Catching Up With... Kimya Dawson

Music Features Kimya Dawson
Share Tweet Submit

In 2007, a song changed Kimya Dawson’s life. It was “Anyone Else But You,” a simple melody sung in a warm, half-spoken warble by Dawson and former Moldy Peaches bandmate Adam Green, and it was among the best parts of a certain little flick called Juno. One minute, Dawson was a beloved-by-few anti-folk hero, and the next she was the core of a best-selling movie soundtrack. Throw in with the recent birth of her daughter Panda, and if life ever had been simple, it wasn’t anymore.

In 2010, she’ll follow-up her unlikely popular turn with two new musical projects. Earlier this year, she recorded an album (coming in the spring) with old pals including Jack and Jeffrey Lewis, Karl Blau and Anders Griffin, a group that began to collaborate back in 2001 and now calls itself The Bundles. Meanwhile, Dawson is also preparing her seventh solo album, which she’ll record next month in California. Paste recently talked to the singer/songwriter and super-proud mama about her new band, dream collaborations (Drake, write her back!) and her endless personal journey.

Paste : How’s it going today??
Kimya Dawson: Good! I’m just sitting here while my kid watches Dragon Tales, hanging out at my friends’ house while they run errands in Austin.

Paste : On your blog in August, you wrote, “It’s all just therapy. Progress—not perfection.” Do you view the music you make as a personal journey? Is there ever a real destination??
Dawson: It’s a part of a personal journey. It just happens to be something that, if you choose to make it public, can be a part of other people’s personal journey. There’s no destination—just working through stuff, processing life. After Juno I started playing bigger places and bigger shows and finding people reacting to me differently—having different expectations of what I should be doing and how I should be doing it, what my music should be like. It was just too much.

That’s not why I started making music—I started making music because I was freaking out, and it helped. The process of making and playing music—if that’s going to freak me out, it’s self-defeating. So I’m downsizing right now. I’m realizing I hate 95% of rock clubs. Even if the people who show up are nice. I don’t like the pressure of, “We only sold this many tickets tonight, we’re feeling kind of let down. We’re going to lose money.” I’m like, “Huh?” I don’t want that to have anything to do with me.

I’d rather just play in some kid;s house or an art space where everybody’s there and appreciative—not bartenders who are mad about not getting tips because all the kids at my shows are 14. I just want to play—I don’t want people giving me a hard time about whether people like me, because I don’t care. It’s nice seeing who’s along for that journey, who’s really getting something from what I’m doing, instead of who’s just showing up because it’s the place to be.

Paste : On The Bundles’ song “Over the Moon,” you sing “I just wanna sing with my friends.” Is that how you’ve felt about music all along??
Dawson: At first I didn’t want to sing with anybody. I did middle school chorus and I sang in the shower and I sang in my room and I would tape myself under the bed, but I didn’t want anybody to hear me sing. It was a secret—I liked to do this but I was way too freaked out to show anybody. And when we started making the Moldy Peaches songs, well, we’d made a whole album before I ever sang in public. It took me a good few years to stop being totally scared. Costumes were a big part of having the guts to get onstage. There are some recordings of my early solo shows, and I’m just like (makes shivering noise). It was nerve-wracking. But the more I did it, I came to terms with it: “This is what I sound like, these are the chords I know. If you’re not into that, cool. This is my voice—I sing how I talk.” Some people like it and some people really, really hate it.

I started this choir in Olympia last year, and it’s the best feeling to get together twice a week with a bunch of people who’ve also felt like that—they want to sing, but they’re not good at it. But when you’re in a room with 50 people, just singing songs you like, just to be singing… Well, it sounds good, no matter what. It feels good, that’s what it’s all about. And I’ve been doing some weird collaborations. I’m trying to get some hip-hop guys to collaborate with me. I got this Twitter back from Murs that said, “I don’t want to shit on what you do so well.” And I was like, “Wait, it’s about the process.” Even if we record something and say, “Wow, that is not awesome,” I still just like to work with people. Singing together.

Paste : Who else would you like to work with??
Dawson: I have this silly pipe dream that I could do something with the show Glee, just for fun. There are tons of people.

Paste : But in hip-hop??
Dawson: Well, on Twitter I’ve become friends with Murs, Aesop Rock, some of the underground dudes. There was something that Drake posted on his blog, like, “If I ever need an underwriter, I want it to be this girl,” and he posted a link to one of my videos. I commented back, “Alright, let’s do it! Let’s do a song.” But I never heard back. He probably has 75 million comments on his blog. But as a huge Degrassi fan…

Paste : Have you heard his record? It’s pretty great.
?Dawson: Yeah, I’ve heard some songs. One of the songs was killing me—it was so funny.

Paste : One of your projects I really want to hear about is The Bundles. The record’s got a much fuller sound than your solo work—how did it all go down??
Dawson: Years ago, Jeff and I were hanging out. I took the Greyhound down to visit him. We were talking about how we were big fans of each other. That was the week he introduced me to Daniel Johnston. We were laying in the dark listening to Daniel and crying. We totally geeked out, went to the record store and bought all his tapes. Then we switched from that to all of Yoko Ono records, which are all like (screams wildly). It’s funny when two people realize they like what the other person does. So we tried to make a song together, and we wrote “Common Chorus.” We did five songs that day, and recorded them into a hand-held cassette recorder. After a whole bunch of tours together through some years, we realized we’d never recorded the songs as a band. We mostly played the songs in Europe, and a couple gigs in New York. We just wanted to document it. Once we got in the studio, we thought, “What are we going to do with five songs?” So we sat in the kitchen and wrote more—it was the same, we’d been friends for 10 years, listening to each other for just as long. We’re cut from the same cloth. It was so easy. We just sat down, and there were more songs. It was super easy to write, and it felt so good. And then we had a whole album!

