'Conscious Control' Comes From A Place Of True Honesty: KAYE Delves Into Personhood

Charlene Kaye, known by the moniker KAYE, has announced a new album for November 20th titled Conscious Control. It's a phrase that seems really loaded with potential meaning for our times, though the album well predates our current predicaments. The ideas behind many of the songs revealed so far, like "Howl" and "Earthrise" seem particularly universal, exploring human isolation and self-discovery, even transformation. These are the voyages of self-discovery that many of us have been forced to consider in a world so disrupted.

Kaye previously released solo EP Honey, but also has a substantial musical history as the lead singer of San Fermin for five years, and even toured with a Guns 'N' Roses cover band. As Kaye explains in her interview below with Tower's PULSE!, her work on Conscious Control has been very intentional and carefully chosen to be more direct and more uncompromising than anything she's done before.

[Photo credit to Deborah Farnault]

Hannah Means-Shannon: How far back did you start thinking about or working towards this album, and when in that process did this idea of “conscious control” become part of the project?

Charlene Kaye: It’s interesting to me that back then I decided to name it Conscious Control because it’s now that all around me the words “conscious” and “control” keep popping up. Everything seems to be coalescing and coming full circle in this way because I started writing this record three years ago. I was going through what’s called in astrology, a “Saturn Return” which usually happens around age 30 when Saturn has completed one cycle around you since the time of your birth. It symbolizes coming into true adulthood and you have to learn a lot of the lessons you’ve been suppressing up to that point.

I did realize that I’d been suppressing a lot of instinctual transformations. I didn’t consciously decide to blow up my life but that’s what it sort of ended up looking like. I left a relationship, I left a band that I was in for five years, San Fermin, and I left New York thinking that I was going to move to LA. I had to reevaluate who I was, and the type of artist I wanted to be, and the type of woman I wanted to be.

In many ways, this album chronicles me truly coming into my own womanhood and my own personhood. It feels like it’s processing my grief, but in that process, I feel like I grew up for real. It’s really special to me and important to me that I’ve been able to put language to this experience that I had, and tell this story, which I think characterizes who I am now.

HMS: Thank you, that’s a great explanation. Knowing the fact that you have been working on these songs for so long helps me understand why there is such a richness to the album. There’s a compression to it, with layers of work that have gone into it. Is the phrase “conscious control” an aspirational thing or is it more something to provoke thought?

CK: “Conscious Control” is actually from a line my therapist said when we were talking about my ex and I was asking her why I didn’t feel content when it seemed like everything seemed in the right place. I seemed on the right track in life, but I felt there was an unrest in me. She said that love is not in your conscious control. It’s either there or it’s not. It’s a little bit like oil under the ground, you can’t dig for it and maybe it’ll be there, and maybe it won’t. But it’s not something you should be using your active brain to think about.

That’s a big part of the work that I’ve done in the music, but also beyond. I’m taking an acting class right now, and we’re doing exercises that all revolve around letting go of societal niceties that we have unconsciously downloaded into our behavior. We’ve been learning to respond to what your true intuition tells you. It’s been fascinating to see what comes out, and how you respond to someone’s behavior when they come from a place of true honesty. We gloss over a lot of this in society because we need a certain amount of decorum to survive and get what we want. Otherwise we’d be speaking 100% truth all the time and we can’t really operate in that way.

HMS: There would be mayhem, unfortunately.

CK: But in these roles we’re allowed to play, it’s okay to say, “I hate this!” and “I’m really mad at you!” It’s something that’s been really good for me because I was raised Asian-American, and I’ve always been taught to respect my parents and to honor them, and to be grateful for what they’ve done. I also lived in the Midwest for four years when I went to the University of Michigan and so I think that those experiences created a very people-pleasing aspect of my personality. I like that I’m an empathetic person, but I also don’t want to be someone who sacrifices my own needs to please other people. That’s something that comes up on the album a lot as a theme. It’s something I was trying to untangle and figure out through the writing.

HMS: Yes, I can really tell how a number of these songs are cutting through that, addressing, or pacing around some of these ideas and finding ways in. One of the songs that’s not from this album, but you’ve recently released, “What a Time” is incredibly direct and really doesn’t sugar-coat anything. I can see how that’s a release from being careful about how you say things.

The video for “What a Time” is outstanding, and I can’t believe that you all made that under these current world conditions. That must have been quite labor-intensive even with basic tools. Was that the first time that you made a video that was basically an art project?

CK: I’ve ever done a stop-motion video before. I’ve been interested in it, and I sometimes get into these rabbit holes on Youtube or TikTok where I see people doing amazing crafts. I was just inspired to see people still forging through during this quarantine time and being resourceful with what they have. It was really fun for me. I felt like through this playful medium I could make some really cutting images.

I have some really conservative family members who I knew I was going to piss off by doing this, but it was exactly everything that I’ve seen in 2020. There were images from the news that I’ve seen, and recreations of my own inner turmoil. There’s a scene where this little man is falling down into an abyss. All these 2020-related things are falling down with him. I actually took these little cherry tomatoes and stuck pins in them to make them look like Covid-tomatoes! It was so silly. I wondered how I would explain any of this to 2019 Charlene.

I took an orange to create a Trump-orange. That was pretty fun. But yes, it was very labor intensive. It took two to three full weeks of work and I learned a lot about editing, about gear during the that time. I had to figure out how to sequence photos and pair it with music. I wondered what it would look like if I created a meta-Instagram scroll with construction paper.

