PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY CHIMERA SINGER

Kathleen On Unlocking Creativity During Quarantine

Singer-songwriter Kathleen isn’t just conscious of the environment—she sings about it, too. Over video chat from Colorado, the emerging artist speaks to Atmos about finding nature within urban settings, harnessing creativity during quarantine, and why a global lockdown is the perfect time to release new music.

INTERVIEW BY NICOLA FUMO

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Singer-songwriter Kathleen is back where she began. The Los Angeles-based musician, 26, has decamped to her childhood home in rural Colorado to ride out the virus, holed up with her parents and sister.

 

Hours away from any major metropolitan area, Kathleen has been basking in the reawakening of flora and fauna as winter melts away, spring blooms, and summer beckons. “This is the best time to be in Colorado,” she tells Atmos, “because everything’s so green. The Aspen leaves are neon because they’re just little buds. The sun hits different. These little details about nature, these little patterns and systems that are unique but transferable is what grew me up.”

 

Among the projects keeping Kathleen busy is that of transforming the basement room that once served as a creative space for her teenage self into a functioning studio befitting a young adult who recently crossed the threshold from working six or seven part time jobs to the coveted—almost mythical—realm of full time artist.

 

She’s also wrestling with how—logistically and empathetically—to share her latest release, Kathleen I. This is the artist’s debut recording with Warner Records, a four track EP informed by the climate crisis, information overload, and young love. Over video chat from her parents’ basement, the newcomer spoke to Atmos about finding nature within urban settings, harnessing creativity during quarantine, and more.

Nicola Fumo

It sounds like you’ve been creatively productive.

Kathleen

Yeah! I’ve been building out a studio, ordering all the gear that I’ve always wanted to have, doing the visualizers for songs on the EP—so I was learning Premiere and nerding out on that. And then learning Logic and trying to hit up all my producer friends [to] teach me.

Nicola

I know we’re not supposed to pressure ourselves to be productive during this time, but it’s cool that you’re making it happen. It’s definitely a great time to be focusing and being really conscious about what you’re making.

Kathleen

Well, my life hasn’t changed too much. When I got signed, I was lucky enough to [become] a full-time artist. So I had already been going through this transition. I used to have six, seven jobs just to scrape by. Then, all of a sudden, it’s like full-time art. Adjusting to making yourself useful in a day [that is] empty. How do you [create] routine, how do you keep yourself motivated, how do you write every day? I’ve been working through that by myself and then COVID happened and it was like, “Oh, I’ve got these skill sets. This isn’t so bad.”

Nicola

How does it feel releasing music in a time like this? Were any of your promotional plans or tour plans canceled?

Kathleenb

We did start booking a few things, but we didn’t go into promotion and stuff like that yet, so not a huge loss. It’s a really weird time to be an emerging artist, but I’m super grateful for it because I don’t know how this stuff works anyway. All there is to do is innovate. None of us know. There’s no risk, really.

Nicola

Did you do any musical or visual art growing up?

Kathleen

By myself, a lot in this basement room. It’s funny being back here, like, “Oh yeah, you were doing this the whole time.” It’s just now I have better toys.

Nicola

Does it feel weird trying to promote Kathleen I given the moment in time?

Kathleen

Definitely. I’ve had a couple long talks with my team about how to be delicate about [promotion] and feeling authentic about it and not like I know everything’s crumbling, but look over here! It’s funny: I’ve had [these songs] written and produced for a long time and they’ve only grown in relevance. In a way, this is the perfect time for these songs to emerge into the world.

Nicola

It’s funny you say that because as soon as I saw the track title “The Longest Year,” I kind of laughed because 2020 feels like this is the longest year, but 2019 also felt like the longest year. And before, 2018 felt like the longest year. Tell me about that song and why you chose it as your debut single.

Kathleen

I started writing it in 2016, before Trump was even in the primaries. I was seeing all this M.A.G.A. stuff on Instagram. You know how you’re scrolling and there’s just such a disconnect of the information you’re getting? How does the mind process that? I focused on that feeling a lot in my song writing because it’s so confusing.

 

It feels like there’s a very obvious answer and all of us are really frustrated with that not being [implemented]. It’s so obvious what we need to do with this COVID catastrophe in every way but what is happening where it’s not [being implemented]—what’s the disconnect? I think it’s really interesting how desensitized we can become with all that information.

