Where I Play Kathryn Calder
Published Jun 05, 2015"To be honest, I don't know what half this stuff does, but that's okay." Kathryn Calder laughs, sitting in front of the sprawling console in the home studio she shares with her husband, Juno Award-winning producer/engineer Colin Stewart. "This is all his gear, all his tools to make things sound cool."
Calder's honesty is also a bit self-deprecating. After all, the longtime singer and keyboardist for the New Pornographers did master self-recording and producing on her recently released third solo record, a self-titled gem that's, fittingly, her most ambitious and daring effort yet. And a significant amount of the work was accomplished entirely in her and Stewart's split-level house, tucked quietly away in a suburb of Victoria, BC, about ten minutes off the ferry from the mainland. The ocean is a quick walk down a steep hill and they're surrounded by looming old growth trees and more nature sounds than white noise: buzzing, chirping, scurrying, an occasional squawk. "It is a bit like Snow White," Calder jokes and it's true. A hummingbird almost clipped my ear.
Stewart and Calder moved into the house in 2013, spending about a year renovating the space to craft a destination studio, which, in part, would offset Stewart's decision to shutter his famed Vancouver studio, the Hive, a hub for international acts and where giants of the West coast indie scene made records and a bit of history.
Bands and solo musicians that make the trek are rewarded with a state-of-the-art, spacious basement studio that boasts high ceilings, classic lava lamps and a console with more knobs than Crayola has colours. The hallway doubles as a natural echo chamber, connecting the studio with the elevated live room where an upright piano sits alongside one wall, with a variety of percussion instruments in the opposite corner, including a black tambourine with what looks like the symbol formerly known as Prince.
"There are little patches in the wall," Calder explains, pointing toward the windows along the floor that look down into the studio, "and those are pipes that go through the wall and through the studio. On the other side of the studio there are isolation booths for amps. When you're recording, the name of the game is isolation for the most part. You're trying to keep the drums from the microphones of the people singing or whatever. If you have a microphone on an amplifier, the drums will bleed into the amplifier, so if you put the amps in a different room, you can just get the sound of the amps. But we're still in here playing, so you're still here playing live with people, which is its own feeling as well."
Most of Calder's home recording actually occurred on the upper two floors of the house. The main floor is home to a relatively new rehearsal space, with a baby grand piano, drum kit and a PA. A poster for one of Calder's first big shows with the New Pornographers hangs on the wall from when they were on tour opening for Belle & Sebastian in 2006. "It was pretty fucking cool," she laughs. "I was really excited, I'm a big fan."
Calder's small office/studio is a tiny room on the top floor, cozy, with a small window looking out into the trees, a keyboard, a large microphone and a computer. The multiple home recording and studio options afforded Calder a musical reinvention of sorts. It was here, at Stewart's urging, that she learned how to use ProTools, an empowering act that also proved inspiring.
"I was really resistant because it's kind of intimidating," Calder says. "It seemed complicated and so I just started slowly and started demoing, and then the demos kind of became the songs.... Now if I want to write a song, I can just do it. I can do it on my own schedule and I'm not relying on anybody else. I don't have to have somebody else be around and I don't have to pay somebody else, either. When you're a musician and you're not making a lot of money — of course the gear costs money, but once you've got that, there's a lot more freedom and time. Having the time to tweak is really what made this record different from the other records. Of course, you can lose your mind when you have so much time and you can constantly tweak."
So, how did she avoid losing her mind?
Calder laughs. "Well, I didn't really."