Kaia Kater’s Strange Medicine is a Love Letter to Strength

Letting go of fear can be a revolutionary act. For folksinger Kaia Kater, it was essential. Releasing herself from the perfunctory need to please everyone, Kater wrote her first solo album in six years, Strange Medicine, as a salve first and foremost for herself. “Now the critics turn their gaze to me//What have I made with these waves of grief?//What have I produced?//What can they consume?” she mourns in the album’s second track, “Maker Taker.”

Kater’s music doesn’t hurry. Gently plucking a coy tune on her banjo, she layers in subtle percussion, then brass, reeling the listener into her world. Meticulously she sings out her frustration with the tension between creativity and commodity: “Who’s the maker and who’s the taker,” she asks repeatedly, until it’s clear that this time, no-one’s taking anything from Kater. By the end of the song, she’s resolute: “I’ll starve those hungry ghosts / Play what I know.”

“[After my last album], I was grieving the purity of the relationship that I had with music while I was younger and in college,” Kater says. “As I started to marry music and commerce, something changed. And I think I was grieving that and felt pretty bereft of any kind of creativity.”

For Kater, the return to writing came after she attended film school. Releasing creative control while composing film scores according to someone else’s artistic vision proved refreshing and liberating.

When she sat down to write her own music again, Kater wound all the way back to her early days in music, allowing her own inspiration and connection to the stories to govern creative output. Strange Medicine became a love letter to the women and revolutionaries who inspire Kater as she processed and released pent up emotions about colonialism, sexism, racism, and misogyny.

“Something that I really loved working with was feelings of anger,” Kater says. “And righteous anger and these ideas of what one might consider an ‘unevolved perspective.’”

Flipping the patriarchal narrative on its head, Kater reimagines the Salem Witch Trials from the perspective of the women burned at the stake in the album’s opening track, “The Witch,” (featuring Aiofe O’Donovan of Crooked Still fame). Singing as the witch, Kater seizes power from the man who’s just burned her at the stake and, imaging how she’ll revive herself on the pyre, harnesses the very fire that destroyed her to burn her name into her captor’s chest.

Kater’s witch is recalcitrant without shame, something Kater’s learning to let herself feel, too. While writing the album, she drew inspiration from Medusa, the witches of Macbeth, the women of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Greek mythology’s sirens, Madeline Miller’s feminist Circe – and the Me Too movement. She reveled in the idea that women could make their abusers as uncomfortable as they’d been made to feel.

In their spirit, together Strange Medicine’s 10 tracks (released in May) embody a defiant, courageous celebration of acts of resistance, small and large, including Kater’s own conviction that she will tell stories her way from here on out.

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Kater was born and raised in Montreal, Canada to Canadian and Grenadian parents whose love for folk music infused her life. Her mother organized the Winnipeg and Ottawa folk festivals; and at home they listened to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neil Young, Ricky Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon on repeat.

As a child, Kater studied piano and cello before picking up the banjo at age 11. When it came time to prepare a classical music audition for music schools on the cello, something deep inside Kater resisted. She felt pulled toward banjo, folk, and old-time music instead. After high school she waited tables while figuring out what she wanted to do and eventually landed at Davis and Elkins University in Elkins, West Virginia, where she quickly fell in with a bluegrass string band community.

Kater started writing music as a teenager, but in college she tackled it in earnest and released Old Soul in 2013, after her freshman year. Since then, she’s gone on to release several albums: 2015’s Sorrow Bound, and Nine Pin in 2016. For her third full album, Grenades, Kater travelled to Granada, the Caribbean island nation where her father grew up, and focused on stories of the country’s history and from father’s immigration to Canada.

Grenades racked up accolades and scored Kater coveted NPR Tiny Desk and Newport Folk Festival appearances. Last spring Kater opened for Molly Tuttle, and this summer, Kater will return to Newport Folk Festival with the string band she plays in, New Dangerfield.

Strange Medicine, Kater’s fourth full album, draws inspiration from places outside of the tiny Montreal apartment where she wrote it in the depths of a COVID-19 lockdown and a frigid Canadian winter. Grappling with the angst and malaise of a global pandemic, Kater searched for inspiration in movies, books, and anything that felt far away from her dreary surroundings. Mixing erudite and far off stories with lived experiences closer to home, Kater draws from the folk traditions she grew up with to combine politics and personal life into a spectacularly thoughtful exploration of emotion and grit.

