Always Poetry, Always Play

Art is a deeply connecting force — it connects artists to their audiences, audience members to other audience members, and, perhaps most significantly, artists to themselves. For Kath Bloom, writing and performing music has been a means of finding peace within herself. She lets experiences “pass through” her via her songs, allowing her to explore what words alone cannot.

Bloom’s music is soulful and vulnerable — it speaks directly to the heart, directly from the heart. Speaking to me from her home in Litchfield, Connecticut, she discusses the healing power of music, the importance of play, and the power she gains from performing.

Your father was a well-known concert oboist — music must have been very important in your house growing up.

Yes, my dad was a beautiful player. He had me in his forties, and then he married again and had another daughter in his seventies — I suppose I knew him during the middle of his career. So I went to a lot of concerts, I listened to my dad rehearse when I could: I don’t think he particularly loved rehearsing. I really don’t think I’ve heard anyone that can compare to his soulful tone on the oboe.

My mom had also been a cellist, and after my parents were divorced, she became a music teacher in her fifties. Growing up, we were always encouraged to learn and play instruments — which didn’t take all that well with me and my brothers. I did play cello for a little while, but mostly I was just a musical sponge.

I liked musicals, and then as I got a little older, I liked Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan — I wore those records out. I used to just sit in my room alone as a teenager, listening to records. Music, at the time, was very, very important to my heart, and to my mental health.

Was pursuing music an obvious career move for you?

In my youth, I was actually trying to be an actress. As an actress, they said I had a lot of potential and talent, but I suppose it’s only what you do with it that ends up truly counting.

Music — my own music — was very private for me, for a long time. It was a solace. I never thought of actually making music — I was just writing. Constantly writing. I was literally writing almost all my waking moments — writing in my head if not on the guitar. It was how I got through the day, to tell you the truth.

You’ve said that you see music as a kind of healing.

I believe that music is our primal right and need. I’ve worked on music with babies now for twenty-something years, I’ve worked with people who were very, very handicapped — who could hardly move their body, but who could still make a sound that carried emotions. I feel that music is a way we join together, a way we express our doubts, and our joys. It’s a powerful thing.

But performing, for a large part of your life, was not an integral part of the music experience for you…

When I was really little, I was just naturally performing, like most children do. I would run up the hill, singing — pretending to be Judy Garland. After that, I think I just went too inward. I was emotionally damaged.

However, in the last few years, as my writing’s slowed down, I’ve started really enjoying performing. I love it now. I feel so alive when I’m on stage — I guess I’ve kinda done things backwards.

What changed in you? Was there a switch that suddenly flipped?

I guess I found out that I could do it. I found out that I could affect people, that I could just be myself. Don’t forget, I’ve always been singing with other people — I love harmonising. I’m a good blues harmonica player too, and I love to just accompany people.

For a long time, I didn’t want to put my music out there and not have it liked — I was so close to it. It really is my emotional soul, and I didn’t want to get hurt. That’s what it was: I was protecting myself — maybe too much.

Now, I’ve found that people have really embraced it, and I’m so grateful. I’m grateful that I can do it, and I’m grateful that I want to do it.

You said you felt you had potential as an actress — do you regret not following through fully on that potential?

I don’t know — we all have our feelings of failure, and I’ve certainly had mine, but I don’t— no, I don’t feel like I messed up. That’s not my overwhelming feeling.

In 1994, your song Come Here was featured in the film Before Sunrise. For many, myself included, that was a gateway into your music. To what extent did that film affect your career?

You can’t really say I had much of a career before, or even have much of a career now. [Laughs] I guess… I suppose it’s something, yes.

You wouldn’t define it as a career?

Well, when I had the song in that movie in ’94, I was living in a travel trailer in Florida with two babies, eight miles from the nearest paved road. A career was just absolutely out of my reach. I had a couple people calling me, saying that they wanted to get me doing this, or recording that, but nothing ever panned out. And I don’t think that was my fault — I was very willing to do it. I had no ambition, I guess.

I kick myself about it sometimes, but it just wasn’t part of my life at the time. I was having babies, and training horses, and I was living off the grid in a lot of ways. I was still playing with my friends — I was doing really good music with Peter Friedman, Ginny Meredith and my husband, in Florida. I don’t know, I’m not ungrateful for it all. I mean, I wish I had maybe done more with it, but it just wasn’t in my life back then. I was doing other things, what can I say?

When you were living off the grid in that way — off the beaten path — were you running away from something? Was there something you were trying to escape?

Oh, I guess so… In certain ways, yeah. American society, probably. But I wasn’t running away from my art though — I was still writing all the time, even when I had babies. I was still doing a lot of painting. I just wasn’t out there performing — I lived way too far away from anywhere you could do too much of that. You can still be an artist without going out and showing what you’ve made.

I didn’t really start performing my own music until about 2008.

And since then, it seems like you’ve been making music faster than ever.

I like to record. I’ve always recorded — it’s been a way for me to put down my thoughts.

Would you say that this resurgence—

It really wasn’t a “resurgence” — it was the surgence! [Laughs]

[Laughs] Do you feel like you’re making up for lost time, in some way?

I think I might be making up for lost time now, in these last couple of years. I’ve had a lot of trouble and pain in my life. There was a hell of a lot going on — it wasn’t like I could go out and play and make money. The first thing that got me performing — that gave me some of that power — was when Hamish, from Cafe OTO in London, invited me to do a residency there. I got Tom Hanford to go with me, and we did three nights there. I just started realising that people really wanted me to play my music — that really was the eye-opener for me.

