Interview: Naama Kates (2013) King for the Day

Naama Kates
Naama Kates
(Courtesy of Luis Aguirre)

[dropcap size=big]N[/dropcap]aama Kates is maddeningly difficult to pin down. She refuses to categorize her sound, relying instead on the descriptions applied by listeners. In fact, it’s hard to tell if there’s even a specific sound she’s striving for, admitting to the constant evolution of her music. She isn’t even sure that she’ll still be a singer-songwriter five years from now. Kates is as ethereal and whimsical as her music; yet, it’s this intangibility that makes her so attractive, as an artist and as a person. She is a mystery waiting to be solved and a hidden treasure that begs to be discovered, and soon audiophiles everywhere will have another opportunity to welcome Kates into their musical libraries with her sophomore album King for the Day.

Hollywood was lonely, reads Naama Kates’ website, explaining how she felt after having moved to Los Angeles from New York in late 2009. “I came out here over a summer, when I was acting,” Kates explains. She had been pursuing an acting career in New York in theater and independent film when she decided to vacation in California one summer. Her manager set her up for an audition, and she landed the part, keeping her in California longer. “I had been wanting to move for a while, I think. It was time for a change, so that made me do it. I love [California] now; I really hated it for two years.”

It was during that transition period that Kates’ artistic path was altered, and she stopped pursuing acting, opting instead to nurture her musical inclinations. “I didn’t study much formally,” she confesses, “I took some piano lessons for a couple of years as a kid. And then I think in adulthood – 17 and on – I kind of floated through different arts. I didn’t really know – I still don’t know – what I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily even want to be in the arts, really, but my love for it and appreciation for it started as a kid.” Kates had danced ballet when she was younger, and the dancers were always accompanied by a piano. “I always loved it. I always liked singing along to music; it made me really happy.” Today, the piano is the instrument on which she writes and performs music.

Kates’ first album The Unexamined Life debuted in 2012, and comprised the very first 12 songs she had ever written. “Writing each song is different,” she explains of the writing process, “you’re not aware that it’s gonna be an album of a particular length or that anything is going to go into it…. Once each song is written that feels like a shedding of something; it feels good.” Ironically, Kates didn’t really know why she had written these songs and had no aspirations to create an album. It wasn’t until she had met the man who would ultimately produce the record that the project took shape.

Of course, those early days were learning experiences. “I used to be really nervous,” Kates says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, you know, when I was first doing it. I’m amazed at how badly I played and allowed myself to perform when I started going to open mikes with my own stuff.” She consumed a lot of alcohol to help her get on stage, but it didn’t help much. “I would still be nervous, just slower,” she laughs.

'King for the Day' by Naama Kates.
‘King for the Day’ by Naama Kates.

Now Kates has her sophomore effort titled King for the Day on the horizon, available on March 12, 2013. The album was recorded with her new quartet, because she wanted an “ensemble experience rather than orchestration.” As a special touch, each track was recorded as a single take, rather than in parts. “I wanted that feel,” Kates says, “because the band sort of…we do play off of each other. And I’ve certainly been told by the players in my band that they have to watch me sometimes to play, because my timing is very dependent on the breath and I’ll hold things longer. There’s a lot of improvisation…so it would have been hard to do differently.”

As for the music, it’s eclectic and textured in surprising ways. At times it’s airy and jazzy, other times it’s roaring and raucous. The lyrics shift from literal to figurative to esoteric, but always evocative of some sense memory even when she isn’t actually singing words. Yet newcomers shouldn’t necessarily expect radio-friendly songs, and Kates anticipates the accessibility challenges of her music. “It really just came out, and I very much doubted it at first,” she says of her songwriting. “I realized it was wacky. I realized I was putting things together that seemed disconnected and I didn’t even know why…. I don’t ever really try to structure or even to write unless I feel really compelled to in a moment when I sit down and do…the songs. And the stuff that I’m saying, I feel like it’s probably filler lyrics – it doesn’t make sense – but then I end up sticking with them and I realize ‘Oh, that does make sense. Now I know what I was talking about’ afterwards.”

As with all art, Kates is communicating through her medium, but the message isn’t specific to one demographic. “What I’m trying to communicate specifically I’d say…I understand the universal in the personal. That’s just what I have to accept. You can’t worry about what this is going to mean or why somebody is going to care about my experiences because that’s just what I know to write about. If it’s honest, I feel people relate to it. I guess I’m just hoping it’ll affect somebody and make them feel understood. Because that’s what music does for me.”

Despite the common temptation to include a pop song just to lure more listeners, Kates simply shrugs off the idea, citing that she can’t write any differently than the way she writes. “My last record had some things that were maybe a little more approachable; it wasn’t deliberate then either. That’s just what I wrote and how it was treated with the arrangements. But I don’t deliberately try to be esoteric or I don’t deliberately try to be accessible, I just try to be true.”

And it’s that level of rigid, complete honesty that will enthrall listeners. King for the Day is less about being catchy, and more about capturing the truth in any fleeting moment. So when the album inevitably ends, it’s a jarring experience, and listeners will be hard pressed not to restart the record and lose themselves in Naama Kates’ music once more.


King for the Day is available on March 12, 2013.

Follow Naama Kates on her website