Doing an interview with Kaia, for me, is like bring your hero to work week. I’ve always felt that if you’re a Kurt Cobain fan but not a Kaia Wilson fan, you’re merely a poser. Think that’s hyperbole?
What if Kurt never signed to a major? What if he never married Courtney? What if he did solo records with an acoustic guitar but had a band, too, for the loud songs. What if he started his own record label and put out Kathleen Hanna’s new band’s music? Right about now he might be earning minimum wage as a barista or doing landscaping work to make ends meet. He’d do a kickstarter for his new solo record with videos filmed in a barnyard. Be kind to animals would be a constant theme. Maybe he’d offer horoscope readings, but he’d call them homoscopes. Sorry to belabor the point, but it’s so obvious, Kaia Wilson is a better Kurt Cobain than Kurt Cobain ever was.
Listen to the lyrics of When My Hair Was Long:
In high school Kaia was one of the most picked on kids in a class of less than four hundred, in Jasper, Oregon, the same sort of rural outback of the northwest as Cobain’s Aberdeen. At sixteen she found a copy of Donna Dresch’s homocore zine Chainsaw and began writing her long letters. Donna’s three or four sentence replies mentored Kaia, and so many others, striving to survive in dangerously homophobic environments.
Kaia was a teenager when she formed her first band the mega grunge all female Adickdid hailing from Eugene, OR. Her nuclear screams and the Nirvana Bleach like big stalking riffs got Adickdid the opening slot for a short Hole tour. Kaia’s mom was pretty ticked off when Courtney Love called at 2 A.M. asking to speak to Kaia. These recordings still thrill bands, like England’s fast rising DIY neo-grunge grrrl trio Grim Dylan.
With the help of the Los Angeles all female hardcore band Girl Jesus I booked Team Dresch’s first show here, at The Palms Bar on Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood. I think it was the best show I’ve ever seen. Most of the regulars hung out for a song or two but went back to drinking. Were there ten of us in the audience? What I saw changed my life. Four women playing with joyous abandon, switching instruments until they had each played everything, singing charging punk songs with poignant melodies and sometimes happy, sometimes forlorn harmonies. That was the night I met Kaia Wilson.
Team Dresch were more than a phenomenal band. They created a community. Kids lives were saved because of Team Dresch songs, gay kids, yes, and straight kids, too. But it wasn’t easy being Team Dresch. Donna and Jody were queer bashed after the band’s first show.
Everywhere these girls went they brought freedom and hope to people, to bands, to zine writers and filmmakers. Many of us felt as if we grew up under their protective wings. Donna’s Chainsaw message board was riot grrrl central for a few years. Donna’s Chainsaw label, Jody’s Candy Ass (which released the groundbreaking Free to Fight self defense compilation), then Kaia’s own Mr. Lady, not only encouraged many of us to play music but to become and remain fiercely independent.
When Team Dresch went on a tour of Europe with Bikini Kill I thought riot grrrl was about to sweep the globe. But Team Dresch broke up. Soon after Kaia toured with only her acoustic guitar. I went to see her play UCLA on her birthday. When she sang Freewheel without those Team Dresch harmonies she had tears in her eyes and so did all of us in the audience.
But Kaia’s musical journey had only begun. With Tammy Rae Carland, her girlfriend at the time, she started a record label, Mr. Lady. With Melissa York of Team Dresch on drums (picture Jerry Lewis wit with John Bonham boom) and Alison Martlew on bass she formed The Butchies. The Butchies brought Kaia some of her best and worst experiences. The success of the band, along with her gig playing guitar for Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, was bringing her enough money to actually survive on her music, a rare accomplishment for any indie venture.
Commercial success requires huge commitments of money and time. The Butchies, and Mr. Lady (which was also the label of Kathleen Hanna’s Le Tigre) were approaching mass appeal, but as anyone who has experienced popularity can tell you there’s a pressure to conform, and an exhaustion that fame creates; it can take the joy out of music. Kaia has used the word “stagnation” to describe it. When she could feel it in her music she stepped away. When she broke up with Tammy Rae, Mr. Lady, their mutual endeavor, came to an end.
