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Ann Kathryn is a Duluth musician who writes introspective, piano-driven, mostly sad songs. Sound dreary? They might have been, except they’re beautifully written and she belts them out like nobody’s business.
The title of her debut album, being in French, seems pretentious until you look it up. It means “between the acts” and refers to music played during intermission. Intermission music is background, not really meant to be listened to, just sort of there as audio wallpaper. What if it demanded to be listened to? This does.
Kathryn’s song titles are often literal descriptions of their tones: “Giant” is heavy and lumbering while “Papier-mâché” is fragile and delicate. “Tiny Steps” sounds like a happy child’s song. “Folded” is layered, as a cheerful, bouncy beat alternates with a slower, bluesy chorus. “Space” is, well, kind of like space music. But each song grows, adding on dimensions of instruments and Kathryn harmonizing with herself. None stay the same throughout. It’s thrilling to hear how they progress.
George Ellsworth, who plays bass guitar on most of the tracks, contributes an electric, bluesy lead guitar to “Giant,” the first track. Kathryn sings of love with violent (hopefully not literal) imagery: “You came in like a giant / full speed ahead / I didn’t see you coming / I got hit in in the head / My world started spinning, couldn’t see two feet ahead / But I wasn’t ready for what was round the bend.” Later comes the reference to the entr’acte, as the narrator is in a kind of limbo: “I’m hanging onto this feeling until it takes me away, until it gets me free.”
“To the Beat,” by contrast, is sprightly, almost cheerful at first, with Kathryn pounding repeated notes on the keyboards. There’s even a euphonium provided by Scott Agster. But the bouncy pace reveals itself to be more grim determination than cheer. The beat is her lover’s heartbeat, to which she’s drawn even though she leaping into the unknown: “It’s all we can do to fill the void and make our move / Fill that void, girl and make your move … I’m on my own but not alone / To the beat I go.”
“Papier-mâché,” a song about the fragility of her soul: “This foundation made of papier-mâché can’t withstand this flood.” It starts off simple, but builds and soars with stunning harmonies. Ultimately it’s about finding strength.
“Unsaid” is just her piano and her voice, soaring again. “Shaken Up” also starts very simple, then leads to an amazing orchestral string arrangement by Ellsworth. “Tiny Steps” is, for once, a song that’s not dark, but a sweet love song where she vows, “Gonna make you mine.”
In “Folded” Kathryn uses a lot of echo in her piano, but eventually a synthesizer, provided by Tobin Dack, eerily emerges. Dack’s synthesizer figures more prominently from the get-go in the final track, “Space.”
On her Kickstarter page she says, “This album is about hanging on, letting go and taking a sad song and making it better.” The entr’acte is the interval between hanging on and letting go, whether it’s a relationship, a change, or a transition in life. It’s the space in between that fascinates her, one in her world that leads to empowerment.
For some weird reason this album made me think of Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love,” which has absolutely no musical similarity, but is also about an entr’acte of sorts. It was written when his marriage was coming apart and he was on the verge of hanging on or letting go. (He let go.) “Tunnel” is a great album but there’s no empowerment, just wallowing in misery, a.k.a. the blues. Is that a guy thing? Kathryn’s album made me wonder about the flip side: Is empowerment a female thing?
Having made an album of songs about intermissions, It’s appropriate that her next gig is in the mezzanine of Zeitgeist, performing while everyone mills around and gabs. Will her voice grab hold of their ears, make them stop talking and gather round her piano in a mesmerized semi-circle? It should.
Ann Kathryn’s next show is Friday, May 3, 8:15 p.m. at Zeitgeist Arts as part of the Homegrown Festival. See annkathrynmusic.com.