Soon after Katie Von Schleicher announced her new album, Shitty Hits, she tweeted, “first person to use adjective ‘histrionic’ to describe my new record wins the right to arm wrestle me.”
She was joking, but there’s a backstory. When Paste reviewed her 2015 mini-album, the lo-fi pop gem Bleaksploitation, we noted that it “doesn’t lack for histrionics.” It was meant as a compliment, but the word rattled the Brooklyn singer.
“‘Histrionic’ was a word my mom repeated throughout my childhood to shame other women who were emotional or to imply they were unstable,” Von Schleicher says. “It hit a button that was deep in my psyche of instability, which would also, in my connotation, relate to not being on top of your shit.”
In her view, the word didn’t capture how intentional she was about making the album. Von Schleicher labored over Bleaksploitation, working until the music reflected the feeling she wanted to evoke, which was very specific.
“It’s something around the sternum, I think,” says Von Schleicher, who also plays piano and sings in the Brooklyn band Wilder Maker. “It’s like this feeling of wanting to burst out of your chest. It’s not anxiety, it’s like a positive feeling of elation. The feeling you get when you’re dying to go write something, when you’re at a show or you’re walking and you have to let something out.”
That same feeling was at the core of Shitty Hits, though she took a different approach. Musically, Von Schleicher wanted concise songs, so she spent time editing them down to their essentials. Lyrically, she’s engaged in more of a dialogue with herself than on Bleaksploitation. “The lyrics were just kind of a byproduct on this record,” she says. “The bulk of them are from the dummy lyrics that I sing when I’m writing, which tend to be more real than the lyrics I try to write later.”
Perhaps for that reason, they feel intimate and deeply personal. “It’s like you told me, ‘Baby show me how you feel’ / Said it’s lonely to be with me,” Von Schleicher sings in a smoldering, startlingly assured voice on opener “The Image,” punctuated by a rockslide of overdriven drums that she played herself. The supremely catchy “Life’s a Lie” features a narrator who shows endearing innocence when Von Schleicher sings, “I wanna do something nice for you / Like holding your hand while you’re sleeping.” Her discomfort with an affectionate gesture soon spirals into existential turbulence: “I’m a fraud and I know I can’t do it alone, I’m alone, I’m alone,” she sings later in the song, between finger-snapping guitar hooks that cut the tension.
“It’s like this feeling of wanting to burst out of your chest. It’s not anxiety, it’s like a positive feeling of elation. The feeling you get when you’re dying to go write something, when you’re at a show or you’re walking and you have to let something out.”
The mix of jaunty music and bracing lyrics is a reflection of Von Schleicher’s deliberate process. In fact, it’s how she defines a “shitty hit.” The album title stems from an imaginary genre that starts with melodic elements of ’70s rock: “the beating angst of Bruce Springsteen, or the shiny smooth cheese of 10cc, the brilliant melodic catharsis of ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’” Von Schleicher says. “Then fusing it with unapologetically real-as-fuck lyrics.”
The singer’s intentional approach to her music is sometimes at odds with an impulsive streak in the rest of her life. “There tends to be something about me I have to keep in check,” she says. “I have to force myself to think things through.”
Raised in Pasadena, Maryland, outside of Baltimore, Von Schleicher, 30, graduated with a degree in songwriting from Berklee College of Music in Boston. She stayed in town after finishing school, honing her chops in local bands. Von Schleicher first encountered Wilder Maker leader Gabriel Birnbaum at a show in her shared rehearsal space, and later sang on the band’s 2011 album God Bless the Hunger. Soon she joined Wilder Maker for a tour, and then as a full-time member.
“Katie is a very intuitive thinker and I think when she’s at her best she can find melodies and phrases that have the ring of the eternal,” Birnbaum says. He adds, “She can also silence a room with a vocal delivery, and does all the time. People shut up when she sings.”
For Von Schleicher, Wilder Maker offered an exit from a scene where nothing much was happening. “I was like 25 and had never gone on tour,” she says. “I had bands, but we just kept floundering around Boston, trying to find out where Pitchfork was or something.”
She moved to New York after that first tour, and promptly hit a wall thick enough that she quit writing music for the first six months she was there. “I had a terrible year,” she says. “I was working in this restaurant, and it was a bad restaurant, really drug culture kind of place, so I suggested to Gabe, on a whim, that we just go on tour forever.”
That translated to three months, an impossibly long stretch for a band without any money or much of a fan base. “We all went into debt and came out of it basically homeless,” Von Schleicher says. She moved back in with her parents in Maryland and spent time in Oregon singing on a friend’s album, before applying for an internship at Ba Da Bing Records in Brooklyn. “I kind of built my life again around that,” she says. “It definitely taught me a bit about hubris, or being impulsive. I made some bold leaps, but I kind of fell into the trashcan doing it.”
Soon after she started working at Ba Da Bing, Von Schleicher suggested she make a series of cassettes that were each different recordings of her playing her songs for release on the label. That idea evolved into Bleaksploitation, which Ba Da Bing put out instead. “Bleaksploitation was this super ‘I don’t give a fuck way’ of making music,” Von Schleicher says. “It was a way of taking it back to this ground level I hadn’t even explored when I was a teenager.”
Working on Shitty Hits was more daunting, enough so that she called off two attempts before the third one took. “I honestly wasn’t sure if I had the stuff, just the guts, to see it through without getting really sidetracked or down on myself or lost,” she says.
Despite her doubts, Von Schleicher emerged with an album that is emotionally resonant and musically accomplished—an outcome that hasn’t put her at ease. “I’m looking at the next record in theory, and I’m terrified right now, because I’ve built up this idea that there needs to be a progression beyond what I’m capable of,” she says. “A lot of Shitty Hits, to be frank with you, feels like luck, and I’m not sure I can recreate that.”
Her boss disagrees. “I think that’s bullshit,” says Ben Goldberg, who owns Ba Da Bing. “I do not believe it’s luck whatsoever. It’s hard work, and very much a matter of strong communication with the other people involved to make sure they know how it’s supposed to come out.”
Whatever direction Von Schleicher goes on the next album, there’s an excellent chance that she will remain her own toughest audience. “I have a publicist, two record labels and an album release process that we’re going through, and all of that is immensely validating to my inner child or whatever,” she says. “But at the same time, that’s really fucked up that it happened because I made a record that was completely self-involved. That’s what I was trying to do, was only impress me.”