There is nothing sophomoric about singer/songwriter Noah Kite’s self-titled sophomore release. Deftly orchestrating eight songs that he built and often performs solo on an acoustic guitar, Kite has made a giant leap forward from his first release, Light by Light. Focused primarily on the complications of romantic relationships, the digital album Noah Kite excavates, with an admirable emotional honesty and wallop, the pain, accusations, self-recriminations, and disbelief left in their wake. He and English horn/oboe player Laura Gershman, who makes signal contributions to the album, are touring in support of it and will appear in a house concert at Frame-N-Art in Corrales on March 12.
(Full disclosure: Noah Kite is our godson, and the album really is impressive.)
From spare to lush and back again
In the hero myth, an individual is called to leave home and face a challenge. Overcoming that challenge, he returns home transformed and fulfilled. For Noah Kite, the challenge was, first, classrooms of French children in the Parisian suburbs to whom he was teaching English as a second language. Second, it was living away from his Portland, Oregon, home in relative isolation, addressing the dislocation and solitude, and struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship while besieged by new romantic possibilities. Armed with only a guitar, Kite emerged from the experience with seven new songs.
“All of my songs start out as singer/songwriter ditties,” says Kite. “I’ve been working with a guitar for so long, it’s just what I gravitate toward, and the easiest thing for me to communicate through.”
Returning to Portland, Kite headed into the studio in December 2015 and over the next three months recorded the seven tunes, along with one older song. “I recorded those bare-bones and then tried to see what extra flesh they would take,” he says.
He’d originally intended to record all the parts himself, but the songs had a different idea. They required instrumentation that Kite doesn’t play. He first tracked down a violinist, and from there, it just snowballed into “this massive project.” Ultimately, the album included 15 additional musicians, and the album’s orchestration grew to drums, bass, cello, English horn, saxophone, trumpet, Rhodes piano, trombone, and a passel of noisy children.
What that meant for the songs was a broader and more nuanced emotional resonance. Not that the songs lacked emotional impact before. Kite’s strong vocals and his poetic dexterity ensure that the emotional cargo is delivered straight to the heart, but the orchestrated arrangements could almost stand alone, without the words, and still deliver an accurate emotional punch. (The mixing, by Matt Thomson, who also coproduced the album with Kite, makes a huge contribution to the album’s effectiveness.)
Kite has consistently provided the right instrumentation for each song and each moment, and his attention to small details—the Rhodes that sounds just before the English horn enters, the churning cello that spurs the rhythm for a blazing guitar solo—delivers constant surprises and takes the album to a higher level. Kite’s willingness to give his colleagues a long leash—“to allot some time for these musicians to access their creativity”—has produced memorable performances.
Kite and Gershman are now working on translating the songs back into a sparer instrumental setting for the tour. (Lucky for him, she moved to Portland a year and a half ago from Pittsburgh and caught Kite’s ad for instrumentalists on craigslist.) The two of them are reworking arrangements that will have her taking on parts played by various instruments on the album. Her warm and confident playing makes her an excellent counterweight to Kite’s explosiveness.
Anger and sadness
Kite’s godmother took note of the sadness and anger that thread through many of the songs, and she expressed concern about her godson’s well-being.
“That’s my primary motive for making music is sadness and anger, and just needing to communicate things I otherwise can’t or have missed the opportunity to,” says Kite, who finds satisfaction in “the discovery process and the struggle and the personal excavation.” While it might be interesting to explore why he’s happy, that has never motivated him. “It’s more like, ‘Where did this pain come from?’ ” he says. “Translating it into words helps to process it for sure.”
Among the highlights are the opener, “In the Flesh,” in which Kite contemplates the nature of the relationship carried on with his 5,000-mile-distant girlfriend via a cellphone screen, wondering what its basis is and if it will last. She tells him to “trust in the flesh,” but that does not put the questions to rest for Kite.
“Above the Falls,” written for a former bandmate, balances tenderness and threat, warning “For future reference / this is not a safe distance.” In the urgent “By the Hand,” Kite coaches himself to make a declaration: “Take her by the hand / pull her in close / smile a little as you say it slow / and if you say it right / she’ll know it’s true / but if you don’t say it tonight . . .”
The epic and incandescent “Lucifern,” a portrait of a lover and a love, starts quietly, with handclaps for percussion, and it ends in a passionate conflagration of howling guitar and soaring wordless vocals.
Kite has called his music “chamber pop with teeth,” and it’s an apt description. There are poplike hooks that catch your ear, and then there are the gritty explorations of conflicted emotions dug out with electric guitars, cellos, violins, English horns—whatever it takes. It bites, but it feels good.
with Laura Gershman
Sunday, March 12, at 7:00 p.m.
3563 Corrales Road, Corrales
Admission is free / $15 donation recommended
All donations support the artists
For more information, call 505-898-0660.
Note: Despite what your GPS unit says, the entrance to Frame-N-Art is on Corrales Road, not Meadowlark. The Frame-n-Art driveway sits on the west side of the road, just south of the Village Mercantile. Additional parking is available at Village Mercantile. Look for Frame-N-Art’s carved sign.