Beyond the album’s opening tracks – “The Witch” and “Maker Taker” – Kater ponders the siren call of our home towns on “In Montréal,” featuring Allison Russell, and our twisted relationship with technology on “The Internet.” In “Mechanics of the Mind,” Kater ruminates on rage, while emulating composer Steve Reich’s circular rhythms and vocals. Elsewhere on the album, with “Fédon,” (featuring Taj Mahal), Kater voices an obscure slave uprising in Grenada, and on “Tigers” she invokes the literary trope of a woman trapped in her physical surroundings by the poisonous thoughts in her mind.

Strange Medicine takes its name from an interview with jazz legend Herbie Hancock. In it, Hancock reminisces about one of the most important lessons he learned after he played a wrong note on stage with Miles Davis. Horrified, Hancock froze. But Davis, undeterred, paused just briefly before playing a few notes that incorporated the chord into his solo and continuing on with the piece.

“Miles didn’t hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened, just an event and so that was part of the reality of what happened in that moment. And he delt with it,” Hancock recalls. “I think the important thing is that we grow. And the only way we can grow is to have a mind that’s open enough to be able to accept situations, to be able to experience situations as they are, and turn them into medicine, turn poison into medicine.”

The idea that we might turn the poison of our mistakes into a strange kind of medicine galvanized Kater and grounded her. Recalibrating the narrative is powerful, she realized.

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Last March, when Beyonce’s Cowboy Carter landed Black banjo music in news headlines, musicians, many of them Black, set about reminding myopic audiences that the banjo and Black musicians have been an indelible part of American vernacular music from the beginning.

In the brief spotlight of a hot-button album, Kater sees both an opportunity and liberation. Country music, like most genres is routinely ascribed a narrow definition, one that overlooks its diverse history and seeks to exclude based on incomplete notions. As is so often the case, in the wake of Beyoncé’s album, Black artists shouldered much of the burden for disseminating information, educating, and the brunt of criticism, too (Kater recently received a comment on a video of her playing banjo that read simply “Beyoncé isn’t country”).

“There’s always going to be people who are telling you that you don’t belong,” Kater says. “And there’s grief in that, but there’s also this [feeling of] ‘alright, well, if none of us belong, we might as well just do what we want.’”

As part of the effort to draw attention to Black banjo’s deep history, folk singer Rhiannon Giddens (Our Native Daughters) made a series of Instagram posts featuring artists critical to the Black Banjo Renaissance. Number 14: Kaia Kater.

“I first met Kaia some time ago when she was just a kid still learning how to play the banjo – even then she was better than me!” Giddens wrote. “She is a compelling artist, an impeccable instrumentalist, and poetic soul.”

It takes a poetic soul to see a failed rebellion as story worth celebrating. Julian Fédon was a Grenadian slave who in 1795 lead a small cadre of slaves to overthrow the British government and hold control of the country for 15 months. “I am firing / I am not afraid of death / Twenty thousand / Armed against /The colonists,” Kater sings in “Fédon,” the album’s sixth track.

But once the British re-took control, Kater struggled with how to end the song in a way that fit Fédon’s bravado and gall, while acknowledging that objectively, the revolution failed and the British controlled Grenada for another 200 years. As she dug deeper, Kater realized that Fédon – who was never found – matriculated into island folklore when he disappeared. And his spirit passed in stories from one generation to the next: Fédon galloping across the islands astride his white horse; Fédon shoeing that horse backwards so that its hoof prints lead in the opposite direction from which he’d gone; and Fédon slipping undetected through a maze of watery channels unknown to the British.

“It’s magical realism,” Kater says. “I think Fédon stood as this [idea that] Black people are going to outsmart the British: even if we lost, we won. And we made them look like idiots for an entire year.”

For Kater, Fédon stands for hope for the future, too. And so she concludes his song with Hancock’s version of medicine, a reminder to herself and her listeners that “you can do something that you feel is wrong, or you’re going in the wrong direction, or you haven’t healed properly, or your revolution fails…you can always take that poison and turn it into medicine.”

In the final lines of the song, she sings not as Fédon, but as herself: “Something’s blooming//I can hear it, I can hear//Strange medicine isn’t it.”

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