The power of the hyphen: An interview with Natasha Kmeto


by Eric Evans

Spend enough time in any city with a music scene and you’ll start to hear the same names over and over again. There are a few buzzed-about artists in Portland, Oregon: A Fleetwood Mac for the post-hipster set, quintet Radiation City tore up SXSW last year; heavy folk trio Fanno Creek recall a contemporary Hollies with their harmonies and guitar chops. But no Portlander has been more obviously on the cusp of stardom than electro-soul singer and producer Natasha Kmeto.

As part of the Portland-based label/collective Dropping Gems, Kmeto has been creating cutting edge music for a few years, holding her own in the burgeoning world of electronic producers. But with her 2013 album Crisis, Kmeto simply took her game to a new level. The album graphs the emotional topography of a failed love affair, charting the confusion, rejection, and ultimate resolve of the broken hearted. Half vocal and half instrumental, the album drips with passion and anguish, standing alongside Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine in the pantheon of break-up records. The record caught the attention of TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, who promptly signed her to his new label Federal Prism.

Anyone who caught her powerhouse live shows or followed her artistic growth from album to album knew it was only a matter of time before Kmeto’s melodic hooks, strong production, and majestic voice broke through to the mainstream. Part Carole King, part Prince, part Trent Reznor, Kmeto is a hyphenate seen all too infrequently: an artist who could make a killing as a writer for hire, a producer, a DJ, or a chanteuse. Her music is more than the sum of those parts, and she might just be the gateway drug that gets electronic music fans listening to soul and soul fans hooked on Brainfeeder-style beats.

Quip spoke to Kmeto the week after the release of her new single “Inevitable” as she prepares for a handful of festival dates (notably a slot on Seattle’s Decibel Festival) and the late 2014 release of her new album, her first for Sitek’s label.

Eric Evans: Congrats on signing to Dave Sitek’s new label Federal Prism. What are the advantages for you, being on a larger label?

Natasha Kmeto: Thanks! First off, I’m a huge fan of Dave. Through the label Dave allowed me access to higher-end vocal recording, access to his engineer… It’s a huge difference hearing vocals recorded in a pro studio. Federal Prism is pretty new but one of their partners is a major label, which means bigger distribution. And hopefully pressing vinyl! I was talking to a few labels but the main reason I went with them is I get creative carte blanche. It’s like being on a major label without compromise.

EE: The music industry has changed drastically over the past 10 years. As an artist, how have you adjusted to the internet economy?

NK: There’s positive and negative. It’s good people have access to music; I love that people can hear what I do. The other day a girl came up to me and said “I’ve listened to your album 100 times on Soundcloud” and it’s really cool that she likes it but I don’t make a penny from that, you know?

Mostly I miss albums being awesome. Growing up in Sacramento, my friends and I used to go to Tower every Tuesday for the new releases… I don’t want to begrudge progress but I think the industry is still trying to work it out. I hope there’ll be a resurgence of physical product. In high school you went to someone’s house and checked out their CD collection. It’s how we discovered music.

EE: Are you a record collector?

NK: I grew up with records; my parents had a lot of records. When I started collecting it was CDs. By the time I finished high school, my collection was huge. Obviously now it’s digital… For me the ultimate way to listen to music is vinyl. You’ve got something to hold and look at, it’s romantic, it sounds better.

EE: Crisis has a limited sonic palette that never feels like a novelty or restriction. Why did you decide to craft the songs that way?

NK: I knew I wanted to make an album, not a collection of tracks—an album that hung together. As a producer you have access to millions of sounds, you know? Sometimes you can get lost. Using a limited sonic palette allowed me emotional and sonic continuity. I knew I wanted the sounds to mirror one another; I would differentiate between them using melodies. I could focus on the songs, figure out what I wanted to write about and reflect that emotion in the work. It became about the writing.

EE: Crisis has several instrumental cuts, “Vodka Diet” being a standout, yet your new record has none. The first single “Inevitable” is gorgeous and really showcases your voice. How did you decide to shift gears into a more vocal place? 

NK: Early on Dave told me “I know you’re rooted in electronic music, but you write great pop songs.” The tracks people were vibing to on Crisis were the vocal tracks. My entire solo career so far, people have told me they want to hear my voice, so…

EE: It’s your differentiator. Usually producers don’t sing and singers don’t produce. Both the vocals and the production on Crisis are great.

NK: Thank you. My home studio, for what it is, is really nice. A few years ago I sold my car and bought a really nice mic. [Laughs] The cleaner vocal tone made me want to make the record more sparse. 

Crisis was an interesting thing: tremendous growth and I figured out what I needed to be doing. My work before that I was feeling out who I was as a producer. My first self-realized record was five years ago, and it helped. But I feel like my career finally started with Crisis.

EE: You’ve created some jaw-dropping mixes for and the Dropping Gems podcast. Lots of DJs and producers can get you moving but you do something different. How do you build a mix or a live set?

NK: With my mixes I’m not thinking about a party. With my mixes I want to reflect where I’m at. The music needs to have variety but a thread that ties it all together, not just track to track—a storyline, a narrative. Glass Candy ties into Gary Numan [on Dropping Gems Podcast #20]. I like sets that have a lot of variety. For me, I’m interested in multiple genres. The fusion of those genres is where interesting stuff happens.

Live is different. I make my living being live, doing something different and interesting.

EE: Speaking of which, you’re debuting an AV element to your performance this year at the Decibel Festival in Seattle. Can you share anything about it?

NK: I collaborated with Effixx (Anthony Ciannamea), he’s an amazing artist who’s worked with Shigeto. I really feel that his visual aesthetic aligns with my audio aesthetic. It’ll be epic.

Photo by Effixx