BY TODD COYLE
FLUENT You live in Utah and travel all over the globe. Your mom lives here. Tell us about your connection to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and why you keep coming back.
KM I was raised not far away, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. My parents built a house in Harpers Ferry about 25 years ago, and I’ve been spending time there ever since. It being one of the most beautiful spots in the country and famous for historical reasons, I’ve enjoyed the chance to explore the area over the years. My curiosity also extends to finding out what is going on musically. I really do find inspiration for the music and songs I write in the people and places that I visit and spend time in. My mother, Marian Auer, is an artist and has created much art work based on the town and its surroundings. I suspect that by this time she has one of the largest collections of original pen-and-ink drawings of historic buildings in Harpers Ferry.
FLUENT You have a new album. Tell us about it.
KM My new recording is a collection of songs inspired by books, and it ranges over a thirty-year span of my songwriting. It was recorded with an audience in a bookstore in Salt Lake City and is titled “Kate MacLeod — At Ken Sanders Rare Books.” It’s my first recording from a concert format, and it was a surreal emotional experience revisiting some of the songs that I wrote so long ago. Some of the songs are titled the same as the source book, but some of them seemed to call out for new titles, depending upon how the song was unraveling. It’s available through Waterbug Records (www.waterbug.com), a small record label near Chicago.
FLUENT Books are a big part of your life. What makes you pick a book to read? What’s your favorite? What author do you recommend to the beginning musician?
KM I have no favorite book at this time. There are just so many good ones. Most of the books I read are either given to me by friends or bought because of word-of-mouth discussion. In fact, I think most of the songs on the new recording were based on books that were given to me. I remember clearly who gave each one to me. Humorously, now that I have published this recording, people are giving me books all the time, in hopes they spawn a song. I receive them in the mail, and I can hardly keep up with them all. If I was left to my own, I would be browsing the shelves of the local libraries. Two of my grown children have worked full-time in libraries, and my sister was a literature major in college, so despite my focus on music, books have been everywhere in my life for as long as I can remember.
For adults, there are two really interesting books related to music and the brain: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin, and Musicophilia and Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks.
FLUENT You’re known for your workshops and teaching. What’s your favorite thing to teach? What’s the first thing you say to a beginner?
KM I love to teach people to become comfortable enough with their own approach to music to allow themselves to feel free of criticism, opening them up to their possibilities instead of their limitations.
I love to teach improvisation on the violin. I tell beginners that music should be fun and enhance their lives, that music is a universal human expression. I think that if you can’t seem to play the instrument you have been trying, then you just have not found the instrument that resonates most with you—yet. Find the right instruments for yourself and then you won’t want to put them down.
FLUENT Could you talk a little about the importance of the local “minstrel” in community building and fund raising?
KM Local and community musicians are struggling in recent years with the displacement of musicians by technology. But honestly, most of us musicians don’t let that get us down. We understand the importance of the art, and we refuse to allow our culture to be plowed under. Musicians are usually still called upon to perform music for local benefits and on such occasions as weddings and memorials. These occasions are where the heart is and are the most meaningful events for people—a sign that music is at the heart of things.
FLUENT If you could recommend two books to the United States Congress what would they be?
KM A Faith and Practice manual of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This will help them learn how to work together and find consensus for the good of the whole. 1491 by Charles C. Mann, a book that can update members of Congress on North American history.
FLUENT OK, I have to ask about influences and songwriting. Who are they, how do you use/channel them and… words or music first?
KM Traditional music is a huge influence, but so is contemporary folk and pop. I’m influenced by famous people, such as Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and Richard Thompson, as well as lesser-known musicians, such as Jean Ritchie, Norman Blake and Mary McCaslin. I’ve worked with some influential contemporary artists who are quite famous, such as Tim O’Brien, who is from West Virginia and was recently inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Tim produced my last solo recording, and his sister Mollie, also from West Virginia, has recorded some of my songs. Current artists influence me as much as the historic musicians do. You ask about who and how I attempt to channel? At this point, I am trying to channel myself. That is a big enough task.
FLUENT One of the workshops you offer is “History of Song.” What is the connection between traditional song and the modern pop song? Has it changed? Or is it the same old thing in a new package?
KM Popular new music was not created in a vacuum. Song structure was created by folk music as was the use of poetry and story line joined to melody. We still use most of the instruments that have been used for hundreds of years. Many famous music stars have had enough experience with older music to understand the “staying power” that enables a song to withstand the test of time, to be passed down through music experience. I get into detail about this in classes, with examples of songs old and new. I enjoy writing songs that sound “old” and experimenting with things that are not the usual.
FLUENT The time genie has granted your wish to go to any time period and stay as long as you like, then come back to the exact moment of your departure, un-aged. When and where? Who do you hang with? What do you want to learn? Take us on your fantasy.
KM Well, I don’t know of a point in history when women had the human rights that we experience now. So, I can’t say that if I went backward in time I’d be able to do any of things I am interested in. Truth aside, I’d like to visit with Johann Sebastian Bach and his wife, Anna. I’ve always wanted to hear her sing the music that he wrote for her, as she was a vocalist. I’d want to hear them play and sing together. I would take some music lessons from him, as he was known as a great improvisor. Perhaps Anna could give me some voice lessons. Bach composed so much music, it was nearly unbelievable, a bottomless source of beauty.
FLUENT WV and UT. How do they compare?
KM Well, they could not be more different in landscape. If you need trees, stay home in West Virginia. But in other ways, they are similar. There are many small towns and few metropolitan areas. The people create their own fun; they don’t need to be impressed by anything from the outside. They live close to the land in many ways and enjoy their local resources.