A passage into an altered state: Interview with Ka Baird

With Spires That In The Sunset Rise, which shrank to a duo a couple of years ago, Ka Baird has released a number of albums that are unique in contemporary folk music with regard to originality, eagerness to experiment and force. One could go as far as to claim that the band that took its name from a line in a Baudelaire poem is the legitimate heir to Comus. But Ka Baird has also frequently expressed her creativity outside the band context: In the first half of the noughties two albums with folk miniatures were released under the name Traveling Bell. During the past couple of years she has recorded albums with different musicians that cannot be categorized that easily either and that reflect her interest in crossing borders: As AZHA she and Andrew Fitzpatrick recorded a 40-minute soundscape based on manipulated flutes and vocals. With Camilla Padgitt-Coles she plays as Tropical Rock a music that approaches ambient – so far on three albums. Just recently Nihilist released her work with Andy Ortmann. Using the name Sapropelic Pycnic, she recorded an homage to John Coltrane and released the album “See Sun Sink Shadow“ with piano improvisations. Drag City has just released her new solo album – an LP about which it said on these pages that “it is a very intense listening experience that can hardly be described with conventional terminology and that can be even less classified along genre boundaries. Its subtle earthiness can be experienced even without any ideas about the thematic frame.” A similarity that all of the works of Ka Baird share in my humble opinion is the wish to transcend, the enthusiasm for experiments, and the exploration of that what music can achieve.

When listening to both your new solo album and “Beasts in the garden”, one realizes the role that wind instruments play on these recordings. Could you say a few words about that?

Early Spires was all about finding the most exotic instruments we could get our hands on and trying to invent new sounds out of them through some kind of extended technique or effects. It was also this love of approaching an instrument for the first time- a vessel full of surprises, free of technique or tricks. Essentially we wanted instruments we could NOT play. So we explored mbiras, kalimbas, zithers, banjos…

Later we were introduced to the works of Don Cherry, Terry Riley, Moondog, Jon Hassell, early Kraftwerk etc. and we both jumped on the wind instruments. Taralie played sax in high school, I played flute. Right now it is ALL about the breath and these wind instruments and how they capture a certain kind of ecstatic energy that the string instruments did not. It feels even wilder and unhinged but also more exuberant, almost daresay celebratory. Like that crazy track Schluss on Beasts is a total orgy of sound, a complete explosion and I think the most ecstatic song we have ever written. Taralie and I thrive on change and keeping things fresh so who knows what’s next…We are all about finding those sweet spots where you know enough so that you can execute ideas and visions but still have plenty of surprises.

Personally though the flute has spoken to me in a way that no other instrument has. There is something so natural working with the breath, it feels so very physical and complete. It is like an extension of my voice.

What you have just said about “keeping things fresh” reminds me of a short interview in which you mentioned that in the years 2011 to 2013 Spires wanted to subvert certain expectations and that you thought to “annihilate” yourselves. Did the recordings with Michael Zerang contribute to “plenty of surprises and happy accidents”?

Well yea of course because this was something we never did before- pure improvisation. Many think early Spires was improv based but it really was very composed. Those sessions with Michael were the essence of vulnerability artistically and I remember freeing myself by embracing failure and even desiring it on a certain level.

Your recent solo releases are quite heterogeneous (the piano improvisations on “See Sun Think Shadow”, the John Coltrane tribute on “A Love Supreme” to name but two). Your new album “Sapropelic Pycnic” is just about to be released. Could you say a few words about the development and composition of it?

With the exception of a couple tracks, the record is a studio-recorded document of a live set that I composed and performed over the past couple of years living in NYC. When I moved here I was very enthusiastic about all the places to play and all the artists to play with. NYC is a beast and changing so much, but it is still most definitely a rich, fertile bed of artists who are pushing things. There is a feeling of limitlessness here, of endless possibilities.

At this time I also became interested specifically in music as a vehicle for transcendence, as a passage into an altered state. I mean I think I was always into this idea but in the last couple of years it become all that mattered to me. As John Cage credits Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player as saying “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences” I too was in my own way trying to create that opening which for me involved a lot of physical release. I felt like I had to match my mental energy in a physical sense in order to overcome it. My performance became a possession, analogous to putting my finger in the sonic spiritual socket. The ONLY criteria was to create a sound that could shut up my internal dialogue. Period. But the truth was that it was NOT SO easy! I am VERY PICKY! My relationship with sound continues to be very mysterious. It feels very synesthesia-like to me, maybe like an auditory-tactile synesthesia, or a mirror-touch synesthesia, I don’t know. I do know that I definitely have some kind of “misophonia” which is sometimes considered a form of synesthesia. It literally translates as “hatred of sound” and is considered a condition in which negative emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions are triggered by specific sounds. It is also called “select sound sensitivity syndrome” and “sound-rage” and has created a lot of stress in my life but has also at the same time created an obsession with sound and the search for those sounds that my ear finds pleasing or exciting or life-affirming. My strength is my weakness; my weakness is my strength kind of thing.

