Kalbells on Beating Cancer, Saying Yes to Yourself, and Sowing Songs Like Seeds

Welcome back to Soundfly’s new interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

In true Incorrect Music fashion, Rubblebucket singer and saxophonist Kalmia Traver says, “I like to feel disarmed.” Ten Flowers is the debut full-length album from Traver’s solo project, Kalbells, and, indeed, it disarms.

At the core of the album — released this July on NNA Tapes — are a series of recordings and demo takes that Traver made in her closet as she was in the process of writing. And even though the music is mixed with expert-level production  (complemented in the later stages by Kalbells’ collaborator, producer Ryan Power), it’s unusual in that it manages to still retain all of the magic from those early moments of discovery and joy in the songwriting process.

Within the performances, you can hear the musician in her closet still reveling in the improvisatory surprise and beauty of what’s she’s just made. Traver’s philosophy of songwriting holds that “the weirdest thing about yourself is the coolest.” Kalbells’ Ten Flowers is experimental electronic pop music done right — accessibility that doesn’t stamp out the individuality, the rough edges, the weirdest coolest thing.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Sophie Chernin

What inspired you to write Ten Flowers and launch Kalbells as a solo project?

I was coming off the first big tour for [Rubblebucket’s 2014 album] Survival Sounds totally exhausted and had a few free months before [the] tour kicked up in the spring. Making that album was a crazy time for me; we recorded it when I was undergoing chemo and Alex was getting sober, and it’s filled with that story, but it’s more in Alex’s voice because I was mostly too low-energy to write.

I was mostly focused on learning mindfulness and yoga to get through insane anxiety attacks, just hopping in the van to be along for the ride, singing, learning, showing strength, and connecting with fans. After a huge tour singing the same lyrics every night, I knew it was time to say something in my own words.

Before the couple of years of cancer and Survival Sounds, I was experiencing some writer’s block. I’m not sure I believe in that concept now, though! I think it’s just a form of self-harm to cut us off from our own joy. The time humans [spend stuck] is part of a huge hump we’re trying to get over to stop hurting the earth and each other.

The “seeds” for Ten Flowers grew as part of a daily songwriting practice. I’d never tried anything like it, though I’d always wanted to. But I had no intention of making an album or releasing any of these “flowers.” Creating isn’t a one-way street — what you create creates you!

You were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent treatment (and kicked its ass) while on tour with Rubblebucket. How did you balance recovery with the rigors of touring?

Mindfulness helped me the most. When I was first diagnosed, I went through all of the stages of grief, and I really didn’t want to believe it was happening to me. I had a moment on the floor of my bedroom when I felt completely empty — uninhabited like a dead carapace — but I realized that I couldn’t let this happen to me, that I had to happen to it.

I had to say yes to myself in every single breath. The safest I felt was in the acceptance of the present moment. So I held onto that attitude, and it served me throughout all of the tours. I just kept breathing, conversing with my awesome bandmates and people at shows, doing what I love most (singing and dancing), and taking space and rest anytime I needed it. It worked out (and it’s still working out)!

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Write better pieces of music with a more thorough understanding of the foundational elements of composition and one-on-one help from professional advisors in Introduction to the Composer’s Craft

What’s it like to move back into solo writing?

The intrigue for me of writing totally solo was having the freedom to layer tracks in my DAW (Logic); not worrying at all about reproducing those sounds or performances live; not having any rules about how many voices are present at any given moment. It’s pretty liberating!

“Give your ideas a chance to exist. Believe in yourself; you are cool! The weirdest thing about yourself is the coolest.”

Ten Flowers makes ample use of synths but feels as intimate as if you were in the room with us. What was your process for making acoustic and electronic arrangement choices?

A lot of my favorite music coming out right now exists in that gray area between organic and synthesized sound. For me, the right blend started with some beautifully used synths I’ve been collecting over the past few years: the AKAI AX60, the Yamaha DX7, and the Critter & Guitarri Pocket Piano.

Each of those has an organic physical feel to me, and I was quick to commit to sounds I liked — I definitely didn’t overthink it. There were no rules other than to finish two verses and a chorus every day. I placed that limitation in order to keep things minimal and to make a song a day an achievable goal. But I really enjoyed breaking it! I loved creating a world of sound. I wanted being inside the music to be like a healing bath since that’s what it felt like for me when I was making it. My ears craved those tones!