Since then Kaia has toured with Amy Ray, played in the Sinead O’Conner cover band Sinead O’Covers, and joined Team Dresch reunions including the one at the Brazil LadyFest in 2010. 2010 also brought Kaia the bronze and gold medals in competitive table tennis at the Gay Games in Germany. Kaia has moved from room to room. Recording bits here and there of new songs about love, death and love again. She wrote a chapter called To All You Genius Future Songwriters for the 2008 book Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls.
Right now she’s on the road with Amy Ray, opening shows, playing music from her brand new record: Two Adult Women in Love. Two Adult Women in Love was Kaia’s first Kickstarter. She asked for seven thousand but hinted that she really needed fourteen to cover publicity and promotion, too. She got fifteen plus.
Here’s what she wrote for her Kickstarter: “I am making my 5th solo record, it took 6 years to make. In those years I experienced the death of loved ones, intense loss like feeling my heart being pulled from my chest, 37 days straight of rain, 8 moves within my city of Portland, relationships ending, bands ending, bands starting, working minimum wage and hard labor jobs, surfing on a lovely beach in Mexico right after a major (caffeine induced) panic attack, becoming mildly obsessed with ping pong, seeking meaning from super old trees, writing music about all of this and at the end of those 6 years finding love that brought my heart back into my body.”
Among the rewards for higher level kick ins was a personal homoscope. For Kaia is also a star reader. A song written just for you was perhaps too embarrassing for her supporters but the five thousand dollar reward of a gig where your song and the other songs you choose get played was plucked, so some lucky fucker is going to get a Kaia song written about him or her.
Despite her down to earth ways there’s something ethereal and mysterious about Kaia. You can easily picture her in a past life as one of those Buddhist monks who carried a staff with a bell on it to warn the smallest of creatures to get out of the way of harm. But she’s also a wounded healer, and she has the letters from the kids whose lives her songs have saved to prove it.
She is currently out on the road and I am extremely grateful that she took the time to participate in this interview for Newtopia.
Amy Ray and Kaia Wilson tour dates:
4/17 – World Cafe Live Downstairs – Philadelphia, PA
4/18 – Brighton Music Hall – Cambridge, MA
4/20 – The Saint – Asbury Park, NJ
4/21 – The Casbah – Durham, NC
You set out to raise 7k on Kickstarter for your solo album Two Adult Women in Love but your fans provided more than 15k. How did it feel to receive such direct support?
The whole process of deciding to use Kickstarter to fund my new record was actually super rewarding. Rewarding in the creative process, the fact that many friends offered me their help and skills to make it, and then once the launch happened and the generosity of fans and friends – it was an amazing experience. I feel lucky, supported, and just stoked to be able to put out my record AND with the additional funds raised, do things like “publicity”! and “make videos!” which my personal income wouldn’t afford me.
You’ve been moving around over the six years you recorded this album, so bits were tracked in various rooms and basements you passed through. And you learned to use a capo! What was it like having so long to work these songs? Did your perspectives on them change?
I know, I learned that it’s COOL to use a capo!!! Ha. I wasn’t anti-capo before, just hadn’t done it. It totally expanded my songwriting potential. You know all the moving that happened for me both physically and emotionally, and writing AND recording most of these songs at around the time I was experiencing the songs content made for a very raw captured record in the end. My perspectives on my songs remain the same. I write very honestly so while things change and shift, I always feel a connection to the song even years later.
You talk about using music to bridge the distance between people, to connect with others who need to know it’s okay to be themselves, or that they are not alone in the grief they’re suffering. What musicians have done that most for you?
Oh so many musicians have done that! I’ll just name a few favorites: Tracy Chapman (BIG ONE), The Smiths, Elliott Smith, Patti Griffin.
