Finding yourself between the lines: Kate Bollinger on change, connecting with the past and her upcoming album

Photo credits: Jonathan Roensch, CJ Harvey

On the other side of the Atlantic, a velvet voice has been crawling into the hearts of indie and folk lovers for a while now: Virginia-raised musician Kate Bollinger keeps creating and flourishing. This year, she travelled all the way to Berlin and other cities to bring her soft-spoken sound on an European tour. I got the chance to talk with her after about the evolving meaning of certain songs, processing the past through writing and all that is to come.

During cold January days, going to concerts at Schokoladen feels like setting foot in the living room of an old friend. The space is filled with people chatting and rubbing their frozen hands, as disco balls shimmer above them. Winter seems far away here and that might also have to do with the artist performing this evening. Tonight, the small stage will be conquered by singer-songwriter Kate Bollinger: As she steps into the light, the room suddenly turns calm. With just a guitar as company, she delivers a stripped-down version of her discography, warming up any still cold hands and hearts left in the audience. Fast forward to the next morning, winter has returned in the form of snowflakes and I ask how the concert went for her.

It’s Bollinger’s first time touring in Europe. Just last year, she supported musicians like Faye Webster or Wild Nothing back at home, doing many gigs on her own in-between. As the snow keeps falling, she begins describing her experience differing over here. “The shows have been really intimate, the crowds are so sweet and engaged. I feel like it will be hard to return to playing in the US again after this, just because it all was this exciting, especially as I hadn’t been to any of the cities before.” The audience in Berlin welcomed the singer just as warmly, truly like an old friend. There’s something about Bollinger’s work that appears refreshing yet familiar, as if it belonged to a decade long gone. Subjects addressed in her lyrics often also seem retrospective, so I wonder if she would describe herself as a nostalgic person. “Yes definitely, I get inspired by a lot of older music. What I make feels like a big amalgamation of all my influences, so maybe that’s why there are bits of sounds from the past.” she says, and her latest release, a cover of “J’aime les filles” is no exception. “I love Jaques Dutronc and other French artists from that time. The song is so silly and fun, yet also so wonderful – I wanted to make something similar with a laid-back Jazz band in the background.”

Such a lighthearted sentiment runs through her own tracks as well, the tone of her voice enmeshes the listener. So when only paying attention to the musical part, especially on her newest EP “Look at it in the Light”, one might not expect the lyrics to revolve around loss or painful change. Why does she wrap darker topics into a rather sweet and dreamy soundscape? “For me, melody is the most important thing, it’s what draws me to certain songs. Being able to express sad matter and to turn it into something beautiful is really nice.” Bollinger certainly has perfected the art of that. It seems to be common among musicians to come to terms with the past through writing, to reflect on situations that have gone by. “That’s kind of why I started making songs in the first place. It really just was a way of processing what happened.” Another theme that runs through her music from the beginning is self-discovery. Just recently, in relation to the single “Running”, the singer mentioned how that track felt representative of who she was after past projects did not accomplish that anymore. Will there come a point at which one has truly found oneself, as an artist or in general?

„Play it safe or not at all
The way these things change
You know you’re bound to fall
Win the war and shake the hands
I’ve grown this tall, not knowing how to stand“

Running – Kate Bollinger

“I found myself in ‘Running’ because I was able to put something into words I didn’t manage to before. Also, the manner in which it was produced felt very true to how I wrote it and the sort of music I wanted to release. But people change, I keep changing – I will probably feel connected to other songs in the future and maybe less to this one, yet it still represents a version of me that exists right now.” On that note, I always wondered how artists deal with performing music live, that might be a fan-favorite, yet they can’t stand it personally or no longer identify with what they created years ago. Bollinger is familiar with that situation, as she explains, though she does not see it as inherently negative. “The cool thing about older work is that the meaning can evolve, you can relate to it in a different way that wasn’t the case back when you wrote it. So finding new interpretations of your own songs makes it exciting to perform them again.”

In that same statement about “Running”, Bollinger also mentions trying out various styles of making music, so we begin talking about how she experiments instrumentally. Growing up, she started out only with a guitar by herself, slowly letting the melody and lyrics come together, but during the last years, collaboration has become an alternative. “For example, my friend John used to send me beats and then I would write to them. We’d go back and forth on ideas. It has been really fun to record in different ways with different people – it pulls things out of me I wouldn’t be able to get to on my own.” However, the artist does not only collaborate during songwriting but also when making her music videos. These clips often feel like little, elaborate movies, which are inspired by past decades as well. All that might have quite a bit to do with her past studies of cinematography. “I didn’t choose the subject because I ever thought that I would fully pursue it, it was always kind of secondary to music. I chose to study it as I wanted to be able to create visuals that go with my songs. Right now, it’s lovely to get more into film and shooting videos myself.”

At the end of the interview, in the space we always leave for the artists to express something left unsaid, Bollinger announces something special that is in the making: An album. As much as she currently wishes to spend more time in Europe, the recording process awaits her back home. “A few people have asked me what one can expect from the album and I can say that it will be eccentric in the way it jumps between genres, between live and studio versions. And I’m really, really excited to release it.” She’s not alone with that sentiment, I’m sure about that.