Seattle – On one of the first truly sunny days in March (Seattle isn’t just rain, folks), I was driving with the windows down and listening to 90.3 KEXP. A song started to play that instantly captivated me with its beat, attitude, and lyrics, “I am set in stone, I am Rushmore…I change for no one.” It was one of those “Heck yeah, girl power!” moments, and I thought that this artist has such a distinct voice and strength.
Hailing from upstate New York, Katie Finn has taken Seattle by storm as genre-bending, independent artist Katie Kate. The 27-year-old classically trained (she graduated from Cornish College of the Arts) hip-hop/pop/rap/electronic artist is starting to receive plenty of air-time on local radio stations and has been playing at venues around town for a few years. Her 2011 debut album Flatland garnered some attention, and she’s recorded a new album Nation, which will feature “Rushmore,” that is yet to have release details. Katie Kate took some time to speak with me about local radio call-ins, Kate Bush, her classical training, self-producing, and – you bet – girl power.
Caitlin Peterkin: I first heard “Rushmore” on KEXP a few weeks ago, and it really resonated with me. It’s such a strong song, about self-worth. Is there a story behind it, or was it just an important message you wanted to get across?
Katie Kate: Well, “Rushmore” is an interesting song. You know it starts off, thinking it’s very sparse and “Oh, she’s going to be doing a really sort of fast, rappy, tough song,” but then it develops into a much more vulnerable sort of space, and I think that’s pretty indicative of the way things have been for me, especially lately. I seem pretty tough from the outside, but I’m soft and gooey on the inside like most people. The song’s really just about how I’m kind of the way I am and I don’t really have a choice about it. So, I can be proud and rappy and excited and then also sometimes I’ve got to stick up for myself. It’s that inner sort of force that tells me that this is the way I am, this is the way I have to be. I don’t have a choice and I might as well be proud of it.
CP: I definitely felt the lyrics could be a reflection of your strength, you know, “Here I am,” in what’s typically considered a man’s world. Can you talk to me about how you view yourself in this industry, as a female?
KK: I learn more about that every day. Just when I think I have something figured out, a new horror or new wonderful thing comes along. Basically it’s just been a lot of learning and a lot of misogyny that I thought moved on, and when you get into certain situations you realize that it’s still there and it’s still prevalent and it’s really surprising. As a modern woman I like to think that we’ve come very far and we have, but there’s still this incredible amount of almost subconscious misogyny that can be kind of depressing. But I’ve also learned that I’m not alone, there are a ton of women in this industry. And I hope that someday I can be a resource for some young women who are sort of like, “Yeah, sistahs!” doing it for themselves, “Girl Power!”
From the technical side of it, it’s frustrating sometimes because even though I have proven time and time again that I know what I’m doing with audio/visual, it’s still sort of difficult occasionally to get people to believe I know what I’m doing. You know I think that will maybe change over time, but for now I’m just trying not to worry about that too much. Then you know, a lot of the music industry has to do with power and it has to do with who’s the most powerful person in the room. I think being female can kind of be really intimidating, but you just gotta do what you gotta do, I guess. I’m getting a much thicker skin.
The other surprising thing is people commenting on my looks and my weight specifically. It’s pretty fascinating to me, because I don’t care about that shit, I don’t understand why other people do. But even if they’re trying to compliment me…I had someone the other day tell me, “It’s really great that you don’t care if you’re super skinny and you don’t have big fake tits,” and it was sort of a backhanded insult. I was like, that’s weird, would you be saying that if I were a dude? You wouldn’t be. Like I said, I learn more every day about the world.
CP: You say you want to be a resource for younger women. Do you have any specific women you look up to, who have been a resource for you?
KK: One of my idols is Kate Bush. Whenever I’m feeling lost or sad or discouraged I just listen to Kate Bush because my impression of her is that she just did whatever the hell she wanted to do and people let her because she’s Kate fucking Bush. Who else do you know that can get away with not touring for 23 years or however long it was – you should probably correct that for me [slightly close – it’s 35] – because she didn’t like the way her sexuality was being exploited and she was being controlled in the studio and I just really respect that she didn’t cave. She did what she wanted to do and she was successful on her own terms. Her music is so weird and it’s still so accessible and people absolutely love it, so I look to her as like a beacon of how to not only be musically independent and free, but also realizing I don’t have to do everything everybody expects of me all the time.
CP: So how did you get here in your career? To start with, what were you involved with in high school?
KK: Everything, literally every single ensemble. I play flute – it’s my main instrument, I went to Cornish for flute originally. I played tenor saxophone, French horn, I was in a cappella groups, in drama club, you name it I was in it. That was a huge part of my life. It was a huge coping mechanism. It was my escape, these after school activities and I didn’t have to go home, and I could do music which was the only thing that has been consistent in my life.
CP: How did hip hop and rap play a part in your growing up?
KK: I was definitely a teenager listening to the radio, you know, at school dances they’d play hip hop or whatever. But I became really interested in it and started listening to it on my own like [old school hip hop], Talib Kweli, more technique stuff like that. None of my friends really shared that with me; it was more my thing, and I wasn’t terribly open about it. But the beats really appealed to me, the visceral, guttural nature of that particular style, that was just my thing in high school, my favorite genre.
