Kate Stables on storytelling, sexism in the industry and the future of music

Molly Moss 2 February 2018

For someone who described her life since being on tour to me as ‘non-stop’, Kate Stables is a remarkably calming presence. Even when uttering the occasional curse word or the phrase ‘white supremacist holiday camp,’ her voice is soothing and lilting, easily recalling the tender and soulful nature of her singing. When I spoke to her at the Cambridge Junction in January, Stables and her band This is Kit were preparing to perform their latest album, Moonshine Freeze, produced by John Parish.

Above the layers of contemplative poetic lyricism that has come to define Stables’ sound so well, the album has a starkness to it that distinguishes itself from her other records, such as 2015’s Bashed Out, which Stables attributes to Parish’s influence. ‘Different people make different albums,’ she tells me. ‘John imposed less of his own sound on it [than Aaron Dessner, producer of Bashed Out], because there was so many more people involved this time. Aaron knew the specific energy and direction he wanted for that album; his approach is more hands-on.’

Trademarks of Stables’ songwriting are nonetheless present in every facet of Moonshine Freeze’s journey through languid folk rock. ‘The writing process is a collage,’ Kate muses. ‘It’s closely linked to poetry – it’s stuff all layered on top of each other, and meanings come forward and sink back down again depending on who’s listening. For me, it’s musical storytelling.’ And, when listening to the new record, this kind of ‘strange magic’ summoned by the lyrics and minimalistic sound feels like the strongest installation of her sound yet.

Not that Kate is entirely convinced by her frequent labelling as a folk artist, though. ‘Other people choose the genre, but I feel like people who are into folk music are getting cheated. It’s just a traditional band with someone playing banjo.’ That being said, the landscape of British folk has undoubtedly evolved in recent years to encompass every kind of artist with fringe associations to what folk ‘should’ be, equally demonstrated by the laid-back Irish alt-rock of This Is the Kit’s support Seamus Fogarty, whose second album The Curious Hand debuted last year. Even This Is the Kit’s current record label Rough Trade was conceived as a punk label. It seems music itself is expanding into a bigger and more carnivalesque community than ever before.

‘But I’m not someone who’s necessarily ever felt like part of a particular team or family,’ Stables says of her work. ‘I’ve definitely met people who I’ve connected with and enjoy doing projects with. But at least, definitely not a folk family.’ Maybe this is a natural symptom of Kate’s living in Paris, something she credits with ‘toughening [her] up in a lot of ways that might not have happened in England.’ For one, ‘people aren’t always forthcoming or welcoming on the surface – but if you learn how to see through that, then everyone is excellent.’ It’s the kind of optimistic statement that you’d expect from someone as quietly perceptive as Stables, whose absorption of inspiration for her work acts like a process of osmosis: ‘the stuff that goes on inside people, and outside in the world they live in, it’s definitely linked. It’s almost like a fractal pattern. A community is made up of individuals, and similar issues happen at each level.’ It’s an anthropological take on storytelling that belies how seriously she takes her work – another quality she credits Paris for. ‘In England there’s a tendency to be apologetic about your craft. You wouldn’t really get that in France. People are serious and respectful about it.’

This is certainly the case for Stables’ own attitude towards the industry in general, too. When asked about what it’s like being a female artist in a heavily male playing field, she thinks for a second. ‘It’s easy to feel a little patronised – like you’re being treated differently. I don’t feel that way as much as when I was younger, maybe it’s more my age, I don’t know.’ One thing that does still offend her, though, is sexist mechanics of performing: ‘Men just get a nice dry sound, whereas people pile on the reverb for female vocalists, because they think you want it to sound super lovely. And I just think, fuck off!’

On a more serious note, however, Stables emphasises her expectations for the future of music, and the atmosphere of the industry itself, with her mantra, ‘Personal is political. I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure my daughter knows what’s an okay way to be treated, and what isn’t. But it’s not always easy. You have to adjust to it and make it into a positive thing.’ It’s an insurmountable task for one person to shoulder, of course – but perhaps the imminent decay of ‘celebrity culture’, especially where rock’n’roll is concerned, will change music for the better. ‘We’ve reached an age in music now where a lot of the real icons are reaching an age as well,’ Stables admits, saying with conviction, ‘People are going to have to get real with death.’

It’s a timely sentiment after the passing of The Fall’s Mark E Smith last month and other tragic music losses of recent years. ‘There’ll never be another Beatles, or another David Bowie,’ says Kate, and a lesser artist would be daunted by the blank canvas that the future of music has become. For Stables, though, it’s an opportunity. ‘Every single thing that happens may have sprouted from the past, but it’s always going to be in a totally new context and different musical environment.’ That’s not to say she knows exactly where This Is the Kit will take her next – but for an artist whose career has been defined by consistent praise and effortlessly compelling melodies, that will hardly be a problem. ‘It’s good that things are hard to pin down,’ she states. ‘I just like writing songs and seeing where they end up. Inspiration will always come from everywhere.’ In which case, it’s up to us to follow where that takes her.