Speaking of music as a vehicle for transcendence and altered states. You mention that your new album is “a studio recorded document of a live set”. Is there for you a difference between playing live and recording in a studio? Is it possible (for you) to reach altered states in a studio setting?

The ideal is to make the recordings as authentic as possible of course. And I have gained enough skills and basic equipment to be able to record myself in my own space where I can be as authentic and as slow and methodical as I need to be. That being said, recording is definitely its own thing. I like to think the elements I might lose when recording (not feeling the adrenalin or immediacy of a performance) I gain by having extra tools that I do not have in a live setting. But yes, to answer your question, I have reached altered states in a studio setting but I have to set it up just right and give myself plenty of space and control to make that possible. And even then, it feels different than a live performance, always.

I feel that there is a development from some of the very intense songs like “Tok Tru” to a seemingly relaxed piece like “You are myself”. Would you say that your new album has a kind of narrative quality or portrays a kind of journey?

I would say in terms of playfulness, tension, release I am very aware of the progression. The album itself pretty much follows the progression of the live set. Beginning with “Tok Tru” I assert my freedom- my own version of a punk song where I buck and yelp like a wild horse repeating “We are beyond the smoke and mirrors!!” and stop trying to manipulate, coerce, influence, or control me! It is a song of autonomy. Following is “Transmigration” which is a portal from the material world of smoke and mirrors to that of the ephemeral, a long and deep journey that is serpentine and extreme. Flipping the record, Metamorphoses is a back and forth between the material and spiritual, think visuals of the energizer bunny rabbit going fast then slowing down then duplicating then tripling etc.- an ode to the absurd and transient nature of life and making sure you do not take it all too seriously! Progressing then into Oneiric, which is the land of dreams and the shadow side, still with an earthy quality to it with sounds reminiscent of a bog or a symphony of insects but with the addition of this throbbing life force drone. After Oneiric we get the physical release of Ka, a total explosion and complete erasure of mind through physical catharsis and movement. The last track, the melodic “You Are Myself” provides the emotional catharsis and release- a sense of closure. I do not always perform “You Are Myself” (which was actually originally composed for a shadow opera I did with my bandmate Taralie of Spires and artist Erik Ruin about the life of Leonora Carrington where she meets her double at the cauldron and her doppelgänger convinces her to jump into the cauldron) but when I do I know it is because the audience needs that kind of resolve and relief after all of the tension. Sometimes it then feels like a magic act pulling out that kind of melodic reprieve. 

When you say that the audience needs “that kind of relief”, I was wondering how often you have had situations in which people asked you why you didn’t write/perform music that was more easily to digest.

It seems overall people take me as I am and either embrace it or don’t. I think people see or feel I am in this pretty deep. I have been doing this for a long time! But it’s true, I HAVE been asked that question before and I have asked myself the question. It was only a few years ago that I was able to detach myself enough from Spires material to really understand the band’s legacy and see objectively where we fit into (or do not fit into) music at that time. And to tell the truth the legacy of Spires is totally different than what my intentions were at the time we were writing the material. We were way weirder than I thought!

Sure it is an aesthetic, my interest in dissonance and atonality, my interest in non-western music, improvisation, extended vocal technique. When I was 18 I read Colin Wilson’s “The Outsider” and could not sleep for two days. The book had an incredible impact on my formative brain. I most definitely felt “outside” of normative qualitative ideas. I felt attracted to the fringe, to the indefinable, the non mainstream- primarily because that is how I felt inside. I was so goddamn stubborn. I refused for so many years to be categorized in any kind of way. It has only been in the last 4 or 5 years that I have been able to label myself as an extremely queer person in every sense of the word.

Regarding music in particular, I think I have always sought out the music that tried to defy the boundaries. However, in terms of writing music I never tried to sound like anything per say. I am not great at imitation. I would go into the music room without expectations, only with the purpose of quieting the mind and losing myself in sound. It was only through hands on exploration and experimentation that a larger vision would eventually take shape.

Of course I am not saying I am without influences. In high school the band I listened to that first broke the mold and split open my brain to the world of possibilities was early Throwing Muses, that first self titled record and House Tornado. Kristen Hersch was wacked! Are you familiar? And later around 20 I will never forget the first time I heard Diamanda Galas being played from my neighbor’s stereo upstairs while living in New Orleans. I had to march right up those stairs and knock on her door immediately and ask, “WHO the fuck is this??” I was so drawn to subversiveness and I think particularly to subversive female artists. Also in my 20s my friend Steven Krakow (aka Plastic Crimewave) sent Taralie and I tons and tons of cassettes of outsider 60s folk music and Japanese noise like Fushitsusha, Henry Flynt, Comus, Love, and all that had an incredible impact. Along with maybe a mushroom trip or two that does wonders to getting off the well-trodden trail. So yea, often the weirder, the better I guess as a general guideline. Ha. Call Spires the kimchi of music, you either love it or you hate it.