 

So, it was like: the great barrier reef is…most of it is dead. I was just like, I haven’t been to Australia! I was trying to get over there… And then Trump, M.A.G.A., and then… I remember the second verse, I was home and Jimmy Kimmel was crying. It was after a [mass] shooting and he was just crying during his monologue. I was like, It is so dark (if these things make the comedians cry, you know?). I was just like, Fuck, that’s heavy, because that permeates another level of society.

 

Then I was out to lunch with a friend and he was just telling me, like, “How’s it going?” We were eating pad Thai and he just shakes his head. He’s like, “It’s just been a really long year.” I was like, Yeah… We talked about it because it’s not necessarily “single sounding” and a lot of friends were like, Why aren’t you leading with that?

 

I wanted to make my first impression publicly clear, what I was up to. If you didn’t like it, I don’t really care because it’s my most honest piece. “Seven Miles” is a little bit more pop. And then we have an EP following [the release of Kathleen I] and there are some bangers on that, which I’m stoked for and also afraid of.

Nicola

Why’s that?

Kathleen

I don’t know, there’s a lot of different perspectives on “selling out” with pop or whatever. But my A&R put it really well. He was like, “All the greats, they started with pop music and then they spent the rest of their career rebelling against it.” That’s been an encouraging map. So I wanted to start with a song that I felt was true to me, then build on that solid foundation.

Nicola

I know you wanted to keep the environmental impact of your releases and promotions as low as possible. Can you tell us more about that?

Kathleen

I’m really proud of our generation in general and our focus on being conscientious of every action—at least in my friend group and the artists that I love and follow and people that I get to talk to. Everyone’s really intentional about how they go about things, because—especially specific to starting your music career—there’s a lot of choices to be made. Where are you going to get your merch sourced from? How are you going to get around for touring?

 

My team has gotten really used to my sense of being really detail-oriented and they have to run everything past me because I’m probably going to be like, “Well, what about this? We’ve got to change it.”

 

So we wrote “The Longest Year” on the drive back, my friend Chimera and I, who also took a lot of the photos that we used for promo. We were just writing it on speaker phone with Will, who’s the director. Just coming up with like, Okay, so we’re going to do this. We’re going to probably do it in this location. What kind of trash are we going to look for? How are we going to collect trash? Everyone on board was collecting trash the whole week, which was really interesting actually, because that’s a whole other thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot: when you collect trash with intention, it has this second life after. I think if we could give a second life to trash, people would be really excited to focus on waste, which is another topic altogether.

 

But then the clothing and stuff, I love thrift shopping. I love getting to know vintage sellers and collectors, so that came naturally; it was so fun. I was like, Yeah, I’m going to go raid Crossroads for some dope ass shit and I’m going to go over to my favorite vintage spots. The budget was like, $80, I think.

Nicola

$80 goes a long way when you thrift.

Kathleen

This is what I love to do and to me it feels like another art form. So being environmentally conscious—certain parts come naturally, certain parts are a stretch.

Nicola

Did that education come from your parents? Your friend group? How did you become aware of all these things?

Kathleen

We weren’t composting growing up. We didn’t really know. So I guess it kind of came from looking at things and being overwhelmed by how much waste it drives and trying to outsmart that, thinking about things differently and being efficient with what I buy. A couple of jobs I had were just super wasteful, too.

Nicola

What kind of work was it?

Kathleen

Floral jobs. Certain flower shops I worked at were really, really good. Zero waste. Really conscious about every purchase we make. And then others, it was just like, Oh my God. They just had sheets and sheets of plastic and that plastic would get thrown out and then, like, all the waste that happens with lots of styrofoam… It was just so depressing; it’s overwhelming.

 

I worked for a suitcase company and they didn’t give a fuck about how many boxes, how many times you were shipping things. Oh, and [they] prided themselves in, like, “This is the most durable plastic that will never go away.”

Nicola

And you’re like No, these things should decompose.

Kathleen

I was just really overwhelmed and really bent my brain around being sustainable.

Nicola

Tell us more about your relationship to the environment and the great outdoors—growing up in what sounds like a pretty scenic spot in Colorado.

Kathleen

I just love the space, the expansiveness, and that ability to drive down a county road and you don’t know where it’s going. It’s really simple things. It’s spring here now and we just got out of what we call “mud season,” which is when all the snow is melting. The dogs bring in so much mud, but it’s really beautiful. This is the best time to be in Colorado because everything’s so green, the Aspen leaves are neon because they’re just little buds, and the sun hits different… I think it informed my subconscious so heavily that I’m back here now looking at the… You know how light hits? It just feels differently? Like, in L.A. the lighting is just so different than New York or Mexico or here. I think that these little details about nature, these little patterns and little systems of how they’re unique—but transferable—is… I think a lot of what grew me up, if that makes sense.

