In Brief: I like Katie. She’s innocent yet wise, playful yet meaningful, and she has a voice to die for.
I’m not easily won over by vocalists. This might sound like a contradictory statement given how I’m prone to gushing about certain groups with excellent singers (especially when a full set of harmony vocals is on display), or particular solo artists who can grab me with just the right delivery in an intimate moments. But there’s an implicit prerequisite there – these people have to make good music and write good lyrics in addition to having good voices. One of the two, I can live without if I have to (depending on how awesome those other two factors are). But show me your average American Idol contestant, one who can probably sing melismatic circles around most of my favorite vocalists, and I’ll yawn and exclaim, “Boring! They don’t write, they don’t play an instrument. Next!” Even the ones who can pick up an instrument and/or pen tend to get mired in the mediocrity of the modern popular music landscape, from what I’ve observed. The bottom line here is that if you want to impress me, you need more than just a pretty voice to do it.
So it’s by a great stroke of irony that I stumbled across singer/songwriter Katie Herzig, a woman who possesses a voice that is smoky and wispy but also kinda cute, and who also happens to have a knack for turning personal relationships into playful analogies, and also a habit of making acoustic pop music that varies in style from song to song while retaining a playful thread that ties it all together. I was only aware of the first of these qualities when I first heard her, merely singing a backup/duet type vocal on an uncharacteristically mellow ballad by Christian rock band Sanctus Real. The song was “Half Our Lives”, and there was a mellow, summery sort of vibe to it that fit Katie’s voice perfectly. The one thing I would normally not do – which is exactly what I did in this case – was to think, “Wow, where can I hear more of her?” And I was promptly led to her third solo album, 2008’s Apple Tree, with the help of a few friends who admired her work and one brilliant little website called NoiseTrade.com, which took a sort of cue from Radiohead‘s “Pay what you want” model of online distribution and offered a “Tell five friends about this artist” option in lieu of payment. What I ended up hearing was irresistible enough that, despite my opting for the no-pay option at first, Katie is up one CD sale, one concert ticket sale, and several word of mouth recommendations due to this new fan since then. It turns out there was more personality behind that cute voice than I’d originally bargained for.
Now I’m gonna go out on a limb here (huh huh, “limb”, Apple Tree, get it? *THWACK* Ow! Sorry.) and say that Katie’s music is probably best appreciated by fans who are either (a) female or (b) guys in touch with their feminine sides. As my wife has pointed out regarding a few of its songs, it’s a record that sounds a little “girly” at times. I’m comfortable enough to not mind admitting that this doesn’t bother me in the slightest – and it’s important to note that “girly” doesn’t equate to “teenybopper”. There’s simply a bit of childlike innocence that colors Katie’s view of the sometimes strained relationships explored on this album. So there’s a song that feels a little bit like a nursery rhyme painted in hues of pink and green. At one point, she even quotes a children’s song, and at another, a Christmas carol. There’s no pretense to it – no attempt to tell us about some grand meaning of life that has haunted us since childhood – but the album does a good job of bridging that gap between little girls playing patty cake on the playground and grown women serving as each others’ shoulders to cry on when the big boys do them wrong. I’m a relational kind of guy. I can appreciate those little bits of psychological insight. At other times, Katie seems to hint at pop star aspirations, with electric guitars a-chugging and maybe an electronic beat or two, which is certain to annoy folk music purists (thus I refer to it as an “acoustic pop” record rather than folk, even if there’s a quietly cinematic feel to a few songs that have more of a “coffeehouse” vibe). You never doubt that Katie’s a grown woman who knows she has to be honest about the real world she’s experienced, but who still enjoys unleashing her inner little girl, the one who tries on the makeup and the “big girl clothes” worn by other grown women. The musical costume changes serve not to camouflage, but to further illustrate, the woman underneath.
The rhythm of this song reminds me of someone on a swingset – it has that “back and forth” kind of sway to it, accomplished simply by picking and muting an acoustic guitar throughout much of the song, and bringing in a cello and electric guitar for the “heavier” parts. Katie shows some wit early on as she imagines herself as a little bird on the windowsill, singing pretty songs for you when you want to hear them, but asking whether you think that’s all there is to her identity.
2. I Want to Belong to You
The next track, which is the first of many love songs, eases in with some sweet humming and verses which I can only describe as “slippery” due to the quick way that the words seem to fall from Katie’s tongue. It’s playful, yet vulnerable, as Katie describes a “missed it by that much” sort of brief encounter with a man she’d very much like to see again, only she has no clue how to track him down. It’s a whimsical little circus of a song with its careening chorus melody, as Katie offers up a somewhat selfish prayer that no one else will snatch him up first, beggining “Don’t let me lose you before we’ve a chance to begin”.
