“As a Lyricist, I’ve Always Been a Collagist”: An Interview With Katie Eastburn


The first time I heard Katie Eastburn play music was well over a decade ago, at a show at which Young People, the band she was in at the time, was playing. Young People’s songs came at you sideways–they could channel unpredictable pop or take a moodier approach, and the result was a constantly rewarding sound that repeatedly surprised. This summer brought with it Out All Night, the first album from her new project, KATIEE, which finds her backed by a group that includes members of the terrific skronk-punk group Sunwatchers. Earlier this summer, I talked with Eastburn about the making of her album, her evolution as a solo artist, and more.

When did you first start playing the songs that can be heard on this project?

I first started playing solo in 2006. That’s how I first started figuring it out. At that point, Young People had just toured for our last record that came out, All At Once. We were bicoastal–Jarret lived in LA, and I live here. I was really interested in figuring out how to keep writing music and playing and performing without having to negotiate thousands of miles of separation and all that. Young People was the only musical project I’d ever been involved in, so figuring that out was a big thing. And I also had a really unfounded stigma against solo performance. I guess because, at that time, across genres I didn’t like solo performance. Whenever I had seen it, I never found it very successful. I always found myself wanting more from the experience. It was also a challenge I set for myself, to get over that stigma and figure out how to do it in a way that I thought was good.

I did a solo tour in the spring of 2007, and that solidified the idea. I was opening for Xiu Xiu and Sunset Rubdown. We did a full tour of the United States, and it was awesome. I had my solo setup, and I had my little minivan, and I traveled alone. At every destination, I had my people and the crew to hang out with. But when the show was over, I could just pack up and leave and say, “Hey, I’ll see you guys in Denver.” I really loved that, not having to deal with anyone else’s nutritional or bathroom needs or anything like that. After having been on the road for so much with a band, it was really exciting to travel alone.

That’s how it started, and I got hooked. In New York City, I kept doing it. I lived right next door to the original Monkeytown, down on North 3rd Street. I would just drag my electric piano over there pretty regularly and play these songs, working it out. I performed there a whole lot. And then, eventually, I got bored with playing alone. I figured it out, I did it for a while, and then I wanted more of a palette. I missed collaboration.

By that time, it was 2013. I wasn’t consciously thinking, “I’m going to put together a band.” My husband, actually, said, “I’m going to put together a backing band for you.” And he did, and that’s where this record came from. Although I had started tracking it back in 2009, by myself. And that corresponded with what I was saying. I started tracking it, and I laid down all the drum machine and the synthesizer, and did vocals. And that was my palette at the time, as a solo performer, along with whatever percussion I could manage with my four limbs. It wasn’t enough. Those tracks weren’t giving me what I wanted, and so I shelved the project for a minute. And then life interfered, and I got derailed from the whole thing for a while. As I was getting re-railed and coming back to music, it was then that my husband said, “Let’s put a band together.”

What percentage of the new record is the original recordings versus components that were added more recently?

I don’t think there are any songs on there that are brand-new–or brand-new as of 2014, which is when we started tracking it. We did end up re-tracking everything except the Dr. Groove, the drum machine, because there weren’t any changed to that component. That was a very labor-intensive process in 2009. It was isolating each little tiny sound in a whole beat, and doing that over and over and over. We got those tracks from Jeff Ptolemay, who we recorded with in 2009. In some of the songs, we ended up keeping some of the original synthesizer texture tracks. That’s it. We redid everything else: all the lead keys, and all the other instrumentation and all the vocals. And everything that’s in the band now: the saxophone and the live drum kit and guitar.

When I saw you play last summer, you talked about how the songs that you were playing had lyrics that had been adapted from other sources–I was wondering if you could talk about that aspect of your process?

For a bunch of the songs, the titles and lyrics are pulled directly from films of the same title. So for “Sudden Fear,” all of the lines are lines of dialogue from that film. “Atlantic City” is a little more of a collage: it has phrases and bits of dialogue from the 1980 film Atlantic City, but it also had bits of Portraits of Jenny, which is an older film from the 1950s. “My Forgotten Man” is a song that was in Gold Diggers of 1933, in a very different form, a massive Busby Berkeley production number. That song, I lifted in its entirety and re-translated it.

Young People had the song “Night of the Hunter,” which did something similar. Does this idea of working with dialogue and imagery come from a similar place?

Young People as a band name came from a Shirley Temple film called Young People. Jarret got that from a big, encyclopedic tome of Hollywood films. Jarret certainly comes from a place very steeped in film history, as a native Los Angeleno. We shared a love of musicals, film musicals in particular. As a lyricist, I’ve always been a collagist. In Young People, that included lifting phrases from older films, but also from hymnals and books of poetry–mostly early American poetry. That’s still my process. “Rilke,” on my current record, is bits and pieces of poetry from a ton of different Rainer Maria Rilke poems. I’ve always collaged.

Are you always looking for something that can be worked into a collage, or do you watch specific films with the intention of finding something in that particular work?

