Kate Wakefield: Life of a Musician
As the first real snowflakes of the year float down from the sky, I hurry through the overcast cold to the warmth of Northside’s The Listing Loon. Kate Wakefield, a local musician specializing in operatic vocals and haunting cello chords, is at the bar chatting with the bartender, who also happens to be her bandmate in her punk electric cello duo, Lung. We grab two cups of hot tea and one water with lime and quickly find the comfiest looking couch near the largest window. It’s not long at all before our yawning pleasantries and small talk turn into loud laughs as we talk haunted small towns, pig wrestling, and navigating the world as a woman in music.
Tell us about yourself.
I'm a musician in the area, based out of Cincinnati. I play cello and I write a lot of music. I'm originally out of Michigan, but I moved here in 2010 and, like, Cincinnati has a way of sucking people in. Now I feel like I'm probably going to be here forever – I like it, and that seems to happen to people here. They're here for a month and they think they're just going to be here for a month, and then they buy a house.
Why did you stay in Cincinnati?
So I went to grad school here for singing. Right after I graduated – that's like a year that you do a bunch of auditions and things like that for operas around the country – I was planning on moving to Philadelphia and saving up so I'd be closer to New York, so I'd be closer to auditions. But then towards the middle of the year, I got this weird voice disorder where I couldn't really speak very well and couldn't sing to my fullest ability, or really at all. And so at that point, instead of going to Philadelphia, I went to a vocal health therapist. And I kind of just decided to stay here for another year and focus on vocal rehabilitation. And then through all of that, I ended up really falling in love with this city, just seeing a different side of it that you don't see when you're at school.
What part of Cincinnati do you live in?
Northside. Oh yeah.
So, how did you get into music?
When I was a kid, I always loved music. I started playing cello when I was really young. Because, like, my sister played piano, and I was jealous and I made it known that I was really jealous that she got to play it. And so when I was a young kid, my parents let me play cello. My dad would always drive me out to cello lessons ʼcause they were a little far away and he would always blast different albums like Talking Heads, David Bowie, and all of his favorites.
Tell us more about the significance of The Listing Loon. Why did you choose to meet us here today?
Well, when I first moved to Northside, I had never played a show and I honestly hadn't really written too much music for cello and voice. And The Listing Loon ended up being the first place that gave me a show, you know? So I played my first show here and I'll always have that. I just love this place.
What does your songwriting process look like?
Well, it depends. For my solo project, I use my acoustic cello and I plug it into a loop pedal, which is something that you can use to record tons and tons of harmonies live. So when I'm writing for that, I'm usually just at my house, kind of practicing, jamming, and then something comes. And then it's really kind of the same for the electric cello that I use for Lung, which is like my angrier project. With that, oftentimes Daisy, my bandmate, and I will just be in a practice room and he'll be drumming and I'll be inspired by something that he drums, you know, and then we'll just start making music together. With electric cellos, it's really fun because you can get really loud and the tone is so distorted and like fierce. It's really fun to play with it.
Tell us more about that angrier project, Lung.
It started in probably December of 2015. It didn't start then, but that's when it started in my head. I was just having a really rough winter, emotionally, and it just seemed like nothing was going right. I write a lot of music, but I started writing all this… like, I write angry and sad songs for my solo set but I started writing songs that just needed drums to really drive it and make it more impactful, so yeah. I was at the bar one night and I think I was talking to Daisy about how I was writing all this music and he was like, "Well you know, we could always jam out on it." We had played together before – he used to be in this thing called Babe Rage which was this really cool feminist band with Rachelle, his partner, and JJ Black. Anyway, we did a residency where I guest played with them and we had a really good time collaborating, so when I came in and complained to him about how I needed a drummer, he was like, “Oh well, I could try that.” And we just got together. I brought in three ideas and we really just hit it off musically. It's really rare for me to hit it off that well with a collaborator, like have a true collaborative, respectful partnership with another musician. We clicked immediately and just started writing tons of songs.
And you just got back from being on tour with Lung, right?
Yeah, we've been gone a really long time. We've been on the road for most of this year.
I saw that you kicked off the tour in Lafayette, Indiana, where I lived before moving to Cincinnati.
Lafayette is cool. I like the vibe – old little Indiana town. The guy who owns the bar that we played at lives in this really old house that I swear is haunted. It was so creepy and I woke up in the middle night all spooked out.
What has your experience been as a woman in the music industry?
It's interesting. I think it has evolved a lot – I think things have been getting more progressive, even though this past year it seems like things are getting less progressive. They are a lot better than when I first started playing. When I first played out, it was in 2006 and I was in this rock band that sounded kind of like Muse. I played backup cello. We were called Butterfly Assassins and we played a lot in Chicago and Michigan. I didn't write any of the music for it and I like really sucked at cello at that point so don't listen to my cello on that, oh my god [laughs].
But I remember when I was younger in that band, every time I would carry my gear up the stairs to like Subterranean in Chicago, or different really great venues, I'd carry my amps up and I'd have a cello on my back, and more often than not, I would have someone say, "Oh honey, are you carrying your boyfriend's gear?" You know, people would just automatically assume that I was, like, helping carry things and not actually in the band.
So that was pretty infuriating early on. But it's happened less and less in the past four years. I think things are definitely getting better for women in music.
