You may not know the name KAYE just yet, but one listen through her debut single “Honey,” and it’ll feel like you’ve been singing along for years.
Charlene Kaye, 29, has been a part of the music world for a while, but her biggest mark came in 2014, when she joined Brooklyn band San Fermin as full-time touring vocalist. She would eventually contribute lead vocals on its second album, Jackrabbit, succeeding a pair of female voices who went on to have a bit of success themselves–Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius.
While on tour with San Fermin, Kaye began work on her own project, eventually resulting in a new moniker, KAYE, and a new EP, Honey, due out on Friday. Honey is a 5-song, 17 minute breeze, filled with infectious tunes, each different from the last. With the titular lead single, KAYE has the opposite of an earworm; it doesn’t need time to grow on you, because it embeds itself deep in your eardrums from the get-go. To the naked ear, Carly Rae Jepsen, TLC, Haim, and Nine Inch Nails are just a few of the many artists that come to mind when listening in Ms. Kaye’s expansive sound.
I had a chance to speak to KAYE on the phone during her last day of rehearsals–four hours a day!–before her Thursday night EP release show at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge. She mentioned that she was trying to incorporate dance elements into her act for the first time, and was fittingly getting a bit tired from all the preparation–”a marathon event,” as she called it–but nonetheless seemed acutely excited, an undeniable glimmer in her voice as we spoke.
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Comparing the EP—your solo project— to San Fermin, what’s been different and what’s been the same?
KAYE:Well, San Fermin isn’t my project. It’s Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the bandleader of San Fermin. It’s his vision, so I signed onto that band at a time where I was a little bit unsure as to what the direction of my own musical fate was, and it really fell into my lap at the perfect time, because for a minute, I thought I might not even continue to do music, because I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, and not feeling inspiration come very easily. But as soon as I lent myself to this other project and this other vision, I was able to really see the world from a new perspective, and throw myself into his songs.
The main difference is that his stuff is very classically-informed, and he went to Yale, along with a bunch of other members of the band, and he would cringe at this term, but people classified the first record as ‘Baroque Pop,’ only because it has very intricate orchestrations, there are two horn players, there’s a violinist in the band, and the arrangements are very specific. And it’s fun, because we’ve rehearsed so much that everything has it’s own place, you know? But now that we know the music, we’re able to get on stage and just have a lot of fun with it, and kind of embrace the freedom in that structure, and have a great time and turn it into a rock show. And so I think similarly, my stuff is a little bit more rock, and there are fewer instruments. So, I think instrumentation wise, it’s more like a traditional rock band—there are guitars, bass, and drums. But I think that my stuff is a little bit more pop-leaning. I’m a child of the ‘90s, I was obsessed with boy bands—I had *NSYNC posters in my room—and I really embraced mainstream radio, and it was the soundtrack to my youth, and not only pop stuff, but some artists that I really liked when growing up were Alanis Morrissette, Elliott Smith, and Incubus; ranging from hard rock to bubble gum pop, and I think that definitely reflects in the EP.
I think the five songs on the EP are so distinctly you, but at the same time, each is different from the other. Who were some of the key influences for you?
Well, I was listening to a lot of guitar-based stuff. I love Matt Bellamy of Muse, I love St. Vincent, I love even Hendrix and the old classics that I grew up listening to. And, so, I think it was a mixture of those rock acts that really influenced my love of guitar when I was first growing up. And, like i said, those bubble gum pop acts—like, in the ‘90s I loved girl groups like Destiny’s Child, 3LW, TLC, Dream, which, if you remember, was that girl group put together by P. Diddy for Making The Band. So, I thought it would be really interesting to try and play that kind of music, but with really aggressive guitars, and so I think there’s still very sugary harmonies and sticky melodies that I’m very drawn to when I listen to music, but I wanted to kind of dirty it up with these nasty, gritty sounding guitars, and see what would happen, and that contrast was really interesting to me, and so when I stumbled upon that, I think it really informed my songwriting throughout the EP and even after, songs that I’m working on right now.
I’ve seen you mention previously that “UUU” was semi-planned as a pitch to Carly Rae Jepsen. I definitely hear a little bit of Emotion in there.
Oh my gosh, I love that album so much. I actually wrote that song before that album came out—in about 2012. But that was after “Call Me Maybe” came out, and I was obsessed with that. It’s so rare for an artist in this day and age to get away with the buoyant, carefree, happy, pop song, and she’s one of the rare artists that I feel really pulls it off, and makes herself a convincing narrator, and gives a lot of heart to it. I think that sometimes it comes across as contrived, but not with her. So, I was really interested in being able to express that emotion and this story of mine with that in mind, and just trying to write that kind of song that would deliver and make people feel good, and capture the cascading feeling of falling in love without coming across as too contrived or cheesy. I think that song kind of lives in its own world, because it’s the most pop, and probably the least rock of all of the songs, but there’s that grungy bass that I really wanted to be prominent to tie it in with the rest of the world of the other songs. So, we were in the studio, and my producer, Elliot Jacobson, was like, ‘This sounds like a little bit of a Dancehall song, but why don’t we play it like Led Zeppelin would play it, and see what happens?’ and that’s how that song was born.
And the opposite, I think the song that stands out as perhaps the ‘rockiest’ is “Porcelain,” because it’s got that kind of lo-fi sound, with a bit of Nine Inch Nails in there…
Yes! I’m so happy you caught that reference.
Yeah. I even thought it sounded a little like the newest Mitski album. Is that lo-fi style what you were going for?
Absolutely. Yeah, so my producer, Elliot, he’s responsible for all the drum programming that you hear on the record, and when I was writing this, I was on tour with San Fermin last fall, and we were opening for Alt-J, and it was a massive beast of a tour that required us to sit in the van for up to 12-15 hours at a time. So I had a lot of time in the van to write, and although some of these songs have been in the can for years, I did a good amount of the arranging and producing of the demos in that timeframe. And, so, what I would do was send those stems to Elliot, and he would then rearrange the structure a little bit, and replace all the drum sounds, maybe add a couple other synths, and it was a beautifully collaborative project from afar. Every time I opened my e-mail and found a new draft from him, I would get so excited. We have very similar tastes in music, and we both grew up with the same artistic loves, and loving the same bands. We both love Nine Inch Nails, and it was his idea to incorporate some of those industrial, metallic clicks and clacks that you hear, and it definitely is not an accident that those particular sounds ended up in that song.
The video for “Honey” is a full homage to Weezer’s video for “Undone—The Sweater Song.” Where did that idea come from?
You know, [Sister/Director Liann Kaye] and I have been Weezer fans forever, and Weezer was definitely one of the first bands that we both loved and were obsessed with when we were young, and Liann is a filmmaker, so Spike Jonze, growing up, for her was just instrumental in her falling in love with film and wanting to be a director. She directs music video for other bands in addition to myself, and just discovering all of his videos for the Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim, and Weezer; she just became so enveloped in all that, so in our way, it was a way of paying tribute to two people that really influenced our youth and our love of art in the first place, so for her it was both Weezer and Spike Jonze, but for me it was Weezer. And, of course, it was also an excuse for me to hang out with my band and play with puppies all day. So, that’s the real reason that I wanted to do it [LAUGHS].