A Chat with Lia Kohl
Lia Kohl is a Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist who dabbles in a bit of everything. She composes and she improvises. She works solo and she collaborates. She's a cellist who manipulates her stringed instrument's sound with electronic tones. And her creative, experimental approach renders unpredictable results - bright music which surprises in the best way. A sentence on Kohl's website succinctly sums up her craft (much better than I can), and reads that "her work centers curiosity and patience, an exploration of the mundane and profound possibilities of sound."
On March 10th, Lia Kohl will release her new piece, The Ceiling Reposes on American Dreams Records. A favorite artist on a favorite label! The album is a chaotic and beautiful interweaving of found sound and Kohl's own playing, and since I've had the honor of hearing it a few times through already, I can attest that each spin turns up something new. So really, that statement on her website was totally right. Curiosity and patience truly are the central qualities of Kohl's work.
Since I was hooked on The Ceiling Reposes after just one listen, I reached out to Kohl about an interview and she kindly obliged. Below, you can read my questions and her answers, and be sure to check out her album when it drops next month. It's so so so good.
Photo credit: Ash Dye
DC: So first off, I'm so curious to learn a bit more about the inspiration behind The Ceiling Reposes. I love the multi-layered, "collaged" nature of the album - radio static and snippets combined with a variety of instrumentation and field recordings. What led you to dive into this compositional style?
LK: Thank you! I started this album at an artist residency on Vashon Island, and I just brought everything that I could carry. When you travel with a cello, you tend to get good at being minimal about everything else, so my suitcase was mostly a mobile recording setup, a few tiny synths, and a radio. So I didn’t necessarily have specific sounds in mind, but wanted to be as flexible as possible in an unconventional recording situation (I knew in advance that the residency didn’t have any music-specific resources).
As far as compositional style, everything that I make starts from improvisation, and the composing part comes later, during the editing process. So most days I would start with a layer of some kind of improvisation – whether cello, synth, or going on a walk and taking a field recording. Usually I would immediately add to that layer to make the initial structure of a piece. I left the residency with probably four hours of sketches.
I also took hours of recordings of the radio and then meticulously went through them and made notes. I have pages and pages of very strange shorthand: quotes, opinions (“annoying sounding man talking about cars”) and more. Choosing interesting snippets from the radio lends itself to that “collage” style.
DC: Were there certain moods or themes you wished to explore with this work when you first set out, or did you let the writing and recording process sort of guide you? Did those found sounds captured up on Vashon coax you in any unexpected directions?
LK: I’d never made so much in such a short time, and I remember feeling a lot of apprehension about what I “should” be making, if I was going in the right direction, etc..
I think it’s easy to listen to the album now and see that I went on a journey in a direction, but at the time it really felt like moving forward in the dark and having no idea what I was making. I was very affected by the tides, the sound of constant water, being alone – but as far as themes I didn’t have a preconceived idea.
I will say – and forgive the vagueness of this statement – generally through my work I am trying to reach for something unknown, something that I can only see in my peripheral vision. A poet friend likened my work to “catching an electrical current”, which feels apt. I’d rather listen than dictate.
DC: Two of my favorite 2022 releases came with small booklets of words and pictures, so I was pretty excited to learn that you're offering a printed zine of poetry along with The Ceiling Reposes. And what an incredible list of contributors! What do you see as the relationship between these two artifacts, the album and the zine? How do they fit together?
LK: I’ve been thinking about finding a place for writing in my (public) practice for a while, and admiring fellow musicians who do so by writing lyrics. I don’t know if I’ll ever do that, but I did realize that the radio samples I chose often make really lovely poetry. That was both very intentional and completely intuitive – I often see connections or meanings I’ve made after they’re already in the work.
The book of poetry comes from the transcription of one track, mostly snippets from a weather report. I fleshed it out, fitting my own words in between the samples, and felt like it really worked as an exercise and a poem. So I asked some poet and lyricist friends to try it out if they wanted, and the result is this lovely collection, all responding to the same prompt.
