Rebecca El-Saleh is a Brooklyn-based harpist and singer-songwriter who performs as Kitba. Kitba’s self-titled debut is out now on Ruination Recording Co.
(Photo Credit: Sara Laufer)
Kristin Slipp is an artist based in New York, and one-half of the pop duo mmeadows; Rebecca El-Saleh is a Brooklyn-based harpist and singer-songwriter who performs as Kitba. Kitba’s self-titled debut was just released (via Ruination Recording Co.), so to celebrate, the two friends caught up about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Kristin Slipp: OK, let’s talk shop.
Rebecca: So, one of the biggest things that I wanted to talk about was something that we’ve talked about before: A thing that I’ve become really aware of is how damaging pursuing music in higher education was. There were obviously good things that came from it, but generally I’ve spent a decade-plus getting to a place where I could even trust what I’m creating, and feel safe even just by myself to create. What was your experience studying music? Because I know you pursued music as well at a conservatory.
Kristin: Well, that’s a great question. I think when I was in high school studying with a classical singing teacher, and I knew that I was going to pursue music in some way, I recognized that the classical track and going into opera was probably not going to jive with my personality. But I did consider it and audition as a classical vocalist. So I was definitely thinking about going into classical music.
I’m glad that I didn’t, because the parameters under which you have to operate in that style of music probably would have felt claustrophobic to me. So I ended up going to NEC — I was in the jazz program, but there’s a lot of free movement between the different departments. There’s this third department called the Contemporary Improvisation Department, which is sort of like a catch-all for music that’s not under the jazz umbrella or the classical music umbrella. So I think it was very serendipitous that I ended up there. I was able to study the traditions of jazz music, which I didn’t know anything about going into it, but also sing in the chamber choir alongside the opera majors, and take classes with an Indian music guru, and take private lessons with a trumpet player. So I think that was really a good place for me to start investigating other kinds of music, other musical languages. I did find constraints in it, but I don’t think I experienced what you experienced. And you started earlier than I did, too, right?
Rebecca: I was eight when I started.
Kristin: Yeah, you were a little kid.
Rebecca: I think what’s funny is I actually also came to a similar crossroads, and I chose classical music. I’d actually been studying with teachers at Berklee, and was considering going in that direction, because I could sense… I think even when I was younger, I was a people pleaser and I wanted to do the classical thing because it was so easy to see how you check the boxes, you know? Even though I felt that, I still knew there was a part of me that wasn’t being fulfilled by the music that I was playing. But I studied in the summers with this teacher, Judy Loman, who taught at Curtis and in Toronto, and I just got intoxicated by the idea of studying with one of the top harp teachers in the world.
Kristin: Yeah. And when you’re so good at what you’re doing and you’re getting such positive reinforcement, you just want to keep going. You just want to keep pleasing the people that you’re pleasing. Because when you’re young, I feel like positive reinforcement is what fuels you to keep going. Am I wrong?
Rebecca: It’s an insular environment. It sounds like you were in a much more open situation — even at a conservatory. I went to a university and it still sounds like in your music program, you had so much variety and so many other things offered to you. So it wasn’t like all the paths seemed closed to you.
Kristin: Right. Although I do wonder — my roommate was a classical harpist, so if you talked to her, I wonder if she had the same experience. Because when you think about jazz music, it pulls from other musical languages. So there is encouragement to let go to the Sinfonietta concerts, and go check out everything. But I’m not sure if there was that sort of encouragement coming from the other departments.
I did used to go into the harp room when my roommate was practicing and take a nap in the harp case. [Laughs.]
Rebecca: [Laughs.] So nice to know that someone other than a harpist has benefited from a harp case. There were a couple situations in high school where I was stuck in the harp case — I was sleeping, but I was behind several harps — and then one of the other harpists would come in and, like, start fooling around with her boyfriend.
Kristin: Oh, my god, That’s amazing.
Rebecca: Yeah. As I’ve been going through this process, I’ve been thinking about why it took me until I was 35 to write the record that feels the most honest. I look at this moment I had when I did my first EP — I recorded it with this guy, Mike Bell, who unfortunately has passed away. He was in a band called Lymbyc System, who I knew through friends, and he was the first person that took a chance on my music and was so interesting but very supportive. We worked on this whole thing, and I had actually taken a year off of music after my first year, because I had a sort of crisis of, what the hell was I doing? I had to re-audition to get back into the program, and I got back in, and my first lesson back I brought the EP in. I remember sitting and playing the whole thing for [Judy], and it finished and she was like, “Well, that was really nice. So this year, your repertoire is going to be…” I think in the moment, I was like, OK, well, that’s the appropriate response that I was going to get. I don’t know what I was expecting. But I think that was me trying to be like, “This is the thing that I care about.”
Rebecca: “This is the thing that makes me feel alive when I’m performing. This is the thing I want to do.” I think that’s what I was trying to do, and it just got steamrolled. It just wasn’t valid. Because she wouldn’t even teach me in my year off…
Kristin: That must have hurt so much.
Rebecca: It made me feel like a little bit of a baby complaining about some of this stuff, because I was afforded so many opportunities.
Kristin: No, that doesn’t make you a baby. That makes you a human being with feelings.
Rebecca: Yeah. I think it’s interesting to think of the crossroads in making that decision that you made. And obviously I can’t change what I did, but one of the things that I think about, and one of the questions I also had for you, is: what would you want to tell someone who was considering pursuing music on that level?
Kristin: Well. I think about that a lot when I’m teaching a student — who I’m about to go teach after we are done here. She is 13 and I’ve been teaching her since she was six, so I’ve been kind of watching her grow up. I think a lot about how to convey a lesson to her while supporting her creativity and and trying to make it approachable and fun. She has a couple of long term summer assignments, and I was thinking about myself as a kid and how I would approach any assignment: It was always with dread and procrastination. When I’m working with her, I really let her lead me to where she wants to go. And then I try to insert lessons inside of that. And I think that’s maybe what I wanted as a young student.
