At the risk of being presumptuous, I think I speak for a lot of Kat Moore's wide net of Alaskan friends, fans, and fellow musicians when I share that word that her upcoming "vocal rest" retreat/sabbatical (doctor's orders, to treat a "prohibitive" form of "chronic laryngitis) may feel a lot like news that one of your dear friends or family members is being quarantined in a bubble to treat a mystery diagnosis. Or that it's almost like said family member or friend suddenly receiving word that a company's yanking the beloved matriarch from the community and shipping her off to some undisclosed office job in a remote overseas location for an undetermined spell.
But those analogies imply a certain eeriness around something that Kat has otherwise been entirely forthright and straightforwardly open in discussing, and I have no interest in fostering or instilling any false anxiety about a matter and a message that's entirely hers to own and manage.
I refer to it in those terms, however, only to reflect in my limited way on the deep well of affection and admiration that rests at the heart of this town for Kat, and to share what it means on some level that her AK fan base will soon, albeit temporarily, have to contend with a "Kat-sized hole" in their hearts and in the local music scene's offerings over the next few months. I'm not alone here, right? Friday or Saturday night rolls around, and your heart lifts, or swells three times its average size when you see the poster at the Roadhouse, or the announcement in the Anchorage Press announcing a Super Saturated Sugar Strings show on the horizon. Given the relatively young age of the band, and the uniqueness of their sound, it's no exaggeration to note the feeling that springs to life with that news entirely relates and exclusively belongs to the SSSS. It's separate from all your feelings about other good news and things you look forward to because the SSSS - and by extension, Kat Moore - have done what every artist or band of musicians longs to do: created a sound and atmosphere that is entirely theirs, that conjures a force greater than the sum of its parts. All the while, however, the SSSS IS the sum of its parts and it's incredibly challenging to picture or imagine an SSSS missing one of its valuable components on any given night. And, given the focus of this piece, I'm going to be forthright enough to say, "Not the least of which proves Exhibit A, Kat Moore." For many of us, reaching the end of the work week, or leaving town life behind and heading to a festival has been made that much more a sigh of relief, an Event to look forward to on the simple knowledge that there's a Kat Moore playing piano (or the what all else she pulls from her bag of tricks) and/or singing there at the location of your destination.
I am tempted to offer a disclaimer here, to say, "Well, at least I see it that way." But telling by so many of the people I see flooding SSSS shows, or - even better, for self-absorbed me - when I see the reactions on people's faces when I share word that Kat Moore played on four tracks on my new album, I don't think what I'm sharing or indulging in here suggests I'm going out on a limb here. At all.
So let me go one step further. And, to go here, I will make an obligatory 'disclaimer' of sorts: "Speaking only for myself," in the couple years that I've come to know and adore her and have seen her perform around the state, I can truly think of no other musician who proves more "synonymous" with Music than Kat. I know a lot of musicians in and out of state, and I know many who have dedicated their lives to performing, producing, making records, and touring - I know friends and loved ones winning awards, who feature on the front cover of major magazines, friends and family who will never stop touring or chasing the dream (and they shouldn't), but, for what it's worth - and this is not said to in any way diminish any other musician's output or efforts - no musician that I know EMBODIES or more affectionately proves a poster child - no, an ambassador - for Music and the life of spirit and wonder and gratitude that it affords to its devotees than Kat Moore. In that, allow me then to be bold enough to offer that on more than one occasion I've witnessed Kat's performances and watched three little words coalesce in my gray matter from my seat in the wings: Kat is Music. Have I wondered this about many/any other musician that I know? Not in my memory. But about how many musicians can we even occasionally make that analogy and not think it true on at least some level? Again, speaking only for myself, not many...
The joy, the affection, the wholeheartedness, and abandon with which Kat embraces both her time onstage and off - the way she lends focus to her fans and friends vying for attention or a word between sets, before, or after a show time and again staggers me. ("Me": a guy who holes up in a green room with a Jr.High-level of bashfulness and self-consciousness at shows, who can't construct a complete or coherent sentence an hour or two before showtime.) For my money, and as a father, friend, and fan constantly seeking good models and influences, friendships in which I may learn, be challenged, and receive a dose of inspiration and spirit, Kat brings all that and more to her outpourings, building and contributing to a body of work that regularly attracts and draws musicians and non-musicians to the places where we'll find or be able to hear her perform.
