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NOT AS SHE SHOULD BE
By Tim Roberts
On the postcard she hands me is a picture of her. On the image she squatting, holding her guitar, her face an emotionless mask. She's superimposed over a single page from a spiral-bound photo album opened to a snapshot of a fish balanced on its tailfin on a rock next to a lake, dangling a man from the end of a fishing rod.
Kathleen Hoye and I are at the bar of the Hideaway Saloon, where she plays every Tuesday night with Meredith Noel, her 27-year-old violinist and cohort. She'd X'ed out her performance dates on the postcard's other side. They were from more than half a year ago, when she fronted Kathleen's Dream, playing the coffee-house-and-small-bar circuit. More recently, with Meredith, she has opened for some national acts such as Leon Russell and Gillian Welch.
The Hideaway lives up to its name: a small bar with its entrance up a set of sturdy steps that rise from the alley between The Leatherhead and The Place to Go hairstylists at the Bardstown/Bonnycastle intersection, the city's eclectic realm of black leather, body-piercings, jeans with floppy cuffs as wide as Montana, hair dyed in colors found only in a circus, skateboarding and some of the best live music in town - a grandchild of Haight-Ashbury, but one that gets to bed at a decent hour.
The Hideaway's rectangular stage, next to the entrance, is flush against the front wall and raised about two feet off the floor. It comfortably fits two with microphones and a sound system. At its edge is a waist-high wooden banister on which is mounted a set of steer horns advertising Bud Light. As she performed that evening, Kathleen's slender form towered and swayed over them. Her guitar technique alternated between gentle picking and heavy, rapid strums. Meredith - her classical training more than apparent - moved her bow across the viola's strings like fluid while a serene smile graced her soft face. Their sound washed over the small audience who shone tender gazes up at the duo and provided generous applause after each selection.
It was liquid, the way they moved as they played, the way their sound converged like two streams emptying into a calm river - one pounding its way over mossy rocks, the other rolling easily around things in its path. There was a fluid energy in their motion and sound, the kind that seeks out all the tiny knots in your soul and gently unties them.
Based on what I tried to recall from my interview with her and Meredith the night before, I toyed with some possible interpretations of the image on the postcard Kathleen had handed me. With nothing more than the clues I had culled from our talk I came up with four:
• Kathleen's a Pisces and a lot of her dreams and songs contain water imagery, also reflected in her fluid motions and sound as she performs (certainly).
• It represents her feelings about the how the environment is mistreated (we never discussed that - so, no).
• She's looking to reel in a man - (absolutely not).
• In her world, things are not as they should be - (oh, yeah!).
That fluidity of sound, the lyrics about connection and disconnection, life forces, healing touch, and spirituality that play in the realm of New Age imagery do not come from a someone who fondles crystals and tries to work the word chakra into every sentence. Kathleen Hoye is a professional, a twice-degreed businesswoman (one from Valparaiso, another from University of Illinois, Chicago) with an outspoken manner, a powerful singing voice that sounds as if it's sculpted in gold and a disarming giggle. She'll sing a love song so tenderly that it drains every ounce of angst from your body, then cluck like a chicken while talking with Meredith after she finishes it. At one performance she'll wear a long black skirt and a glittery sleeveless top, at the next she might wear her pink fur coat and white feather boa. It's not that Kathleen brings onstage a flaky twin who makes animal noises and wears bizarre clothes in between songs. She's doing what is normally not expected of a singer/songwriter: infusing her sound with a little bit of a show, which is something she and Meredith feel a lot of music is lacking.
"I think what's missing is some of the theater. I miss the glam of David Bowie and Kiss," Kathleen said. "And I think that's why I've been getting into this little bit of a glam fetish lately. The whole coffeehouse scene gets really stale sometimes. I can't walk into another coffee-house unless I stir things up a little, just to introduce a slightly different element, no matter what it is."
Meredith agreed. "I started playing popular music because I decided music was supposed to be communication. That's what's missing in classical and art music. [The composers] don't realize music's supposed to communicate with people, even those who don't know a lot about it. It's not just supposed to be setting treatises to music. There have to be other elements, too."