What I would would say to someone who’s thinking about going into music… I don’t even know if I would necessarily necessarily encourage it. [Laughs.] I would say: One, it’s fucking hard no matter what. Be prepared for how difficult it is; know that most of it’s very unglamorous.
Kristin: But there are moments that make it — like we were talking about earlier, the 40 minutes that you get to actually be on stage sharing your innermost thoughts and desires, that makes it worth it. So, one: it’s hard. Two: try to listen to yourself. Try to find out what makes you tick, not what other people are reinforcing within you. Pay attention to yourself and your own interests and your own desires, no matter how cool or uncool or left of center those things are. No matter what your teacher is telling you, you like what you like, and pay attention to that. There are reasons why you like this stuff and there are reasons why it resonates with you. The more I put my myself in my music, the better it’s received, because people can intuit that.
Rebecca: it’s the scariest thing to do, but it’s worth it.
Kristin: Right, it’s also terrifying. You have to sit down and be like, “OK, teacher, I’ve been working on some fucking shit with you, but this is also inside of me.” And then they may not like it, and that’s terrifying as a pleaser of people, to have somebody not respond the way that you are used to. Getting responses like that can be really scary and deflating. So, yeah, what really drives you has to be what’s coming from inside. And I’m constantly relearning that on tour, when we’re having a horrible day of disasters and I’m playing my songs and nobody in the room is responding, and it feels so demoralizing. I have to tap into that reserve deep inside of me that is just like the essence of who I am. The music has to come from there and I have to just keep listening to that no matter what’s outside of it.
Rebecca: That is a perfect segue to my next thing: You guided me through a really transformational experience with finding my own voice. Which is such a cheesy phrase, but it’s the most appropriate and concise way to say what we did. How did you go about finding your own voice? And how does that inform how you help others?
Kristin: Well, I think it goes back again to paying close attention to what I like and what resonates with me when I hear other people singing. I think I’ve sort of, consciously or subconsciously, studied and tried to wring out from various people’s voices who I idolize, what is it about this voice that is moving me? And is there the possibility that I can take that and use that?
Rebecca: Well, that’s what we did in our lessons.
Kristin: Right, right.
Rebecca: [We were] choosing a song of a voice that I liked, trying to sing it like them, then trying to sing it like me, then trying to do some sort of hybrid of their voice into my own.
Kristin: Yeah. That’s something I think I did at the conservatory early, maybe freshman year. At the time I was like, “Why are we doing this? Why am I imitating Billie Holiday?” You know how you’ll remember something from 15 years ago that you learned in school, and you’re like, Oh, that’s why I was working on this! You have to do some sort of critical look at, what are the literal elements from this performance that is giving me goosebumps? Because so much of music is just a feeling. But what’s giving you the feeling is actually a real, physical thing that’s happening. So what are the characteristics that are making you feel this way? And is there the possibility that you could take something for yourself and use it? Not imitating somebody, but kind of learning what it is that they do and putting that into your little toolkit.
I did some of that in school, but as a curious listener, I’m always kind of picking information up. I’ve always tried to be very thoughtful about not performing with too much affect of any kind. And there was a time when I had a really strict way of singing, with very little ornamentation and very little vibrato, because I felt like the best way that I can convey this song is just, like, real plain. So coming from that place, as I’ve grown, I’ve added affect back into it, but I think the voices that I still gravitate towards are voices that are not over the top. I mean, I can be very impressed by people who can do wild runs, like that really acrobatic style of singing. But I think the kind of singing that moves me the most is more simplistic, where you can really hear the character of the person’s physical voice without a lot of filler, fluff. And I guess that’s sort of what I try to do.
Rebecca: I remember in the beginning of our lessons, talking about how there were certain vocalists that I admired and I thought that their approach was effortless. Like, “Oh, they’re just opening their mouth and they’re singing. It’s just coming out as true, base expression.” So I can totally understand why you had that period where you were like, “No reverb, nothing on my voice.” I also grew up with, like, “vibrato as evil.” [Laughs.] That was a thing that I thought I was going for. I was like, I’m stripping it back. I want just what my actual voice is, not how I designed my voice to be,” which was very basic choral blending. And then there was a moment — a lot of my earlier work was just, like, twee little voice. So I remember the moment that that shifted, of realizing that it wasn’t about getting out of my way, but about strengthening a thing that I already had, and that the thing that I had was strengthened by pulling in this toolbox from other things that I heard that I really loved.
I remember working on an Anais Mitchell song, and that was a big moment for me too in discovering the sound that I wanted to have on this record that felt the most honest. Even though I had to work at it a little bit more to get there, I now feel like my execution of it doesn’t require as much effort or handling.
Kristin: Yeah. That’s the goal!
Rebecca: I mean, you did a good job.
Kristin: It feels so good to hear someone that I’ve worked with say those words to me. I probably have said this to you many times before, but I always get something myself out of each lesson that I have with somebody else. Because I’m reinforcing technical stuff, I’m figuring out how to best convey something. And it just feels really good to feel like I have something to to offer that’s not… you know, I can perform, I can entertain, but I also have a bit of wisdom too. And I just want everybody to have the tools that I have. Everybody should have the tools that they need to succeed.
Rebecca: You’re just also very good at explaining them and finding a way into what works for people. I got a lot out of our lessons and I definitely wouldn’t have sounded the way that I did on the record if I hadn’t worked with you.
Kristin: And the record sounds so fucking good!
(Photo Credit: left, Sara Laufer)