Kat poured so much of herself into the songs she contributed to on 'Hope, Alaska' that there was no way we couldn't also offer her "co-production" credits on those as well. As with any album-recording process there were peaks and valleys, hiccups, and detours in the production of this record that on multiple occasions led me to wonder what fool's errand I'd embarked upon in pursuing this effort. I can say, however, that I experienced none of these anxieties in Evan Phillips's Wolverine Den studio the days and nights Kat came on board. In fact, given my day job and parenting duties, there were nights that I would need to leave the Den well ahead of Kat and Evan, to leave them at it now and then, and I can only say that the peace of mind and heart I possessed - and the knowledge that these songs were not just in good hand, but the best capable hands - was on par with that old Biblical notion of "the peace that passes understanding."
I wrote a simple little song in early 2013 - the first song that would make it to the album - that Evan and I went on to title "Friendship Fire" some months later, after laying down the basic tracks. Though the lyric and melody don't suggest nearly as much, 'Friendship Fire' was written in response to some awful things happening in the place I worked, and during the run up to finalizing a divorce process begun in 2011, and thinking on Grand Scheme levels about what truly mattered in my life, all while (or due to) also recognizing it was the one-year anniversary of my father's heart attack (the news of which I learned one evening during the recording of but so beautiful), and it was then suddenly also time for us to support him with news of another medical matter that would need to be immediately addressed and dealt with. In response to a lot of downright shitty circumstances - circumstances leading to my employer's bankruptcy, and forcing a CEO and CFO to resign, among other less-than-fun, ulcer-inducing messes - I found myself contemplating what kind of life (& in some ways, world) I want or wish I could hope into being for my kids. But my grandiose dreams and goals, admittedly were then (and sometimes still prove) a bit deflated, or perhaps adequately exhausted. And so unconsciously, inwardly I knew, without then feeling like I knew a thing, honestly, it was time to go back to the drawing board, to take shelter for a period, and to learn to think small again. I had to try and become a beginner. Well, "try" implies a conscious choice in the matter, and I have to confess that I really didn't feel like I did possess anything resembling as much right then. All my efforts and goals until then - those, rather, that took place or were staged in hopes or dreams I might categorize as "Big Time" - crusted with Ambition and Drive - were proving or had proven an absolute bust. And, frankly, "Big Time" ambitions or drives were not the kind of thing my admittedly wiser-than-me boys ever required or expected of me anyway, or would even grasp if I tried to force on them. What kind of understandings did, can, or would translate so that my true friends and loved ones would relate or understand I wanted to have framed simply and in such a way that there'd be no question about their source. What signposts can/could I erect now to offer, instead of a longstanding argument or sense of being jilted or wronged (admittedly, like a "good" little songwriter schooled in the 80's and 90's learned to do, and had done in spades over the years,), that - without being preachy or dogmatic - conveyed or revealed values or - also without being preachy, or overly/embarrassingly explicit - what messages could I hand my boys, for example, with which to frame a future discussion or understanding of what I found most meaningful during our time spent on this messy, complicated, and beautiful planet?
Perhaps to my surprise more than anyone, that first effort - the leaping off point that soon began to snowball and eventually became 'Hope, Alaska' - became a love song. While it struck me as odd at the time, the first words to offer consolation to me during the windstorm of things going around me was Pablo Neruda's book of love poems, The Captain's Verses. So seismic was the effect of stumbling upon and then rereading this book (after many years away from it) in the midst of so much interpersonal chaos that not only did I pore myself into this "love song writing" process, but - by album's end - we'd also recorded an instrumental dedicated to the Chilean Captain, titled appropriately enough, The Captain's Verses. (That's another story.) I'll only share here that returning to Neruda, after so many years away from his work, proved a journey worth all the weight of the circumstances his work had mysteriously arrived to counter, offering much longed-for relief and consolation in the midst of upset and anxiety.
I knew I needed a woman to sing with me on Friendship Fire and name-dropped Kat repeatedly as Evan and I considered the best fit for the song. We already had her on board for piano and some other instrumental work. Eventually, we knew there was no better person to compliment the tune and I could rest assured knowing my simple, fragile little love song would receive the care it required.
