Kate Bollinger’s Genre-Fluid Portraits Of Reality
[Vinyl Me Please]
By Pranav Trewn
We tend to lose our sense of imagination as we get older, a functional decline we mourn among the many sacrifices of growing up. But this loss is, at least in part, due to having less of a need for it over time. We learn language before we’ve lived its contents, becoming endowed at a young age with a vocabulary to describe experiences we’ve yet to understand, many of which we won’t come to for a long time after. Eventually, we encounter those definitions for ourselves, forming our own relationships with the meanings of words that make their imprint hyper-specific and personal, rather than universal and open-ended.
Like many precocious artists, Kate Bollinger initially turned to writing as a way to flash forward on what those suggested possibilities might actually look like. “The first time I wrote a song was when I was eight,” Bollinger told me over the phone from the University of Virginia, where she’s currently completing her senior year. “At that point I was just writing about fictional things I thought of, little stories and stuff.” The child of a music therapist and sibling to two older brothers in bands that were “always practicing in the basement,” Bollinger was fated to take up music as the channel for her narrative curiosity.
Her origin story was simple and intuitive. “Back then I didn’t know any instruments, so I would write a cappella,” she remembered. “Then in middle school my mom gave me a guitar and I started messing around on that, and I’ve been doing it ever since.” By 16, Bollinger began posting her tracks to SoundCloud. Despite the modest nature of those first public offerings, introduced to the world under tossed off voice memo titles like “winter 2011” and “Car Song,” they were already demonstrating the stylish penmanship and economical sense of storytelling that define Bollinger’s current songwriting. Buoyed by a tinny guitar pressed through a cell phone microphone, she detailed tactile stories in succinct, taut turns of phrase.
Those sketches gradually formalized over time into cohesive songs, at first pinned to brushed drums and weary strums, such as on early standout single “A Couple Things,” which spins around a tidy recurring motif until it takes on a vast gravity. But whereby her work once pegged itself on a sparse fragility, one not unlike the styles of Damien Rice or Amos Lee, Bollinger’s music came to its current prime after she connected with John Wehmeyer and classmate John Trainum, who locked Bollinger’s nimble voice onto syncopated synth lines and destabilized percussion. The resulting pair of pathfinding singles — “Tests” and “do u go out together?” — reshaped her sound as a voluble simmer, twirling and tumbling without ever touching the ground.
As she explored a deftly programmed interpretation of her fluttering folk, she also began experimenting with a talented camaraderie of jazz musicians. She credits her band — comprised of Trainum, Chris Lewis, Jacob Grissom, and Jimmy Trussell — with unlocking the latent swing in her compositions, demonstrated on this summer’s delightful I Don’t Wanna Lose EP. The collection’s genre-fluid charm has struck Bollinger some newfound playlist traction, without inviting cynicism that she’s some type of algorithm-optimizing savant. Instead, she slots naturally onto every mood board simply because her music hits all the right notes: unhurried tempos, round-edged chord progressions, redolent-yet-winding melodies strung together emotively without losing their composure. The songs fall onto your ears like cool skin on a hot, sticky day, when the AC is broken but the company keeps you comfortably preoccupied.
Yet none of the fancy new production or instrumental adornment undermine Bollinger’s core songwriting ability; no matter the material her words are printed on, the message holds together the medium. A prime example is recent single “Talk About It” and it’s subsequent homonymic b-side. The former is shuffling and airy, dotted with busy guitar licks and backed by a restless drum kit; the latter transposes the song onto a crackling bedroom pop scaffold chased by a doodling saxophone. Both originated from the same ukulele demo before different members of Bollinger’s band approximated the lyrics about indulging in passivity with diametric but equally artful musical depictions.
The EP’s best tune “Untitled” doesn’t settle for one approach over another, fitting both together into a backdrop that moves with a sonorous levity. The band’s technique is inventive, but understated, settling in around her writing, which is detailed and insightful, exercising skillful brevity in all the right places as she weaves together a vivid image of self-conflicted estrangement. “The worst thing you can do is leave, when I tell you to just go / We both know I don’t want you to leave me alone,” she insists. There’s a lived history behind every back and forth with the unknown subjects of her songs, animatedly rendered as though it’s taking place in real time.
Although she’s building out multiple dimensions of her music simultaneously, no one direction is pulling her away from the others; if anything, they’ve made her feel more comfortable. “Having a band has given me more confidence in exploring different ways of writing, which has opened doors in working outside of a genre,” Bollinger described. “But then I still want to do my old stuff, and that’s what we’re talking about for an upcoming album — I want it to bend genres, I want it to show all elements of songwriting I’ve done.”
That upcoming debut full-length remains unannounced, but you can expect to hear on it Bollinger’s latest single “No Other Like You.” The reflective song is representative of how her craft has come full circle, taking stock of everything she’s now actually seen since first using music to inquire what could be. “The biggest way my process has shifted is now I have these non-fictional things to write about,” she laughed. “It’s turned into more of a mechanism for dealing with things that happened in my life.”
And Bollinger’s had a rapid acceleration in terms of what she’s had to write through. There’s the usual flood of new relationships, challenges, and perspectives that come with college, all while attending a school that’s earned as much national notoriety as the University of Virginia has over the last few years. “Watching all of the horrible things happen in Charlottesville has been a big part of one of the main themes in my music, which is getting hardened by the world and change,” Bollinger said. “I have songs like ‘Softer’ which directly address that [growth] and then I have a lot of songs that are written in a calm carefree voice, which I think of as one of those fake-it-’til-you-make-it type things… Like if you start telling yourself something again and again, you start to believe it.”
The longing for a center in Bollinger’s music isn’t art imitating life, but willing it into reality. Her gently ambling tunes map the process of fixing new footholds in fresh soil. Even with all the paths Bollinger has embarked on in recent years, from her first-ever touring stints to nearing completion of a major in Cinematography (music videos are important to her and in the works, she assures me), she’s still got plenty left to chart over the horizon. “I was born in Charlottesville and I’ve grown up there, experiences with being in a lot of different places can’t really inform my songwriting. So my songs are often about different dynamics shifting, major life changes within the same place,” Bollinger said. “Which I think can be limiting, maybe my songwriting will be different once I move next year. I’m excited to see how that’ll be.” Naturally, she’s already imagining what those worlds might look like in the most instinctual way she knows how.