Katy Kirby and Kate Davis Come Bearing Gifts

The ANTI- labelmates talk art as a kind of offering, music thanatology, and more.

Katy Kirby is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn; Kate Davis is a singer-songwriter also based in New York. Katy and Kate are labelmates on ANTI-, and recently met and hit it off while Katy was on tour in Portland (in support of her latest record, Blue Raspberry). Recently, the two new friends got on a Zoom call to catch up. You can read their conversation below (and find more from Katy Kirby in the latest issue of the Talkhouse Reader). 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Katy Kirby: Hi, Kate. How’s it going?

Kate Davis: Things are good. I can’t complain at the moment.

Katy: Sweet. I should let you know, I did buy that chorus pedal that you were telling me about. It’s so good. 

Kate: Do you feel like you’re in The Cure?

Katy: I do feel like I’m in The Cure a little bit. I’m not a big guitar pedal guy, intuitively, so it took me a little while to find something that I liked, but it’s really rocking my world. So thanks for the tip.

Kate: Oh, for sure. I feel like I respond to pedals just as much by how I perceive them to affect me, or how they look, and then it’s right. I’m not a pedal guy either. I just make a choice and then I’m like, This is it. I was spiritually connected to this thing.

Katy: Exactly! Also, sometimes — maybe this is an insane way to relate to guitar pedals, but — I just got back from tour opening for the Mountain Goats, and it was solo, but I had my little guitar pedal set up that I usually use when I play full band. There were some nights where I didn’t click any of them on at any point, just because of how the room sounded or something. And none of them are crazy, but I realized they were becoming emotional support guitar pedals. I was like, Dang. Do I just feel a sense of possibility when I have these little things in front of me, and it reminds me that I can play guitar differently? Is that what’s happening? Are they symbols? Anyway, that’s my gear-isn’t-real thought for the month.

Kate: No, I’ve had that too. But I think it’s both ways. I started trying to do a full set playing an acoustic through my board, which felt… I didn’t know if it was going to work, but I found that it really did make a difference to the feeling. I mean, it’s like an Instagram filter, you know what I mean? It’s not like it’s really changing that much about what you’re doing. It’s just giving a different sheen to it or perspective. Or for me, I have a couple songs where doing live shows, it’s a little more of an energy ass-kicker — I use Fuzz Factory on the chorus or something, and then there’s, like, three people who are rocking. It makes an otherwise sleepy set into something that has a bit more of the peaks.

Katy: Yeah, absolutely. I love a fuzz pedal, also. I cannot play into one nicely, but for the correct guitar player, a little bit of fuzz is my favorite effect. Which is a weird thing to say, but it’s true. Not a big reverb guy. More of a fuzz man.

Kate: I see, I see. Well, you have your whole life to experiment with the sonic landscapes of the board.

Katy: I am really excited about that. Actually, there’s this video of — you know who Elizabeth Cotten is? 

Kate: Yeah. 

Katy: There’s this video of her when she’s, like, 90 and she’s singing and playing “Freight Train,” and—

Kate: I’ve seen this video.

Katy: Yeah! It’s like the only video of her, I guess, because she is from so long ago in history. But what I noticed about it is that her voice — which was never silky or silvery, right? — is really beautifully kind of decayed, for lack of a better word. Or cracking, and has clearly aged. She’s kind of croaking out the words to that song in this way that’s really moving, but her fingers are moving across the fretboard as if she’s 25. I just remember noticing that and feeling excited about having a musical outlet that I know won’t age. You know what I mean? Like, my voice is kind of my primary instrument, but I know that it’s going to decay over time. I’m just now 29, and by the time I’m 50 and 60, I won’t be able to hit certain notes or sustain certain things or get through certain passages of some songs I’ve written, just because I wrote them when I was 20. It’s just exciting to think of being 70 or 80 — barring arthritis or other stuff like that — and be able to build on everything. Even though I’m not really a super shredder. I’m like, I have plenty of time to become a super shredder, technically.

Kate: Well, the thing that makes me think of, too, is: creating a life of music, you start to speak your own language and develop your own thing. It doesn’t need to be virtuosic. It doesn’t need to be anything other than what it is. And that’s something that you do have when you are older, and you look back on your life like, Oh yeah, that’s my legacy. That’s my voice. However it sounds doesn’t actually matter. But if you’ve committed to it, that’s something you carry with you. That’s pretty powerful, you know?

Katy: Damn. That’s crazy powerful. Can I ask a question about your studies in thanatology, kind of related to this?

Kate: Yeah.

