Kate Maki Meets Howe Gelb

The Ottawa XPress February 7, 2008

Howe to make Maki roll

Howe Gelb takes Kate Maki’s music to new heights

If her stagger-to-the-saloon groove and parlour-blues tunes weren’t enough to grab your attention, Sudbury’s Kate Maki has enlisted the help of eccentric Arizona singer-songwriter, guitarist and pianist Howe Gelb to produce her latest album, On High, marking a career high for the former Ottawa resident.

“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know who the hell he is,” Maki says of her producer. “This guy is a genius.”

With his improvisational, whimsical style and a stripped-down approach to recording, Gelb, working out of Dave Draves’ Little Bullhorn Studios in Ottawa’s Little Italy, graced Maki’s eleven-song album with his signature sound.

The man behind Giant Sand, Gelb is touted as one of the most resilient and consistently inventive American artists of the last two decades. It should be taken as no small compliment for Ottawa that he chose our own Voices of Praise choir to perform on his latest album, ‘Sno Angel Like You, and handpicked Little Bullhorn as his recording spot.

Like Gelb, Maki’s sound is hard to peg. She is on the fringes, making her a perfect fit for Gelb’s label, OW OM Records. The pair share a similar percussive strumming style of guitar-playing and speak-singing in riddled word play, comparable to France’s Mathieu Boogaerts. But while Gelb’s straight talk reminds you of a Southern Lou Reed, Maki’s conversational delivery and hard-“r” pronunciations make her bare-bones storylines and porch-sit ditties all very Canadiana.

Just don’t call it “alternative country.”

“I think the term ‘alt-country’ is dead,” Maki argues.

“I’m playing country music in the style of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and that’s country.”

While her music is folky, she has a punk rock vibe. Toronto’s NOW Magazine called it her “fuck-it” attitude when Maki performed at NXNE in 2003, throwing her tunes fearlessly from the bedroom onto the stage. Her “real life” occupation as a teacher also helps calm her nerves in front of a live audience.

“Sometimes I feel I put my foot in my mouth,” she admits, “and that is bound to happen because I’m being honest.” She tries to take lessons from Gelb and Ottawa’s Jim Bryson. “They have the gift of gab on stage,” she chuckles.

Maki was first mesmerized by Gelb’s performance when she shared a bill with him in 2003 at Toronto’s El Mocambo. “When I watched him play, I was completely blown away. You’d think there were eight people playing up there but it’s just him.”

The two were introduced by Bryson, where Maki gave Gelb a copy of her first album, Confusion Unlimited, and for two years they constantly crossed paths while Gelb was in Capital City recording ‘Sno Angel. Their first collaboration came on “Mountain of Love”, a song that he invited her to sing and which was included on the Japanese edition.

True to his peculiar fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants style, Gelb excitedly threw Maki into a little room at Bullhorn Studios, gave her headphones, “shoved” the lyrics in her face and said: “Sing!”

“That was the moment I thought, I want to work with this guy in the studio!” Maki says.

“Just rolling with it and not thinking before you act is spontaneity, and that’s the way I’ve always tried to approach music, because that’s the kind of music I prefer to listen to as well,” she says. “If something is too rehearsed, it sounds phony to me.”

Maki is just as spontaneous about songwriting.
“You don’t write songs. They just came out of you, or maybe they come from the Mysterious Song Bank in the Sky,” she laughs.

In the studio, carefree Maki let the songs breathe. Limited to only five days, Maki, Gelb, Draves, Dale Murray and Maki’s boyfriend-musician Nathan Lawr used acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars, kick and snare, Optigan, piano and bottles. It’s a minimalist approach that gives On High an organic feel. They recorded everything live off the floor, allowing each song to take shape almost on its own.

On the other hand, arranging the songs on the CD took more planning. “I structured it like a vinyl record, with sides A and B telling a story where you start off with the highway song and you start questioning things,” she says, like life and your place in it.

“By the time you get to Howe’s song – the 10th track, Don’t Look Down – you need a sensible voice to throw you into shape,” she says. “It’s like he’s saying, ‘Here, little sister, things can be bad, but look up.’ It’s like Howe is the voice of reason, someone to snap some sense into you.”

Maki definitely needed to hear a voice from on high to ground her after studio time.

“It’s so sad to go back to real life after making a great record,” she says passionately. “I can’t wait to take it on the road.”

She’s now getting her wish, as she comes back to her hometown to present her greatest achievement with a little help from her friends.