Since then, Kmeto has released one excellent album and has another one on the way for Dave Sitek's Federal Prism label. In my review of her 2013 breakthrough record, Crisis, I noted that Kmeto was the rare electronic artist who was both a fantastic singer and producer, which goes a long way in explaining her appeal. It helps that her music is fearlessly direct, as she underlines her lyrics with forceful rhythms and repeats simple phrases like mantras—an effect that underlines her songs' roots in dance music and enhances their emotional impact.
With her new LP, Inevitable, set to land early next year, and a high-profile gig supporting indie rock giants TV On The Radio about to begin, it seemed like a good time to check in with Kmeto. I met with her during Decibel festival in Seattle, where we discussed her professional and personal lives over mimosas. Frank, open and patient, Kmeto has a way of making you feel like you've been friends all your life. And, in a way, it's that same relatable quality that makes her music so addictive.
Kmeto grew up in Sacramento, California. She describes the city as conservative but also multicultural. It exposed her to all kinds of music, particularly hip-hop. "My parents are huge jazz, R&B, soul, world music fans," she said, "but I would say the first music that I was into—that was my music—was definitely hip-hop. The first CD I ever bought was Fugees' The Score, and then shortly thereafter I got really into electronic music, too. Those were the first two types of music that were mine, culturally, and not just my parents' input."
A friend of Kmeto's brother lived in San Francisco and was an avid rave attendee and electronic music fan. This friend would bring back tapes that would eventually filter down to her, including Daft Punk's Homework and Roni Size & Reprazent's New Forms, before her brother got a job at a record store and the two suddenly had a whole new world of music at their fingertips.
"We just started delving," she said. "We would get in on all the imports—these were the days of CDs, pre-Napster era, so whatever we could get our hands on we were stoked about. I never really went to raves or anything—there weren't really any here and I was too young anyway—so it was weird, because electronic music was much more of a bedroom, solo experience for me at first. It wasn't until I got much older that I experienced it on a visceral, big soundsystem kind of level."
After playing around in a few bands and growing tired of it, Kmeto headed south to LA, at age 22, to take keyboard courses at the Musician's Institute. "You could get a lot out of it in a really short period of time," she said. "When I moved to LA I thought I was gonna do Carole King-style songwriting."
Part of the school's program involved synthesizers and digital production tools. That led Kmeto to Logic, a platform for production that she found liberating enough to distance her from her initial folky aspirations. "When I would try to write at a piano, I'd make really boring music," she laughed. "It just sounded, er, done before."
While living in LA, Kmeto performed in more bands—R&B, blues, folk, rock, etc.—mostly singing and playing keyboards. She made money on the side as a studio musician and vocalist, but she didn't find the experience fulfilling—she felt the system benefitted those who had money to throw at art instead of those who really had something to say.
"There are really strong artist communities in LA, and I've been able to connect with them [after I left], but when I was there and in school I was very much in a community with people who were doing a lot of the 'hired gun' kind of work. It was a very cynical way of looking at the industry," she said. "I'm a really sensitive person, and I just couldn't escape feeling like it was going to be like that if I was there. It was a very non-community situation—it'd be like pulling teeth to get someone to come to your show, even if they were in your band."
Again feeling restless, Kmeto left California for Portland, Oregon. Just up the West Coast, it was close to her family and alternative enough to wash the industry taste out of her mouth.
"This was before moving to Portland was cool," she said wryly. "People were like, 'Why are you moving there? It just rains all the time.' I was also thinking about Austin but I never even got to check it out because I went to Portland and fell in love with it immediately. It was an easy decision."
Describing her first few months in Portland as "epically rainy and gloomy," Kmeto holed up in her basement and started making electronic music, mostly for fun. It's there that she began playing with the idea of making club music. She also started working on lyrics, which were designed to be as simple as possible, getting to the bottom of what she calls a "tribal" essence of repetitive chanting. When she was ready to show her friends her music, they loved it, and encouraged her to perform it live—something that seemed daunting at the time.
"I wanted to do it on my own because I knew the moment that I put someone else on stage—particularly a man—they'd probably take credit for all of it," she said. "So that's how I taught myself to use Ableton Live, which was right when people were first doing it. No one was really doing live PAs, and the idea of being someone on stage with a laptop was almost offensive to some people. It's funny, because when I first started playing in Portland, people that were in bands would come see me and be like, 'That's not fair!' Well, get with it dude, I don't know what to tell you. I didn't want to do it with a band because the production is the songwriting. If a kit player was playing my beats, it wouldn't sound right."
Kmeto's increasingly regular performances coincided with a surge of activity in Portland's electronic scene. Crews like Abstract Earth Project and Dropping Gems would host out-of-towners such as Matthewdavid and Daedelus, abstract beat music that fit with the growing local community. Dropping Gems released a few scene-defining compilations with the Gem Drops series, which offered a clear picture of what the Portland scene was like at this time: a smaller, more idiosyncratic version of LA's beat scene, with its own cast of characters.
