Talks with Kathy Haggerty 

 

 

Kathy Haggerty
Visit Kathy's website  

 

Once Upon a Spell

 

 

Diabolene

CEV:  From what I've read on your site you're musical studies began at a very young age. Most of us were barely learning coherent speech patterns while you were already beginning your piano studies. Tell me about the desire you felt as a child to express yourself musically and how this drive motivated you forward through a variety of disciplines.

KH:  Well, my mother tells me I started piano lessons when I was 3 years old in Washington D.C…I vaguely remember sitting at a piano with multiple-colored stickers on each key, and corresponding colored stickers on my fingers and a big lady wearing a lot of perfume sitting next to me, nodding her head and smiling. Then I started lessons again when I turned five, when my family moved to Seoul, Korea. So, it was actually my mother’s desire to see her children be exposed to classical music at an early age that really got me started. My two brothers were playing the violin and cello and I was on the piano – so we had a trio going.

The first year of piano lessons in Korea were downright torturous! I remember walking every day after school to the corner piano-teaching “sweatshop” – these places were a dime a dozen in Seoul. Every kid in Korea knew how to play the piano or a stringed instrument, it seemed. I would sit in a tiny closet of a room and the teacher would hold a wooden ruler over my hands. I didn’t speak Korean very well and she didn’t speak English very well, and so we could barely communicate. One thing I understood clearly though, was that I wasn’t playing properly, based on the stern scowl she wore on her face throughout the hour -long sessions. Whenever I missed a note – SMACK! She’d strike the finger that fumbled with cobra-like intensity and precision – and boy – did it sting! Let me tell you – pain is one of the greatest teachers in life. Stick your hand on a hot stove and you learn instantly not to do it again. Now, I’m definitely NOT a proponent of using corporal punishment as a method of learning an instrument– but I must say, with the presence of that ruler- I learned very quickly to avoid mistakes as much as possible.

I didn’t tell my parents the teacher was rapping my knuckles. Back then,there was this generally accepted perspective that the ‘teacher was always right’…and culturally, you just didn’t question adults or your elders- to do so would have been impolite and improper. So as a small child I just kept quiet about it. Until one day my mother noticed my red, swollen fingers after a particularly difficult lesson. “She’s hitting you?!?” “Yes, Mom – but not as much anymore so I must be getting better!” She was appalled, thank goodness, withdrew me from this piano school and found a private tutor willing to take me on. Eventually Santa Claus brought me a Yamaha upright console for my 6th Christmas and my playing improved with a piano in the house. I practiced every day- simple rote repetition; playing the same thing over and over again until it was perfect. As my technique and ability to read music improved, I began to enjoy it more. I started learning the works of Italian composer Muzio Clementi, and then moved onto and fell in love with the standard works that piano students learn of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Haydn,– my ears and fingers just gravitated towards them all. And then I’d listen to scratchy cassette tapes of Elvis Presley, Pavarotti and Pink Floyd…so my ears were getting their fill on all kinds of music.

And then, after a couple of years, I began experimenting with these classical composer’s works. I would change major chords to minor chords and vice versa , add a few more grace notes here and there, or a third harmony on top of the right hand melody line, play music in reverse, I’d play the louder passages softly, the piannisimo dynamics as loudly as I could, speed up the pace where the music slowed down - and basically drove the piano teacher crazy. She’d shake her head, pound on the music books in front of me and say: “KEHTEE! No changee notes! You play EGSEHKLEE! No changee music – play EGSEHKLEE!!” She didn’t understand how fascinated I was by the polyphonic freedom the piano offered. I knew I shouldn’t be messing around with the music but my hands couldn’t help themselves. I knew I wasn’t supposed to tinker with a single note of Mozart but I did it anyway. I was a terrible student and my piano teacher told me so: “You BERRY BAD STUDENT! You BERRY BERRY BAD STUDENT!! (It’s okay - I’m half Korean so I can have a little fun with the accent).

She also didn’t like the fact that I developed a habit of doodling all over the music books. I was becoming restless and fidgety with the daily practicing , so I would draw cartoons on the music pages to keep it interesting – anything to spice it up visually and keep me from falling asleep. I’d pencil in little smiley faces in the round ‘whole notes’ and draw stick legs and arms onto the eighth notes so that the written music was alive and animated and bouncing with cartoony energy everywhere …hey! It made me laugh and smile! I couldn’t help myself..I loved to draw little flying bees, honeycombs and beehives around the name “Beethoven”. I’d even practice writing the alphabet and spelling my name in my music books; by the second grade I was Kathleen Haggerty 12 Bach Etudes. But none of this behavior was met with any approval at all…and I felt it. Eventually, by the time I was eight, I became so discouraged and disenchanted with piano lessons, that I stopped altogether. I was simply burnt out and uninspired …and then of course, my parents would say to me those searing, guilt-instilling phrases like “You’re going to regret this, daughter! You’re going to wish someday we pushed you!”