DC: Okay, and one more question about the music on The Ceiling Reposes. I know you primarily as a cellist, but clearly, you are a very talented multi-instrumentalist and injected so many different sounds across this album. I also read that you recorded some in the studio and some outside, allowing natural and human-made noise to seep into your work. So I am wondering if there is a specific recording session that sticks with you? A memory of a place or a sound or an experience?
LK: I’m always interested in the specificity of place and time in recording. Like photographs, recordings can only be taken once – but we so often forget that in a studio setting, when we’re recording multiple takes and focused on getting a good version of an ideal thing. Nothing against studio recording! But I love the opportunity to place myself and my work firmly in time, as a time-based being.
I made a lot of these recordings outside, or at least outside of a studio. Beyond the time on Vashon, I also recorded a lot in my house, in my backyard, and while on tour in New Orleans. I spent a particularly lovely May afternoon on a porch in New Orleans, playing various instruments I’d found in the house and listening to the birds. On the same trip, I was woken up early by a literal rooster, and when I went outside to record him, found a beautiful conversation between the rooster, a passing train, and another early morning bird. That recording shows up at the end of track three (“when glass is there, and water”). The only studio recording I did was with my friend Zach Moore, one of my best friends here in Chicago. He set up some mics and we listened to tracks that felt boring to me – he suggested some things and we spent the afternoon trying things out. A very memorable, and therefore “in time” session.
DC: You've got a run of live dates coming up this spring, and are playing in Portland with Macie Stewart on March 20th at Mississippi Studios. Hey Portlanders: see you there! What is your live set going to look/sound like? Will it be all new stuff, or will you mix in some Too Small to be a Plain pieces? Will you and Macie play a bit together? Or is it a secret so I should mind my own business?
LK: Haha – I will be playing new stuff. I’m in the process of arranging it now. It’s hard! But I’m hoping the result will leave lots of room for improvisation. Because the album has a lot of radio, I’m doing a lot with radios and transmitters. I'll play a solo set and then join Macie's band for her songs.
DC: Since you're an artist who appears on so many other artists' albums, I am curious to hear what you're enjoying listening to these days. Oh, and it doesn't need to be something that you've played on. Didn't mean to make it sound that way. Are there certain artists (musical or other) that you're really digging at the moment?
LK: Right this minute I’m listening to The Invention of the Human, by Dylan Henner. My spouse sent it to me earlier today, and it’s really incredible. I usually listen to things because people tell me to. I’m so bad at listening to things I’m supposed to know about – name a band and I won’t know them.
We also finally got a record player this fall and it’s really helping me listen more, there’s something about the physicality of records that feels grounding to me. On our last trip to the record store (s/o to Domino Records in New Orleans!) we picked up World of Echo, by Arthur Russell (an old favorite), Comradely Objects, the new Horse Lords, and a compilation of Tewolde Redda guitar singles (amazing Eritrean guitarist from the 70s).
DC: And let's veer outside of musical boundaries just for a moment. What do you enjoy doing with your free time? Or, if you had a day to yourself, how would you spend it?
LK: I love to cook and eat, especially with my spouse or for groups of friends. We’re working our way through Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking right now. I talk to my mom on the phone a lot. We just got a cat, and he’s so weird; I love to play with him. He’s sitting on my lap right now purring really loud. In the summer I spend a lot of time biking to Lake Michigan and swimming. In the winter I take a lot of baths.
DC: And finally, it feels a bit silly to ask about future projects since you're literally about to release an album and go on tour, but do you have any plans in the works for later this spring or beyond? Any future projects you'd like to hint at or detail? Or maybe, it'll be time for a much-needed break. Breaks are good too.
LK: Not silly! I always have seven or eight things on the stove. A few duos in the works – with Whitney Johnson (of Matchess), Zander Raymond, Patrick Shiroishi, James Wetzel (of Melkbelly). And I’m starting on a new solo album.
A huge thank to Lia Kohl for taking the time to respond to all of my questions so thoughtfully. See ya in PDX in a few weeks! And here's the link one more time to her album coming out on ADR. It's currently on preorder but will be out in full soon.