Then Guy Blackman from Chapter Music put out a retrospective of my work, along with a tribute album. But even during that time, I was in a haze — the appreciation of my work didn’t really hit me. But when I got out and started doing it live, that was when things started to connect. I found out that I could sing in front of people and they would listen, and respond. It was a really emotional experience — I got love coming back at me. It was then that I thought “Oh, maybe I should try to have a little career.” I was too afraid before then — I didn’t think anyone would like it.

You say that performing gave you power — that’s such an important part of being creative: power.

It really was power — a good power. In the same way that horses give me power. It’s not like you’re trying to subdue the horse, you’re trying to meet up with it. It’s still a big animal, and it’s still got a lot of energy, but you work something out between you and the horse.

That was sort of what happened with my music. Of course, I want more now — I feel the clock ticking. I don’t regret any of the paths I took in my life though: I was doing what I did.

It seems like you have more energy than ever.

Well, I’m not writing as much — I’ve slowed down a lot. I’m sixty-three now, and I’m still in good shape, but I am seeing some effects of ageing. I have osteoporosis in my bones, so I can’t do too much yoga, or run in the same way I used to. And getting thrown by a horse is more of a risk now. It’s those kinds of things that change. I’m just resting a little more.

But you’re certainly performing more than you used to.

I have a lot energy to perform, yeah.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? Is that something you think about?

Yeah, you start thinking about it as you get to be this age. I’ve got about forty notebooks that I feel I should be going through. I’ve recorded a lot of songs that I haven’t released yet, and I’ve written a lot that I haven’t recorded.

I really would like it if people heard my songs. I had someone call me yesterday to tell me that Bill Callahan just performed my song The Breeze in LA. He doesn’t have to do that — he has hundreds of his own. So that was a real delight. I’d love for people to cover my songs more — when I hear people do them, it’s such a treat.

I’d like to get out more in the next five years too — to perform a little more. I have a little more freedom now to be moving around, performing. I guess it’s kinda ass-backwards from the way most people do it, but that’s what I’m doing.

When are you at your absolute happiest?

Really, right now, I’m happiest when I’m playing. Of course, the usual things still make me happy: hooking up, dancing, having sex, doing yoga, singing — they’re the powerful, connecting things. But I really like performing now, and I feel very grounded when I do it.

Performing has become one of those connecting things for you now?

Yeah — something happens, and I feel… Y’know, I feel I belong somewhere.

Do you feel any responsibility to contribute to something larger than yourself?

Of course. I think that’s what it’s all about. I guess I’m just trying to put some heart-energy out there. I think heart-energy — what I call heart-energy — is a healthy thing. It keeps us all connected.

I believe that our emotions are our highest form — emotional expression is ultimately what shapes us all. People who are on manipulative power trips seem to get a long way in society, but not in a way that the human race grows from.

And is that, to you, our ultimate goal in life: to help the human race grow?

It’s about finding yourself. I don’t know, wisdom can come from a lot of things.

What keeps you up at night?

Oh, everything, I have all kinds of intense, almost involuntary feelings where I just sit up and scream. Terror. I just feel pure terror sometimes. I fear for mankind. I know it sounds hokey, but I really do.

Every day now, at least four or five times a day, I’m moved to tears instantly by something that affects my heart — that makes me feel happy or grateful. When I hear about somebody doing something that’s kind, or good, it really affects me now. I mean, I could cry right now, just thinking about it. I need to know that we’re going to be good to each other.

And do you feel that, ultimately, we are?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I was just watching a documentary on America’s history — the West, and the Native Americans. It’s just so sad. So, so, so, so sad, what we all do. Very few countries are innocent of doing something horrible to somebody else.

I don’t know what the answer is. I guess I just have to put it in my songs. I have to let it pass through me. To give it real depth within me, it has to pass through me. It’s gotta pass through us all, with everything we have to give.

It passes through you via your music.

Yeah. I think I should be painting again too — maybe I will this spring. But really, it can be anything: anything that makes sense of things. It can be playful too — I believe we’re at our best when we’re at play.

Your work with children must be so invigorating for you — all they do is play.

It’s all play and need at that point in their life — when they’re under four.

It’s a shame that so many of us lose that play.

We don’t have to lose it — the really great artists are always at play. Maybe not twenty-four hours of play, but there’s always play, and there’s always poetry. Whatever you think poetry is. Even the scientists know that poetry is pretty supreme.

Faith, or religion, or spirituality — simply a sense of mystery: does that play a part in your life?

It’s just about being present. I think if you can be present, and mindful, then you become caring because of it. I mean, there’s no other thing but to care for others, and to care about others. That’s what we’re born to do. I don’t know. I think kindness, tenderness — those seem to be supreme to me as a religion.

As for the rest of it, well, eternity doesn’t really matter, does it? Who can really imagine it? Eternity might as well be right now.

Interview date: February 28th, 2016
Images: Lucy Hamblin, The Library of Congress

Also from this issue:


Foreword

by Conor O’Driscoll

Engaging the Senses

with Samin Nosrat

The Whole of It

with Wilson Miner

Unearthing Questions

with Susan Carey

Running Towards

with Ky Anderson