Inside a New Pornographer's hard-won peace
Kathryn Calder finds a home
Throughout most of the decade since Kathryn Calder joined Vancouver supergroup the New Pornographers in 2005, the Victoria-born songwriter has led a hectic, disjointed life. Spending much of her time on the road or traversing back and forth between Victoria and Vancouver, she has often felt out of touch with her local community.
“I started travelling a lot,” she tells Megaphone over Skype while in France on vacation. “I wasn’t playing Vancouver as much or being there as much, so I felt there was a period of a few years where I was a little bit disconnected from what was going on.”
Her personal life also went through some major shakeups: she acted as a caregiver when her mother battled the motor neuron disease ALS before dying in 2009, and she had a long-distance relationship with Vancouver-based producer Colin Stewart (Dan Mangan, Yukon Blonde, Black Mountain), with whom she tied the knot in 2011.
“I went on tour and I did all this stuff and my mom died,” she remembers. “I was really trying to fill a lot of space with touring and being busy. I got exhausted without realizing that’s what I was doing to myself. I was trying to write and record and trying to keep going and it just wasn’t happening because I was too tired.”
These days, however, everything has changed. Stewart closed up his Vancouver recording facility the Hive in 2013, and the couple now lives a 30-minute drive outside of Victoria.
“We’re in Saanich, so we’re in a rural, forested nook on the Island,” Calder explains. “Our house is a very peaceful place. There’s lots of trees, there’s lots of nature. I feel that I have space and time, and I can be as loud as I want. That’s one of the things I really prize about where we live—if I want to yell, I feel like I can.”
From turbulence, quiet
It’s ironic, given her newfound freedom to make a racket, that the songwriter’s latest solo album is her softest, most delicately pretty work to date. The self-titled Kathryn Calder, which came out back in April, is filled with sweetly atmospheric ballads based largely around gossamer guitars, twinkling electronic ambience and the vocalist’s reverent, angelic singing. With the exception of the hypnotic synth grooves of “Take a Little Time” and “My Armour,” it’s a record of lullaby-like softness.
“I was in a very contemplative mood during the recording of a lot of this record,” she reflects. “I was out in the woods inmy house, just hanging out there and recording music. I’m naturally a brainy person more than an active person — I’m very much in my brain. Those thingsmade it a quiet, contemplative record.”
In addition to pressing forward with her career and home life, Calder has been using her public platform as a musician to channel her tragic family experiences into a positive cause. She spoke about ALS at TEDxVictoria in 2013, and sheis the star of a new documentary about the disease called A Matter of Time.
Directed by Casey Cohen and spearheaded by the charitable organization YellowBird Project, it offers an intimate glimpse into the Calder family’s battle with the illness that is known colloquially as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The film was funded with a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $66,130, and it recently made its premiere at a festival in Britain. More worldwide screenings will follow.
“I feel compelled to do something,” the singer says of her sudden status as an ALS spokesperson. “If I am somebody who makes music and has this voice in the world that could do good, that could bring awareness to this illness, then I have to do it.”
"This is the end of the healing process of that whole period of time that spanned..three records...I'm still writing about grief...How could this cruel disease exist? How can I approach life so that I'm not just drowning in this dark place?"
Facing grief directly
Even though it can be emotionally draining to share her family’s most private struggles with the world, she finds it therapeutic to face her grief directly and make a productive impact. “It’s this helpful and healthy process,” she says about her willingness to talk about her mother’s illness. “It definitely was very helpful and also pretty hard, because who wants to be crying in public all the time?” As heart-wrenching as this commentis, Calder chuckles when she says it.
After so much grief, she now finally seems to have achieved a sense of peace and closure. This emotional journey can be traced through her three albums: 2010’s Are You My Mother? was a homemade maternal tribute, 2011’s Bright and Vivid was colourful and emotionally scattershot, while Kathryn Calder offers level-headed resolution.
“This is the end of the healing processof that whole period of time that spanned those three records,” she reflects. “I’m still writing about grief and coming to terms with all this stuff and thinking about what’s going on in this crazy world. How couldthis cruel disease even exist? How is that possible? How can I approach life so that I’m not just drowning in this dark place? This last record was the culmination of all of my thoughts about what had gone on. I think I’ve gotten to a place where I’ve processed— now, five years or six years later—what happened over the course of those years.”