Well, to this day I still don’t find myself regretting it…I don’t find myself wishing I was pushed…. or shoved or kicked or slapped or otherwise abused into playing the piano or doing anything for that matter…it just wouldn’t feel right .

But my creative drive as a child continued to thrive in spite of these first few not so enjoyable years of piano study…I continued to play the piano on my own and enjoyed musing around and creating melodies of my own. I kept a small tape recorder by the piano and would record my improvisations. One year I created background music for an astronomy light show I created in my room. I poked holes in a cardboard box and put a flashlight inside of it and recorded a narration describing the different constellations as I accompanied myself on the piano. The piano was my best creative friend, along with my box of crayons and magic markers. I created for myself many make believe worlds of sounds and colors –both music and art was and still is a wonderful escape for me.

CEV:  It is difficult to see the path that lies ahead of us when we are children but did you understand music would be with you for your life's entire journey and that it would become a powerful creative part of who you were?

KH:  Oh, yes – I always felt music and art would be a part of my life and very aware of how much it moved me…every little note, every little scribbly line I drew seemed to be imbued with such magic and energy…I always had a feeling that my abilities were ‘given’ to me and I had to explore and experiment with it all. And I realized at an early age how much the visual world complimented the musical world and vice versa…those ultra simple, lo-tech planetarium shows I made demonstrated that fact to me – that the two mediums had very unique, distinct qualities on their own but when fused together - wow! What a fascinating multi-dimensional effect it had on the senses.

CEV:  Did you ever take voice lessons along with your other musical studies as you grew up?

KH:  I never studied voice with a private tutor growing up…but I was always in musicals and singing in the school choruses…and I paid close attention to the choir directors. I was an alto – and I loved creating the melodies! It was so much more challenging and fun to sing the harmony lines in the alto section. In college I was in a 16 person madrigal singing group and my vocal chords evolved and stretched from an alto to a mezzo soprano singing range. We performed in a variety of languages – Latin, Spanish, French, Yiddish, and a lot of 17th century Elizabethan pieces using old English vernacular…lots of lyrics about nymphs and satyrs frolicking around the forest with their lutes, eating, drinking, looking for love and having a jolly good time at it. The basic subjects for songs haven’t changed much over the centuries; humans evolve at an extremely slow pace…

CEV:  I was surprised that you did not immediately embark on a musical career when you graduated from college but chose instead to go into commercial advertising. Why was it that you chose advertising over music at the time?

KH:  I majored in anthropology and psychology at the State University of New York at Albany. I figured a good liberal arts education would make me a more well-rounded person…but by the time I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, which was pretty ironic. I mean - I enjoyed researching , discovering and exposing my mind to fascinating psychological theories and ethnographic cultural studies, but it seemed the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew! That’s the knowledge paradox…anyone who loudly professes to be an expert on anything will pique my curiosity, naturally….but I’ll listen to their viewpoints and ideas with a large shaker of salt handy.

Back in high school, I was introduced to Armand Assante Sr. a brilliant, artist and prolific oil painter and his wife, Katherine – an equally brilliant poet and accomplished musician (their son is actor Armand Assante) . I worked for Armand Sr. as a sitting model after school and on weekends and became friends with the family. He had retired from the advertising business and was focusing on his painting. During our breaks, Katherine would read her poetry, and I’d play their piano and sing – and they were genuinely encouraging towards me as I would play them my original material. It was such an artistic , creative household, and I was so inspired by it all. Once, as I was sitting perfectly still in a chair for hours (not easy to do) I remember telling Armand that I thought it would be fun to go into the advertising field - and I’ll never forget his response: “Oh, no, Kathy –DON’T go into advertising!” So what did I do? I went into advertising! After graduating from college, there was an entry level opening at a big firm in NYC, and I took the job. And that’s basically how and why I got into it. Also - it was the only professional environment where I could where jeans to work – so my college wardrobe transitioned nicely. The people I worked with were talented, smart, incredibly industrious and sharp-witted…but there were a lot of office politics and dog-eat-dog behavior that went on, too - it was a real eye-opener about the realities of the corporate work world; I viewed it as an urban manifestation of human survival instincts.

(By the way - a painting of me ended up many years later in a NYC Soho art gallery which was intriguing because so much time had elapsed and the instant I viewed the portrait – a flood of memories came pouring out of my head!)

