Diary Of A Songwriter: Katie Kuffel
As someone who shoots from the hip, this Seattle singer-songwriter knew she had to take matters into her own hands
With plans to record her new album in Bainbridge Island, WA thrown out of a COVID-shaped window, Seattle-based singer-songwriter relocated to Nashville, gathered up a bunch of musicians whose touring plans had also been scuppered by the pandemic and captured their shared moment of uncertainty.
Fast-forward almost a year and Alligator is now out in the world. It’s a collection of songs that will appeal to fans of Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor and is a testament to Kuffel’s ability to make the most out of a difficult situation.
Here, we revisit the album’s conception in these diary extracts (AKA her “6 Bullets”)…
I’m coming up on a year since I finished recording this album, the beginnings of which are fuzzy and unorganized. My songs were crude metal and rough ideas at best, and we honed them through the tumultuous uncertainty of the newly arrived Coronavirus from an Airstream [an American brand of caravan] behind a Nashville studio.
Alligator began in 2019 (thankfully, there’s a digital trail of breadcrumbs to jog my memory) when Nick Bullock, my would-be producer, messaged me on Instagram. It began when I took a chance. When I decided to pull the trigger.
SEPTEMBER 2019, THE BEGINNING: 6 BULLETS
As I said, Nick slid into my DMs, and after having a conversation about our mutual connections and my last record, we started talks on making an album. I remember feeling like I had little creative direction at the time. I was touring, playing shows, staying busy, but there was a creeping thread of malcontent in the songs I was making and how my band and I were arranging them. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that I’d grown complacent. I’d stopped taking responsibility for my craft, and I looked everywhere but myself for something to blame.
Then Nick showed up, and I’ve always been a shoot from the hip kind of gal, so I said yes to an album I hadn’t even begun to conceptualize yet. And, again, with hindsight being 20-20, I realize now I’m someone who needs goals and challenges. I need to work towards something, or I spin my wheels, and Nick showed up with a project at just the right time.
After months of back and forth, planning, me writing, us figuring out structure and instrumentation, we decided he would fly out, and we’d record at a small studio in my hometown of Bainbridge Island, WA. It was a place we were both familiar with, surrounded by nature, and remote enough to keep us and the musicians I’d lined up focused.
14 MARCH 2020, CORONAVIRUS: 5 BULLETS
I was slated to record for 10 days on Bainbridge starting 16 March 2020. I look back on my text messages from a few days before that and see it was when large gatherings were being cancelled and potential domestic travel limits discussed. I’d already had a tour to Italy fall through, lost various shows, and had to cancel rehearsals because of COVID. I was a nervous wreck scanning headlines and our government’s orders, refreshing pages every five minutes for news. Then the studio called. The place we’d planned on using to record was no longer an option because of potential outbreak risks.
I was faced with a choice, with months of planning hanging in the balance of this decision. Do we hold off on recording until a more stable, distant future arrives? Do we re-organize the small army of musicians I’d lined up, faced with a towering wall of uncertainty? Do we abandon the priceless momentum we’d accumulated?
Or, do I say ‘fuck it’ and grab a ticket to Nashville with my cello and no guarantee I’d be able to fly back, record with session musicians I’d never met, and gamble that making a record anyway would be the best thing we could do?
I’ll remind you again, I shoot from the hip in most things, going by intuition, and I live by the belief that taking action, any action, is better than doing nothing at all. So I bought a ticket and tried not to think too hard about whatever the hell I was doing.
16 MARCH 2020, NASHVILLE: 4 BULLETS
It’s a surreal moment when we bridge the divide between digital and tangible life, no matter how organic or rich the connection with an online friend is. When Nick picked me up from the airport, I couldn’t help feeling awkward and hyper-alert sitting in his truck’s passenger seat. We’d talked for hours, but inhabiting the same space as him felt like the real test of our creative chemistry.
I’d never been to Nashville before this. They have musicians in the airport, and everyone was friendly when I asked for directions (or they took pity on the girl toting around a cello from terminal to terminal). We went to Whole Foods before unloading at the studio/my new home for the foreseeable future because, of course, all the restaurants had closed. I’ll admit I barely remember floating through the aisles. I think I grabbed a bunch of apples, some beer, a jar of peanut butter, and a few other things that probably weren’t actually enough to sustain me. This would be all I’d see of Nashville during my stay.
I had too much adrenaline that first day. I was eager to justify the risk of travel by making something. I remember trying to seem unflappable and calm, attempting to steep Nick and the studio owner in positivity and “good vibes.” We started recording scratch instruments and vocals (for the artists, this is a rough blueprint of a song that other musicians will then play over, then they’ll re-record vocals and their real parts later), and I sang too hard sounding strained and rattled.
For me, scratch tracks are always difficult because I’m alone. And it strikes me now that this experience was the first time I’d been truly alone. I’m usually at a studio with musicians I’ve known for years, I’m usually playing with a band that I’ve created, I was used to all these buffers I’d placed around myself for support. For comfort. For familiarity. I’d cocooned myself in safety nets.
