story / Talullah Ruff
The new trend of visual album has been branded as a revelatory marketing strategy, however, musicians’ need for visuals in order to move records has been prevalent since the origins of MTV. And while the platforms and mediums may have changed (from the grandiose “Thriller” to the accessibility of Snapchat videos), the need for artists to showcase their personalities and styles through visuals is- for good or for ill- more pervasive than before.
Enter Kemme, the twenty-three-year-old alt-pop singer-songwriter and her debut EP My First Great Movie. Kemme has spent time in the epicenters of entertainment, achieving a degree in Music in Film from New York University and returning to her native Los Angeles to create her first great movie. A student of the way that both pop music and movies drive their audiences to emotion, Kemme has made it her mission to combine both mediums into a form that articulates her own story for mass consumption.
Kemme’s music stretches the boundaries of pop, striving to widen the sonic soundscapes while deepening the emotional sincerity. The first two singles released off her EP inspire as vastly opposing cinematic visions. “Poof” is an industrial wasteland where the listener has nowhere to hide from her acrimonious snake charms. “Too Deep” seems to sweep and tremble amidst comparably bare production and light chords.
I had the chance to talk to Kemme about her songwriting processes, the influences and collaborations that have inspired her, and the philosophy behind her debut EP.
How long has writing music been a part of your life? What about singing?
I guess to start, singing has been a part of my life longer… how long, I don’t even know; I can remember back in elementary school there was this after school program, I think called American Idol, and I performed Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.” That was my first solo performance, the first time I remember performing. And I was into choir all of middle school and high school. I would always write things but I never took myself too seriously until my senior year of high school: I got really into writing just because I was becoming a little more of a virtuoso on guitar and piano and then I could actually make a song for the first time.
How did you get into writing songs?
In the beginning, it was me trying to emulate people I was really into. I remember the first few songs I wrote I was trying to sound like Bon Iver, but I shelved that for awhile because I went to college and had boyfriends and didn’t have a lot of time for myself, and then it wasn’t until I had a bad breakup until I was like I really need to channel all this and express this in some way.
I read in one of your interviews that you typically start your writing process on guitar; how does that translate to a full-scale production? What is that process like?
If I’m doing anything that’s a raw instrument writing situation, it’s usually going to be on guitar because I’m just better at that, and then I’ll transpose that onto the piano, or keyboard. Then I’ll futz with that on Ableton and then make MIDI tracks because I’m not the most skilled instrumentalist. So, I definitely use Ableton and different MIDI programs to make up for what I lack there and compensate for production. And then I also work with producers and I’ll bring what I have to them and we’ll elevate what I have in whichever way.
How did you decide to work with (Spoon guitarist/keyboardist) Alex Fischel on the album?
It was funny, I just had some mutual friends, I didn’t even know who he was. I was just hanging out with some people one night and I was like, “Yo, I’m working on this project, I’m looking for producers, I’m not having great luck,” because I didn’t have any type of budget, I’m not signed to a label or anything. He was like oh send your stuff over, and I was like sure. In my experience, you know, this doesn’t really go anywhere, like sure I’ll send you my stuff and he was like this is great, let me know when we should start working. It just worked out perfectly and super, super randomly.
Was there anything about his style or temperament that made you feel like it was a good match between the two of you?
Totally, he and I got along so well. Over the course of a few months, I was at his house like every other day and we would chill and work and chill and work, so I think the temperament and the chemistry were so easily there but also he was so down. The two songs I worked on with him were “Poof” and “Too Deep,” the two singles I have out right now, and they’re the first songs I was really honing in on with someone else and really taking seriously. He was very very patient with me and also had the skills on the keyboard and guitar and piano and bass and all of these live instruments, but also could apply them in a program and was down to experiment. I’m the type of person who knows exactly how I want something to sound, I just need someone to bring it to that place; he was the perfect person to do that and he brought a lot to the table creatively, too. It was a random thing how it started in the beginning, it could have been anyone who took it on, but I don’t think we could have gotten anything done if he didn’t have the skill and we didn’t work together so well.
The two songs you’ve released thus far are each a very different musical setting, which seems to stem from your film score background. How do pop music and scores come together as one for you? How have you brought your music in film degree into your music writing and production?
The question of how do pop music and film score combine is kind of my big thesis for this project. First off, just in terms of pop music, I’m so so shamelessly in love with pop music and top 40s, and I just love a good melody and a good beat and I don’t ever want to release anything that I don’t find catchy. But then all of the artists on the other hand that I really respect are a lot more artful and experimental, so I think it’s just a matter of, just in terms of making music, combining a concept with this need to create something consumable. So with the film score, my major had a concentration of post-modernism, and obviously, this whole question of post-modernism is how do we represent things, whether it’s language or writing or whatever, and my whole question was how do we represent and how do we translate emotion. Why, when someone watches a movie, are they genuinely upset by it and brought to tears? So I basically wanted to, when I wrote the songs, explore and create something relatively commercial because obviously, it’s not like a voiceless film score, it’s something that people can bop to or sing along to or whatever. But [I wanted to] make something that’s a bit more, an embodiment of an emotion or a feeling or a setting. So for example, “Poof” is this spooky, sexy, femme fatale, and obviously, you get that with the lyrics and maybe the tone of the voice, and whatever. But my whole thing is I wanted you to feel like you’re being seduced in this. So, whatever the theme is for each song, it wasn’t just about showing or telling that, it was about fully translating it.