But more recently I have thought even more about this idea of “good” or ”bad” or “digestible” or “indigestible” sounds as I have become more interested in the idea and practice of sound healing and what that means. And I find so many in the healing community to have this hierarchy of sounds whereby certain intervals are positive and others are not. Dissonance and distortion often frowned upon… and I really dislike it when we get into this hierarchy of sounds. What makes one person tense ends up relieving another person and vice versa. I mean perhaps there are more universally acceptable sounds but there are also individuals that need something else to move beyond something. I am at a phase now where I recognize the value of ALL sounds. They all have a place. They all have a time.

I can totally relate to what you say. I had the experience that ages ago somebody I barely knew said to me in a local record store: “You’re more into listening to sounds, aren’t you?” I think it wasn’t even meant in a derogatory sense but more in a way of describing how he heard or “understood” the music I was/am interested in. There are indeed very different attitudes towards what is considered music(al). -  You mentioned earlier that NYC offers “endless possibilities”. It can be a bit of a cliché but when you describe your own development over the years would you say that the nature of the places where you lived influenced the music you created? Not in the sense of what people you met but whether the surroundings and the shape of the city itself were an influence on your music.

Well that is a hard question to answer because we humans are such communal creatures whether we want to face it or not, and especially as a musician you cannot divorce place from people. Certain places attract certain types of people etc., and it is a major influence. I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for several years before moving to NYC in November of 2014. In Madison there was a very small but extremely supportive music community there. I hosted shows in my living room and called my performance spot Shockrasonica. I hosted over 20 shows in my living room and really felt like Madison needed me as a curator. NYC of course on the other hand is this mixed bag of so many more artists with so much better representation (so many more women, people of color, and ages) combined with the fact that because there are so many more artists, curators and shows there is a feeling of superfluousness and unnecessity which fuels all these existential doubts about why I am doing it at all. BUT at the end of the day there are these things to aim for in New York, things to strive for and this seemingly endless list of new people to be inspired by/collaborate with whereas in Madison it really felt like there is just that one tier.

So anyway, almost ALL of that entails people. In terms of city planning and geography etc. I do know that I really refresh myself by getting out of the city and into openness. Fresh air and nature mean the world to me. But the zeitgeist of NYC which is “Do Do Do!”, “Action Action Action!” I certainly feel and operate as if there is a fire under my ass. But I think I have felt that to varying degrees wherever I am. Maybe ask me this question sometime in the future after I have spent a year in Antarctica or the wild bush of Australia and I would probably have a much more interesting answer.

What can you tell us about the relationship between your last releases and Spires That In The Sunset Rise? Would you say that the collaborations of the last years have influenced the music of Spires in a significant way?

Everything informs everything. There are no clear lines regarding what is solo material, what is Spires material, what is neither. It is a fluid, organic process that always seeps into each other. I do know that getting more into piano improvisation has been fun and Taralie and I have found exciting new ground there and recorded wild improv piano and sax in a church in our hometown. Look out! It’s great! We are hoping to release some of these recordings in the next year some time.

In a way that has already anticipated my final question. What can you tell us about your plans for the near future with regard to releases, touring etc.?

I just had two cassettes come out in the past month along with my Drag City release “Sapropelic Pycnic.” Tropical Rock, my more ambient project with my partner Camilla Padgitt-Coles, released “Yellow Dock” on our label Perfect Wave that also features guest Spires Taralie Peterson on saxophone. On Nihilist Records Andy Ortmann and I just released a really deep flute, piano and electronics album “Psychic Activation Ritual.” And next month I have a 10 inch coming out with Minneapolis guitarist John Saint-Pelvyn called “Five Years Inside The Sun.” Pretty wacky stuff!

Performance wise I hope to explore more with multimedia performance and movement in the next year and to seek out further residencies and opportunities to do so. I presented “Espylacopa: A Reversal in Three Acts” at Issue Project Room last spring and want to further explore this dream narrative that places my sounds within a narrative context, however abstract or nonlinear it is. Tour wise, I have the wonderful opportunity to tour with Haley Fohr’s project Circuit Des Yeux this November on the east coast and Canada. She is a powerful performer and will be a blast traveling with her and her band. She is supporting her new record also out on Drag City “Reaching For Indigo.” And I hope to do more touring this spring, both here and over the pond so be on the lookout, or invite me to play!


Ka Baird @ Homepage

Ka Baird @ Bandcamp