It’s no wonder I was so anxious. I had nothing left to rely on besides… myself. And trust. Trust that even though I’ll never be satisfied by my own performance, I am talented. That I have something worth saying. That I, with the years of experience and writing and trying, could and would make something good.
So I shot my shot and began to lean on myself.
17-18 MARCH 2020, RECORDING: 3 BULLLETS
Miraculously, Nick was able to line up all the musicians we could possibly need. The countless tours and gigs being cancelled by the virus turned out to have a silver lining.
Drums were first. Aaron Shaffer-Haiss is a machine. He came to the studio and was just refreshingly professional. Maybe that sounds lame, but his confidence bolstered my own, and we all fell into a rhythm immediately that paved the way for the standard of all our future sessions. It felt like the work had started. It felt like we were doing the thing.
It felt like I had control.
I don’t think I can ever adequately explain that. Even though I’m used to being the only woman in the room who’s often the youngest (and queer to boot), it’s never easy for me to just be. I guess you could say that the feeling of being different is always unspoken. It’s present in everything I do, and consciously or unconsciously, seeps into the way people address me and speak with me. And, this is weird to say too, but I know I’m conventionally pretty attractive. And sometimes, I feel like it gets in the way. It makes people, cis men especially, more aware of how they interact with me. There’s always a filter between what they’re really thinking and what they say to me.
It’s frankly exhausting. And it was something I tried to get rid of as fast as possible because I knew it would hinder whatever we made if that barrier remained. And let me be clear: everyone I worked with was so kind and genuine, and no one was ever rude or anything. But at the end of the day, I can’t stand forced politeness or performative woke-ness. I just want us to make something honest.
I usually combat this by being aggressively me. I’m pretty crude and loud, but also I pride myself on being earnest and frank. I set up from day one what I wanted our communication style to be and that more than anything, honest opinions and feelings are what’s important. I tried to instil a sense of ease in everything I did, hoping that my environment would mirror me. I did consciously attempt to strip away pretences between me and who I was making stuff with, which could be emotionally taxing.
Booze helps. I remember taking shots of whiskey more than a few times.
19 MARCH 2020 COLLABORATION: 2 BULLETS
We were one song short when I arrived. I don’t know how, but we were. The extra songs I’d written weren’t quite hitting right. So Nick and I decided to write a song together.
The contrast between our quiet, small, controlled studio life, and the volatile outer world of news, politics, and COVID, was staggering. We both felt it in our core and wanted to try to make sense of it all in a song.
I’m a lyrics hoarder. I have notebooks upon notebooks of words and ideas that I come back to in an attempt to spur on a new song. Co-writing doesn’t come easy to me, but we’d manage to fumble out a verse, a rough form, and most of a melody together. It wasn’t until I was alone in the Airstream that I could pull out the voice memo on my phone and start writing in earnest.
I’m contrary to my core. If I try to write about one thing, it’s almost guaranteed I’ll write about anything but. We got stuck because we were writing too broadly. We were trying to make sense and bring hope to a situation that was hopeless and senseless. I wasn’t getting into the thick of what I was feeling about COVID or the world at large. So with everything happening around me, externally, I retreated to an internal narrative instead.
We ended up writing the track Honey, about my physical limitations and disability. At its core, it’s a song about finding peace in situations you have no control over. I’d never written a song like this before, let alone written a song with anyone else. It was a trust exercise I doubt Nick knew he was participating in. Showing the process – sharing the ugly parts of creating with someone, airing out your own shit – is really fucking hard. But because it’s hard, I believe that that means it’s worth doing. I want to chase discomfort because I don’t want to be afraid of feeling. If I can share that discomfort with another person, it meant I could share my music with the world.
26 MARCH 2020 LEAVING: 1 BULLET
Endings are anticlimactic. The album was a lot of work that finally caught up to me. It was 16, 18 or 20 hour days of wringing creative juices from my skin. And at the end, there was no clear narrative arc, just the drudge of reality hitting me squarely in the face.
I said goodbye to the studio, the little island of solace we’d made.
I had a beer and then another beer in an eerily empty airport.
I spoke with a waitress.
I called my mom.
Did you ever go to camp as a kid? Returning home felt a lot like that. The closeness you forged with others suddenly falls away with distance. The experiences are unexplainable, and there’s a mournful feeling of emptiness when you try to contextualize it in the grander scheme of your life.
So I’ve decided to stop trying. To let it be beautiful and fleeting and raw.
I didn’t want to write a diary of everything that happened because I’m not a good enough writer to make you feel it the way I did. Instead, I wanted to show you that doing something, taking responsibility for your life, is sometimes the only thing you can do when you feel helpless or stuck.
So take a shot. Then another and another and another. Life happens when you hit your mark.