 

Then coming to L.A., it’s really cool because the plants there are, like, batshit. I mean, it’s a global botanic garden! As diverse as it is with its people, they bring their plants, and almost anything can grow there. So I just love looking at the tree lines… you can see 20 different countries represented. You got eucalyptus from Australia, and then, like, cypress trees from the mediterranean, palm trees… I don’t remember where palm trees originated. I don’t think they’re native to California.

Nicola

L.A.’s interesting because it is a big urban, concrete, dense city. You see the smog, you can tell how not blue the sky is. Was it weird going from somewhere lush like Colorado and to a city-city?

Kathleen

I was just so stoked to be out of a small town. L.A. surprises me; it really does feel very natural. I know that sounds weird, because it’s like an overground dumpster—especially parts of Hollywood, you’re like, Oh yeah, we’re inside of a literal dumpster right now. There’s trash everywhere, which is completely… oh my God. That’s exhausting on my conscience but I still get really excited. I love that there’s a shit load of coyotes in Echo Park.

 

I think the fact that L.A. is so clear right now and people have time to look at it is such a beautiful thing because if you care about something and you love it personally, you’ll do anything to protect it. So I think people have time (finally) to look around and look at the flowers and look how unique it is and watch spring happen around them, feel the season and, like, feel a part of it. I keep talking about the birds but oh my God: You can’t hear them over rush hour traffic and now you can.

 

And it calms you down. Accesses a part of you because, inherently, we are of the earth. We’re connected to nature. This makes sense that that would make you feel better rather than how stressful so many cars sound. There’s a lot of rebalancing happening that has been so needed.

Nicola

What are your COVID silver linings?

Kathleen

For those of us who are lucky enough to be able to stay inside, I think there’s a huge benefit that we hopefully can carry into the larger population after this is over.

 

A big one is that people are forced to confront themselves and get to know themselves. What are you without all this shit that you filled your life with? Do you actually find fulfillment and joy and sustainability in your job? In your relationships? I think that is so valuable because when you get to know yourself, you can go into anything and be brave with your beliefs and demand good leadership. You’re clear with what you want and need.

 

Another thing, environmentally, is that the climate crisis is existential, which is really hard for people to wrap their minds around. It’s really difficult to [understand] in an emotional, personal way when it’s so large. I think that COVID being a microscopic virus that we cannot see, that we don’t understand, we’re learning about it but it’s affecting us… I hope that we can take these lessons that we’ve learned from something invisible, similar to climate change.

 

I hope that we can transfer [this] awareness, these fears and innovations, into climate innovation. Right now, so that we don’t slide backwards and go harder into capitalism. I hope that this collection of brilliant minds can innovate quickly and translate this event into the future.

Nicola

I hope it’s not fleeting, people caring about something for two months and then onto the next thing. I feel like we as a society were doing such a good job about getting away from single-use plastic and moving towards things that have more than one life. Now there’s all these single-use Clorox wipes and disposable gloves and the grocery store won’t let you bring your reusable bags… I hope that that movement away from single-use doesn’t get, because of hygienic reasons, completely lost.

Kathleen

We’ve been operating outside of the laws of nature for a really long time, feeling like this planet [and] its resources [are] ours to own. Trees are decorative and animals are for eating. It’s like, No, that’s not it. I think if we remember after this that we will survive as a species if we go back in line with the laws of nature. The cool thing about the laws of nature is, you don’t have some high priests holding the secrets. It’s accessible. You just go outside and stare at a fucking bird and watch it. Watch it again tomorrow and you’ll learn some pattern of how it works. Or look at your pomegranate bush tree and when did the beetles come? Then the ants follow. These little patterns [are] all there.

 

So, I think if we can apply that to single-use plastics, let’s expand beyond just reusable Q-tips and bamboo straws. Let’s look at the full system of how things are working and get it back in line because we’ve hit a reset button. This could be an amazing opportunity for us as a species. It is “as a species” because it’s the whole fucking world going through this.

Nicola

I love when nature outruns man. I think it’s a good lesson to remember that we’re not mightier than nature. We can control much of it, but not all of it.

Kathleen

It humbles you. It’s like, Check it out, bitch: You are just like everybody else on the planet. I think it’s less pressure. We don’t have to be this species. We can just chill like a beaver. What’s wrong with that?

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