Kathryn Calder's musical pedigree doesn't quite jive with her years on earth. At an age when most of us were still trying to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up, she was busy establishing a solid reputation in two well-respected Canadian bands—Immaculate Machine and The New Pornographers. Now barely into her thirties, the BC musician has nine albums and a handful of EPs under her belt and has embarked on a budding solo career. Kathryn Calder has clearly figured out what she wants to be when she grows up.
Calder and bandmates Brooke Gallupe and Luke Kowzlowski formed Immaculate Machine in 2001 when they were still teenagers living in Victoria. With a bright poppy sound characterized by boy-girl harmonies and catchy hooks, Immaculate Machine soon established a reputation as a close-knit, high energy band. Calder infused the trio's sound with her warm pure voice and, as the band's keyboardist who also kept the bass line, she proved to be an immaculate multi-tasker. Practicing six nights a week and touring endlessly back and forth across the continent, the band garnered a popular following with their brand of lively smart-as-a-whip pop.
Immaculate Machine self-released their first EP, The View, in 2003, followed a year later by the full-length album Transporter. They signed to Mint Records in 2005 and released two recordings the same year—Ones and Zeroes and the French EP Les Uns Mais Pas Les Autres.
At around the same time, Calder began playing with the Vancouver power-pop group The New Pornographers. As a teenager, Calder had discovered that New Pornographers' founder Carl Newman was her long-lost uncle, her mother's biological half-brother. While sharing the stage with The Evaporators a few years later, she timidly approached Evaporator John Collins (who is also bassist for The New Pornographers) and told him about her blood connection to Newman. Collins was impressed with Immaculate Machine's sound and particularly with Calder's voice and suggested that she sing with the New Pornos, a notion that Calder laughed off at the time.
To her surprise, she was invited to sing on The New Pornographers' 2005 album Twin Cinema, a highly-anticipated power-pop recording that was shortlisted for the 2006 Polaris Music Prize. Shortly after Twin Cinema's release, Newman invited Calder to take Neko Case's place on tour. Case was increasingly in demand at the time with her own burgeoning solo career, and although the two women have entirely different voices, Calder more than held up her own end in performing the band's female-fronted songs. Calder certainly does not have Case's insanely powerful pipes (very few human beings do), but she more than made up in clarity and warmth what she lacked in volume.
In 2007, Kathryn Calder sang and played keyboards on both Immaculate Machine's third album Fables and on The New Pornographers fourth album Challengers. For Fables, the members of Immaculate Machine recruited some high profile talent to impart the album with a fuller, richer sound, including Owen Pallett on violin, Michael Olsen on cello and Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos on backing vocals. As a now permanent member of the New Pornographers, Calder was entrusted with taking lead vocals on some of the tracks on Challengers, including the lovely “Failsafe”.
After her mother was diagnosed with ALS, Kathryn Calder moved into her childhood home to become her full-time caregiver. She recorded a final album, High on Jackson Hill, with Immaculate Machine, but did not tour the album with the group after its release in 2009. Instead, she withdrew from the band, and the remainder of Immaculate Machine disbanded in earnest in 2011.
While caring for her mother, Calder began work on her first solo album. She transformed a room of her mother's character home in Victoria into a recording studio and sat down to write Are You My Mother?, a deeply personal album of life, loss and celebration. Working with producer Colin Stewart, she added sonic texture to her piano playing with found sounds like filing cabinets and kleenex boxes, which resonated beautifully with the house's high ceilings and hardwood floors. The album features guests appearances from band-mates Kurt Dahle, Todd Fancey and Neko Case of the New Pornographers, as well as members of Ladyhawk and Frog Eyes. Calder finished recording Are You My Mother? shortly before her mother's death in 2009; the album was released in 2010.
Listen to a track from Are You My Mother? called “Arrow” here.
The New Pornographer's 2010 release, Together, is dedicated to the memory of Lynn Calder and was long-listed for a 2010 Polaris Music Prize.
Since her mother's death, Kathryn Calder has devoted much of her time to telling her story, in the hopes of helping others who are dealing with ALS. She became the subject of a documentary, A Matter of Time, which followed her as she prepared for a concert at the Royal BC Museum to commemorate Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. When the project ran short of money before completion, Calder worked with director Brent Hodge to launch a Kickstarter campaign, raising $17,000 of the $50,000 goal within three days of the campaign's launch. Calder had previously designed a fund-raising tee-shirt for the music charity Yellow Bird Project, with proceeds going o the ALS Society of BC.
As a solo musician, Kathryn Calder continues to mature and to push back the boundaries of sonic sophistication. Her sophomore solo album, Bright and Vivid, which was released in 2011, was met with an immediate outpouring of acclaim, including being long-listed for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize. Much more than just a vehicle for Calder's rich warm tones, Bright and Vivid's layered and nuanced soundscape showcases both her undeniable skill as a songwriter and her fearless instrumentation. Although Kathryn Calder is a formidable presence when playing in a band, there is no denying that she can hold her own, on her own.