Before the coronavirus ravaged live music communities far and wide, New York City’s downtown music scene seemed an ecosystem all its own, robust, dynamic, and endlessly heterogeneous. With venues of all kinds and capacities, from crowded café front rooms to basement bars and music clubs offering a variety of makeshift-to-proper stages (in combination with often remarkably dilapidated bathrooms), musicians and fans of all genres and intersections could find places to play, listen, and partake in shaping the city’s vibrant and ever-evolving culture.
Though NYC’s venues may be empty, the artists who filled them are still around, continuing to contribute to and mold the creative landscape from their own corners of isolation in a pandemic-mandated, post-IRL world. One of these artists is Kate Koenig, whose experimental sound derives from folk and rock but is not confined to any formula, as evidenced through her noteworthy debut album, Haircuts for Barbers, which was released in 2019. Citing influences including Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Jeff Buckley, and Fleet Foxes, Koenig’s own brand of progressive folk explores an array of introspective and surreal themes.
Now, Koenig returns with her sophomore LP, Etemenanki, a concept album told from the perspective of a mythological omniscient being of Koenig’s creation. Written, arranged, performed, produced, and mixed primarily by Koenig herself, the record’s imaginative soundscape depicts various experiences as detailed by Koenig’s fictional, shape-shifting narrator, and, at times, parts of its instrumentation bear some resemblance to components of traditional music of the Middle East.
A spirited performer, Koenig could regularly be found among downtown Manhattan’s open mic scene prior to the pandemic, and, in 2018, endeavored to produce a live show of her own. The monthly variety series, dubbed Suicide Nights for its loose, candid mental health theme, ran for over a year, appearing at venues including Under St. Marks Theater in the East Village and the Huron Club of SoHo Playhouse, and featured combination music-and-comedy bills curated by Koenig composed of herself plus five new local acts each iteration.
In addition to being a musician, Koenig creates whimsical illustrations and is also a music journalist and consistent contributor to magazines including Premier Guitar and Acoustic Guitar. We spoke with Koenig about her new album, Etemenanki, and the many facets of her artistry.
INTERVIEW WITH KATE KOENIG
SAM (HIGHLARK): What’s your approach to creating? What gets you going?
KATE KOENIG: That’s tough to answer. I’ve always admired people who commit themselves to a schedule, where they just sit down and write for hours every day. I believe in that. But I’m more in the “when the inspiration strikes” camp. Usually, what happens is I’ll be going about my day, and a lyric will pop into my head, or a song melody… or I’ll be in the middle of playing guitar, and I’ll come up with a riff. Once I have an idea, I can’t put it down until it’s done! Not for work deadlines or anything… ha.
On my first album, Haircuts for Barbers, [on] nine out of the ten songs, I wrote lyrics first, then set music to the words. Now, that process has been reversed for me, and I find it very difficult to come up with lyrics that I like! Sometimes when I’m stuck, I’ll try journaling about whatever’s on my mind, and that can help orient me.
SAM: Do you feel you’ve changed musically, coming from your 2019 album Haircuts for Barbers to Etemenanki?
KATE: Definitely! There’s so much difference between the two albums. In terms of the music itself, I would say that Haircuts is a little unconventional alternative or folk rock. Etemenanki also stems from folk but is dreamier, contemplative, and more explorative. Several of the songs feature sounds I drew from a big Foley library my friend put together for me.
On Haircuts, my stuff was also heavily edited—I put a lot of pressure on myself to make everything as unconventional as possible (mostly just in terms of unusual chord progressions or song structures). Every step of the way, nothing was ever good enough until I was finally able to settle on something. For Etemenanki, I took the opposite route, for better or for worse! I wrote, I think, two of the songs in January and late February, then in the first two weeks of the COVID lockdown in March 2020, I completed a new song every night for, like, ten nights in a row (I ultimately sacrificed two of the tracks). I just wrote unfiltered. I still edited, of course, but a lot less than before. It just felt so much more free-flowing and very spiritual, like magic!
SAM: What does Etemenanki mean? Can you describe this album and your inspirations for making it?
KATE: Etemenanki is a Babylonian ziggurat that is speculated to have inspired the Tower of Babel. The title track is actually sung by a woman losing her mind in Babylon, who holds a resentment against their god Marduk, to whom the temple is dedicated. The album as a whole was mostly the product of a lot of pent-up inspiration—just really a desire to write—that I hadn’t gotten the chance to express with my busy schedule before the lockdown. It’s definitely largely inspired by a new sense of spirituality—a sense of wonderment towards the world around me—that has come with my time spent sober (since June 29th, 2019). I felt like a lot of the songs on Haircuts were deeply sad and sometimes a bit self-pitying, whereas Etemenanki is more pensive and hopeful; less emotionally turbulent. A lot of the songs are still pretty sad though, haha.
