Artist Spotlight: Lia Kohl

    Lia Kohl is a cellist, composer, and improviser who was born in New York and grew up in San Francisco before moving to Chicago in 2013. Both of her parents are musicians – her mother is a singer and pianist, her father a bass player – and she took up the cello in third grade, playing in the school orchestra and getting into classical music as both a performer and a listener. It was in Chicago that she developed more of an interest in improvisational and avant-garde music, extending her practice by working with artists across disciplines and in various performance contexts. As a collaborator, Kohl has recorded with Artist Spotlight alumni like Macie Stewart and claire rousay, among others, and she issued her debut solo album, Too Small to Be a Plain, last year. Earlier this month, she returned with her sophomore full-length, The Ceiling Reposes, which weaves together live radio samples, studio improvisation, and found sounds, lending each interaction the intimacy and kineticism of dance while capturing moments of accidental profundity. Kohl understands the impossibility of communicating the ineffable yet finds pleasure and meaning in the pursuit, blurring the boundaries of space and time while moving curiously between them.

    We caught up with Lia Kohl for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her background in classical music, tuning into the world of radio, interdisciplinary collaboration, and more.

    You were trained as a classical musician, which comes with its own set of rules and preconceptions. With that background in mind, how do you reflect on the journey of expanding your definition of and identity as an artist?

    I do feel like my experience of classical music was often that I was more of a practitioner; a performer of art instead of an artist myself. Which is not to say that’s true of classical musicians, but that was definitely my experience in school. I don’t think that I was ever told that I’m an artist, and I think finding your own creative voice is not necessarily fostered in a lot of those spaces. My experience has definitely been one of opening up that door, and also returning to something – I’m not sure when that something started, but it feels a little bit more like my practice is more related to Lia as a five-year-old than Lia as a music student when I was 22 or something. There’s something much more intuitive about it now, like I’m embracing a little bit more how – not to sound too trite, but how I truly am. That’s felt really good, to feel like a whole person, that I can acknowledge all the parts of myself and explore what I’m actually interested in and make that into art.

    Along with that intuition, what other parts of yourself do you feel more in touch with?

    Improvisation is a really big part of my practice as a performer, but also in recording, in a kind of funny, asynchronous way. Of course, there’s intuition in improvisation, too, but that’s a practice in itself. And collaboration, active collaboration, is a really big part of what I do. I mean, not really in this album. [laughs]

    You’re collaborating with yourself, in a way.

    Yeah, I’m collaborating with myself and collaborating with myself in time, and with the radio, for sure. It’s so exciting to me to find what collaboration does. Collaboration is always like the space between the people that are collaborating; there are sounds that I make or techniques that I do or thoughts that I have that happen only between me and a very specific person. I’m doing a lot of duos right now in new projects, and it’s really fun to see how different my practice becomes when I’m playing with like a noise drummer as opposed to another synth player. And that’s not just about their instruments, but it’s about their tradition and their thoughts and their personhood.

    The Ceiling Reposes is built around moments selected from hours of live radio samples, which must have been quite a solitary and attentive process. Did the project require new ways of tuning into the material you were working with?

    One thing in that process specifically, that you’re describing of taking hours of radio samples and then listening back to them – there’s something a little bit boring about it, in a really interesting way, for the practice of attentiveness. It has to be in time, I can’t fast forward. I can skip around the radio, but then I’m just skipping around the radio. I definitely have moments in that process of being like, “Wow, this is boring. [laughs] I’m just sitting here.” Sometimes it was boring to me, but sometimes it was the awareness of like, is anyone else going to want to listen to the radio?

    And then these moments of inspiration, of like, that guy is just talking about this totally wild thing, or I just caught one second of someone saying something really funny. Or I would find myself zoning out of the artistic process of listening for good musical material and being like, “Oh, I’m just listening to this interview now.” [laughs] There was a real interaction between the human – not that I necessarily want to separate these things – but between the human part of me and the artist part of me. If I’m recording layers of cello, I’m always aware that I’m an artist. But with the radio, I’m also just interacting with my own brain just sitting there.