This would be the record’s “big pop song”, the kind you’d think was almost designed to be pimped out on shows like Gossip Girl or whatever, but then you look past the breezy, danceable beat, and realize it’s quite a clever depiction of what happens to those who play “hard to get”. There’s a little bit of drum programming to add a touch of artificiality to Katie’s tongue-in-cheek description of herself as a high-maintenance you can look at but never touch, but for the most part the song is built on organic elements – splashy drums and driving guitars. “I’m in a love affair without a love song”, she sings during the catchy-as-hell chorus, “I’m in the habit of having what I don’t want”. That’s one of those lines where you think it’s straightforward until the last few words twist it back around, and you the double-take and go, “Having what I don’t want? Wait, why would a person do that to herself?” And that’s the genius of the song – it’s about the dumb things we do to push away people who we know deep inside we want to be close to. I think.
4. How the West Was Won
This is the song that I think plays like a nursery rhyme – the jovial whistling, the girly “da da”s and the sound of the xylophone conspire with a melody that seems like it came straight out of preschool, and you can practically picture Katie in a bonnet sitting underneath a covered wagon as she sings of relationship that’s as difficult to maintain as taming the Wild West. It’s delicate and yet over the top, innocent and yet wise in its own way. It might run a bit short – I could use some more clever analogies to fill out the story – but I like that Katie knows how to take a playful mood and just run with it.
5. Wish You Well
This one’s a quasi-ballad that gently bounces along on a lush bed of acoustic guitars and strings, The lyrics are a little more serious here – a fond farewell to someone who has either died or moved away, and a promise to remember that person’s life and influence in their absence. Katie’s sweet voice aches with longing but also exudes confidence and gratitude. I may have some qualms with the rhythm stuttering a bit during the chorus (I feel like she’s dropping a measure here and there, which makes me lose count of where the beat is supposed to restart), but it’s hard not to feel warm and fuzzy when she softly coos, “The only reason my heart beats is ’cause you showed it how.”
I’ll never know why this moody little song is named after an island in Indonesia – far as I can tell, it doesn’t seem to be about earthquake or tsunami victims, and there’s no mention of far-flung exotic locals in the song itself. But it is an eerily beautiful recording – a tense acoustic strum is accentuated with bonogs and a somewhat nervous, vaguely country-influenced electric guitar. An air of mystery hangs over the song as Katie laments the difficulty of keeping a troubled relationship together, using the album’s only instance of even a mild profanity: “So why’s it so damn hard to love when we’re alone?” (Normally I wouldn’t even bother pointing out the word “damn” in a song since it’s small potatoes in my mind, but when an artist has a fairly mellow vibe and more of a childlike, playful tone as Katie does, such a word really stands out. That’s not a bad thing.) The backing vocals provide repeated “ooh”s that cut through the song like a restless wind, and the flurry of Katie’s thoughts at the end, detailing the experiences she’d like to have with this guy if only he’d come back to her (playing him songs that she’s never played for anyone else and so forth), is quite compelling.
7. I Will Follow
While I usually notice upbeat songs more easily than the slow ones, this seems to be the one track that doesn’t stand out to me. I don’t dislike it, but there’s something about its easygoing melody that seems to loop back on itself too many times, like a group of children aimlessly marching in circles. (Katie’s music gives me weird visuals. Don’t ask me why.) Katie’s words are very much like those of two children at play, asking a cute boy for a game of hide and seek and telling him she’s seen him in nonsensical dream scenarios like “eating peaches in an apple tree” or “doing dishes at the laundry mat”. (Aha, that’s what bugs me about this song. Who says laundry mat? I always say laundromat.) There’s nothing major to dislike here, but the tune doesn’t really stick in my head like so many of Katie’s songs do, and even if it did I might find it a bit annoying in this case, so let’s move on.
8. I Hurt Too
This is the first point where Katie fully slows down and gives a ballad the space to breathe and unfold slowly. Even in her mellowest mood, she still can’t resist giving a little bit of “sway” to the sparse guitar figure that supports the song, which works as a great momentum builder when a set of triplets notes comes creeping up from behind to fill it in. If “Hologram” was the big flirty song that you’d play during a trashy TV drama, then this is the heart-rending emotional song you’d play during a halfway serious one, preferrably after someone had just died or at least gotten dumped. Katie explores empathy with one of her most fragile and beautiful vocal performances – you can almost hear her voice break as each “I” rings out during the simple chorus. There’s an element of compassion here that goes beyond the usual, simple “You can cry on my shoulder, girlfriend” sort of song – she even mentions that she feels the pain “When you’re broken by people like me”, acknowledging that sometimes the ones we love the most are the ones we hurt the most. She mentions that she will be there to pray for her friend during the bridge, but rather than come off as hokey as it might in the hands of most Christian artists, she uses a very loose and subtle take on the 23rd Psalm to lead up to it. (I’m actually not sure whether to classify Katie as a “Christian” artist, but then some of my favorite musicians are the ones about whom I don’t know how to answer that question.)