You’ve met people and received many communications from people that prove your songs save lives. You travel from town to town, sleep on people’s floors, you remind me of a Buddhist pilgrim. Is this your spiritual path?
WOW! Well…that’s a nice thing to say, but I certainly have a lot of flaws that a Buddhist pilgrim would have let go of! But I do believe in music. I believe in its power to help/save people, and I just love making it and sharing it. So I’ll keep at it as long as I can.
You’ve been on the road off and on since you were a teenager. You were near the center of the indie revolution in the music industry with Team Dresch, one of the great DIY bands, and with the indie label you started with Tammy Rae Carland, Mr. Lady. You just got off tour with Amy Ray and are about to go back on the road, what is it like out there? How does it compare?
I’m also touring right now as Amy Ray’s opener! So I’m doing double duty every night. Touring with Amy is awesome, right now her backing band are the Butchies, so I’m back with my best friend bandmates! It’s totally different touring now than in the 90’s but of course it is! COMPUTERS!!! Cell Phones!!!
Over the course of your career what is one thing you wouldn’t change and one thing that you would?
I would NOT change the decisions made to always be a super gay-ass and political songwriter. I would change…um…I would have finished 4 years of college back in Oregon (cheaper) and majored in biology! To have that foundation.
Why did you close your record label Mr. Lady in 2004? Was it for personal or business reasons?
Personal really, business founded by romantic partners is always a bit risky!!
You’ve said that in your more than twenty-year musical career you’ve only made enough money to survive on your art three or four of them. Many fans of Team Dresch and The Butchies, and of your label Mr. Lady, which was also Le Tigre’s label, have probably imagined that you were making a good living. How wrong were they?
They were wrong!! I’ve cleaned houses, landscaped, worked at Trader Joe’s, been a barista to name a few of my many day jobs. I actually survived on music for less than 2 years of my music career. And that was a pretty meager income too. It’s super hard to make money in music. It seems even harder now than in the 90’s.
How do you feel about the way the punk DIY righteous independence morphed into fans who believe music should be free, leaving even such a fine songwriter as yourself, not to mention a queer icon, as writers often dub you, working as a barista in Portland living on minimum wage and tips?
I actually think music should be free and that dedicated musicians who have proved their skills and fan base should be recognized in some sort of format that funds them (government? or more job options in creative DIY music). But since that’s not happening, everyone who loves/supports independent music should try to BUY cd’s/merch and go to LIVE SHOWS! or fund your favorite musicians on Kickstarter or other fundraising sites!
I know you all are always talking about doing a reunion but never getting around to it, but why isn’t there a Team Dresch documentary?
I don’t know!! Someone needs to make one!!! There should be one I agree, I’ve tried to start rolling that ball, but someone who’s a skilled filmmaker needs to do it…I would love that to happen!
Are you glad your parents made you take piano lessons?
YES!!!! Totally!!!! They let me quit in 5th grade, and they bought me my first electric guitar/amp when i was 15, my parents are so great and wise.
As a gold and bronze medalist in competitive pingpong at the Gay Olympics do you feel you achieved your personal best or will you be an Olympian again?
I feel that my personal best in pingpong is DEFINITELY still in my future, although I’m super stoked about how well I did in the 2010 Gay Games. I am hoping that the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland will make sure to include Table Tennis in their sport options!!! But I will keep playing for the rest of my life, I love it so much!
ARTICLE WRITTEN BY
Newtopia staff writer TAMRA SPIVEY is a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation, executive producer of the documentaries Rap is War and Exile Nation, and associate producer of The Gits documentary. She was art editor and west coast editor of Newtopia Magazine in its former incarnation, collaborating on in depth interviews with whistle blower Michael Ruppert, ACLU and record business honcho Danny Goldberg, and grassroots political strategist Larry Tramutola. Follow her on twitter @MongrelPatriot.