Katy: Are you working with clients, for lack of a better word, yet? Do you go see people in your practice, or are you still in the sort of studying phase?

Kate: I do in the capacity of being an intern. I’m there, but kind of with the floaties on. I’m there with my mentor, with a little bit of separation from the whole thing, in that I don’t have to carry the responsibility of it all myself.

Katy: Gotcha. Do you notice that the people who you get called to see — even in the capacity as an intern — do they tend to be musicians themselves?

Kate: In some cases, yeah. I mean, I think a lot of people have music in their lives in one way or another. There’s also plenty of people who probably would be like, “Oh no, I don’t want to engage in this type of music thing, because it makes me feel weird.” I think sometimes, in the same way that music can be like an incredible kind of memory-Pandora’s-box, you can also have things where you’re like, “Oh, I can’t really engage with that, it’s too intense or spooky.” I think bringing that into a space with someone who has been touched by music, it’s probably just a nicer part of that challenging time at the end of life, to get to engage with music. Is it OK if I say what it’s called specifically? Just if people are reading and they’re like—

Katy: Oh, yeah, you probably should do that.

Kate: So, I’m currently studying Music Thanatology, in hopes of one day becoming certified to be a music thanatologist.

Katy: That’s at least Googleable.

Kate: Yeah, it is Googleable. And it’s a good Google!

Katy: Is Thanos the god that rows you across the River Styx. Or is that a different guy? 

Kate: You know, regrettably, my Greek mythology is a little rusty. 

Katy: So valid. 

Kate: But Thanatos is just like the personification of death, at the most basic level. So it’s basically just an amazing word to be the umbrella of death. A lot of people are like, “Sanatology? Scientology?” [Laughs.] But yeah, I have been thinking about it a lot just in relation to trying to make more sense of the life that I had before this one. Not that it is such a different life, but I feel like I have made a shift of trying to put more of my attention into being a student, and trying to take a step back and be like, Cool, I really don’t know that much, so it’s time to listen and learn, and figure out how these things can affect the life I thought I was living. It’s been really profound as a songwriter to think about music differently, or just the voice as an offering.

Katy: Yeah, absolutely.

Kate: And then it changes the way you perform, or the way that you think about performance. Because I think I always kept it pretty locked up, which is not how you sing or perform. That’s not very generous to people listening if you’re singing through a lock box. There’s something very different, letting everything go and offering it. I just love the word “offer.”

Katy: Yeah.

Kate: I feel like you do that. You have a generous voice.

Katy: I try. It gets hard sometimes to stay there, and sometimes I feel like I can go an entire show singing through mostly a lock box, except for maybe one or two spots.

Kate: I kept thinking of this — after I got to hear your show, I listened to the record and it’s perfect. Your execution is just like a laser, you know? And then hearing you live, you have such micro-abilities to lock in in a way that I think is just unfathomable for most people — musicians specifically, who know how nuanced and difficult it is. 

Katy: Thank you so much.

Kate: It reminds me of — I grew up playing violin, and I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with fretless instruments, but just how difficult it is to get that thing exactly in the right harmonic space so that it really opens up. I think that’s one of the most beautiful parts of your voice, that you just know where those spots are. It’s very linear and chromatic at the same time. I keep just seeing, like, a laser—

Katy: [Laughs.]

Kate: It requires so much control and ability to maneuver the thing. So lock box or not, you have a nuanced power within it.

Katy: That is so nice to hear. Thank you. The way that you were talking about an offering makes me think of — have you read that book The Gift?

Kate: No.

Katy: It’s so good! Wait, you’re gonna freak out. I’m gonna mail it to you — there’s a copy of it on this desk — The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s kind of an old one, from the ‘90s or something. It talks about art, kind of, but also about the theory of gifts. Now I’m flipping through it, but it talks a lot about the history of what he calls “gift economies,” which is like: there are certain sections in certain cultures, especially tribal cultures, where there are certain objects are not for economic use. And by that he means, they are only to be circulated as gifts. Wine is sometimes a good example of this, or beads or decorative objects — those kinds of things were objects that were given to you, and then you can re-give them away after a certain time, but you can’t sell or keep them forever. This was a category of trade in certain cultures that shows up pretty frequently, and that we suck at — like, the West is very… We don’t do that. [Laughs.] We suck at that, conceptually. 