    I was struck by the first sample you include on ‘in a specific room’, where someone says, “You would hug a random stranger, but you would never touch their face or look into their eyes,” which ties into the theme of intimacy your work often revolves around. You don’t have to share the context if you don’t want to break the mystery of it, but why did opening the record with this sentiment feel right?

    One thing that I love to catch on the radio is these moments where someone says something, and out of context it becomes poetry or it becomes something quite profound, like this quote that you just mentioned. I think that they’re talking about – this guy went to SeaWorld and he was interacting with a dolphin, and they’re making fun of him for immediately being so willing to interact with this dolphin in a really intimate way, in a way that he wouldn’t with a human. Which is also a somewhat profound thought, but the way that they’re talking about it is so, like, bro-y. And you can take that thought totally out of context and make it about intimacy in general. Looking back on the choice to open the album – I didn’t think about this at the time, really, but looking back on it, there’s a wonderful interplay between intimacy and contextlessness in the album, that I’m trying to touch on things that are really close, really deep to me, but also, there’s a little bit of mystery about them. It’s like you’re looking at a stranger and you’re seeing a friend, I hope.

    Were there any samples that evoke strong personal memories for you, or that weren’t just interesting for their potential to be subverted or recontextualized but because they resonated with you on a more personal level?

    I did find myself particularly drawn to the radio stations that were broadcasting prayer or religious services of various types. My grandma used to listen to a guy who would preach on the radio, and she would put her lipstick on and curl her hair and listen to this guy. I don’t know what his name was, and I might hate listening to him now. [laughs] But there was something really comforting about that. I think in a more personal way, there’s something about radio waves and the mystery of them, and interacting with the divine and the ineffable. I know that there’s a scientific explanation for what a radio is and what radio waves are, and what sound is even, in a more broad context, but it does still feel like a mystery to me. It feels like – yeah, like magic.

    There’s something really touching about those samples, and there’s a lot of them in the album. Most of them are taken quite out of context, just moments of people saying something that sounds really profound, but kind of vague. I didn’t necessarily want to be like, “This is an album about Christian doctrine,” because it’s not at all. But there is something interesting about people putting their face on the way to radio waves, something very strange and really profound to me. There’s one sample that is a little more complete, but it’s really low in the mix; it’s these children who are praying the Catholic Mass for Good Friday, which is also strange and touching. Like, do these children want to be on the radio? Why is this happening? They’re obviously quite young, but it feels really sincere and beautiful.

    Is it that sincerity that generally draws you to the way people talk about the divine? Is it the vagueness?

    I have two answers to that question. One is definitely the vagueness. Beyond these samples that I’m talking about, of people talking about prayer or praying or scriptures, I am always trying to catch things out of context, like with the other sample that we spoke about. Catching these samples out of context is particularly interesting because they are so contextual. But it also interacts with my own faith. I’m an orthodox Christian, and I’m interested in how that can interact with my art in a way that isn’t – I’m not interested in proselytizing, but it definitely does interact with my experience of being an artist, because it’s my experience of being a human. [laughs] That’s a real thing for me.

    When it comes to layering found sounds and instrumentation, do you tend to draw a clear line between the two, or do you try to treat each element equally as an instrument, including the radio?

    I would definitely say that I try to treat things equally, and sometimes treating things equally is actually treating everything as not an instrument. It’s not always that I’m treating the radio as an instrument, but I’m actually treating the cello an object in a room. I did a lot of recording in sort of “real” contexts. There’s a sample of me singing along to the radio in my backyard, so you can hear the birds and you can hear me singing and you can hear the radio sample, and those things are all interacting with each other. I treat everything as music, not necessarily treat everything as an instrument.

    I was listening to a mix of the album on my back porch, and a truck was backing up in the alley, and it was in the same key. [laughs] So I stopped and I went out in the back with my phone and recorded the truck, and then I put it in the track. It was the last thing I put on the album. And in a way, that’s my ideal recording situation, where everything is actually on top of each other in time. Maybe I’ll do that sometime.