CEV:  Eventually music won out as a career option for your life. Tell me about the decision to go full steam back into music and about some of your first efforts in making this a reality in your life.

KH:  Omigosh – it was a bit spooky the way that happened. I had been feeling restless working a few years at an ad agency sort of feeling ‘stuck’ in my job but not really doing anything about it. The company was bought by another firm and then a major restructuring occurred. I was among the first crop of people they let go – and part of my severance included an adult skills aptitude testing service. I sat for 9 hours in a room with 5 other people and underwent the most unusual series of tests that had to be performed as quickly as possible…it was part Rorschach, hand-eye motor coordination, vocabulary, math, visual/spatial /rhythm and tonal memory, hundreds of questions about likes and dislikes – to some extent, the process was intriguing, but exhausting at the same time. I never liked tests and I had no idea I’d be there for so long…and then the results of the test came back and it blew me away! It said I should pursue a career as a musician or music composer for films. This was a real sign; the test results were staring me in the face and it was just the impetus I needed to really move forward with my music. I had to continue to freelance in advertising for the income, but on the weekends I would work at a local recording studio for free - doing anything so I could learn about the recording process; assisting the engineer, writing radio scripts, doing voiceovers, etc.. I cut a demo of some original material I had written – singer-songwriter type music, just my vocals and a piano. I had a regular acoustic gig at a hotel performing my earlier songs. And then, eventually, as the prosound gear became more affordable and targeted the growing “basement studio” market, I bought some engineering software, hooked up my keyboard to the mac and started experimenting with my own recordings at home, adding lots of layers of instrumentation and ambient sound. It really opened up a whole new world of musical creating and experimentation for me…

CEV:  Was it easy for you to shift gears from corporate America back to a creative mindset needed to compose music of your own?

KH:  Yes and no…since I was already so drained from my job, it was easier for me to be more open to my creative side. I was ready to move on, but felt a bit lost. One of my brothers gave me a book called “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron which essentially outlined a step –by- step process to recover your creativity from blockages and self-doubt. It was a great therapeutic read and I kept it on my nightstand. I started fleshing out my visions and goals and performing the writing exercises in the book which helped to get my wheels in motion. I believe creative inertia happens for a reason –and it’s not necessarily a bad thing when it does happen – although it’s almost always a frustrating experience when you’re wanting and trying so hard to produce the ‘flow’ of creating and nothing is coming out…perhaps it’s the mind’s way of hibernating and preparing itself for the next cycle of creativity . Working in a system such as corporate America doesn’t automatically shut you down creatively - being a cog in a wheel doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be creative – I was actually writing during this period, too, but I didn’t have as much time as I wanted for it – and that was the bottom line there – TIME. I had very little time for the creating that I wanted to do; I had reached my limits with the corporate system I was in and I personally needed a big change.

CEV:  Tell me about how you typically go about creating your music. Does it come to you in a creative flash pretty much complete or is there a lot more assembling work that you do?

KH:  The composing process starts in my imagination…my head and heart are in a constant process of dancing together then running far away from each other! I find inspiration in nature , books, and stories of people’s lives.
I’ve written a few songs where they literally came out in a flash – both music and lyrics at the same time – and those I consider to be the rarest gifts of the muses…I literally put my hands on the piano and started playing and singing. I remember the first time that happened, tears were streaming down my face…it is an emotionally overwhelming experience to be in the zone and channeling music like that (I felt exhausted and invigorated at the same time when I finished writing the song -a fascinatingly peculiar sensation of being 'energized')…I have melodies milling around inside my head most of the time…even when I’m dreaming I hear music. I’ve always been biased towards great melodic lines that stay with you after hearing them…music is a very powerful medium and the most universal language – a language of frequency, timber, tone and rhythm. I like to explore and play around with different tones – especially when I’m using my vocals. The voice, like a wooden acoustic instrument, experiences subtle changes each day – it’s amazing really. ..it’s a living instrument that’s affected by many internal and external factors. Some mornings my chords sound deeper, open and more full - and I’ll sing in a lower register. Now this type of thing will start my creative process; I’ll obsess about my newly found tones and improvise for hours…and then usually I’ll find something that grabs me and continue to piece together some more notes and phrases. Lately
I’ve been into deconstructing and rearranging my work -sort of a composing exercise….it’s kind of like putting a painting up to a mirror to see what the reverse image looks like, then flipping it around again to see if the ‘normal’ image looks strange…I like to change perspectives, but it’s always subjective no matter what; when I’m composing, I still gravitate towards the same keys my ears love the most.

