Instrumental: Kaia Kater’s Banjo Is The Tiny, Beating Heart Of Her Music

Kaia Kater. Credit: Raez Argulla.

Kaia Kater has some deep family ties to folk music. Her granddad was a luthier, first building harpsichords and later, acoustic guitars. Her aunt, Julia Kater, is a songwriter herself, and one of her biggest influences. And her mother is a lifelong champion of music, creating environments, helping artists, and doing a lot of the logistical work so that it can happen. “She never felt like she was that good a singer or musician,” Kater says over the phone from her new place in Toronto. “So her philosophy is, ‘If you can’t make music, you can help make music happen.’” So she was surrounded by the artform’s influence from the get-go.

Around 11 years old, while her mother was helping run the Ottawa Folk Festival, she was diligently working at the cello, thinking that classical music was the way forward if she was going to find job security as a musician one day. But then she went to see her fourth-grade teacher perform at the local pub, and was mesmerized by the sounds coming from her banjo player’s noisemaker of choice. When Kater’s mother relayed the enchantment later, the picker, Brian, gifter her the banjo.

Shortly after, Winnipeg Folk Festival founder Mitch Podolak (“His two goals are to eat good barbecue and teach people how to play clawhammer banjo,” Kater says with a laugh) found out about Kater’s interest and took it upon himself to show her the ropes.

“He was like, ‘Hey kid, pull out this instrument, and I’ll show you how to play it,’” Kater says. “So it was kind of a slow burn with the banjo—I wasn’t immediately passionate about it. But there was something about it being a very freeing instrument. You didn’t have to play notes on a page, you could just go out and kind of learn material and learn it in a social context, which to me was so foreign from classical music. I fell in love with it that way. The second wave of that came when I started to write songs more and more.”

During that wave, she developed a deep relationship with the instrument as the tool that allowed her to express what she needed to, drawn to the sound of it especially the way it’s played in melodic clawhammer style.

“I think it’s so beautiful and soft and tender,” Kater says. “As a teen, I kind of stumbled into songwriting as a vehicle for a lot of angst and confusion and stuff like that where it just felt like this outlet that was properly mine. I was getting really proficient at the banjo, so it just felt like whatever I wanted to say, I had this facility and the encouragement of being really good at this instrument. I think it complimented my voice really well—I was a really soft singer when I was 15 or so. So I think my voice and the way I play the banjo have grown in tandem with each other. Sometimes my songwriting is really growing and my banjo playing is not. Or my banjo playing is really excelling and my songwriting is not. I see them in parallel paths.”

Her current banjo is the Gold Tone OT-800, which has a notably more bassy sound than a lot of others, is modelled after the Vega Tubaphone banjos. When she was trying to figure out what type of banjo she wanted, she looked to Toronto picker Chris Coole, whose playing is “insane,” she says, for guidance. He plays a vintage souped up Vega. The OT-800 has tonal qualities that are perfect for Kater’s voice and songwriting.

Kaia Kater. Credit: Polina Mourzina.

“The quality of it is, it kinda has this dulcet tone, and it’s not quiet at all, it’s quite loud,” Kater says. “But the lower tones feel a little bit fuller, and it doesn’t feel as tinny as other banjos that I’ve heard. So far it’s a really good complement to my voice and my songs, and I’m super into it right now. I used to have a Maple Mountain long neck, and that was my first banjo. For a while I was super into that one because there are three extra frets below G, so you can go all the way down to E, and it also has this really low, weird, interesting tone. But I ended up realizing I hadn’t really played it in a year, and that it deserved to be played and maybe our time together had come to an end, so I could pass it on to someone else who might get something out of it.”

At first, when she was getting ready to sell the long neck, it didn’t seem like a big deal at all—she could use the money and it would free up some space. But she says thinking about it recently has reminded her of famous tidier Marie Kondo, whose KonMari method involves thanking your things for what they’ve done for you as you let go of them. She says the idea of inanimate objects being imbued with an essence—a part of the KonMari method that draws from the traditional Japanese religion Shinto—made a lot of sense as she unpacked the feelings she had when she sold it.

“I went to give it to the buyer, who’s this really nice, very tall German guy who played the dulcimer and was really into the banjo, and I had a good feeling from him about his ability to take care of the instrument,” Kater says. “But as soon as I let it go, it was like letting a friend go or something. And I remember that whole night, I just felt a little displaced or sad. Even when I think about it now, I have a little bit of sadness. Even though I think I know it was the right thing to do. It’s crazy, the bonds we make with our instruments.”

A lot of folk music continues to fall into the nostalgia trap that brings us cliché murder ballads and wistfulness for the good ol’ days—which weren’t, in fact, so good. But Kater’s songs feel fresh and vibrant, drawing from multiple sources both classic and modern, while playing with form and addressing subjects like her father’s history (he fled to Canada from Grenada in 1986 a few years after the U.S. invasion of the country) and messages to future generations on her latest record, Grenades.

For a number of years, Kater studied and performed music in West Virginia, a state rich with old-time music traditions. Spending time in a realm where nostalgia—“not a huge part but a serious part of the old-time music scene,” she says—is frequently fetishized pushed her to stay away from it.

“I just felt like the future was where I wanted to be, and looking forward was where I wanted to be,” Kater says. “And so whenever I wrote music, I tried to write, toward the later years, music more related to our time, and more influenced by instruments and styles of our time.”

Still, while looking and working toward the future, Kater now sees the banjo as one of the threads that tie her stages of evolution as an artist together. It’s been there since she started out, and its solid, rhythmic strum sounds out all through Grenades.

“I see it as this tiny, beating heart that is evidence of all my previous records. From the very first EP with the 12 verse songs, it’s evidence of my growth having a banjo there, because the banjo’s been so synonymous with my career as an artist for so long. I see it in my songs as the crux, and growing around it is piano and guitar and better songwriting. I do see the banjo as evidence of where I’ve been. Sometimes, it was pretty touch and go, whether the banjo would be a future for me. In a lot of ways, with this record, I just wanted to get away from it, but I’ve come back to it in a different way, and I’ve seen it as a symbiotic relationship. I’m always gonna have a relationship with it that I don’t have with anything else. I hope people see that and I hope people can see that the fact I play this instrument that has been known to be one way does not mean that instrument has to be any way ever.”

“I would like to be perceived that way as an artist,” Kater adds. “And I think I’d like my instrument to be perceived that way.”