Name: Ka Baird
Occupation: Musician/ vocalist / educator
Current Release: Respires on RVNG
Recommendations: MC Yallah’s (w Debmaster “Kubali” and Meara O’Reilly) Hockets For Two Voices
Website/Contact: Stay up to date with Ka Baird's music and shows at www.kabaird.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was attracted to the magic of music, sound, performance, theatre from as far back as I can remember. I had a hernia surgery when I was in kindergarten and I remember taking much comfort in my Curious George stuffed animal and music, which for me at the time was like the Muppets Movie soundtrack or Lily Tomlin’s “Free To Be You and Me” or something. When I first started taking piano lessons I would deviate from the lessons and start writing my own songs or riffing on a classical piece. I also was in a ton of plays and summer stock productions.
When I was 16, I started a band with three other high school friends. We were obsessed with early Throwing Muses, the Raincoats, and The Slits. Our first band was called Vicky’s Box (song off Throwing Muses self titled first album) and later we became Polmolive. We performed maybe twice. Mostly it was about imagining what we would be or could be.
Later around age 20 or so I was living in New Orleans alone for a few months and was lost, not sure what direction to take in life. I had started and stopped college several times already. I was interested in art and music but also writing, philosophy, literature, anthropology. It was during that lost time in New Orleans I had the realization that the act of creating saved me every time. Everything else was consumption; and I believed music was the most immediate of all the art forms. I made a pact with myself during that time in New Orleans to devote my life to music/sound. I started to record my own songs on a handheld tape recorder. My first real attempt at “production.”
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
The creative process is organic and ongoing. While in the beginning you are definitely more vulnerable to outside influences, growth is constant (or should be!) and can be inspired from inside or outside influences throughout one’s life as an artist. It is a conversation where we all are influenced by everyone and the stew of ideas, relevant conversations, crises, questions we ask ourselves and each other. All these energies spiral around each other. That is the dynamic conversation of the NOW. When I first started to write my own music, I had my favourite bands and artists for sure but at the same time when I first started to write music with real determination with my long-time project Spires That In The Sunset Rise, we approached it with an incredibly open mind, blank slate approach. It felt so fresh with Spires. We all had a total love affair with instruments in general and loved to approach them without context/rules. Spires started out as a wild take on the new folk movement of the aughts that incorporated more experimental influences and unorthodox approaches, resulting in some kind of Raincoats meets Comus meets Captain Beefheart meets Harry Partch kind of sound. The band experimented with so many instruments—voice, guitar, banjo, zither, mbira, spike fiddle, cello, harmonium, flute, saxophone, drums, etc-- including alternate tunings, odd re-stringings, banging on instruments’ bodies, and putting contact mics in strange places and running them through various effects pedals. We routinely traded instruments and constantly shifted roles. What resulted was an extremely raw sound that created a very devoted following as well as a boatload of mainstream haters. Perhaps aptly, we were often described as “witches” by the press in our earlier days because of our wild vocals and obtuse, esoteric approach to songwriting.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
That is hard to answer. Obviously writing music as a solo musician is completely different than writing music in a band, which I had been doing pretty much exclusively for so many years. I identify neither as a leader or a follower so being a solo musician makes a lot of sense for me. I am able to work at my own pace with my own sense of criteria and criticality. When working with a group you are constantly compromising and making space for everyone. Spires was also a very egalitarian band meaning there was no “leader” so we were all working together.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I have always had my own studio within my living space, whether is it my bedroom or a special room within the living space. It is important for me to produce my own music; it is part of the compositional process. I have been doing this for almost 20 years so yes of course over the years I have gotten better at it, acquired better equipment etc … I am not so interested in talking about specific gear. I think it is just a distraction for at least what I am doing. That being said, my set up is going deeper into the world of electronics both digital and analogue, a few small steps into the world of modular synthesis.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
My voice is a constant growling, spitting, breathing, aching, croaking force in my music. The flute is another vessel for breath and guttural expression. Also, my performances are becoming more embodied, to the point that almost after every performance I am dripping in sweat. The sound courses through my body now to the point that I cannot stand still while on stage. It becomes something akin to a purge, some kind of ecstatic experience, a frenzied type of “body music” that is immediate, visceral, available.
But in addition to this physical, human element I also bring in the technological elements of analogue/modular synthesizers and MIDI voices which have their own systems, limitations, also the processing of the voice through various effects. Also, the drones- the spiritual depth of the machines. I think I am constantly searching for what I like to call a “primal electronics”…something raw and basic, like fucking with the timbres and parameters of a single oscillator. I believe electronics have become part of the “folk” vocabulary of today.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
You either own your tools or your tools own you. The instruments, software, synthesizers are just means for providing an experience. And it is about the energy and the experience that I am most interested in talking about.
Each set I play, I yearn to create a deeper sound world that I can lose myself in, and this yearning has become my modus operandi—the catharsis of performance and the ability to create a sound in which I can do that.
I have mastered my tools over the past 20 years of playing and know exactly when I need to be in control and when I can completely let go. My previous years of identifying as a musician pay off in that respect.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Improvisation is an essential part of my practice. I like to put myself in new and uncomfortable positions. It is a vital, in-the-moment exchange that creates the stage for forging new territory sound-wise, that would be harder to access playing alone.
I also have a few rich relationships where it is more of a studio/recording relationship where we routinely file-share etc. Those are essential.
And in theory I would love to talk more with people about ideas/approaches, but I tend to keep pretty private about my process.