In the fall preceding the album, when I was newly sober, I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil, but everything felt magical all the time. During that time, I came up with some characters that were supposed to represent that magic—one was the Flower Fish 💐🐟, and later came their friend Buff Dog 💪🐶. They both became my own mythological beings. Buff Dog (which I’ve started to write as “Bʌfdɔg”) has existed as every person and at every time. Naturally, they are very tired. Somehow it came to be that Buff Dog was the one singing all of the songs, sometimes as themselves and sometimes as different people they’ve embodied.
SAM: In addition to being a musician, you’re also an illustrator. Tell us a little about your visual work. Does it tie in to your music?
KATE: In general, not so much, but I did have something specific in mind for the cover art for the album. It shows a lot of different buildings from different cultures and eras. There’s Russian palaces, Dutch houses, Italian churches, the Taj Mahal, pyramids, etc. It ties into the concept behind the album in that it reflects all the times and personalities in which Bʌfdɔg has lived! Other than that, I would say that when I draw, I come up with something weird and cute and then let the pen take me wherever it wants to go. I guess you could say that I wrote Etemenanki in a somewhat similar fashion.
SAM: Before the pandemic crisis, you gigged a lot, playing shows and open mics around NYC and even running your own monthly show for a while. What was that scene like?
KATE: The open mic scene was amazing. There’s nothing like going to an open mic and discovering a whole community of talent. I love how that develops on its own, organically. Then as you go out gigging, you end up running into or working with a lot of the same people, sometimes working together to book shows, playing on each other’s shows, that sort of thing. I had a lot of fun running my own show and putting all my friends that I met from the open mic on stage; giving them stage time. That was one of the best things about being a producer.
SAM: What led you to start your show, Suicide Nights? Do you think you’d start a show again in the future?
KATE: Suicide Nights was an idea [the] nascence [of which] can be traced back to one night when I was watching my friends perform. It happened at my first open mic community at the Music Inn in the West Village. I had spent a while watching comedians perform at the mic and recognized how vulnerable and open so many of them are on stage—talking about their depression, family dysfunction, and other mental health issues. It spoke so much to my own desire to normalize the topic of mental health and to encourage people to talk about all of the weird, uncomfortable, and ugly stuff that goes on in our minds. I’d also watched a lot of my musician friends play beautiful, sad songs at the mic. One night, I was watching one of said friends do that, and all of a sudden, I thought it would be great to put both arts on the stage and have them share and play about their demons to help normalize that for others.
I did 14 Suicide Nights shows, and I gotta say, by the end, I was pretty exhausted. You need your own marketing person, or at least a co-producer for that sort of thing, and I didn’t have one. The show’s attendance suffered as a result. It was pretty disheartening! I would say I might produce a show again in the future, but I imagine only if I discovered a new community that I felt inspired by. Probably not for a while.
SAM: Do you think your being a music journalist and—to some extent—a critic has an impact on your own sound?
KATE: If anything, my writing parallels my music in that they’re both fueled by neuroses and anxiety, haha. But when I was first learning the ropes of professional journalism, it had a huge impact on my music in more of a practical way. At the time, I didn’t yet have the courage to take my songwriting seriously—I couldn’t allow myself to fail and therefore wouldn’t complete or even begin writing many songs. By having to write journalistically all the time for work, I strengthened that writing muscle and learned how to use failure to write efficiently. Then, through my research, I finally (after years of reading about the lives of other artists) discovered a songwriter whose depression sounded like my own, and it unleashed a creative beast within me. I finally gave myself permission to fail and began progressing with my songwriting [at 25].
SAM: How was your 2020, and what are your hopes for this new year?
KATE: 2020 was… 2020. I mean, it started off great. In January, I played at the Map Room at the Bowery Electric for the first time, then in February, I had a great show at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg that was so much fun. Then, I guess March was alright since I wrote Etemenanki. After that, though, I think I went through about three phases of depression, [each] one uglier than the last. It was ROUGH. Luckily, by the fall, it subsided.
In the past month, I’ve been working on promoting my album, which feels very empowering. But I have a lot of hope for 2021. Or just, like, the immediate future. I don’t believe in years.