But he reframes art and the way that some artists operate as sort of an extension of that. It’s got a lot of layers, because it’s like: OK, what is the gift? It’s the offering — the offering of performance sometimes, the offering of time to create something. It’s a created object sometimes. And it’s also talent in the same way. He talks about how artists are able to make something and we usually call them “gifted.” So whenever I feel, like, fucked in the head with what my job is, that’s sort of the most sanity restoring way to think about it — art as something that is ultimately infinitely give-away-able. And I guess in some ways, not as mysterious or spooky of a resource, and definitely not as rare of a resource as I fear sometimes.

Kate: Enter capitalism and commodification.

Katy: Right. Exactly. And he talks about that too. But honestly, it’s a little bit of a slog because he has this whole, like, three-chapter long section about Walt Whitman. Which is nice and all, but… [Laughs.] 

Kate: I struggle with that concept of, “one possesses a” — I mean, we all have gifts, right? We all have talents or special things that we can offer to the world. It’s the full truth that I love music, but I personally have a really complicated relationship with the idea of my own gift, or what a gift means, and I kind of feel like that’s why I was led to this study. To offer something in a very intimate, non-public space is very different than being a performer. I think it’s really hard to keep that knowing — like what you’re talking about, that reassurance of the gift — it’s hard to keep that with you when you are a public facing person, making things that people decide they like or not. It’s cool that that’s in front of mind for you, and that that’s something that you have as a tool to ground you in what has seemed to be a real season of touring, and I’m sure not an easy time on your body and your mind and your heart and everything. It’s pretty cool what you’ve been doing.

Katy: Thanks, dog. It has not been easy and I have largely forgotten this book’s wisdoms. [Laughs.] But I’m trying. I guess the other thing about gifts is, the more specific they are, the better they are in a lot of ways. And the more intimate they are, that can that can be a really moving type of gift. You know what I mean? And so I wonder if that’s why people feel so protective, especially of smaller artists that don’t have as large of a fan base, and why people can give themselves permission to fall in love harder with a song by Damian Jurado or Karen Dalton or something. Because those probably feel like much smaller and more specific songs than “Skinny Love.” Not that “Skinny Love” is not a banger, because it really is. 

Kate: I know what you mean. There’s more of a sacred… It’s more particular. You have to be a specific type of person to respond to it or feel its resonance. And it’s not for everybody. I think that’s what makes it special.

Katy: Yeah. It’s not exclusionary on purpose, necessarily, it’s just directional. And some writers are better at being universal and making broader songs, and those can be really beautiful in their way too. It’s nice to all sing “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” right?

Kate: Yeah. Do you think that these artists who make [music in] these smaller spaces — do you think that there’s just a deeper connection with self-knowledge or knowing who one is? I mean, to me, that is the difference — it’s like self-versus-other. Writing from your perspective of your human experience, or the way you’re interpreting the world around you that is so unique compared to someone whose job it is to write top line for a hit song or make something sooo relatable…

Katy: Yes.

Kate: And maybe that’s why it’s even more special and intimate when you see yourself in something that’s so intentional or small. You feel like you’ve been revealed to yourself through someone else’s idea. I think it’s so much more powerful.

I’m really curious about your writing process, because I feel like something that’s really changed hugely for me has been giving myself permission to take a step back and be like, OK, you can just enjoy this. This can be for fun. You can sit down and try to create something and not go through hell trying to get it. I used to have this very unhealthy relationship with writing where I would literally go to the depths of my soul and try to unearth something that was painful and not easy, and somehow think that was releasing something for me. And really, I think it was just kind of like some feedback loop, up-my-own-ass kind of shit. But then I just tried to make a choice not to go there, and it turns out that that works, too. That’s something that’s come up. And I know we all have our own version of that. It’s like, how much do you unearth to get to the thing, and what is the thing?

Katy: Right. “What is the thing?” I mean, sometimes the thing is obviously the unearthed.

Kate: Yeah. But you may not know what you’re actually on the archaeological dig for.

Katy: True. And then sometimes it’s like, what if you’re just planting stuff and you’re, like, digging up carrots? Carrots are just as dope as fossils, if we’re talking about digging. That’s a really weird metaphor. But, yes: sometimes unearthing some sort of gem of calcified pain is really worth sharing, and then sometimes it’s not. [Laughs.] Sometimes, that’s just your gem of calcified pain, dog.

Kate: I think that’s the thing I’m learning, that it doesn’t need to be that. I like what you’re saying about a carrot, because it’s closer to the surface. It’s generative. 

Katy: It’s technically less valuable, but it’s also way more useful.

Kate: Exactly. That’s comforting.

Katy: Team carrots.

Katy Kirby is a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn. Her latest record, Blue Raspberry, is out now on ANTI-.