Is your music autobiographical or is ‘My First Great Movie’ more of a fictional creation? You’ve also said that you “repurpose” parts of your life and create them into new characters; how do you feel as though this services the songs?
This project is autobiographical, it’s about an experience I had falling in and out of love. But also I was prompted to make this project because I had such a deep emotional attachment to it and this carnal desire to express that, and it definitely propelled me to create something because the emotions and circumstances were very real. But you know, it’s two years out of that relationship at this point and I’m still working on some of the tracks and just finished working on one of them a week or so ago. I’ve repurposed this experience I’ve had and stepped away from it and approached it more as a movie where each song is a different character and each song is a different mood and part in a plot arc, so you’ve got the introduction, rising climax… Each song is a hyperbolized version of not only a character because it obviously stems from me, but my emotion and my mindset in each stage of this story. So, it definitely comes from a personal place; I think that’s really important from anything anyone writes, otherwise you risk something being just like a silly pop song.
As a young person who has lived and currently lives around the entertainment industry right now, do you think there’s a way to be authentic as an artist? How do you navigate this?
I definitely think that no matter who you are or what you’re doing, whether you’re Ariana Grande or you’re just someone in your room writing about some boy you have a crush on, there’s gonna be you in no matter what you do. It’s because no one’s gonna do what you wanna do and no one can do you better than you do yourself. Granted, people maybe play it like puppets a little bit, but I think it’s impossible not to be authentic. Even the songs that have fifteen writers on them and all these producers and they’re just made to be pop bangers, I still think there’s a little bit of a real person in each of those songs. I just think obviously we’re in such a weird time looking at right now, versus in the past few decades of what music sounded like. But that’s kind of where we’re at right now and I don’t think there’s any bullshit to it. It is a business, and either people approach it artfully because they want to be an artist or they approach it commercially because they want to make money and I honestly don’t think one way is worse than the other, that’s just anyone’s own hustle.
How does your music translate to a live setting? Are you as interested in performing as you are in the concept of the album?
I’m definitely down to do live shows, I haven’t done them yet with this album. I have some very very low-key experience performing live in the past but I’m down to do live shows. Because even working with Alex Fischel on the first two songs, and then other producers on some of the other two songs, and I produced one of the songs myself, I’m kind of just in it by myself. And I’m kind of in between this place of I would kill to have a live band with me because I think it brings that level authenticity and I don’t think I’m conditioning/positioning myself to be this pop chick performing to a backing track. But yeah, it is just me in it right now, so I think the way it’ll translate at first will probably be that elevated version of someone singing to a backing track with a bit more of a cinematic performance vibe. I’m so in love with Childish Gambino’s performance on SNL, I feel like that’s everything I’m trying to do right now. I don’t have any definitive plans right now to do anything live but I’m still in the thick of trying to get physical work out there.
What has been the most exciting part of this EP process for you?
I’m so in love with these videos we’ve done and they’re exactly how I’ve imagined them. People don’t really know who I am, and I think that with any new artist, any type of vision will help people to understand what their thing is. But I think these videos are so special and we did the videos before I had the music finished; it took such priority because I knew kind of what they could be. Visuals are really important to this project, it’s honestly just as important as the music, at least with this piece specifically. But I would say the most exciting part has been working on these videos and seeing them all come together. You know it’s not just me because the videos have a production team behind them. But for where I’m at, to come out and show up on set and my vision is coming to life with a whole team of people there to do it, that is really really special. So I would say the videos are gonna rock everyone’s world.
Do you have any style influences?
In general, I have a hard time listening to music when I’m writing just because in any early stages when you’re looking for that inspiration, I just get so in my head: like, this doesn’t sound how I want it to, it doesn’t sound like it’s at that released point of whoever. But I listen to a lot of film score, a lot of Trent Reznor, a lot of Atticus Ross- they are just insane- and also Nine Inch Nails. Each of the songs is so different that each of the songs has its own world of influence, but I would say Portishead is a big one, I love St. Vincent and FKA Twigs. I also love downtempo, a hot beat and bass ditty are always right up my alley. In terms of a personal style, fashion is definitely very important to me in general. I mean, honestly Rooney Mara, she kills it, I love a casual sweatshirt with clean shoe look. There are so many people I love and admire and everybody brings something new to the table. One of these songs I wasn’t able to finish until I heard Cardi B’s new album.
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