Photo by Jonathan Roensch
Kate Bollinger Explores The Power & Nuance Of Communication On New EP
Listening to music is a deeply personal experience. Even if a song is explicitly about a certain event or feeling, each listener will bring different views or memories to the track that can change their perception. This is an inevitable part of making any art, so songwriter Kate Bollinger went and made her music this way intentionally.
Whether listening to her 2019 EP I Don’t Wanna Lose or tracks from her new EP A word becomes a sound (out Aug. 21), listeners will find that the Virginia native has given them ample room to graft their own experiences onto her songs. Recent single "Feel Like Doing Nothing" is a whimsical track that showcases both the pop sensibilities and jazz flair that defines her music, but lyrically it’s broad enough to be an ode to off days or a rallying cry to keep going; it’s up to the listener to decide what they want it to be. That’s not to say Bollinger doesn’t think about how she writes and communicates through her music. From the title to the writing style, A word becomes a sound is the product of Bollinger thinking a lot about how people share and interpret information from one another. Its creation also coincided with the beginning of the shutdown resulting from COVID-19, necessitating an adaptable approach from Bollinger and producer John Trainum to bring it all together.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Bollinger at the end of a busy summer, as she finished a cinematography degree from the University of Virginia and moved to Richmond while putting the finishing touches on the project and navigating the pandemic. She took a break from unpacking to chat about her distinctive approach to writing and the nuances of communication.
It's an exciting time between your move and the EP coming out. How are you feeling having this out in the world for people to hear?
I'm so excited. I'm the kind of person who will write a song and want to release it right away, so having more of a team working on my music has been great but it’s also been getting used to things taking time when more people are involved to make the project ultimately better. I'm very excited to finally be getting it out because now it feels like I wrote the songs forever ago, and I guess it really hasn’t been that long.
With the writing, you've said you keep it intentionally vague to let listeners put their own experiences onto the song and make it their own. How did that approach come about?
I don't think I go into songs with much of an intention. Eventually while I’m writing a song I just find what I’m writing about. I don’t go in knowing what I’m going to write about. That kind of approach started in a pretty natural way and I realized I was doing it more than I meant to actually be doing it.
The title A word becomes a sound, is the central song of the EP and obviously the name of it. I think it's a really profound way of looking at the power we can give communication. What made you arrive at that for the central theme of the EP?
There were multiple things. One of them, I was reading a bunch by the author [Vladimir] Nabokov, the Russian author. And I read this one short story that he wrote called "Terror," and it’s about a guy who you see the process of him going crazy and disassociating. It's this concept I really liked that he was simultaneously really lonely and feeling really isolated but then when he would be around his partner he was also feeling too uncomfortable to be around another person. That was one of the concepts I loved. There was another part of the story where he went outside and he described how all of the objects like the houses and trees and the people and the cars and everything just were reduced to their name or their title. I took that another step further thinking about how I communicate now. A lot of the time I’ll say something and then later I’ll think about it and I’ll be like, "Well, that’s not at all actually what I mean." And there’s another layer where the person probably interpreted it a totally different way then how I said it, which wasn’t even representative of what I meant. The title is meant to mean a bunch of different things and I think it's vague enough too that people will come up with their own meanings as well.
With the music on the EP and your previous music too, you incorporate a lot of jazz elements alongside the folk and pop side. How do you balance more of the improvisation of jazz with the more structured pop elements?
I like jazz, but I think it’s honestly starting to work with the musicians who are in my band that I started working with a little over a year ago now, who are jazz musicians. I think they added that element a lot. I don’t feel like we improvised necessarily a lot as a band, I feel like I'm the one who brings the structure of more of a pop song to them and then they add the elements of jazz and a little bit of improvisation. And now that we all know each other well and know how each other plays music I feel like we can start to improvise a little bit more, which has been cool.
You grew up surrounded by a lot of music: brothers were in bands, your mom was a music therapist. What aspects of that upbringing do you bring to your writing today?
The main way that impacts me is just that it was always around. It was always how people who grow up in families that play sports all the time, it’s just always around and it’s a really natural thing to do. And that’s how it was in my family. There wasn’t any pressure really to do it, but it was just something that was always there. Then it was in sixth grade my mom gave me a guitar because I had been writing songs a cappella for awhile, since I was little. She got me a guitar and taught me a few chords and then I just took it from there and it felt really natural.
Do you still start writing with the guitar?
Definitely. If I'm writing alone I’ll start with the guitar part and then I’ll write a vocal part. Or my main collaborator is [my producer] John—sometimes he’ll send me a beat or he’ll play me something on keys and then I’ll learn it on guitar. It can happen a bunch of different ways.
Speaking of John and the production of this EP, I understand it changed quite a bit when this pandemic started and everything shut down. What was it like adapting the process to this new reality?
I think the main thing that changed is that on the earlier EP, I Don't Wanna Lose, the first EP I did with my band, we learned all the songs and had been playing and rehearsing them, and then we recorded all five songs as live takes in one day at the studio. For this EP I wanted a mix, I knew there were a couple songs John and I were going to record that were more beat-driven that didn’t involve as many live takes or live instruments. And so we had to adapt to the idea that there wouldn’t be really any full band live takes other than a couple things we had previously recorded. It was a lot of piecing things together, which ended up being really fun because I was more involved in the production stuff and there was more production on this EP than the last one. Whereas the last one was just my band capturing us playing the songs as we did live.
With the cinematography degree, is there anything you learned about film that you've taken into writing music?
I think I've started to see–just having seen and been shown so many films that I probably wouldn’t have watched normally in my class–I do automatically now start to see visuals with my songs. I don’t think I was really doing that before, I've always pictured visuals that could go along with songs I write, but now it feels like it’s based off more of an understanding of what things could look like or what I'm capable of personally filming or people that I work with.