Meet Kara-Lis Coverdale, the Church Organist Breaking Rules with Her Experimental Compositions

After collaborating with Tim Hecker, Lee Bannon, and more, the Montreal artist prepares for her first European tour.

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Feb 8 2016, 10:23am

Photo by Dartanian

In a short time, Kara-Lis Coverdale has built a reputation as a kind of troublemaker, mixing hip-hop with the hymnals at her day job—organist at Montreal's St. John Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church—and testing the limits of the electronic world on her three albums. She's also become a go-to collaborator, working with the likes of Tim Hecker (and will appear on the Canadian artist's upcoming album Love Streams), Lee Bannon, and LXV.

Her most recent solo album, last year's Aftertouches, summons shadowy holographic deities from the pulpit of her PC. In our initial email exchanges, Coverdale's responses were peppered with ellipsis, as if her thoughts couldn't be contained by the words on the screen. Her luminous compositions are the same: focused, but bubbling over with ideas.

This spring, Coverdale plans to take those songs as well as some new material on the road in her first ever European tour (see dates below).

THUMP: What kind of preparation do you do before a tour?
Kara-Lis Coverdale: Each of my performances is unique in the sense that I don't have a fixed or immutable set that I re-perform each time. For my upcoming Europe shows, I have the privilege of treating each invitation as a chance to extend my work and offer real time reformattings. For the most part, I'll share live versions or variations of existing pieces alongside unreleased material, leaving room for improvisation.

Once the general concept of the set is together, then there is the challenge of making it come alive. I usually begin by opening ~25 channels, each for a different voice or layer, which I drag through real-time. There is a lot of labeling and text-based memory-work involved to save a short-term cache of where I have stored what so I can access it quickly and effectively live. Sometimes I write out symbols and codes to "store" these ideas in my memory (in both the flash and flesh versions of the word).

Do you consider the preparations before a performance, and the performance itself, as a part of your song writing/composition?
I think most musical endeavors including compositional are undertaken with eventual performance in mind. I personally think of records as polished creations or documentations of distilled intent or craft, whereas live is a place to showcase play in process, variation, interpretation, and other transitory devices that provide a larger and deeper context of what you might hear on a record.

In the case of electronic music, live is also about hearing the work on a proper system. I learned this very early on when I was in competitive piano. Unlike a violinist who always performs on an instrument they've been playing for 10+ years, a pianist—like an electronic musician who is dependent on a PA—goes up in front of a few hundred people who get to watch the pianist try to achieve a high level of emotional connectivity with a piano for the very first time. It's very much like putting two strangers in a room and seeing what happens.

How does your songwriting/composition process change when you're working with a collaborator?
Collaborations are all about trust and allowing unexpected and surprising things to unfold when you let someone else into your world. Sometimes it is challenging to relinquish control. Most of my time is spent working alone in a closed, hyper self-manipulated system as both composer and also performer.

When you commit to a collaboration however, your world cracks open. You are each tourists and guides with a mutual aim of exploring each other's worlds, so there is a reciprocal process of sharing and receiving that requires openness to what lies beyond your own purview. On an operative level, aesthetic decisions tend to move faster in collaborations because you can just quickly bounce the idea off the other person. Sometimes it's very beautiful to have someone else push you outside your comfort zone.

The tools and set-up change dramatically depending on the project. It's always a liberating experience to go to someone else's studio, but it's also fun to invite someone into your set-up as I did recently when producing a track for How To Dress Well. Imagine Tom [Krell] and I salivating over one of those gourmet chocolate boxes: he wants the cherry centre and I want the biscuit bottom, but we each like chocolate so it fits. That's how it went.

What is the relationship between your music and dance music?
I didn't exactly anticipate Aftertouches, or any of my electronic work, to be so closely associated with dance music. This came as more or less a surprise when I started being billed for shows so often alongside dance acts and when I started to be covered in magazines. Electronic is so much more than dance, and I think this needs to come through with more verity in the media.

Generally speaking, I think of the live sets I am doing at the moment as powered concert music. There is a lot of movement in what I write in terms of energy, rhythm, and melody; when played over a proper PA, it can share a similar sense of power as dance-floor music, but I avoid drum work or rhythmic constancy. I have always been keenly aware that I share the same toolkit with dance producers, whether from rap, EDM, techno, or the various sub-genres of each. We share mutual audiences and vocabulary but ultimately are creating different things.

On a really instinctual and interpretive level though, in my imagination I always see dancers moving as I listen back to my music, and when I am working on new material I am constantly using my own body as a gauge of what I create. I know the work isn't quite right until some part of my body is forced into twitch or gesture or action.

Tour Dates
March 6 - MUTEK - Barcelona, Spain
March 11 - Convergence - London, UK
March 19 - En Avant - Turin, Italy
March 31 - TMW - Tallinn, Estonia
April 1 - Rewire - The Hague, Netherlands
May 5 - TBA - London, UK

Kara-Lis Coverdale is on Facebook // Twitter // SoundCloud

Michael Rancic is on Twitter.

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