CEV:  It sounds like you have several instruments that you enjoy playing. Do you have a favorite for doing your compositions on?

KH:  The piano is my main instrument – it’s the most natural for me to compose upon it. The cello and guitar inspire me in different ways – and I write differently depending on what instrument I’m playing…the same thing goes for different pianos. I’ve played some pianos that have great, fast action and I play differently on them. My 1927 Mason and Hamlin piano has a huge voice and a lot of personality – and wonderful bell -like tones in the upper register…he’s a big, compositionally –friendly piano. I’m a bit obsessed with tones –I love the cello’s soulful, singing quality – so I use it in almost meditational way in my pieces. I feel like I’m doing mixed -media collage when I’m composing…perhaps it’s not dissimilar to doing film foley. Once , on a spoken word project I was creating music for - I recorded the sound of cracking eggs into my KitchenAid mixer, as I slowly turned up the speed. I got the idea when I was baking a cake…I found myself harmonizing to the motor sound in a B major scale, and I thought – “Gee, this one sounds good!” There was something compellingly musical, something beautifully rhythmic about it; the sound of this metal machine whipping around liquid, organic matter …and as I was recording the mixer, I couldn’t help but think that on some level it was metaphorically symbolic of man’s relationships with machines - pardon the awful punning of words – but I thought: don’t we all feel a bit beaten up by our technology? Aren’t our brains a bit worn out and whipped down by the necessity of keeping up with computer upgrades and newer, better, faster versions of this device or that? Phew! It’s exhausting! Human beings need to be upgraded just to keep up with the technological upgrades… I recorded lots of interesting acoustic layers that put me in this weird, caramel apple-eating ferris wheel –riding philosophical carnival space. I got a little egg on the carpet but it came out with a bit of soap and water…

CEV:  Let's talk about your latest release Once Upon a Spell. First off tell me about the meaning behind the title of this CD. It sounds sort of mystical. 

KH:  Well, the process of making music is a bit mystical to me, I guess...I love stories and was ruminating over the phrase “Once Upon A Time” which is commonly used in the beginning of stories that we read as children. I decided to title the cd after the song, “Once Upon A Spell”….which came to mind as I was recording it. The lyrics and melody that were unfolding were strangely sounding like a coven of witches chanting and singing a spell around a huge bonfire. Each song evokes an image in my mind…and that was the most eerie image - but it was an intriguing kind of eerie..so in that sense, I suppose it is mystical. 

CEV:  During the writing and composing part of creating this CD was there an underlying theme that guided you in the writing of the music?

KH:  I knew I was going to create a cd, but wasn’t sure exactly how each song was going to formulate itself. But I knew I wanted it to have a general theme. I enjoy Greek and Roman mythology and kept in mind this idea of journeying through an ancient time and place – floating in a dreamscape filled with ancient Greek or Etruscan gods and mortals and their myths. I was definitely in this otherworldly realm while I was recording. The first song I produced on the album was “The Sirens of Osirus” and this was the emotional/thematic anchor for the rest of the songs. I kept returning to “Sirens” as a reference point when composing the rest of the album. Whenever I heard that song – I kept getting images of ghostly white , transparent women knee-deep in a bluish-green mist moving their arms all about in a beckoning way…it was like this song was inviting all the other songs to come and join them in this misty realm. 

CEV:  How long did it take for you to take Once Upon a Spell from beginning to finished product? Is this a usual amount of time for you?

KH:  I conceived of and wrote and recorded all the songs in about 3 months. I put a lot of vocal layers into each song so that took a lot of time to do. Also, since I was so immersed in the album, I tried to give myself distance and walk away from the songs for a few days so I could come back to them with different ears and start mixing them again. To be honest – I don’t have a ‘usual’ amount of time – each project is different. I have whipped songs up in a couple of hours, and then sometimes, depending on the type of song – it can take a much longer time to put together –but there really is such a range because of the nature of music making – it can be anywhere between 3 –20 hours per song or more - depending on how much you’re tweaking or changing it. It really depends on the project and what it is I’m working on. I consider “Once Upon A Spell” to be my most ‘solo’ project as it was just me and the machine …and I found it to be a very meditative process – it was very enjoyable to produce and yet challenging in some ways, as I wasn’t working off the energy of another person – and I really felt tuned into some higher force as I was in a very private emotional space as I was channeling the words and melodies.

CEV:  Tell me about how your time is spent when you are in the thick of working on a new CD like Once Upon a Spell. Do you have any set routines to keep things moving along or do you work as inspiration hits you?