HMS: That was brilliant. That was such a great idea. One of the funniest things, I have to say, is when the little alien visiting Earth says “lol no” and leaves.

CK: Thank you. [Laughs] That makes me so happy that you noticed that little moment.

HMS: I think that may be the peak 2020 moment in the video.

CK: Yes, and we wonder why we haven’t had any extraterrestrial visitations.

HMS: Which other videos have you directed? I know you’ve done at least one other.

CK: That was “Howl”. I shot that out in California with my good friend Deborah Farnault who’s a wonderful photographer. She does all my press photos and she shot the album cover. We went out there, just the two of us, and my friend here in New York had made all these incredible costumes for it. We went to some pretty otherworldly locations, like this place called The Rainbow Basin, which is about an hour and a half from LA, but looks like Mars.

It was so epic. I was walking through the desert with this 40-foot purple cape, feeling like Prince. It really captured this idea of isolation and starting over, and stepping into my power in this foreign place. And not really knowing what’s going to happen next, but trusting that it’s the right thing.

HMS: That sounds like a great way to act out something that’s a mental process.

CK: It was super-therapeutic and affirming that I was going in the right direction.

HMS: Can you see developments in terms of sound on this album in comparison to your earlier work? Are there any major jumping-off points for you in these songs?

CK: For this record, I worked really closely with my friend Kirk, who co-Produced the record with me and really kept me honest the whole time. He is someone who I would trust with my life. We would go through lyrics with me, ask me what I meant, tell me that he thought I could scale things back at some points. I learned so much from him in the process because in the past I’ve been pretty maximalist in my work.

I think it’s fun to go crazy, and be bombastic, and go balls to the wall. I will go there again, but I think with this particular batch of songs, it was important for me to get quiet and listen to what my intuition was telling me. He was so good at telling me that a song didn’t need that much. It was about picking the pieces intentionally.

We recorded a lot of the rhythm stuff live in a room with some of my best friends who I’ve known for 12 years now. It was an intimate and spiritual experience recording with them, trusting them with my work, and feeling a really strong bond between us while we were creating. I care about getting the record out and for people to see themselves in it, but in the broader sense, I’m not attached to the outcome and how the record does commercially. I feel so satisfied by what I learned about myself and these relationships through making it. I find that the most gratifying part of being a musician, capturing a moment in time with people that you love. I’m excited about making the next record, and the next record.

HMS: The word “intention” really jumps out at me because this album feels really intentional and really specific to what you wanted to do with it. It’s very focused. It sounds like this has set up a way of doing things that you’ll carry over to your future work. Like this is a kind of important foundational discovery for you in how you’d like to make albums.

CK: That’s what I put into it, absolutely. I do want to go into future work with the same intentionality to make deliberate choices.

HMS: Now that you’ve mentioned the “Saturn Return”, I can hear its resonance in “Earthrise” and see where we’re getting some of that imagery from. I would have thought of the song as kind of cosmic anyway and it’s really cool how it brings in a sense of cosmic space and distance, because it’s a great metaphor for isolation.

It also makes me think of the reality of being a separate individual. It has the strings, and the classical feel to it. On Instagram you put up this great clip where we could see the strings being played and the sheet music. Is this the first time you’ve engaged with this classical sense on a song?

CK: Well, it’s there in my first album that came out, and I need to put that back up on Spotify. But it is the first time I’ve delved back into these really organic, folky sounds. The Honey EP is very Rock and very out there. I wanted to be a little more delicate with this one and see what would naturally come in if I left a little more negative space. It felt appropriate to have strings on this song because it’s sadder, it’s more mournful. String instruments are the closest instrument to approximate the emotions of the human voice. That’s why I think, when we hear strings, it always awakens something in people.

My friend Jared Saltiel is a wonderful string arranger and I asked him to do the arrangement for this song. He resonated particularly with it, and I’m so pleased with how it came out. The group that delivered the string performance is called Rootstock Republic and they were so magical to work with. They really internalized the meaning of the song and it was so palpable when they played it.

HMS: It’s a really epic song. I think we hesitate, as human beings, to decide how important our internal states are, or whether we are exaggerating them in some way. But you take this emotional state with “Earthrise” and you raise it to a level of the spheres, or the cosmos, and it’s unapologetic about that, which is really cool.

CK: Thank you. That means so much.

HMS: I’ll ask you our Tower Records question about our motto, which is “No Music, No Life”. How do you think that applies to you in your life?

CK: Well, first of all I’d like to say that I’ve been going to Tower Records since I was about eight years old. I have very fond memories of going to the record store at the mall as a kid and buying Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magic. My sister and I would go almost every weekend and we’d get a new CD. We’d rip open the plastic and listen to it on the way home. It was like a sacred ritual. So thank you for taking the time to talk to me. If I knew as a kid that I’d be interviewed by Tower Records as a grown up, I’d be so excited.

But I feel like music is so powerful, like a song is just a blast of potent emotion. Both with songs that I associate with specific moments in my life, or in my music where I know I wrote a specific song about a certain person or experience. Listening to my music is such an amazing time capsule. It’s more than just the informational aspects. It’s way more subjective than that and it almost transcends language. You’re able to feel what that music did to you if you wrote it in a way that captures it honestly.

I really don’t know what my life would be without music to accompany it and music to chronicle the ups and downs, and all the painful bits, and all the joyful bits. It’s so messy and alive. All of it is beautiful and terrible, and I think this year has been so illuminating of that.

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