as strong, but your emotions are more self-evident than any adult because you haven’t learned to hide them yet. So all you know is what you feel and hear. Much of the song’s imagery is the juxtaposition of sandy beaches, coral reefs, and lemonade, with war objects like planes, grenades, and carpet bombs. What do those two images do to a child? How do you reconcile them?”
Kater wrote all of the songs on Grenades, but had a little help with “La Misère” thanks to an Emory Cook recording she found in the Smithsonian Folkways Archives. The melody caught her ear, so she recorded it. When she couldn’t make out the French griot-like words, she made up some of her own. “The song has that half-singing/half-shouting schoolyard call and response, but it’s centered around the theme of misery,” she notes. “I love having dark themes ensconced in happy melodies. Somehow it feels more real that way.”
On other cuts, Kater’s pen cuts a more esoteric path, but never overly so. She challenges her listeners to do the work of listening, actively and intentionally, and rewards them for that effort, generously and thoughtfully. In that regard, she operates as more of a poet than a musician, and with good reason. “Poetry has had such a deep and reverberant impact on my life, so far,” she offers. “I find poems very comforting, mainly because they are freeing. Everything is a choice. Every single lyric in this album has been internally debated to the point that its inclusion is nothing less than deliberate.”
She explains further, “My natural inclination is to write in a puzzle. I liken it to the Buddhist tradition of koans — the tautological phrases which confuse the reader. But I’m equally interested in music, because it provides a solid form to back up against. It’s important to me, melodically, that it still be a jam, that it still be something you can listen to and dig without needing to know the lyrics inside out.”
To that end, Kater partnered with producer Erin Costelo to create a musical aesthetic that pulled from more than just the Appalachian influences of her past efforts. Artists like Aoife O’Donovan and Daniel Lanois figured prominently in the artistic vision. “I play acoustic guitar on the record, and the title track doesn’t even have banjo in it, so we knew it would be different right off the bat,” Kater says. “We anchored a lot of the sound with guitar player Christine Bougie (Bahamas, Good Lovelies). I knew I wanted Christine on the record, and we built the sound from there.”
For the album’s coda, “Poets Be Buried,” Kater brings back her banjo. “’Poets’ was one of the last songs to be written,” she says. “I needed a closing statement, an aerial view of the themes I’d been exploring. It’s a song written solely from my perspective, trying to anticipate the next generation — my children — and what I’d tell them about this awful, ugly, confusing, courageous, deeply human time in our history. It’s a poem about what I need to tell myself. It’s a song of compassion above everything.”
Precision, purpose, and poetry… those are the weapons Kaia Kater wields on Grenades.