Kaia Kater has always considered herself a storyteller. “It’s a huge aspect of how I process the world around me,” she says. After growing up in Canada, Kater moved to West Virginia as a college student. The idea, she told her parents at the time, was to study Appalachian folk music, but what Kater really wanted to do was soak in other people’s stories, to learn about how they narrated and vocalized their own histories. “When I went to Appalachia I was really fascinated with hearing people’s stories, stories about their songs, the history behind the songs,” she says.
But after spending the last seven or so years of her young adulthood immersed in the folk tradition of narrative storytelling as a banjo-playing singer-songwriter, the 25-year-old realized that there was one story she needed to tell: her family’s.
As a teenager, Kater had always resisted indulging in her autobiography, the Canadian daughter of a Quebec-born mother and Grenadian father who immigrated to Canada as a teenager.
“A lot of first-generation Canadians never feel like their family’s history is that interesting,” she says. “I found that in Appalachia too: you grow up there and then you want to leave and find success elsewhere. I kind of did that same thing where I didn’t really find my family’s history that interesting or that compelling or that worthwhile.”
But after a transformative 2017, a year in which, as Kater puts it, “a lot of the ground that I thought was sure, began to quake underneath my feet,” she began exploring her own identity and roots via the tale of her father’s difficult journey from Grenada to Canada as a teenager.
The resulting piece of work, Grenades, which will be released later this month via Smithsonian Folkways, represents Kater’s breakthrough moment as a vital roots storyteller.
The album, her third, is a dense, stylistically varied collection of original songs inspired by her father’s history, interspersed with spoken-word interludes from her dad, Deno, who fled Grenada in 1986, just a few years after the Reagan administration invaded the country in 1983.
Kater describes the album as an “exploration of my history, and of my dad being a refugee, and the idea of feeling a little bit displaced, as I think a lot of hyphenated Canadians do.”
The album, which includes flourishes of a cappella balladry, old-time music, gentle-strummed folk, and country-lilted pop, represents a subtle, but marked shift in Kater’s sound. It’s her first record to use a full band after her first two more straightforward, acoustic folk releases. After years writing songs on banjo, Kater began writing on acoustic guitar and electric piano. To further shape the songs, she enlisted the Canadian producer Erin Costelo, whose sonic background ranges more from soul and R&B to electronic music, to help come up with a record that ventured from strict Americana conventions. One key point of reference for Costelo and Kater? The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell’s daring 1975 masterpiece that dramatically strayed from her previous works.
“Not to disparage any Americana or roots artists, but I wanted to put out something that showed an evolution and showed a change,” says Kater.
Apart from Mitchell, Kater cites works like Solange’s A Seat at the Table and SZA’s Ctrl, two albums that explicitly interrogated personal family histories, as two key LPs that inspired her to embark on this project. Inspired to finally look into her own ancestral history, Kater spent much of the past year and a half writing original songs, first at her home in Toronto, and then, eventually, in Grenada, where the singer traveled, for the first time since being a child, for a month in the spring of 2018.
When Kater visited Grenada, she was in the midst of what might be called an artistic quarter-life identity crisis, having spent several years touring Nine Pin, her 2016 album that introduced her as one of the more exciting young traditional-leaning voices in Americana and roots music.
“It was a year of figuring out what my family history is, and really, figuring out who I am. What is my purpose as an artist?” says Kater. “I was searching, and I knew that I needed to go back to Grenada because there was always this shadow in my history that I had never fully explored.”
Kater thought the trip might provide her with all the answers she had been seeking. She even believed she may not ever leave. But the journey ended up providing more questions than answers, questions that Kater realized she could only process, and vocalize, through music.
Grenades is a moving concept album, a carefully-constructed narrative arc full of moments of heightened conflict and graceful, hard-won resolution. The title track, which juxtaposes a breezy, gorgeous melody with depictions of harsh violence, serves as a stand-in for the contrast of the country’s innate, overwhelming natural beauty with the man-made violence (machine guns, helicopters) that came about with the American invasion in the early Eighties.
Above all, Grenades helps expand and challenge the borders of what traditionally-defined roots music can sound like, and what types of stories that music is supposed to tell.
“Ultimately,” says Kater, “it was an album that was about processing a lot of what I was going through musically and about being at peace with my history. Being more at peace with being biracial, with being a hyphenated Canadian. It was about finding strength in that, rather than seeing it as a weakness or as a failure.”