The latter. I’ll sit down and watch a film with a notebook. The process of choosing a film like that–I don’t want to say it’s random. Maybe I’ll read about something, but mostly I’ll just catch a vibe about something. When I was writing music for Young People, I would catch a film through word of mouth or random research. Now, I can scroll through infinite numbers of films through my Apple TV. There’s a song that I’m working on right now where all the words are coming from Night Watch, a horror film from 1973, starring Elizabeth Taylor. Now that we have all this infinite stuff at our fingertips, I’ll usually look up a star or a director. It tends to be an actress that I’m looking for–someone I’ve enjoyed seeing before. I’m a huge fan of Lana Turner, and I turn to her films a lot. Liz Taylor, obviously.

You mentioned earlier that your husband had put together the band that you’re working with now–were you familiar with their work before you started playing together?

We were friends. My husband moved to New York from Athens, Georgia. He was there for a while, in a band called Dark Meat. Jeff Tobias, my saxophone player, and Jason Robira, the drummer, played in Dark Meat with Jim for a long time. I met Jim back in 2003, on Young People’s first US tour. He was living in Greensboro, North Carolina at the time. I think he was still in college, and he ran a venue called the Onion Cellar that we knew from LA. We played there, and I think all three of us fell in love with Jim. When we were booking tours, we’d be building them around Greensboro–“We can’t wait to see Jim!”

I’ve known Jim for a long time. I settled in New York shortly thereafter, and any time he came through town on tour with Dark Meat, we always hung out. I knew Jason and Jeff for years and years that way. They ended up moving to New York as well, a year or so after Jim did. We were playing together already, in the very earliest form of Sunwatchers. Which is fully formed and awesome, and they have a record out. I was playing with them early, early on in their formation, so I knew them and felt comfortable with them.

Also, it wasn’t like, “Let’s form a band and play songs together.” It was, “You have all these songs, and we’re going to learn them and augment and flesh it out.” That was easy to say yes to.

You’re also doing some work with composers on the opera side of things. How did that come about?

Spring of 2015 was the first gig I did for Jason Cady, who is part of a collective called Experiments in Opera. And that’s what they do. He approached me. He was a fan of my stuff, and fully aware that I’m not an opera singer. He wrote parts for me that I can do. I don’t put on an opera aesthetic or try to attempt a classical opera style when I sing for him–I just sing as I sing. This year, we did a video opera about Y2K that you can see online. It’s called I Screwed Up the Future. It’s a really classic representation of Jason Cady’s operatic form. It’s great. It’s got a snappy, quick libretto.

Are you currently working on a second record?

There’s a bunch of backlogged material that didn’t make it into Out All Night that I still have yet to approach with my band. I have a bunch of songs that are older, and I just got a new keyboard, I got a Jupiter 50, which I’m really excited about. When I get a new instrument, I tend to write a bunch of new stuff. The KATIEE stuff came out of having acquired an electric piano, an 88-key piano, that was for the last Young People record. Then, I inherited a Juno 106 from a friend, and that’s what the majority of the songs from Out All Night came from. Having that palette of awesome old-school synth sounds. Another friend, my friend Ray Sweeten, who I’m working with on some music right now–he gave me the Dr. Groove drum machine originally.

I ran a music education program in the city for teenage girls for ten years, called Vibe Songmakers. You can find Vibe Theater Experience, that’s the parent organization, pretty easily. Vibe Songmakers came to be because the girls in the theater program were writing all this music for their shows. An old friend of mine had started Vibe, and she and I had taught together as undergrads at the women’s prison juvenile hall in Providence. And also in San Francisco, right out of college, we were doing creative arts workshops with women and girls in prison and group homes. When I moved to New York, I immediately started working with Vibe, because of all that history. It was very clear very quickly that we needed a music program. That was incredible. I did it by the grace of all of my friends in the music scene here in the city. We had a whole roster of musicians who basically donated their time to be both the teaching artists and to form the backing band for the girls. It wasn’t about teaching the girls how to play everything, Willa Mae Rock Camp-style. It was a songwriting program. So, enabling them to write songs and then hear them exactly the way they wanted to be played, with these expert musicians as their backing band. And of course, if any girl presented with the interest or the background or any functional ability to play any of the instruments, we absolutely fostered that. We didn’t want them to be limited by technique.

That was amazing, and I did that forever. My friend Ray, who is an electronic artist, became our drum machine teacher. Which the girls flipped out about and excelled at. He taught them on the Dr. Groove, and the Dr. Groove is on several Vibe records. We put out seven full-length albums. I retired from the program when I became a full-time registered nurse, and two alums of the program, who I’ve known since they were fifteen, are now running the program, and it’s still going strong. I have the Dr. Groove, because they have much newer drum machines that they’re using in the program now.

So for me, whole batches of songs will come out of whatever technology is present at the time. I’m not a technically-savvy person. I’ve never had a looping panel or any of that kind of thing. I think people do that so well; it’s not a skill set that I’m interested in for myself. It tends to be what I can do with my four limbs, if I’m playing alone without much augmentation. The Dr. Groove, though–it’s full of all these beats, so I slowed things down and sped things up and muted things and played with things. All the material from Out All Night came from the Dr. Groove and the Juno 106. And now I have this Jupiter 50, and I’m really excited about what’s coming next.

In the meantime, I’m working on sort of a disco record with Ray Sweeten, using analog synthesizers and analog drum machines. He’s a really brilliant programmer. We’re working on that this summer.

Photo: Edwina Hay

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.