When the New Pornographers take the stage at Mass MoCA on Nov. 14,
they’ll bring more than their dynamic sound. They’re also bringing a family story.
Gathered two decades ago from prominent members of the Vancouver
music scene by singer/guitarist Carl Newman, who had made a name for himself in the indie rock bands Superconductor and Zumpano, the New Pornographers have eight studio albums, including their brand new release, “In the Morse Code of Brake Lights.”
The band has featured several shifting members through the years, though singer Neko Case, bass player John Collins, and keyboardist Blaine Thurier have appeared on every album. Guitarist Todd Fancey signed on in 2003 and drummer Joe Seiders in 2015. Touring member Simi Stone, who plays violin and sings, has just been welcomed as an official member.
But it’s singer/keyboardist/guitarist Kathryn Calder who may have the
most fascinating connection to the band. She initially joined in 2005 as a live replacement for Case, whose exploding solo career made touring with the band difficult at times. Calder is Newman’s niece, and her first album with the band was 2007’s “Challengers.”
Now after 14 years with the band, she’s made her mark, so much so that
Newman describes the new album as having “a Kathryn Calder stamp.”
“This was the first time that I was left to my own devices to do the
keyboards,” Calder said. “On previous records, it would be Carl, me and
John as a common grouping for when I would come in to do my keyboards and my singing. There was still a lot of collaboration on this record, but it was mostly me at home, at my studio in Victoria, working on parts and sending them over.”
Calder says that allowing her to work at home made a lot of difference for her. She frequently hears a New Pornographers record in the final form and has no idea what she played because of the multiple changes in the production process. But on this one, she knew exactly what was hers.
“I’m somebody that loves tinker on my own,” Calder said. “Mostly I work
best when I’m left to do my thing. Often when there are other people in the room, I feel a little bit more self-conscious about what I’m doing, and I might not be as free to experiment with something that might sound a bit weird but that I know might lead somewhere else. So when I’m working on my own and puttering away at songs, it lets me take the ideas to their full conclusion.”
Calder has known Newman since she was about 14, after Calder’s mother, who was adopted, met her birth family. Newman was the cool uncle who did cool things like play on Neko Case’s album “The Virginian,” which Calder says is the first musical project of Newman’s that she heard.
Compared with her other uncles, Newman was a lot younger, and the two bonded over a love of music. Calder now sees how that influenced her.
“I went off and joined a bunch of bands,” she said. “I don’t know that was related, but like it probably was. I was really into music anyway. I did music a lot as a child and as a teenager. And I just sort of found my way probably because there were people around me who were doing music and that seemed fun and interesting to me.”
Calder traces her embrace of indie rock to the influence of two records.
One was “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” a 1967 album that claimed Andy Warhol as its producer and came to be viewed as a classic of alternative rock.
“That record, I was like, ‘Oh, this is weird. And it’s super interesting. And
I think I like weird music that’s a little bit, I don’t know, not as straight as some of the other things I’ve been listening to,’” Calder said.
The other crucial influence was the New Pornographers’ debut album.
Calder began her musical career with the band Immaculate Machine. She met New Pornographers bassist John Collins when they opened for his other band, The Evaporators. Collins was impressed by Calder’s musicianship and suggested to Newman that Calder would be a good fit in the New Pornographers. And so Calder ended up in a band with her uncle.
“It didn’t feel like weird at all,” she said. “I knew Carl and we were
family, and we’d had this very interesting connection, and then I ended up touring with him. I feel like that’s been really special, and it’s not really defined by the usual kind of relationships that you have in your family. I joined the band and then it’s become its own thing, like part family, part bandmate, part whatever. It’s just been really neat.”
For Calder, it’s also been an education. She was 23 when she joined, and
though she had recorded and toured before, she was eager to learn more about the process, especially songwriting and arranging.
“I’ve just learned so much being a fly on the wall when the New
Pornographers are working, learning from everyone,” Calder said. “Being
involved in those records, there was a lot of, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ There were a lot of things that I learned over the years by just being around.”
This experience strongly informed her own projects, including three solo albums and a collaboration with musician Mark Andrew Hamilton as Frontperson. Calder’s first album — 2010’s “Are You My Mother?” — came about while caring for her mother after a diagnosis of ALS. Calder recorded the album at home, working on it both before and after her mother’s death.
“My solo record was a little bit more tragedy based, but it was still
circumstantial,” she said. “It was still, oh, like, you know, my mom was
diagnosed with this horrible illness, and I just knew that if I was going to do a solo record now is the right time to do it. And I had this momentum pushing me towards it.
“I feel like for me it’s helpful to have some kind of external motivation
for projects so that they get off the ground, because sometimes it can be hard to make time for even the things you love doing unless ther’s some kind of external motivation for doing it,” Calder explained. “For my solo record, that was definitely from my mom, and that was a hundred percent driving that project.”
Though the album was born of a sad circumstance, Calder says there was also a sense of adventure and discovery in creating it. It stood as a marker for both the end of one portion of her life and the beginning of another.
“It was a very interesting record to make for me, because I had never
made a record,” Calder said. “I didn’t know what my sound was. So I went into that record very curious, being like, ‘I wonder what a record that I make sounds like, because I don’t really know what that would be.’”
After two more solo records, Calder met Hamilton, and after the two hit it off, they decided to collaborate on a music project. The opportunity to record came in the form of a residency from the National Music Center in Calgary. Calder says that the experience was so positive that the two are working on a second Frontperson record together.
“There’s usually some circumstance that triggers an idea, and then I’m
like, yeah, that seems like that would be a cool thing to do, and then into the night I go and do it,” she said. “With Frontperson, it was having this other person involved and having some of these opportunities come our way that made the project move forward in a way that maybe it wouldn’t have if those things hadn’t existed.”
And more work is coming from Calder in the form of public art. She was
named Artist in Residence for the city of Victoria, British Columbia, this
summer, kicking off a multi-year project to devise public art that’s related to music.
It’s a good moment for Calder to take stock of how her career and musical identity have evolved over the years. She says she’s definitely figured out what her sound is and is thankful for the journey that brought her to that point, which began with her uncle and the New Pornographers.
“I think I like starting things and doing things and trying new things,”
Calder said. “I think that part of my personality is always curious about what else I could do. Like ‘What else? What else could we do? What else could I do? What projects could I do? What would be interesting?’ And leads me on this very twisty-turny career.”