Paste : Is that where the name came from, because everyone felt bundled together?
?Dawson: No—we did a tour in Germany together, six or seven years ago. We had this kid Marco who was driving us around. He picked us up in his van, which had holes in the floor. It was January, it was so cold. We were playing all these underground clubs, and we spent two weeks wearing 10 layers of clothes. We were playing shows together—we were all bundled up, trying to keep warm. But we are just a bundle of people who do tons of other things, and come together now and then.

(Panda calls in the background)

I’m coming, baby! Sorry, her video is over. What were you saying?

Paste : Well, now that there’s some music laid down, will we see you all on tour, officially as The Bundles?
?Dawson: I don’t know that we’ll do a big tour. I have a three-year-old who started preschool this year. It’s a little harder for me to do long tours. But we’ll do the weekend regional thing. She doesn’t have school on Fridays, and she goes with me everywhere. So we can fly to the Midwest and do Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit, Madison. Or you do Florida. Or Southern California. You do that instead of getting in a van and driving around for months.

Paste : Has motherhood changed how you approach music at all??
Dawson: For awhile, it made writing really hard. I thought I’d never write another song. In three years, I wrote like two songs, not counting the kids stuff. When you have a kid, it’s pretty easy to write a bunch of one-minute-long songs about poop or whatever. But it felt like I’d never have the time or focus to sit down and write for real. But lately it’s coming back—I write in the car, it’ll all be in my head. I talk to a lot of moms, and it seems like most moms have an average of three years before that cloud of haziness, one-track-mindedness dissipates. It’s like, “Oh, I remember the person I was once.” It’s a bizarre emotional thing you go through, it’s intense. For some people, it’s postpartum depression. I think you don’t have to be depressed, but you do change. Then you slowly start to feel like yourself again. And that’s been happening in the last few months. So I’ve been writing a lot on my own.

Paste : Are you writing about your daughter?
Dawson: This newer stuff, not so much. I have one new song where I talk about some things she says to me. The new stuff I’m working on is really… Well, I’ll need a target audience. It’s very recovery-focused, it’s heavier, darker.

Paste : Any idea when you’ll cut a record?
Dawson: I’m going to start recording next month in Berkeley.

Paste : Will that be a solo record??
Dawson: I’m sure I’ll have friends play with me, but yeah, it’ll be just my songs.

Paste : Now that you’ve started to write again, what are you writing about?
Dawson: The day after Christmas, I’ll have been sober for 11 years. And I made my first album when I’d been sober for a year. I’ve made six albums in that time period, so you can really track me learning how to not totally hate myself, learning how to deal with stuff without medication. I started out vulnerable, then went through anger. Hidden Vagenda is sad, but starting to be optimistic. Remember That I Love You is more optimistic, then all of a sudden it hit me, “Wait a minute, you can be doing fairly well in some ways, but if you have deep down dark shit, you need to take care of it.” The problems keep coming back in different parts of your life. Like, alright, “I don’t drink, but what are all these weird compulsions that I have? I’m doing well, but I could be doing a lot better if I committed to working on myself.”

I’ve had a lot of people die in my life, and that’s led to a lot of unresolved grief. I had two good friends die young this year. Natural causes, both. I’m so used to people dying in drug overdoses, or suicides, or car crashes that I was upset—I’m getting to the age where people just get sick and die. I’ve been running around and touring for so many years that people die and I just think, “OK, I’ll write a song about it.” But that’s not really dealing with it. That’s making me a very reactive person. So I’ve been hanging out, going to therapy, doing some 12-stepping and writing about that process. I want things to be awesome. I want to be a super-good, super-alert, solid mom who doesn’t become defensive anytime something critical is said. But I’m reacting to things from 20 years ago, not things in the moment. A lot of people are like that, but don’t talk about it. They’re healthy in some ways, but not in others. Getting to the nitty gritty of dealing with addiction and body image issues and eating disorders—all these things that are kind of taboo. I’ve talked about that stuff before, and some people are like “TMI!” But some people say, “Thank you for talking about that.” It’s for me and for the kids who don’t have anyone to talk to about it.

Paste : It sounds like the stuff you’re working on is going to be really affecting, really personal.
Dawson: Thanks, It’s different. I feel like I’m singing louder. There’s some intense shit that’s been in me for a long time, and I need to yelp it out. I feel like some people will say, “Wow, so that’s how she follows up Juno?” Like, “She just blew the biggest opportunity of her life.” But who cares? We have so little time here. So we make it the best we can for ourselves. If we can make it good for other people in the process… How can you live and not try to do that? People yell, “I want 12 cars! I want big houses! I want a million followers on Twitter!”

Paste : People put so much stock in that.
Dawson: It’s so crazy.

Paste : I wanted to return to The Bundles a bit. Some of the music is really different from what you’ve done before. The song “Shamrock Glamrock” sounds like a folk-rock Velvet Underground. Do The Bundles feel like new ground?
Dawson: Well, we wrote that song eight years ago, so not so much. (Laughs) Jeff and I were sitting in the dark, tape recorder on, playing the guitar. There was a pigeon outside his window. We were writing these songs as kids—I’d only been doing solo stuff for a short time. The way he was playing guitar, it was different than The Moldy Peaches, obviously. And it’s different from my solo stuff. But it’s not different from how I feel inside. The music captures the feeling perfectly.