Have you ever dreamt of a place you’ve never been to? A place that exists, perceptibly perhaps, in the imagination, though you’re certain of its rhyme and rhythm. You can get around and speak the language there. Listening to “Old Boulder,” a cut from Naomi Kavka’s forthcoming EP, Slammed Doors & Severance, carries with it all the hallmarks of visiting such a place, evoking a desolate yet stirring exuberance, as sure as hearts break and rebuild.
“I feel like I’m reaching a point in my songwriting where it’s matured a lot,” Kavka says, on the line from St. John’s, NL, where she’s currently studying cello and musicology at Memorial University. “I’m really happy with the structures and the whole package and I don’t feel that these are songs that I’m going to lose confidence in. I’m going to be very sure of their strengths for a very long time.”
Kavka is no stranger to the strengths or the glamour and grace of pop music, having stemmed from Prince George, B.C., with the prog-pop outfit the Arbitrarys and later with Victoria-based alt-country duo Pocket Knife. Both bands are still active, though on hiatus (Pocket Knife recently released the heavenly Broke & Heartbroke EP and the Arbitrarys have teased about a double album, Canary, maybe later this year), as she engages in her scholarly pursuits and still finds time to play in St. John’s folk rock act the Bloomsbury Group.
“I’m really lucky to be in a position in my life right now where I can pursue a lot of interests,” Kavka continues. “I try to do things that are really fun and engaging.”
“Old Boulder” is indeed engaging. Its gravity instantly pulls you in, evoking a startling beauty with its colour, a Keatsian parable, where Kavka’s voice is honey-sweet, quiet at times, but big when it has to be. Easily caught in her emotional retina, Kavka’s cello, aided by a three-piece string section, reaps maximum emotional effect in a skintight and streamlined four-plus minutes. It’s a small-scale symphony that expertly overwhelms.
“These songs span a fair bit of time for me and if there’s a theme it’s one of apprehension. Many of these songs were written when I was moving someplace new or I was leaving a relationship or I was going through frontiers in my life that I was very scared of. It’s a little bit poignant … Like ‘Old Boulder’ is about being scared of having to live alone at a time when I still had a partner. Some of the other songs are more about coming to terms with that and moving on.” Kavka’s voice trails off for a moment and I can hear the distance between us in the quiet. “There’s a lot of talk about relationships and standards, the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a female singer/songwriter’s bad country album,” Kavka says, breaking into self-effacing laughter.
While Slammed Doors & Severance reflects some of those singer/songwriter tropes that makes Kavka cringe, she’s modest in her appraisal. “Buggin’ Out,” a playful, rollicking rural Appalachia number, offering bits of bluegrass with dashes of Emmylou Harris and old-time shades of Hazel Dickens that are so contagious it might require an inoculation.
“In terms of style, this EP is a little bit country and a little bit rock, I guess,” says Kavka before crumbling into laughter once more. “I can’t believe I just said that. That sounds horrible! There’s an Americana influence, like Pocket Knife, but a lot of the harmonies that I developed a taste for with the Arbitrarys are there, too, but it’s a lot different. In my other bands there had always been another voice present where here the voice is just mine. It’s intimidating as I’m used to having someone else there providing the support musically and emotionally. This EP is just me. That rhyme was unintentional,” Kavka giggles, good-naturedly mocking herself.
Kavka, you may have gathered, is a bit of a gut-buster. Talking and laughing nineteen to the dozen, it seems that she’s paradoxical, considering the bare and brave song cycle that she’s conceived. But while trouble can incite the muse, it isn’t all windswept misery.
“One of my great joys is making music with other people,” Kavka says. “Even in this solo project I’ve been working with lots of amazing people. I’m particularly excited for people to hear Carole Bestvater, a fantastic violinist that I met through the music program here. She’s great. She completes the songs in a way I couldn’t by myself and that may be the single best reason I’m excited to get it out.”
More than just a shining songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist, Kavka is an ingenious rara avis. Her noir-country nods and neo-traditional folk flourishes find her, at times, under the pink moon of Nick Drake or on the soul journey of Gillian Welch, but she stands her ground fiercely, sweet-sounding seafarer that she is.
“I’m nervous about the recording process on this one,” says Kavka candidly about the nearly finished album. “I really want it to be a good representation of how I sound live. I feel very competent in my abilities as a live performer so I’m excited and anxious and really, really proud of it.”
Slammed Doors & Severance will be released independently on March 26 with B.C. tour dates in July.