KH:  I’m very focused and very intensely in the ‘zone’ when I’m working and channeling music. I’m think I’m more musically creative in the evening, and so most times I’d start around 7pm and record until 5am in the morning. I did keep a schedule and regimen for myself during the production of “Spell”. The inspiration would hit at times when I wasn’t in my studio – and I would say to myself, “Okay, Kathy – you got some words floating around –you got a nifty rift that’s hovering around the cerebellum – but make a quick snapshot of it now and put it on hold until tomorrow!” And I did do just that…make mental recordings of whatever it was and spill it over the microphone later on…

CEV:  Compared to your previous work how would you describe this current CD in regards to continuity with what you have written before? Anything new your fans might find on this new title?

KH:  Well, it’s more ‘new-agey’ and electronic in many ways…and it is truly my first solo engineered and produced project, as I wasn’t working with a producer or engineers who do influence how things sound. I experimented a lot with my voice on this album; made creative decisions that I’m sure a producer would have said, “Absolutely NO! We’re not keeping that in there!!” It’s a very personal project and I am for the most part happy with how it turned out, because it was purely a musical channeling of what I was hearing and feeling at the time….although there are always things that I look back on and say, “Gee, I wish I would have done something different here –or - I should have done this or that…” that’s the type of obsessive thinking that infiltrates the artist’s process– and it can paralyze you – because you’re never quite satisfied with everything, 100% of the time…but I’m very much aware of that and so I’ve learned over the years to just let go of it and move on to the next creation.

CEV:  Once you reach the studio I see from your liner notes that you pretty much do it all in regards to getting your music recorded. Do you enjoy this aspect of the whole process as much as you do writing the music?

KH:  Yes, yes and yes and no…it’s a dual –edged sword. In today’s indie music world, you’re better off learning every aspect of producing a finished, recorded product. I love what today’s software can do with sound – I’m a geek in that sense. I love playing around with sounds and distorting them just to see what I can come up with– it’s that curiosity I have to satisfy when I’m engineering something…it’s similar to cooking in the kitchen, but the ingredients are instruments. On this cd, I had to wear different hats at the same time and at times I found it to be frustrating – especially when something went wrong and I’m spending time changing a cable or restarting my computer when I’m ready to perform….but it gave me a better understanding and appreciation of the technical aspects of recording and it taught me to be very patient with myself with this type of DIY recording project…

CEV:  Are there any standout songs from Once Upon a Spell that you are very proud of the way that they turned out? I ask not to have you choose a favorite song or two but more in the sense that something exceeded your expectations from what you had heard during the composing of the music till when it was in the box in the studio.

KH:  I was very pleased with many of the songs…but the one that surprised me the most was “Once Upon A Spell”…I had no idea where it was coming from and where it was going, and as I was layering multiple tracks of phrases on top of the meditative-like melody, it kept pulling me further and further into its chanting cadence...so I added some Latin verses from the “Canticles of Mary” and it started to sound like a completely different language altogether when I was mixing it. I couldn’t quite pick out exactly what the vocals were singing in the chorus at the end–and I was fascinated by this aspect of the song. This is what I mean by the mystical quality of music-making ; I had no idea this song would develop like it did and sound like it does.

CEV:  What kinds of reactions have you received from reviewers and listeners since this CD came out? How much stock do you place in the reviews of your music that are published?

KH:  Overall, I’ve had a lot of very nice, positive reactions –but there have been some mixed reviews, too. Some have categorized it as ‘religious’ music and others don’t quite know how to categorize it – some like it and some don’t - which is okay. Some were confused by my “Greenespeak” vocals - which is a language I created when I was a child, for an old, cloth doll of mine I named “Richard Greene”. The song, “Corinthia” utilizes Greenespeak quite a bit and that song is spun a lot on alternative radio inSpain. So, to the Spanish, ear, I’m assuming they like the way it sounds! One reviewer called my music, “New Age Fantasy” which I like, actually, and I think is an appropriate description. You can’t go around trying to please everyone in life. You’ll end up miserable. I think I place a balanced perspective on reviews – yes - they do give you some important feedback, but on the other hand, it’s all subjective in the end and I take it with a grain of salt. I’ll keep doing what I’m doing regardless of whoever it appeals or doesn’t appeal to. Creatively, it’s important for me to listen to my instincts and to continue to grow, musically. But I’m happy if it touches people and makes them feel good in some way or piques their curiosity at least. The world is vastly wonderful and strange, too, - why not embrace it all.

CEV:  Kathy I thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions in such a detailed way. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts and ideas with us here at Cutting Edge Voices. Good luck with Once Upon a Spell and whatever lies ahead for you.