Shortly before leaving for the Wolverine Den one Sunday morning, I learned that Lou Reed had died a few hours earlier on the East coast. The wash of memories of discovery and awkward young adulthood when I fell so hard for him - the repeated attempts over the years that I've gone into recordings wanting to - in addition to every other influence of mine - to also somehow pay a tribute, or to nod intentionally towards the Velvets and Lou. The knowledge for years that I don't have the strongest voice, the humbling recognition that I love words/lyrics first and am not a guitar virtuoso or sought after musician has frequently only been consoled by a conscious striving to lean in on "my instrument(s)" all the more intentionally because of musician/vocalists like Lou Reed (often one of my first "go-to" writer/vocalists), along with Dylan (of course), Neil, Michael Stipe, and one or two others. I had a lot to think about on that drive to the Wolverine Den that morning, and was flooded with nostalgia, thanks, and of course a little sadness (he had lived a good life, was ill, and I heard from friends & others that his performances in recent years revealed signs that he might not be long for the rigorous demands of the profession).
When I arrived to the Wolverine Den, Kat was setting up her glockenspiel, which we would be recording for its role in Friendship Fire. In the moments after she set it up and began practicing, I was flooded with the memory and tears of youth - the memory of the first time I heard 'Sunday Morning' - & then making the connection that Lou had died on a Sunday morning (numerous writers would cite this later). I was also reminded there of the time I had run into Lou on the streets of New York. Not run into - not literally. I was in the West Village, walking towards the bookstore at which I worked on Bleeker street, and Lou was walking towards me. I stopped in my tracks and he passed. Perhaps the lone musician/celebrity that I've never made awkward demands of, or tried to manipulate into an autograph or conversation. I just watched, gaping and wide-eyed, as the master passed by and continued walking, and I let him keep walking.
The instrument on the Velvet's 'Sunday Morning' is not a glockenspiel as I for years mistakenly assumed it was, but a celesta - which I had to then research and learn about in order to clarify the distinctions. (I've heard I'm not alone in that mistaken assumption.) Nevertheless, Kat played her glockenspiel, and of course she nailed it that day, and then the vocal part, too - it's beautiful, I love it - her vocal is beyond a shred of doubt one of my personal highlights and favorite moments on the album - and she then proceeded to nail every single piano part on the songs for which I so badly wanted and needed her.
And of course she nailed them, right? Of course Kat Moore attended and brought her entire, full-hearted focus to those songs and gave to them every last thing the song needed. Not what Evan or I wanted - but what the song needed. I can say "of course" Kat did that because you know she did, just as you know she would do the same on your songs, too. Because that's what Kat does - and if, in addition to some of the larger than life personal matters and concerns that I hear wending and flowing under the surface of 'Hope, Alaska', my kids or my friends and family walked away from that album hearing not just me hoping to share some thoughts or convey some ideas in the form of lyrics, but also heard or more clearly felt or possessed some portion of the Light and Heart and Soul that Kat Moore and others brought to this project, then that's more than satisfactory to me, and it's already a successful record in my book.
I've heard that John Cale heard a celesta once and knew he needed to find a way to use it with the Velvets. For some reason, when I read that, I thought of Kat Moore playing one. I'm not saying no other musician I know would hear one - or any other under-used or "far out" or uncommon instrument - and find a way to put it to use, seek out a way to honor its intended purpose and then intentionally set out to respectfully learn it and then implement it in the recording or performance process. I'm happy to say I know a lot of musicians who would do so.
I'm saying that when I read that John Cale heard a celesta and knew he needed to find a way to use it with the Velvets, in my mind I pictured Kat Moore employing, playing, utilizing one. She's the first one I pictured, and it's no leap of the imagination to imagine that because I'm certain we all know she could/would be just the kind of musician to do that.
As tribute to Kat - and a prayer and wish for her speedy recovery - I'm uploading 'Friendship Fire' to the Listening Booth tab of the website today. Consider it another preview of the new album, too, an album that's going to admittedly, probably play a lot different live in release show mode without her in AK to lend the songs her gracious and larger than life Spirit.
Get well soon, Kat. Rest. Heal! You well know by now how deep runs the love and respect for your craft, your heart, and your many talents throughout the Far North. Consider this one more fan's and musical coconspirator's notes hoping to share and convey a fraction as much.