Charlene Kaye: 'It's Hard To Be What You Don't See'

Aug 20, 2016
Originally published on August 20, 2016 11:21 am

After making two solo albums, singer and guitarist Charlene Kaye hit a creative wall. She was stuck, mired in writer's block and self-doubt — until she went on the road as the frontwoman for the baroque-pop band San Fermin. Now, she's rediscovered her own voice on a new EP, Honey, released under the moniker KAYE.

Among the five songs on Honey is "Porcelain." Kaye says she wrote the song to explore her identity "as an Asian-American woman in the music industry, always wondering whether I belong or not." When she was growing up, she says, there weren't many Asian-American rock musicians to look up to — so examples like Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and Tia Carrere's character in Wayne's World were especially inspiring.

"My goal, ultimately, is to be a role model for young Asian-American girls who might not think that they can be rock stars or pop stars because they don't see anybody that looks like them doing that," Kaye says. "It's hard to be what you don't see."

Kaye spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about overcoming creative roadblocks, discovering the power of the guitar, writing music for her sister and more. Hear the conversation at the audio link above.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Have you ever hit a creative wall, roadblock you couldn't get around? Well, after releasing a couple of albums with her own songs, Charlene Kaye was stuck until she went on the road singing for another band, San Fermin, and there she rediscovered her voice. You can hear it on the five songs in her new EP, "Honey."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UUU")

CHARLENE KAYE: (Singing) Now I have. No one else does it better than you. How do you do, do, do it?

SIMON: Charlene Kaye, who goes by Kaye on this album, joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAYE: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: So how did this work creatively?

KAYE: Well, the short version of the story is that I had been on tour with a previous album of mine. And then as it happens, I was embarking on the next era of writing and trying to figure out what the next thing I wanted to do was, but some life experiences sort of created roadblocks in the creative process. I was dealing with a breakup and feeling really sad all the time and not quite sure how I was going to channel the inspiration to move forward and in the freest way possible and...

SIMON: Forgive me. I mean, I don't get a vote.

KAYE: (Laughter).

SIMON: But you understand it's - there's a long history of songwriters using breakups to propel themselves creatively.

KAYE: No. Get out of here.

SIMON: Yeah.

KAYE: I thought I was the first.

SIMON: (Laughter) Well, so "Armies" is the first song you wrote...

KAYE: Yes.

SIMON: ...When you came out of your creative old ennui. Let's listen, if we can, to a bit of "Armies."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMIES")

KAYE: (Singing) Don't tell me I just have to wait for the gun. I can make you my enemy, but I won't wait any longer.

SIMON: That's you on the guitar, right?

KAYE: Uh-huh (ph).

SIMON: When'd you first pick up the guitar?

KAYE: Well, I actually - my first instrument was classical piano. My parents kind of shoved every instrument under the sun into my hands when I was younger, but my hindrance was that I'm a very poor sight-reader. And so I was trying to do recitals and all this stuff, and I was just hopelessly inept (laughter).

But when I picked up guitar, I discovered that I could play songs that I actually loved and that I'd heard on the radio. And so - songs, like, of Nirvana's and Michelle Branch and Weezer and these power cord-y, punk-rock-influenced songs - I was - suddenly being able to make those sounds that my heroes made was so invigorating to me. And so I think I was about 13 or 14 when I first discovered that power.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMIES")

SIMON: New song on this EP - another song on this EP. Let's turn to "Porcelain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORCELAIN")

KAYE: (Singing) I could play it dumb until you come undone. Pretend I'm porcelain, another poster princess. Hey.

SIMON: Pretend I'm porcelain, another poster princess - you're writing about yourself?

KAYE: Yeah.

SIMON: Or the way people see you, you know.

KAYE: I think that song is exploring my narrative not only as a woman in the music industry, but as a - as an Asian-American woman in the music industry and feeling - always wondering whether I belong or not. And growing up with not very many Asian-American pop stars for me to look up to and not seeing, really, anybody that looked like me and getting excited at the ones that did - so I was really excited about Mike Shinoda in Linkin Park, for example, and Cassandra in "Wayne's World" because I was like, oh, yes, like, somebody that looks like me. Like, I can do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORCELAIN")

KAYE: (Singing) All my life, I've lived on the outside. It's fine. I shouldn't be surprised. You say so much with your eyes. Well, I'm fading in your grip again, all milquetoasted and mannequinned. Will you miss me when I'm just like them? Will you miss when I'm just like all the rest?

So, yeah, I think there's always been an element of, like, feeling like I'm a little on the outside and coming to terms with - where do I belong? And there's a whole dimension of image and artifice that goes along with this job that I desperately want. And how do I come to terms with that aspect of it? And so it's kind of about me reclaiming that sense of identity that I feel like was a little muddled during those couple years where I was wondering how to proceed and who I wanted to be.

SIMON: Are things changing on that score, do you think, in this society?

KAYE: Oh, absolutely. I think not as quickly as I might like, but I'm very inspired by strong Asian-American voices like Constance Wu and and John Cho and people that are really making their voices heard. But my goal ultimately is to be a role model for young Asian-American girls who might not think that they can be rock stars or pop stars because they don't see anybody that looks like them doing that. And it's hard to be what you don't see.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARRY YOU")

KAYE: (Singing) Oh, this ain't going to last forever. Once it foes, you won't ever be the same. I got wings to waste the hours, and you know I'll carry you the whole way.

SIMON: May I ask, who are you carrying?

KAYE: (Laughter) Well, I originally wrote the song for my younger sister Liann. She was having a very hard year. For some reason, I feel like 2013 was just one of those apocalyptic years where everybody was going through a really hard time, including myself. And so I realized after I wrote that song that I needed it as much as she did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, " CARRY YOU")

KAYE: (Singing) And you just keep it inside, keep it inside until you feel like the landmines erupting under you. You keep it inside, keep it inside between the noons and midnights, but it's just the view. Oh, this ain't going to last forever.

SIMON: You know, we noticed that none of us here could recall somebody writing a song about their sister that way.

KAYE: Oh, really?

SIMON: It's very lovely.

KAYE: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Exploring a different kind of love and commitment, isn't it?

KAYE: Absolutely. And that song is my favorite song in the EP. And I think there is something really powerful about the realization that unconditional love does not necessarily have to be romantic.

SIMON: May I ask where your sister is in life now?

KAYE: She's doing better. Thank you so much (laughter). Yeah. She's - she lives in New York, too, and she and I are very close. We're constant collaborators. She's worked on both music videos from this EP so far.

SIMON: Oh that's wonderful. This must please your parents a lot.

KAYE: Yeah. Yeah, I hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY")

KAYE: (Singing) Hey, well...

SIMON: Charlene Kaye - her new EP, under the moniker Kaye, is called "Honey," and it's out now. Thanks so much for being with us.

KAYE: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY")

KAYE: (Singing) Baby, I'm still alive, and I'm still getting love. Singing - I'm on top.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.