You probably know Kathryn Calder best as a utility player in The New Pornographers. If you were unaware she was a member of The New Pornographers, you’d be forgiven considering that A.C. Newman, Dan Bejar and Neko Case are the three principal singers and songwriters for the band. As has happened often in the past, Neko Case will often take some time away from the band in order to work on solo material and tour around that. In the situations where Case takes a break, it’s Kathryn Calder that steps into her place when female vocal parts are required. Otherwise, you can find her behind the keyboards doing what she can to be a team player. Prior to that, Calder also was a key member of Canadian indie pop band Immaculate Machine. She’s ambitious beyond the bands she’s been a part of though, and during a particularly tough time in her life, she got together with producer Colin Stewart to record her debut solo album “Are You My Mother?” which is out this week.
The recording process for “Are You My Mother?” started in 2007 when Calder returned home to Victoria, BC Canada during a bit of a break from touring with The New Pornographers. Her mother was terminally ill with ALS, and she wanted to have all the comforts of home and be able to help out, so she created a makeshift recording studio with Colin in her living room. A big reason why she wanted to make the record was because her mom was constantly telling her she should, and she had plenty of demos just sitting around collecting dust. The goal was to have the album completed so her mom could hear it before she died, and though she was around for the recording process, everything was finally finished before she passed away in June of 2009. The title “Are You My Mother?” is less a reference to her own mom, but a children’s book by the same name that she (Kathryn) happens to love. And while some of the sadder songs on the album might also seem autobiographical or at least written in response to such an emotional time in her life, Calder has been careful to state that’s not really the case.
What “Are You My Mother?” generally sounds like is about what you’d expect from a talented female singer-songwriter these days. Calder plays virtually every instrument on the album, and a fair number of the songs are in the upbeat and poppy range, which is thte sort of kick in the pants this record needed. Piano and acoustic guitar seem to be her main instruments of choice, and there are splashes of tambourine and other rhythmic devices in play as well. Much of the percussion on the album was created with found objects, which helps to explain why one song sounds like light tapping on a file cabinet and another abuses a tissue box. Front and center though is Calder’s voice, which is strong and emotionally resonant, though not quite on a powerhouse-type level that you’d get from her New Pornographers bandmate Neko Case, who coincidentally also contributes backing vocals to a couple songs.
When she’s on the money, Kathryn Calder shines above many other women making similar-sounding music. Opening track “Slip Away” is beautifully measured out in doses of quieter and louder moments when guitars come in and bring a lush vibe to the chorus. “Castor and Pollux” is perhaps the most exciting song on the album, and it features live drums and the soaring electric guitar chorus with the line “Blown wide open” is remarkably catchy. Piano and bass permeate “Arrow” nicely, and there are some woodwinds that come in after the first verse that create added depth to a gorgeous melody. The chipper “If You Only Knew” does well for itself thanks to handclaps and shouted backing vocals that you really can’t help but smile at. “A Day Long Past It’s Prime” has a fuzzy electric guitar and a toe-tapping pace that’s fun but not the most memorable song on the record. That’s actually the album’s biggest problem – that there aren’t enough hooks to keep the songs banging around in your head until you listen to them again. The quiet acoustic or piano ballads have their place over about half the record, but the more vibrant and quickly paced songs need that extra push to stay with you.
Kathryn Calder ultimately sounds her best in two situations: the emotionally stripped and sparse ballad, and the busier, loud pop song. “Are You My Mother?” features a couple of each, and they hold your attention hostage for their duration and even a little bit beyond that. The other stuff just feels transitional. Of course transition is a big theme this album brings out, primarily the issue of putting away childish things and moving towards becoming a mature adult. We still have those fond memories of childhood with our parents and those books we liked so much we’d ask to have them read to us over and over again, but that’s exactly what they need to remain – fond memories. We can’t go back there, and instead of letting that weigh on us we need to move on. Depressing as it may seem, the love of our friends and family continue to tie us with our youth no matter how old we get. Of course that’s probably reading too much into it, so let’s just settle on the idea that Kathryn Calder’s solo debut is a heartfelt delight on multiple emotional scales, and it serves as proof she’s a strong talent worth watching in the years to come.