Conor McTernan gets to know an artist whose drifting compositions have won her fans in club and experimental circles.
It was a bright Saturday afternoon in early May, and Kara Lis-Coverdale was strolling along the bank of the Spree in Berlin. Treptower Park was in a state of flux. In a flash summer had blossomed out of winter, bypassing a lazy spring.
We were talking about thought processes. Coverdale likes to think things through thoroughly before acting. "I'm the worst with quick decisions," she explained. "I like to turn every cube in the Rubik's."
A skilled composer, pianist and organist, Coverdale is one of few multi-disciplinary artists, alongside the likes of Sarah Davachi and Caterina Barbieri, who makes electro-acoustic computer music that drifts in a sublime ether, somewhere between renaissance times and the modern nightclub. DJs often play Coverdale's music, but she doesn't necessarily see herself as part of that scene. As known for her piano and organ work as her electronic projects, her sound ranges from minimalist to angelic, everything rooted with human touch via the acoustic timbres of the piano. Just don't call her music ambient.
The previous night, Coverdale had played live at Janus, a club night at Säule, Berghain's experimental floor. I stopped by Berghain for her soundcheck that afternoon. Wearing an ankle-length raincoat, heavy chains draped around her neck and a robust pair of Harley Davidson biker boots, Coverdale beamed at me from the stage where she was setting up her laptop, mixing desk and Korg microKEY. "We finally meet!" she exclaimed with a hug and a smile.
That night at Säule, I asked Coverdale how she was, through a fence of caging blocking the entrance to the booth before she performed. "Thinking…" she murmured, while staring out at the dark concrete hall filled with swaying bodies. After the show she presented Dan DeNorch, a booker at Berghain and the brains behind Janus, with a bouquet of flowers, as a thank you gesture for inviting her to come play at the club.
I noticed that Coverdale had played differently than she had at sound-check. There had been a section with angelic flutes that resonated with me that afternoon, but that she never played on the night. "It didn't feel ready yet," she said.
It seems Coverdale is thinking deeply most of the time. Take a look at her Twitter profile and you will see her imagination at work. "I think this comes from seeing multiple uses in things," she said as we walked through Treptower Park. "It's kind of like a utilitarian mode of vision." She walked over to side of path and reached down, picking up a flower. "This is a dandelion, but it's also a geodesic dome for various ants. So it's a home, and it's also a seed for breeding."
It's not unusual for her to have nine musical projects on the go at any given time. "I always have one main project, which is like a central idea. I tuck things away in there and extract other things from projects that I think might be useful, like this nucleus work that's going on underneath all the other satellite projects." I've seen her automation lines in Logic. They look like a star map, or a personal solar system.
Before she ever touched a keyboard, Coverdale honed her skills on a farm. Growing up in rural Ontario, the nearest city was Hamilton, which she described as a "hazy sinkhole." She listened to a lot of Canadian rock and country, until she got her hands on Napster around the age of 13. "Then," she said, "I exclusively listened to rap and classical."
Coverdale's mother is an Estonian visual artist. She designed signs and also conducted choir at Coverdale's primary school. "Estonian school always began with music, it's a very important part of all Estonian traditions." Her father works in construction and "just kind of is music," she said with a smile. "He's always singing, always whistling, making up rhymes on the spot"—traits that his daughter has inherited. Her own sonic journey began with the piano at age five. She took lessons with the village teacher and practised for up to eight hours per day. "I was always a little bit of a bad student, in the same breath as a good student."
We continued to walk, reaching a path by the river to investigate a passing boat that was blaring dated German punk from a loudspeaker. Resembling a 15-metre timber shed, it looked like something out of the film Waterworld. People hung like pirates from the vessel, which had "Anarche" painted on its hull. "Wow," Coverdale said.
As we snaked around the perimeter of the sprawling park, Coverdale told about a time when, as a child, she took her brother's toy train set and smashed it on her parent's piano. There was something punk rock about this. "I think I was trying to make music with it, or something." She had to play on keys with jagged edges for years afterwards.
Coverdale got into improvisation around age ten, and subsequently took up organ. She quickly became an organist and musical director at several nearby churches. At 17, she moved to London, Ontario to complete a degree in musicology and composition at The University Of Western Ontario. Here she experimented with samplers, the first of which was a Kurzweil K2500, and began integrating electronics and digital processes into her work.
After completing her MA, Coverdale moved to Montreal in 2010, where she lives today. She began rubbing shoulders with the likes of Essaie Pas and a young Marie Davidson, Lunice and Tim Hecker. Coverdale has collaborated with Hecker extensively, featuring on three of his albums. "I find Kara-Lis profoundly funny and positive-spirited generally," Hecker said over email. "Musically, with a very multilayered musical mind which seems to drift between intricate formal musical complexity and alien-like states of being a medium to some other space."
Coverdale has also recorded with How To Dress Well, LXV, Lee Bannon and her close friend and vocalist Kara Crabb. She's also released five solo records. When the online retailer Boomkat approached her to contribute to their Boomkat Editions series, she didn't think anyone would listen to the result. Grafts ended up being Boomkat's Record Of The Year for 2017. At 22 minutes, it was a short, introspective opus. Like a tapestry of celestial sound, it's filled with surprise and wonder.
"I felt weird when they made their own record number one," Coverdale said, "but then OK about it when it was also number one on the artist polls. I was like, 'OK that's more democratic.'" It had a beguiling effect on people. Call Super tweeted that Grafts' "Moments In Love" was the single piece of music chosen at his wedding ceremony.
Coverdale distinctly remembers the day she made Grafts. It was just after a breakup. "I was so emotionally upset," she said. "Psychiatry and psychology show how memory is one of the most misunderstood parts of the brain. Personally, my memories are often really traumatic ones. I tend to either latch onto them or erase them immediately."
The first recording of what became Grafts was about 2.5 hours long. It took Coverdale about a year to distill the session down to 22 minutes. "I'm so slow," she said. "Grafts is a modal record. Harmony is really based on fourths and fifths, and simple intervals. It has that renaissance, almost medieval tonality to it."
As dusk approached, we arrived at the Soviet War Memorial. Coverdale carefully choose a perch in the middle of the plaza, where we could hang our feet, and she could study the vast surroundings while we talked. She told me she was sitting on a couple of hours of finished music, but was in no rush to put it out. "I think the problem is that I feel like I don't have a home right now in terms of a place I feel is perfect for my music to live," she said. "I struggle with that, I don't know if it's trust issues. I'm very sensitive to climate and I think things work best sometimes when they're in places that don't quite make sense."