Kmeto's first brush with the Dropping Gems crew came when she was booked to play a show with The Great Mundane, who introduced her to some other artists. That inspired Kmeto to organize a weekly producer meet-up, where budding artists could hear each other's work and offer comments and criticism. "It was a really cool idea in theory, but unfortunately it turned into brostep. It was just bad," she said with a chuckle. "But the two dudes that I founded it with ended up playing a huge role in my career today."
It was through the meet-up that she met Aaron Meola, the founder of Dropping Gems, who asked if he could put her track "Embraces" on the second Gem Drops album. Excited at the prospect of having a vocalist on his label, Meola properly signed Kmeto, which led to her debut solo release, The Ache. It was embryonic look at her production and songwriting in 2012, and it was followed up by the Dirty Mind Melt EP, which captured her production prowess but not her vocals. She started a club night with Danny Corn and Graintable called PDneXt around the same time, focusing on the forward-thinking club music that inspired her own hybridized, cross-genre tracks.
Even as she fell in with a supportive artistic circle, Kmeto's personal life was becoming increasingly unstable. She had just come out as queer, something she was still coming to grips with, and she was also going through a fraught, on-and-off relationship. It was what Kmeto now reflects on as her first experience of falling in love—all-consuming, soul-destroying love—but it nevertheless buried her in a place of desperation and self-destruction. It was this pain, however, that would birth the aptly named album Crisis. It marked a new stage in her career.
"All my writing up until then had been coming from a sort of technical place, like I was hiding behind technical things so the emotions weren't really coming out—which was completely descriptive of my personal life at the time—so with Crisis it came out more genuine. It's funny, I'll think about how I wrote it and I almost don't remember it, because it just came out really fast and naturally. If it doesn't come out that way anymore I almost don't trust it."
Crisis earned Kmeto more attention than she'd ever received before, including from record labels. The most tantalizing offer came from Dave Sitek, a veteran musician and the producer behind many bands, including TV On The Radio, of whom Kmeto was a big fan. He contacted her out of nowhere, which blew her mind, but not just because of his reputation. "He won me over by relating to me first and foremost as a producer and a writer," she said. "Often I'm approached just as a singer, and he was like, 'I think you're an insanely talented producer and writer, I'd really like to help you out with your next release. I want to give you full creative control, I don't want to produce anything for you. I want you to do it, and give you access to whatever I can.' Basically, the way that this new album was done was writing and producing it at home and then going to LA and cutting vocals in his studio."
Inevitable is a much bigger-sounding record, thanks in part to using Sitek's studio and a mixing engineer. It's the first time Kmeto has handed over those reins to someone else, but it allowed her to focus on the creative part rather than the "super repetitive part." "When you have someone who does mixes for Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, you're like, 'OK, I can probably have you mix my record, that's fine,'" she added.
"I'm taking a risk, really, by signing on a producer's label," she said. "But he did not produce anything on my record. Because I know it's going to be assumed—it's just going to. There's always small things like that. You know, the sound guy being like, 'You're pretty talented for a woman.' Things that people don't inherently realize are sexist but they are. But rather than being angry about it, I'm more just trying to equalize the categories and boxes that people like to put things in.
"I want it to be more of a normal thing for people to see women doing things like what I'm doing, so that it's not an assumption that I don't do it or someone else is doing it. We're all trained a certain way and some people in their lives are just not challenged to think outside of what they know exists. It is hard sometimes, but the only way to really push against it is to just do it."
Inevitable is a more confident record all-around, with better production values and upfront vocals. It helps that the songs themselves are stronger, too, taking the sexually charged bravado of Crisis and welding it to tighter and more intricate song structures. Vocally, it's alternately more pointed and more wounded. "I thought you had a boyfriend/ I thought you had a man/ I thought it wasn't like that," she sings over weeping synths on one of the record's highlights; every time she repeats it, her inflection changes a little bit, growing more accusatory and defensive.
"I feel like Inevitable is a sequel to and wrap-up of Crisis, coming from a place of strength as opposed to desperation, lust and everything that Crisis came from. Like coming from darkness to light, and also very much about the management of expectations. Crisis is about struggling with that, and I think this is more about falling in line with it and having more acceptance of the inevitability of what you have coming to you."
With her tumultuous relationship rekindled into an engagement, Kmeto is now in a much better place emotionally, which certainly gives her music—and its inspirations—a different tint. "Part of me wants to say it's harder [to write music], but before I came out I was living more of a run-of-the-mill, standardized, be-a-good-capitalist consumer sort of lifestyle," she said. "I felt less compelled to get drawn into the plight of being a woman. I was in a generically accepting place as opposed to seeing the injustices put out into the world every day, and actually trying to do something and deal with it.
"I'm in a much more secure place as a person but I feel like I'm allowing myself to feel and see things in a more political way than I was before. I don't think my music will become political, but I do think through a story you can channel very political views. By me even standing—being a woman and doing what I'm doing, being a queer woman doing what I'm doing, being a person of colour and doing what I'm doing—I'm standing for a lot, politically, just by doing that."