Despite its dearth of floor-show performances, the coffee-house boom of this decade has provided numerous dim-lighted outlets for singer/songwriters, who are to the '90s what glam rockers were to the mid-'70s (with glittery clothes, makeup and pyrotechnics) and big hair and tiger-print spandex was to the '80s. Kathleen and Meredith each named several from the singer/songwriter sub-genre - including local performers Scott Robinson (whom Kathleen calls a "totally evolved songwriter") and Butch Rice (whom Meredith says has a polished sound), to the nationally known Ani DiFranco, Dave Matthews and Elliot Smith - they enjoy listening to.
"It's the latest thing," Meredith said, giving her view on the surge of singers/songwriters. "I think it's just a society's need to have storytellers. Music isn't just to dance to or have as background. It's supposed to communicate. [But] you have to strike a balance between educating and entertaining. You can't be too preachy, or it's not fun anymore."
"It's like any art form," Kathleen said. You try to recreate an experience you had in a pure a form as you can. For me, it's like keeping a record of my experiences."
"It's a way of working out your demons," Meredith included.
"And that's scary for me as I become a happier, healthier individual. I worry that I'm going to run out of material. As I was explaining to Meredith, it's kind of cool to go back and play songs I wrote when I was really miserable and reinterpret them from a different angle. It makes the material come back to life for me. Writing new things is a much slower process for me now that I'm not seething with misery. All I'm really trying to do is tell the truth about my experiences as truthfully as I can."
Kathleen's life includes travels to Ankor Wat in Cambodia, where she took several of the pictures featured in The Life Between Us, the first and only release from Kathleen's Dream. There was also a short stay in Northern Ireland three years ago, where and when she started to write music. Her life there provided her with imagery ("Her voice was tarnished like an ancient Celtic drinking gourd," from "Convergence.") and lessons in both political statements and human nature.
"When I was there during the cease fire, everybody was out in the street playing Irish music. It was the first time they could come out and play it without being a threat. [Before that, under British policy] you could get tortured if you played traditional Irish music." Such an ipso facto policy equated anything traditionally Irish with subversion, which meant IRA allegiance, which meant indefinite incarceration, torture, death.
Kathleen recalled an event during her visit that she calls one of "the things that completely blew my mind" in Northern Ireland, that completely, in her words, "turned my view of human nature on its head."
"I was into the traditional music scene and was going to play in a session. In order to get there, I had to keep my head down in the back of this sedan as we drove to a place way out into the country. There was a special musicians' knock to get into the door. Inside, there were all these musicians partying. So I'm playing and talking with these wonderful people, hearing about their families, listening to them play. Then I go home later and read my book on the IRA, and I realize the guy I was sitting next to had bombed a bus station and had killed several people. These people were cold-blooded murderers that I had just hung out with. I had thought they were wonderful, but they were killers. I couldn't reconcile that."
Another issue (one that closely relates to her art) which she cannot reconcile, along with Meredith, is the record industry's treatment of artists as commodities. It's a common complaint that performers have, but one they faithfully strive to overcome in the name of their art, a strife most often manifests itself in the common but exhausting life led by dual-career musicians: job by day, practice / performance / recording by night.
"I [performed] exclusively for a year," Kathleen said, "but I didn't like the fact that I was motivated by money. I've become peaceful about the whole success thing. I felt a lot of pressure at first to be successful in the industry and to score a record contract. You've got to resist that pressure. It's an industry. It's gonna do what any industry will do: homogenize you for mass consumption. I'm actually a pretty astute businesswoman, but I don't want to market myself as a commodity. That's where a fundamental violation of the self takes place at some level."
Meredith added, "I think the music industry right now turns people into commodities more than ever before."
"Look what they did to Fiona Apple," Kathleen said, referring to a here-and-gone young female singer whose songs and sensuous voice were wrapped in erotic tension.