CP: I read somewhere you won a rap contest for a local radio station?
KK: Oh dear. That.
CP: Can I get the story?
KK: Well, I didn’t win a rap contest, no…There’s a show called “Drive Time Shine” on the local radio station and it was where you would call into the radio station and leave a 30-second a cappella rap, and I did it one day because it was upstate New York and I had nothing to do and my friend Matt and I were bored. So I composed a rap and left it on this voicemail, and then they played it on the radio and that was my first time rapping for anybody. And they said, “Kate from Voorheesville!” on the radio and they played it while everyone was driving to school the next day, so everybody heard it. They were like, “Kaaate, were you on the radio? Heard you rapping!” and I was like, “Oh, god.” I guess that’s how it started.
CP: Did that spark your interest, like, “Hey, wait a minute, I could do this”? What was your moment in determining you could have a future in hip hop or rap?
KK: That moment didn’t really come until later, like college. I was working with Terry Radjaw [of Seattle’s Mad Rad] back when he was first starting out, and I was really young, I think I was like 20 or something. I had Reason on my computer and I would make beats all the time – I didn’t plan to use them for anything, that’s just what I did when I was bored, I’d open it up and make music. And then one day I just kind of decided to rap over it and I sent it to Gregory – Terry Radjaw – and he was like, “This is dope, you should record this, Mad Rad will be recording tomorrow, come record it.” It was kind of at that moment that it was like, “Oh, okay, someone else thinks this is good, maybe it is actually good, good enough.” That was my first moment kind of considering I could do this and it wouldn’t be a joke. I wasn’t brave enough to admit at first that it wasn’t entirely a joke.
CP: What’s your relationship been like with Terry Radjaw [real name Gregory Smith] since then?
KK: Gregory has been with me since the beginning. He’s believed in me since day one, supported me selflessly and tirelessly. I would definitely say he’s my mentor, he’s my good friend, he’s my DJ. He’s incredibly supportive and I owe him a lot. He still performs with us, and now I have a drummer Trent Moorman [also of Mad Rad], and some filler musicians who come in and out, but Gregory’s always been there, and I love him dearly.
CP: Going back to Cornish – You have classical training?
KK: I have a degree in classical piano – Bachelor’s of Music with a concentration in piano performance.
CP: How does that experience and training influence you now?
KK: First of all, it gives me a language to speak about what I’m thinking and feeling musically, which has been completely indispensable. Being able to pinpoint what a chord is without thinking about it, or being able to tackle complex musical ideas because I already have the framework in place is really helpful. I would say Cornish specifically, and going to art school specifically, as opposed to a conservatory or some other type of school, has taught me how to think about my work in a more broad context and make connections that I don’t think I would have made otherwise – learning classical compositions or new works, being forced to talk about the structure and talk about the reason behind why you did what you did. I think it trained my brain to think in a specific way so that when I create something, I go at it full force and everything needs to have a purpose, everything needs to have a place, and I can be able to justify it later. That’s been amazing for me. And also since I play tons of instruments, and I record, it’s simple for me to get my own ideas down. I don’t have to rely on other people.
CP: In regards to your self-producing aspect, do you see yourself continuing with that for the foreseeable future or think you might change?
KK: I know I’m gonna change, there’s no point if I don’t change. That’s part of the fun. For this record, for Nation, I did work with Charlie Smith at Studio Nels. I still composed everything, I made all the beats, I wrote all the lyrics. But he helped me take it to the next level and make it a really cohesive work and that was really cool to be able to have someone else involved because up until that point it had literally been me in my bedroom by myself doing it. That was an interesting process. I’m not sure what I want to do in the future. I want to do some WEIRD shit I know that. I just want to continue to do things that confuse people. That’s what I really like about my music; it seems to really confuse people. It’s more polarizing than I ever expected it to be, and I’m kind of into that. To me it seems completely normal because it came out of my brain and that’s the way my brain works – to me it makes perfect sense. So that’s why I was surprised when I start playing it for people and the reaction I was getting was like, “This is really weird, I don’t know what this is, where does this fit, what are you doing?” I feel like people who love it really, really love it, and people who hate it really, really hate it. I would much rather have that be the response than some sort of mediocre, pleasing everybody, plays-in-the-elevator kind of music.
CP: Do you personally define yourself by any specific genre?
KK: I don’t. I’ve been looking for a term and I don’t know what the term is. It’s not hip hop, it’s not exactly pop, I don’t know, I have no idea. My life would be so much easier if I could think of a term for this, so if you can think of one… Maybe I’ll have a contest!
CP: Well, I personally hope your life continues to not be easy, then. What’s next for you?
KK: I feel like the next step, hopefully touring and all of those fun things. Just continuing on. No. Matter. What.
With degrees in journalism and music, Caitlin’s written for Paste Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and MajoringinMusic.com. She loves cheese, laughing at GIFs of corgis, road trip sing-alongs, and connecting with people over good beer and good music.