The Maryland singer-songwriter’s music is hard to place, and all the more enchanting for it.
Amidst the chattering, intimate room of Manchester’s Deaf Institute, Katie Von Schliecher takes the stage, with only a guitarist to accompany her. As soon as her soft voice slips into the air, the entire room becomes deathly quiet, and Katie holds this engagement right until the very end of her set. Singing about internal conflicts and romantic struggles, her lyrics are deeply personal, self-assured, and thought-provoking, unsurprisingly—she does have a degree in song writing, after all. Her moody rock/dark-pop sound is both powerful and vulnerable—with a strange, experimental element which makes it hard to describe, and incredibly intriguing. All the more mesmerized after hearing her live, we picked Katie’s brain about her distinctive sound, writing un-self-consciously, and the creative process behind her latest album, Shitty Hits (which btw is anything but shitty).
How did your journey into the music industry begin?
I guess when I went to music school, although their conception of music industry really bummed me out. I didn’t pay very much attention in the legal & management oriented classes, they talked about royalty rates and everything felt very much in the style of 1970’s Nashville industry, something very different from what it’s like today. Anyway, it was years after college that I started as an intern at Ba Da Bing Records. I had no particular skills except writing and a knowledge of the musical ‘climate.’ The independent record industry still has blood in it, it’s not this soulless thing, and I was really happy to find myself in it.
Your sound is so hard to pigeon-hole. It’s such a mix of different bits and cuts from various genres which is then finished with an unusual, adventurous element. It’s wonderful. Do you think this has emerged from your experience working for Ba Da Bing Records? Hearing so many artists who sound like so many others already out there must make you wary of being unoriginal?
Thanks, that’s good to hear. The answer is yes and no. I write the way I do because that’s how I emerged from a world of influences, I guess, and I arrived at Ba Da Bing being fully formed in those sources. But receiving demos and listening to music all day did teach me to feel free to experiment. A lot of us are grasping at straws to get a label’s attention, and unfortunately I think it makes some musicians play it safer, closer to a reference point that’s already successful. That seemed like a mistake to me, once I was given the chance to release music on a label. I took the opportunity to make what I wanted to hear and do it by whatever process felt most gratifying.
What have you learnt since you started working there? Do you think your music would have sounded different if you hadn’t worked for Ba Da Bing Records?
I can’t know, but I suspect it would be different. Ben (the owner) is a unique personality in this industry. He doesn’t care about what’s hip, he doesn’t put out music he thinks would “do well,” and he challenged me to not aim to please some theoretical audience, either. Our two natures mixed in this way that helped me grow and become, and I don’t think that’s replaceable. It sounds like a dream to me, someone telling you they will both commodify your music and release it, and that they hope you don’t try and sell out or do anything too safe.
Bleaksploitation was your homemade record. What was the progression like from that album to Shitty Hits? Did you have a very specific aim for where you were envisioning your sound to grow towards?
They’re both pretty homemade actually, I just hope I’m getting better. The aim initially was to have fun, make what I wanted to hear in my head, and not be afraid to hit the tape hard, make things warble. I ended up playing drums and bass and guitar, which I’d never done on a record before. Discovering my identity on other instruments solidified something in my head. It was a positive, insular thing I was doing. With this last album I simply aimed to expand on everything. I had band mates play on the album because they’re better instrumentalists and collaboration’s a beautiful thing. But Bleaksploitation enabled me to find these people, because it was a statement of intent. If someone wanted to be in my band based on this lofi 4-track record, we were already kindred spirits. I’m still working out where I’m heading, ultimately.
A lot of the album is about isolation and the sense of powerlessness which comes with depression. Lyrically, it’s so honest and emotional. Was it hard to be so raw? What was the writing process like?
I have to hold back being raw in life, haha. I was going through a long period of therapy and self-reflection at the time, and I felt like a painfully open book. Writing was helpful, once I decided to embrace my emotional state. The writing was so musically focused, words felt less important at first. I record my writing sessions, and in the end I think half of the lyrics are things I sang while writing, “dummy lyrics.” They were right, they expressed my feelings in an un-self-conscious way, something I wouldn’t be able to do if I sat down with paper and a pen. One way I’ll know a song is worth keeping is if I have words and music come at the same time. It feels whole.
Then along with the highly emotive lyrics that discuss serious topics, you combine it with a little touch of humour, like the title of the album for instance being “Shitty Hits” (lol). I think it works well in depicting the way to approach life when you’re struggling—humour is one way you can process life’s struggles. Was this your intention?
Totally. I don’t want the music to be removed from my day to day existence, and humor is very important to me. I’ve spent time in my life wallowing, but at this point I would rather subsist on honesty and humor. Right now I’m on tour, and my band mates are emotionally attuned and excellent people who help me put these songs across. The rest of the time we just crack each other up.
Who were you listening to when you wrote the album?
Brian Eno, Randy Newman, Francis Bebey, Nina Simone, UMO, The Beatles, Neon Indian, Andy Shauf, Jessica Pratt, Cate Le Bon, Elliott Smith, The Pixies, The Breeders, The Caretaker.
I read somewhere that literature is the main source of inspiration for your music. What were you reading during the creative process of creating Shitty Hits? And what are you reading now?
I was reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson, A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon, Moby Dick, Outline by Rachel Cusk, 10:04 by Ben Lerner, all the David Foster Wallace. I previously read mostly older things, and I was trying to embrace more contemporary stuff. Now I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty and I continually read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories for comfort. I’ve recently picked up Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee again.
I love your song, “Midsummer”. You’ve just released its music video—what was the concept behind both the video and the song?
It’s really a very literal and personal song, the first and second verses are to two different people, both of whom I didn’t treat very well. A classic breakup tale. The video was inspired by Whitesnake’s video for “Is This Love,” which is a really hilarious 80’s masculine guitar-ripping breakup video wherein the girlfriend is leaving Whitesnake’s singer, whoever he is. In the end he sort of tackles her and makes out with her as she tries to leave, which is supposed to be romantic. Ben (Ba Da Bing) showed me the video because he has this compendium of rock video knowledge. I took it to my collaborator Matt Strickland, who’s done all my videos, and we decided to make a mockery of it. The first image that came to mind was shredding guitar on a horse, it felt like the ultimate absurdity. I never pictured myself dancing in a field in a wig, but it was liberating to know my only goal was to be an ass. It’s a lot lighter than the song’s actual concept, but it would have been too direct to just make a breakup video. In any case the fact that the song is pretty contrite means that to take its concept seriously and film it would have felt too heavy handed, too self-involved.
What’s next? Have you begun writing your next album?
Yes! Albums take on a bunch of iterations for me before they’re complete, but I feel like I’m ready to start recording the next one. I just have to figure out how to do it, how to progress with it. And I always need some kind of driving idea or theme, some overarching aim to make it all join together. In the meantime, I’m going to tour as much as I can and keep writing. I’ll be back in the UK in April and May.
Photos by M. Cooper.