What was the production process like for Ten Flowers?

I set up an Apogee Duet and a nice mic (Telefunken CU-29) in my closet to capture everything hi-fidelity enough to preserve original performances that were worth keeping. I recorded 27 demos over the course of two months, and they sat on Dropbox for about a year; I’d play them for friends and family.

When my friend Toby (who runs the label NNA Tapes) suggested I work with Ryan Power to finish them, I emailed Ryan who immediately had some cool ideas for the demos. So we worked over a few months and slowly fleshed everything out. We wrote new sections into songs that needed it, overdubbed vocals whenever necessary, captured nature sounds, layered in soft synths, and added in Ryan’s insanely beautiful voice and guitar. After transferring my Logic stems over, Ryan mixed the demos in Cubase.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Any sound can fit into a piece of music. Learn how to sample the sounds of the world in your DAW with Making Music From Everyday Items, a free course instructed by YouTube star Andrew Huang. 

How would you describe your approach when it comes to writing, performance, and production?

Follow your ears, stay loose, take rests, but follow through on ideas. Give your ideas a chance to exist. Believe in yourself; you are cool! The weirdest thing about yourself is the coolest. Stay playful; have lots of healthy snacks around.

How does the album’s instrumentation vary from recorded to live performance?

I ditched the pocket piano live because it’s unbridled. I started out doing the “Ten Flowers set” as a duo with my friend Ian Chang (the drummer who performs on the record) and we played to backing tracks loaded into the SPD-S drum sampler.

After a few fun duo shows, I wanted to try it with a more traditional live band, so I called my current all-star bandmates (Nasimiyu Murumba, Angelica Bess, and Sarah Pedinotti), and it’s since been a process of slowly graduating from needing the track. I’ve learned all the songs on keyboard, which helps. But keyboard isn’t my first instrument, so it’s a whole learning curve!

In fact, we’re all performing on instruments we’re untrained on, but that wonky innocent resulting feel is totally in of the spirit of the record. Everybody is a supernatural performer and vibe creator, and we have the most fun together, so it’s worked well so far.

Creating isn’t a one-way street — what you create creates you!

What’s your practice and writing regimen like?

I have good practice technique from music school: Slow it down until you can play it right, then slowly speed it up again; don’t go over and over something that’s wrong, etc. But I was never one of those kids who spent eight hours a day in the practice room.

More recently, I’ve found that meditation practice feeds all of the other ways I want to improve, whether it’s composing, performing, or just being a good friend. The more efficiently I can find my calm in a challenging moment, the more pleased I am with the results.

I also have a regular drawing practice, a place to flex my self-acceptance chops. Saying yes to the lines I make, letting them lead to new ideas. The most valuable thing I’ve gotten good at over the past few years has been not shutting myself down.

How does your woodwind playing/writing inform your vocal work?

Somebody once told me I sing like a sax player, and I took that as a compliment. After all, they’re really both just air tubes that you manipulate to create varying flavors of tone and pitch.

I’ve noticed that I think in similar ways for horn and voice, but very differently for keys (or guitar, which I’m finally attempting to wrap my head around). Maybe because they’re so fully dependent on breath, like life itself. I feel like my sax is an extension of my voice; I have a tenor tattooed on my right shoulder, so I’m never without it.

Who are some of your earliest inspirations musically, philosophically, or artistically?

I loved Where’s Waldo, My Father’s Dragon, and A Wrinkle in Time. Ace Of Base called out to me at a very young age. Also Boys II Men, Janet Jackson, Brandi, MJ, Mariah Carey, big-band music, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Austin Powers soundtrack (Burt Bacharach and lots of Brazilian music).

I spent a lot of time in nature when I was little, which was a supreme teacher. Eating leaves. My parents were very careful to teach me to never try a leaf I wasn’t 100% sure about.

What do you enjoy seeing in aspiring artists onstage, in their work ethic, or in recordings?

I like to see fearlessness and compassion. I love seeing people go out on a limb and make themselves look silly or a spectacle. I like to feel disarmed and in on the cool secret. I like lyrics that are true and honest.

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