Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Kaia Kater is redefining roots music for a new generation

Rising down



Kaia Kater is a singer and songwriter of immediate attraction. Her work makes your ears rubberneck within the first few bars of music, the first utterance of her voice. And from there you are hooked. Erstwhile Americana bible No Depression has said of Kater that if "you want authenticity in your bluegrass and folk music, we give you Kaia Kater." The Guardian is more direct and lovestruck: "Where bluegrass meets Nina Simone."

We agree in full. Kater's voice and her music's emotional melodies are from the core, and as she puts it, "not gentle." Not in a dissonant sense, but she's not holding anything back, or restraining herself to play to anyone's expectations. Kater explains that her ideal performance is "one that is compelling, and challenging not only to myself but to the audience." Kater's songs take your breath away, using roots music as a launching point into her own flight path.

Kater's music is based in stark Appalachian folk with bluegrass spiked throughout – learned in firsthand study and immersion for several years in West Virginia. Horns make their presence known. Slightly psychedelic instrumental passages surface unexpectedly. Kater's voice is ever-present and haunting, taking lyrical and rhythmic cues from hip-hop griots like Black Thought from the Roots, Mos Def and Kendrick Lamar.

Kater has released two albums and one EP in a span of two years, and her latest, Nine Pin (Factor Records), is the masterpiece of the three. Recorded in one day (!), the performances on the album belie an unhurried confidence and ingenuity. The U.K.'s Uncut magazine praised the album for "using traditional forms as infinitely malleable source material from which to shape something vivid and original."

Kater will be performing selections from all of her oeuvre at the Plaza Live as part of the Orlando Philharmonic's Woman in Song series at the suggestion of Phil director Eric Jacobsen's wife and renowned folk artist Aoife O'Donovan, of whom Kater is a fan: "I'll do my best not to go all fangirl on her," Kater enthuses. Orlando audiences are in for an even bigger treat as Jacobsen will be adding strings to Kater's music. One can imagine this sounding something akin to Fairport Convention meets Joanna Newsom.

Born in Quebec of Afro-Caribbean descent, Kater is a fresh-faced and adventurous new addition to our northern neighbor's history of taking in the wide swath of the United States' musical offerings and turning out breathtaking new takes on old traditions. The Band, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young ... the list is long and illustrious, deeply soulful, and best of all, real.

Crossing musical lines and bringing back something new and wonderful for all, an excellent example of import and export, Kater takes her place confidently among them with her own clear vision. She's the real deal.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Orlando Weekly. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Orlando Weekly, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Orlando Weekly Press Club for as little as $5 a month.