This Is the Kit Is Redefining Folk Music
An interview with Kate Stables, the Paris-based folk musician, on her band’s latest and most spacious album.
By Thora Siemsen
Kate Stables is quite serene for someone in the thick of a whirlwind trip to New York. The Winchester, UK–born, Paris-based musician, whose band This Is the Kit is touring in support of their new album, Moonshine Freeze, is sitting in the lobby of Manhattan’s Ace Hotel. We’re discussing their latest album, following the previous night’s show at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right. Their rapid-fire stateside visit leads into their European tour, which features their biggest show to date, this September at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
The album, produced by frequent PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, is spaciously arranged around Stables’s intimate folk songwriting. On songs like “By My Demon Eye,” she sounds utterly calm while singing “We are both not enough / and too much.” I mention to Stables that the song could follow Lorde’s “Liability” on a self-reckoning playlist. She pauses before saying, “For me, it’s actually blaming someone else for a difficult situation, but it’s funny cause quite often the opposite is true, or interpretable.”
Stables says there’s a light and dark link between the songs and the album’s artwork, which is a pinhole photograph of herself she took in her Paris building’s courtyard. She builds the cameras herself when she can steal away from her busy schedule of music and motherhood. When I ask how being a parent influenced the record, Stables says it shows up in the “sort of dull things, like time management. I don’t have any time on my own anymore unless I really fight for it.”The things that Stables does fight for, including singing in her own accent, show up throughout Moonshine Freeze and our illuminative conversation.
Thora Siemsen: How did growing up in Winchester influence your taste in music?
Kate Stables: I have to sort of pinpoint the things that did influence my taste. It would’ve been my parent’s music collection, my big sister’s music collection, and my friends. My parents listened to a lot of American and British folk music. Bob Dylan is what I can mainly remember. Some holidays in the South of France, [we were] listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland album. My sisters were into Tracy Chapman, and for a while they were into Sting. I remember hearing that coming through their bedroom walls. By the time I was discerning [and] not just listening to whatever was on the Top 40 radio, I was really into the Beta Band and the Velvet Underground.
TS: You’ve been recording as This Is the Kit for over a decade. When did the band originally form?
KS: It started out just me, and slowly people joined in. People would come and go depending on where I was living or what town I was playing in. This most recent version of the band has been going for maybe four years. It’s settled down to a hard-core three other members, and they’re great. They’re good friends and amazing musicians.
TS: Are there shifts you’ve noted in contemporary folk since you started recording as This Is the Kit?
KS: If I think about it, there probably have been, but I haven’t been studying it. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with singing songs in someone else’s accent, like an American accent, for example. A lot of European or English artists do feel comfortable doing that, but because I don’t talk with an American accent, I feel like a clown if I sing an American accent. There was a time when everyone would automatically default to singing an American accent, and now people sing in their own voices a bit more.
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It’s more varied now. Folk music before was definitely singing with an acoustic guitar, and now it can be totally synth-based. The definition of folk music might’ve shifted a bit. It’s more now a sort of energy and storytelling rather than the instrumentation defining it.
TS: Moonshine Freeze, your new album, contains more horn sections and percussive elements than your past records. How was writing and recording this album different than previous efforts?
KS: The past year or so, we’ve been playing with a horn section when we can for the live shows. For the album, we sort of worked on some arrangements together. In terms of the percussion, one of my favorite things is messing with rhythm. The last album [Bashed Out] was less influenced by the live shows. The songs were newer. A lot of the songs the band hadn’t even heard. There was less of that “Let’s all play this percussion rhythm and take turns doing those parts.”
TS: You’ve lived in Paris for the past ten years. What are some ways living there influences your work?
KS: Definitely the people that I’ve met, the gigs I’ve seen, the friends we’ve made, and the kind of family we’ve built have influenced me. I feel like the Anglophone world has spent too long not being open to listening to music that isn’t Anglophone, and I’d like to think that that’s changing a bit now. All the other countries in the world listen to English-speaking music, so why shouldn’t we listen to other languages? I think it’s time for a change.
TS: Your Europe tour starts this month and features your biggest show to date, at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. How are you preparing yourself for this tour?
KS: Just trying to make sure that I’ve rehearsed enough for the band. The band members all live in different cities, and in my case, countries. It’s not the simplest affair organizing rehearsals. So often it’s quite slapdash or last-minute. This time, I think it’d be really good if we knuckled down and properly polished off the songs. That’d be great! Again, we’re going to have the horn section with us for the bigger shows. I’m the sort of person that has to not think too much. I kind of have to think of [bigger shows] as a normal gig.
TS: You cite authors Ursula Le Guin and Alan Bennett as inspiration for your latest album. What about them shows up on Moonshine Freeze?
KS: They’re just two examples of writers that I really love [who] influenced me quite a lot. There are loads of book that I love and writers that I love that also could be added to the list. Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Alan Bennett’s diaries. He reads them out. I’m just in such a huge Ursula Le Guin time of my life. Every time I start reading a book that’s by someone else, I find another one by her and read that. I think the way that they [both] deal with humanity, even though it’s two very different styles, really appeals to me. That is something I think about a lot: having a sense of humor, but also being honest about the horrific stuff that happens. I think they’re both quite good at getting real with themselves or with their audience.
TS: What are some other sources of inspiration for the new album?
KS: It’s hard to know what the inspiration is, because I’m not someone that consciously goes, Oh, I like the sound of that, I want to have that in my album. I’ll listen to stuff, and it will just seep in and then it will come out somehow. This album is a little bit of a dark one in terms of the images I see when I’m singing the songs at gigs. That happens when I play a song; I’ll get the same kind of slideshow happening in my head. That’s important for performance as well. I see it as an act of storytelling. This album is sort of a darker, shadier, murkier, and an English-drizzle sort of album. For the pictures, anyway. That’s not the message necessarily, if there is a message.
TS: The title of the record, Moonshine Freeze, comes from a clapping song you learned with your daughter.
KS: It was just a little line that I got hooked on and the idea of staying still. I love the idea of people being in the middle of a clapping game and then all of a sudden stopping, being silent, not moving. That really struck me. I just had the phrase “Moonshine, moonshine, moonshine freeze” in my head for ages. It’s kind of about time and change and the things that we learn, and then relearn but a little bit better next time. I feel like life is such a bundle of cogs all just turning, and getting in and out of sync, and then coming around again.