    The distinction that struck me was less to do with different types of sound than space, in the sense of where those sounds originated, whether it’s a self-contained, internal space or an external environment.

    Yeah. And of course, you can’t help but have a distinction between those things. If you hear a recording of birds, you can picture being outside. And if you hear a synthesizer that was recorded directly into the computer, that’s a different kind of space. You can’t pretend that those are the same thing, but they do exist in the same universe for me, and I like to sort of make them kiss – if they’re willing, you know. [laughs]

    I wanted to ask you about the zine that accompanies the release, for which you asked a group of poets and writers to flesh out a poem made up of fragments from a weather report. Without necessarily delving into their contributions, can you talk about what this experiment in blending different forms evoked for you?

    I’m always trying to find a place for writing in my practice. I wouldn’t call myself a writer, but I do love to write. It helps me think. And I have been thinking about lyrics. I don’t write songs – I don’t know if I’ll ever write songs, but I was thinking about: What are the lyrics of this album? Are the samples lyrics? Are they poetry? Are they something, do they live on their own? I was making transcriptions of them just to kind of see what’s there, and this is after I mixed and mastered the album. But this one felt particularly like a poem. It’s so simple, it’s just this one guy doing the weather report. It’s not me putting together a Frankenstein of different radio stations, it’s just the one station. So I fleshed it out as my own poem, and it felt really good.

    I don’t know if that means anything for the rest of the album, or if it means anything for my practice in general, but I really enjoyed it and thought other people might, too. I love that kind of very simple collaboration project where you’re like, “Hey, I did this thing, do you want to do this thing, too?” I didn’t tell anyone really what to do or how to do it, and people were into it. I think for me the zine is definitely a way of putting it in a different kind of space, but also just to just an exercise of sharing this work with my friends in a different platform.

    Also like a poem, in the way it comes together, is the tracklist. Can you talk about that?

    I have a really good friend, Elizabeth Metzger, we’ve been friends for a long time. Hers is a friendship that I really value artistically because she comes from such a different artistic tradition. She doesn’t understand what I do at all, and I don’t understand what she does, but we also do really understand each other. So I sent her the first masters of the record – she was the only person that I sent it to who wasn’t also a musician who wasn’t going to give me feedback that was musical. And she just sent me this long email that was complete poetry – she just listened and typed. [laughs] And it was really beautiful. She wasn’t saying, “Use these as track titles,” she was just responding out of love. And I kind of cut up her email and said, “Can these be the track titles?” And she said yes. I feel really grateful for that almost accidental collaboration.

    More artists should do that.

    I feel like it’s rare to have that kind of cross-media collaboration that isn’t like dance and music or something, but just like, “What do you, artistic person very different from me, think about this?”

    In what ways do you feel like you understand each other’s practice?

    I think that they’re similarly intuitive and also similarly meticulous, which is an interesting confluence of things. I know she spends weeks and months on a poem in a way that I might spend weeks and months on a track, but it stems from a similar – like it’s fully formed and then you have to pick away at it to find what the center of it is, and then put it out in the world. So there’s something about the process that’s really similar, and something that about the [springs hand out of chest repeatedly] – I can only make a hand gesture – springing forth of the work.

    That’s exactly how I’ll transcribe that.


    We talk about collaboration between different forms, but it’s also interesting to hear how you can engage with other people who are working in a different artistic space in terms of simply understanding each other, to find a shared language.

    I love working with dancers for that reason. I especially love when someone says like, “I don’t know how to tell you what kind of music should be in this part, but could it be kind of crunchy and… blue?” And I like, “Actually, crunchy and blue is a better description than forte or whatever.” Or not better, but more interesting.

    Is there something anyone said in describing your music that has stuck with you?

    I played a release show for my last album, and my friend Molly Scranton, who’s a weaver, came. I don’t remember exactly what she said to me, but she said something like, “It seems like your work is reaching for something and not ever being able to grasp – and not ever needing to.” It was a very intimate thing that she said to me. And I was like, “That’s true. I didn’t know that, but it’s true.”

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Lia Kohl’s The Ceiling Reposes is out now via American Dreams.

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