And I don't know, I think in Cincinnati we just have such a strong presence with women musicians and women-identifying musicians. I mean like Leggy is a force, and Soften, and Jennifer Simone, and there's just so many brilliant artists in the city and I think it's a good place to be a woman in music.
As far as female artists go, who are some of your inspirations?
I mean, I love Björk and I love Tori Amos. I love St. Vincent, especially her earlier stuff. And Suzanne Vega – Suzanne Vega's lyrics are so good and her harmonies are amazing. Like, Sam Phillips, her early stuff. Yeah. And then, I mean, the Dresden Dolls, their album with Girl Anachronism on it ʼcause it's so bitchy [laughs] and so perfect. I love it.
What was your experience like breaking into the Cincinnati music scene? How did you first start gaining traction?
Really, starting small. I booked The Listing Loon as my first show and I was super thankful for getting that show, and then through playing here, I met other people who heard my set and asked me to play, like at the Comet. So I guess you just start making connections as you start playing out. I think it's important when you first start trying to book shows, to go to shows and start meeting people and talking to them. Sometimes you just have to be persistent.
And some advice for people who are just starting out – I guess just, like, never think that you're too good to play to a venue. If your first gig is in a coffee shop and you think you're above a coffee shop, maybe you should rethink that and you should realize that the coffee shop is a fine place to play! You've gotta start somewhere and you've gotta promote your small shows. Make a really cool poster and practice and make sure that you're professional as hell, no matter where you're playing.
What was your first tour like?
My first month-long tour was with Lung a bit ago now, like over a year ago, and it was crazy – just getting used to sleeping out of the van and sleeping in different parking lots and kind of not showering – going longer without showers that you ever thought you would, ever. And just meeting so many people. It was such a rush. It was like every day we were playing a show and every day we were in these different cities. And I still love it, but I just remember that first one just seemed absolutely crazy.
Were there any big surprises when you were on your last tour?
There are some places where we play and it's like, "Maybe we shouldn't have played this quiet donut shop on Halloween," you know [laughs]. "Maybe we're disrupting people who are trying to study." But at that point, it's kind of comical. I guess it's the times when people don't like your music when maybe you shouldn't have been booked there in the first place.
One time we played this great show, but it was a house show. And the place that we played was also the home of a... pig. And it was really funny because, like, when are you gonna play with a pig? Just random stuff like that. And Daisy got in a fight with the pig – not a real fight – but, like, trying to pet the pig and the pig was not having it and then he backed off but I mean, that was a pretty surprising show, for sure. Shows like that, you just kind of go with it.
What do you do with your free time when you’re home from tour?
What do I do outside of music? Honestly, it's been a lot of music outside of music. That's pretty much most of what I do right now. I teach lessons and I like to write poems and stories. I don't publish them obviously – that's not my medium of publishing – but I really enjoy writing creative stories and things like that. And I go to tons of shows. It's great. I answer a lot of emails.
What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Probably learning how to live without judgment – learning to consciously make the choice to avoid self hate. That's probably it. I mean, especially doing music, there are so many voices of doubt while you're playing, when you're writing something.
I used to, when I would write, think I was just terrible and be judging every single sound I made. And a couple of years ago, right before I started playing out, it just hit me, like, "Oh, I don't really need to be this judgmental of myself," or the reflection of that, that I don't need to be that judgmental of other people, either.
Taking away some of that self hate and judgment has been a huge thing. And I don't think it's something you ever fully accomplish, but it's something that I'm happy with where I've come in that regard.
Who has been an influential woman in your life?
Oh! There's so many. Women are so great. I have two that come to mind. One of them that immediately came to mind, her name is Nancy Heusel and she was super influential for me growing up. She is a theater director – she directed community theater in Ann Arbor, where I'm from – and I just remember watching her direct and admiring her. Firstly, just how brilliant she was at the craft of directing and at theater in general, but also just how commanding she was of a space. I thought that was really cool.
The other woman who immediately jumps to mind is Robin Guarino, who is an opera director at Cincinnati's Conservatory, where I went. She also works with the Met and stuff like that, but she's a powerhouse woman who's just kind of cutthroat and awesome and really strong. She gets really good work from people. She's very, very talented at what she does, and I just love brilliant women who are in positions of authority who are amazing at it. She's such an artist. All of her productions that I ever worked with her in were, like... I always left feeling inspired and feeling like I could pull more from operatic characters and things like that.
What are you working on now?
Right now, Lung is back from tour for three months or so, which is kind of a long time for us since we've been out so much. We are recording our second album. We've already laid down the primary tracks and we actually go to the studio on Monday to just get some of the details down. That's something I'm really excited for. I think it's going to be something that I'm happy with, which is rare for recording. Usually I'm not a huge fan of stuff I do, so maybe that's a bad sign [laughs]. And then we're going to South by Southwest in March, and I've never done that before, so I'm really pumped. I've heard from several people who have played there that it's kind of a really fun nightmare of an event.
And then of course, I'm writing tons of music because it's what I love to do, and since I'm home for three months, I can't wait. I've already written a bunch of garbage that probably will go nowhere, but that's my favorite part about being home. You can write a ton of music, and a lot of it sucks, but you have time to write shitty music. That's the best; just having time to write mediocre music and then all of a sudden you'll get a good song among the five mediocre songs.