Meredith continued. "I didn't hear much of her music, but what I did hear I kind of liked. [The industry] turned her into a one-hit-wonder. She had very little control over her career."
"She was young. And she really wasn't a victim, but they turned her into that by how they interpreted her music. I actually heard a person at one of these record labels say, `You really don't have to be as talented as you are - it's nice that you are, but it's really not necessary.'
"Cause you've got the face?" asked Meredith with a laugh.
Kathleen nodded. "I've got something exploitable."
Tall, slender but solid, with wide dark eyes and thick brown hair streaked with blonde, Kathleen draws the attention of many men who hear her perform live. One night when she played at Molly Malone's Irish pub, a bachelor party stumbled in, pumped to their hairlines with beer and testosterone. Loud, crude comments were plentiful.
She is aware of her appearance and its effect. "Somebody once said to me, `Well, you can't really play guitar very well and your songwriting is amateurish, but you're good looking and you've got a good stage presence. That will serve you well.' I hear that kind of stuff all the time. Plus I'm 32 years old. That's not gonna last much longer, anyway."
She feels there needs to be other factors in determining success in the industry. "For me, perfecting my craft would be one. I have classical training in voice, but not in guitar. I just want to become the best -" she grappled for a word " - craftsperson I can be."
Some labels have been, in Kathleen's words, "sniffing around" but thought her songs were too political, which may have been deadly on the music store racks. "I needed to sing about stuff that made people feel good," she said. "But I'm not saying it would kill us if somebody offered us a label."
These two performers, both feminist and refusing to be exploited as commodities are concerned not only about the industry, but the craft behind much of it as well. In a time when singer/songwriting has grown in strength and numbers as sub-genre, it has developed into a template, a public forum for performers to express and process their personal issues backed by an acoustic guitar and swaddled in Earth-mother sentiment. It has become too much like a recovery movement, or Chicken Soup for the (fill in the blank) Soul books, full of, as Kathleen says, slogans that get strung together in different combinations.
"We'll be getting back to the basics and listening to a lot of Rolling Stones, a lot of Led Zepplin, a lot of Tom Waits. Just guy stuff. And that's another thing, too, with a lot of my women friends who are politically evolved. I look at their music collections and God forbid they have anything written by a man. It's all women's music."
"Yesterday," Meredith admitted, "I was shopping for music I could feel only physically. Stuff with a good beat that I wouldn't have to think about. It's been a long time since I've listened to music that way."
"We're trying to get back to a little Mick [Jagger]. It's part of my whole glam fetish."
Kathleen suddenly had an idea. "Let's bring back glam."
Meredith agreed. "Glam folk!"
"It's such a juxtaposition of the natural and the unnatural."
So in Louisville a sub-sub-genre may soon be in the works: the earnestness of folk and the glitter `n glitz high fashion of glam. It would be music with a personal/political message that also looks to die for in sequins and platform shoes.
The idea is something to expect from a woman who, along with Meredith Noel, wants to work within a clash of opposites, wanting recognition without violating her principles, making memorable and exciting performances despite physical appearances, interest from a label, or even what music they should be playing.
Put another way, the glam folk idea is a similar juxtaposition to the image on the postcard she had given me: a natural setting (the lake) with an unnatural twist (the large fish with a man hanging from its pole), where nothing is as it should be.
And Kathleen's right in front of it all.
Throughout April here's where you can experience Kathleen Hoye and Meredith Noel and catch a sneak preview of the glam folk craze that's soon to be the performance standard in coffee-houses all over the nation.
April 3 - Twice Told Coffee House (with Otis) at 9:30 PM
April 13 - Bunbury Theater recording for show to air on WFPK. Show starts at 7:00 PM. Doors open at 6:30. Call the Public Radio Partnership for more information.
April 15 - Clifton's Pizza
April 24 - Air Devil's Inn. Call for show time.
Kathleen and Meredith are also featured in the "Mid-City Mix" television program, scheduled to run on InterMedia Channel 18/70 on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. April 3, 10 and 17.