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Kaia Kater

Plaintive, mesmerizing…writes and performs with the skill of a folk circuit veteran

A creative force in her own right, Kaia Kater has woven the sounds of her life into one of the most personal and distinct voices in folk music. Born in Montreal, Kater is a Grenadian-Canadian who took off to West Virginia to study Appalachian music and hone her impressive clawhammer banjo skills. This led to a deep-dive into the old-time music heard on her previous releases, 2015’s Sorrow Bound and 2016's Nine Pin. The albums have won her a Canadian Folk Music Award, a Stingray Rising Star Award, acclaim from NPR, Rolling Stone, BBC Music, and allowed her to tour across the world with performances at Newport Folk Festival, The Kennedy Center, and London’s Shepherd’s Bush. For her new album, Grenades, her first with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, she took a decidedly different approach, choosing to explore a wider array of sounds and styles to support her investigation of new emotions and topics, most notably her paternal ancestry.

Kaia’s origin begins with a refugee story. Her father Deno grew up in Grenada, an island paradise in revolution, and fled to Canada in 1986 after the U.S. invasion. To fully immerse herself in her father’s story, Kater traveled to his homeland, her first visit as an adult, as a way to tie his past to her present; and to understand the roots of our current global climate of war, unease, immigration, and displacement. “Going home to Grenada felt like shining a light into a part of myself previously shadowed,” she says. “I always knew that I had 'family back home,' which is something many children of immigrants are made to understand from an early age. I knew I was part of a clan, part of something bigger. But, for much of my life, it was just me and my parents.”

Kater's vivid imaginings and poetic musings throughout Grenades give credence to the idea that intergenerational experiences, be it joy or trauma affect descendants on a cellular level. “Our history walks around with us every day,” she notes. “I wrote Grenades by trying to imagine myself as my dad, when he was a little boy, seeing this all happen.”

Inspired by her bicultural experience, Kater collaborated with producer Erin Costelo to create a musical aesthetic that pulled from more than just the Appalachian influences of her past efforts. Artists like Aoife O'Donovan and Daniel Lanois figured prominently in the artistic vision. “I play acoustic guitar on the record, and the title track doesn’t even have banjo in it, so we knew it would be different right off the bat,” Kater says. “We anchored a lot of the sound with guitar player Christine Bougie (Bahamas, Good Lovelies). I knew I wanted Christine on the record, and we built the sound from there.” The diverse sounds on Grenades, including pedal steel guitar, organ, acapella singing, and even spoken interludes from Kater’s father give life to her story and envision a new path for herself and her songs. She now sits comfortably with both old-time masters and contemporary songwriters, as one of Folk music’s brightest new artists.