The experimental musician and former Madisonian talks with us ahead of her Tone Madison-presented May 30 show at Communication.
In her work as a solo artist and a member of the duo Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Ka Baird has cut her own bold path across experimental music, building an ever-evolving language from elements of folk, psychedelia, jazz, and rugged electronics. Baird spent many years living in Madison and feeding that unruly energy into the local music community, both as a performer and show organizer, before moving to New York in 2014. Her work since then has included a re-interpretation of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, releasing a collaboration with Wisconsin experimental musician Andrew Fitzpatrick, and digging deeper into her solo performances’ dramatic use of flute, voice, and electronics.
The latter yielded her most recent album, Sapropelic Pycnic, released in 2017 under the name Ka Baird. She’ll be performing material from that record in a May 30 show at Communication, presented and organized by us here at Tone Madison. The other half of Spires, Taralie Peterson, is still based in Madison and will be playing a set in her solo project Louise Bock, which is also celebrating the release of a new record, Repetitives In Illocality. Madison DJ Cult House Sound will be playing before and between sets. I caught up with Baird by phone ahead of the show and a summer and fall that will bring more touring both solo, in Spires, and in other collaborative settings.
Tone Madison: I remember when you started playing shows under the name Sapropelic Pycnic in 2012 or so—there were a couple early shows at Mickey’s I think. What was the impetus behind that stage of your solo work?
Ka Baird: I think I only played under that moniker a few times in Madison, and honestly I don’t even remember what I played. If I recall, it was kind of a crash—like I spent the week or two previous to that coming up with some ideas and performing them, but there was just no momentum because at the time Spires was my priority, so whatever I did I probably forgot.
[This phase of my solo work] probably more started to happen once I moved to New York. Towards that last year in Madison, I think I had a lot of energy and just a lot of time and space than I was putting towards music, more so than Taralie had at the time, primarily because she had a kid and was just busy with her family, and I think that there were more shows that came up that I was asked to play or maybe Spires was asked to play but she couldn’t and so I would do it myself…but also I had so much energy for music and curating shows that it naturally led to more collaborations with other people as well as working on my own solo work, which I have always, even since the beginning of Spires, tried to make time for. I mean, there were a couple really early solo releases when I went under the pseudonym Traveling Bell, and then I put an album out under my name Kathleen Baird, and so that’s always been going on, but there’s been times when Spires has just been way more priorities. Probably between 2005 and 2013 or so, Spires was just by far my number one priority.
Tone Madison: Especially during the last couple of years that you were in Madison, it seemed that Spires was really changing a lot in terms of its instrumentation, especially with the material that became the album Beasts In The Garden, and at the same time your solo stuff was branching out a lot. Sometimes you’d play a solo-piano set, as opposed to working with voice and flute, for instance. It was a very open-format approach. Is that something that’s continued for you?
Ka Baird: Yes. I think that at that time, it was especially so, because I think I was trying to open up different portals and experiment with things that I hadn’t really done before. I think that 2012, 2013 were extremely experimental. But I think that a lot of that has continued. I still really enjoy playing in a very free improvisational mode but I also really enjoy crafting as well, and in terms of experimentation with instruments and experimentation with electronics, that has continued, although I would say that in terms of instruments, it’s been heavily focused in the last couple years on flute and piano and voice, but with an increased emphasis maybe on electronics.
Tone Madison: How else has your life changed since you moved to New York, especially in terms of the kinds of collaborations you’re able to work on?
Ka Baird: I think what’s been interesting about New York is the opportunity to work in other modalities. Those opportunities are definitely in Madison, but perhaps they’re more so in New York. For instance, last winter I worked pretty closely with a choreographer on adding sound to a piece, which was a really new experience for me, and I’m going to be doing that again in the fall in a performance at [Manhattan non-profit art space] The Kitchen. In terms of other musicians, there’s just an infinite number, and musicians are so open and willing and wanting to collaborate. It’s really quite beautiful.
But I go through phases of wanting to collaborate and other phases where I just very much want to hone in and work solo. I think after years of being in a collaborative project with Spires, a huge part of New York—along with some collaborations, for sure—has just been that opportunity to really focus on my own work. I have collaborated but I’ve performed solo way, way more in New York.
Tone Madison: And the record from last year was a product of that desire to really hone in on solo stuff?
Ka Baird: Totally, and that album was written pretty naturally, honestly, from playing live shows pretty consistently that first year or two that I was in New York. Most of the songs on that record were songs that I had written for the live set. It was a very live album.
Tone Madison: Was is something where the material mostly developed onstage?
Ka Baird: No, I wouldn’t say that. Some of it got developed onstage, maybe certain fine details, but I put a lot of rehearsal into those shows. Most of those shows, I went in knowing exactly what I was going to do. It was not improv.
Tone Madison: That gets to something that’s been a pretty consistent characteristic of Spires—you play a lot of things that even when they’re through-composed can feel flowing and improvised.
Ka Baird: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean that’s kind of been a consistent trait. I mean, even the very first Spires record [self titled, from 2003] is pretty composed, even though people think it’s pretty improvisational. I think that over the years we’ve had an evolving sense of composition but I think that whatever our definition of composition is is typically a little looser than most. Or what we generally tend to do, and what I think the solo record of mine does as well, is that we won’t necessarily do a chorus, verse thing or anything like that, but it will create sort of this solid frame that at least in our heads has some definition to it. And then what goes on in that frame can differ from show to show, but there’s a tone or theme that’s always gonna be there. I mean, some of the songs are more highly composed than others. That’s truly fair to say.
I think that both Taralie and I got tired and bored of tight song structure. Some of the early Spires songs did have that chorus-verse thing going on, at least our definition of verse-chorus, and we felt like presenting that live and performing that repeatedly wasn’t fun for us if it was too locked down. That’s what we’ve always tried to work toward—creating structure, but freedom within that structure.
Tone Madison: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to accomplish with the pieces on Sapropelic Pycnic?
Ka Baird: To me, again, it’s all kind of just one long line of creativity and it’s hard for me to compartmentalize anything, even Spires vs. solo sometimes. I think that the one focus for me with this record had to do also with this live component. Again, they weren’t composed live, but they were all shaped for a live performance, and it was very important for me to create a very seamless flow and mood, and it was very important for me to create a set where I could be very physical within the performance, so that would entail improvisation or freeness within the structure as usual, but more so even than with past solo work or Spires work, music became all about stopping my brain from thinking. It really became increasingly this ritualistic sort of thing. I know Spires has always been sort of noted for something like that using those words, but with the solo material it became even more so, and it became even more of this cathartic experience. I think that the music then went in a little more of an ecstatic direction perhaps. I also started using more analog keyboard sounds, I started getting more into rhythms, and there’s a couple beats on the new record. That is pretty new. Spires has experimented a little with that but not too much.