9. Gypsy Girl
It might be bad for pacing to put an even quieter song after such a delicate, striking ballad, but this one succeeds at being its own unique thing, stripping the production back to Katie’s bare voice and her lone guitar, which merely picks out the notes as she sings or hums them. All but the loosest sense of rhythm is taken away, with Katie choosing how fast or slow each segment of melody should be played, which almost gives it a bit of a classical spin, but not quite. Listen carefully and you’ll pick out a snippet of a familiar Christmas Carol during the interludes between the verses of this odd but gentle poem about a wayfaring minstrel. Perhaps the “gypsy” is the opposite of the “songbird” – the daring one who gets to travel the world and live through wild adventures instead of hanging out in the same tree all day, but who secretly spends a lot of her time missing home and being missed at home.
This track mirrors both “Songbird” and “I Want to Belong to You” in its rhythm, with lyrical content that hearkens back to “Songbird” as well, as Katie sings of birds who signal a new day and offers to take a shovel and bury a friend’s grief in the dirt. There’s a bit of electronic “crunch” to the rhythm, and more pretty cello playing – in a way, this is the song that brings together the musical elements heard scattered throughout the album, even if it’s fairly short and probably wouldn’t stand out as much on its own.
The album comes to a close with another big dose of playfulness, this time taking a children’s song that Katie had rattling around in her head and turning it into a full-fledged song, reimagining it with verses and an alternate chorus and even a break for a synthesizer solo (which becomes a “fake trumpet solo” hilariously done with voices in concert. You just have to see it for yourself). If you can think back to being a wee tyke and these words sound familiar to you, then you know what to expect from this song: “Say say, oh playmate/Come out and play with me/And bring your dollies three/Climb up my apple tree/Slide down my rainbow/Into my cellar door/And we’ll be jolly friends forevermore.” Now I’m a guy who normally despises children’s music – I find it annoying – but Katie found a way to turn it into a big, folksy stomp with handclaps and banjos and all that sort of business, so I can’t resist singing along to it, which probably makes me look really silly to my wife (even more so when Katie rewrites the chorus after a sad verse and I find myself singing “Say say, oh playmate/I cannot play with you/My dolly’s got the flu/Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo.”) Despite only running just a little over two minutes, the song is a total blast and a great way to end things, right down to the sudden “Onetwothreefour!” that stops it cold.
Since I’ve been delinquent about reviewing this album for roughly an entire year now, and you can no longer get the thing at Noisetrade.com (only a sampler of music from various Katie Herzig albums is available there at present), there were two bonus tracks which came with my download that weren’t on the original CD, which I think are good enough to merit talking about them anyway. (Now that I have a physical copy and I don’t have these two tracks burned at the end, I actually miss them a bit, but they’re still on my hard drive, and since they were never for sale, I’m willing to share with you if you buy the disc and find yourself wanting a little bit more of Katie.)
Take It to the Country
This track is a “working girl” sort of anthem, with a tension to it that echoes “Sumatra”, but which hits home most effectively due to the collective economic woes most of us have been suffering from lately. It’s a song that explores, over layers of jangly guitars, the desire to just sell it all and throw what’s left into the back of the car and go for a nice, long drive into the sunset. It’s a well-worn fantasy in the worlds of pop and folk music, but I can definitely say I relate.
Waiting for My Night
This one feels like it was designed to be the album’s finale – it’s a quiet, glittering, wintry sort of song about what it’s like to be alone during the holidays. I wish it could be on the album as a hidden track, sort of like how “St. Patrick’s Day” showed up on John Mayer‘s first album, listed but separate from the rest of the disc by way of superstition. To me, it feels similar to that Mayer song, except without specifically spilling over into the new year, instead dwelling on some of Katie’s classic separation anxiety, either due to not having met the man of her dreams just yet, or due to having pushed him away somehow. Lots of clever rhymes and metaphors in this one, if you listen carefully, and the sweet, aching melody is just too gorgeous to pass up.
Well, judging from her recent dabbling in creating songs specifically for a few TV shows and/or commercials (I’m OK with pimping your music for commercials when the stuff you write is cute and playful to begin with – it doesn’t feel like selling out because she’s being herself through and through), Katie shows no signs of slowing down, and since she’s had the good fortune of touring with my all-time favorite female artist Vienna Teng this year, I can only wonder if any of Vienna’s out-of-the-box experimental pop songwriting might have rubbed off on her. Whatever happens, I’m willing to bet Katie’s next album will possess interesting twists and turns that are at least as compelling as Apple Tree‘s.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Want to Belong to You $1.50
How the West Was Won $1
Wish You Well $1
I Will Follow $.50
I Hurt Too $1.50
Gypsy Girl $1
(If the CD had the bonus tracks, that’d push it up by another $3 or so, but either way, it’s a worthwhile purchase.)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.