Kira Roessler: KIRA (Kitten Robot Records)
The debut self-titled solo album by the West Coast punk legend Kira Roessler tells stories of loss and omnipresent love. The musician chatted with Irina Shtreis about how it came together.
A former bassist of Black Flag, Kira Roessler is inevitably associated with the hardcore scene in California. Yet, over the years Roessler has been creating music of a somewhat different realm. Together with Mike Watt, one of the founding members of Minutemen, Kira formed dos. With the Spanish name that fittingly means ‘two’, the duo of bass players weave a low-timbre lace, seemingly resulting from a playful improvisation.
Under the name KIRA, Roessler has embarked on an enchanting solo journey. Balancing jazz improvisations and the recursive motives of folk song, Roessler creates a world so personal and unbiased that any music reference would be redundant. Although it took thirteen years to write and produce the material for the solo record, ten songs comprise a seamless sequence of stories. The opening Silently sets the tone for the album, delivering a sense of needed solitude and numb yearning. Framed by gentle flageolet chords, the bass slides up the scale, while the song transforms into a haunting narrative. Impressionistic keyboards add an element of a mysterious, almost ghostly presence. Each track attempts to invoke this otherworldly energy and features that once belonged to loved ones.
With an irresistible smile and sparkling eyes, Kira seems to be a kind of person that rarely has moody moments. Her sweet-natured openness seems in tune with the LA weather. A shimmering light in the background of the live video on Zoom suggests sunshine and warmth.
LTW: This record sounds as if it was recorded in a different place – its introspective quality suggests an environment that lacks sunlight.
Kira Roessler: It’s a sad record, it’s a story of love and loss. And in that way, I tried to connect with those feelings because I think we all have been there. When I feel something deeply I feel that it is so important to express, and for me, that’s with music, with my bass and sometimes with my voice. But I don’t think of myself as a singer, I’m a bass player who sings.
There is a sense of a deliberate work-in-progress effect on the record. Could you tell us a bit about the recording and production process?
It has actually been thirteen years in the making of this record. It’s chronological, it basically starts with earlier songs. The first track – Silently – presents the state where I was thirteen years ago, and then it brings the story much closer to today. In terms of the recording process, I usually get this strong emotion, I get this strong sense, or sometimes get just a small idea and I… dramatise it! I add drama, I pour additional angst into it in order to try to explain it in a way that we can all understand. Sometimes I overdramatise the story, but I would sit down and try to capture the emotion with my bass musically, then possibly by writing some lyrics – not always a verse, but just writing something, almost like prose, like a book. Then as the music evolves, I can start to format the words to fit the music but the music has to express the feeling. And then the words are manipulated in order to match in. And of course, because my voice is limited – again, I don’t feel like a singer – I just try to sing within that moment in time. Thirteen years ago my voice was actually different. As I age, my voice changes, and I think that’s reflected in the record as you go along. Maybe others will pick up on that. And the process has been for many years – even before the work on this record started, I would send these songs to my friend Glen Brown, who lives in Cleveland. He plays the guitar on the album. Then there is also a drummer here in Los Angeles, but we never played in the same room. Then my brother Paul would add a few pieces at Kitten Robot Studios. He is often the one I get together with for the final production.
Although both of you played in punk groups back in the late ’70s – early ’80s, these collectives were radically different (Black Flag and The Screamers, where Paul Roessler was a keyboard player). Do the genre differences, as well as different music tastes, affect your collaboration?
Of course, Paul and I are very different. His songs are very lush with many layers and mine tend to be very sparse. And yet it is helpful to have that different perspective to have him say “what about this and what about that?”. We, in a sense, push and pull in terms of whether other layers are needed or whether we need to pull things out. I often can be very brutal as an editor and say “yeah, I like this guitar but I’m going to pull this part out”. And the same with the drums – I might cut the drums section out. It’s funny because I’m an editor in my day job, I’m a sound editor, and so that part of me is a big part of that too. I will edit other people’s music or my bass lines. I will use the fact that I can do that to my own advantage.
That’s interesting. Do you apply these editing skills to your music writing?
I don’t know if that affects the writing part. It applies mostly to the recording. Let’s face it – in the old days, we recorded on tape. Now I can record with Pro Tools. In the old days, if I made a mistake, I would have to play the tape and play along with it in order to fix it. Now I can just simply fix it using sound editor software. I use the tools that I have – in this case, the editor on the computer becomes my friend; I can add another verse, I can insert another verse and lengthen it, I can manipulate the order of things – I allow myself to do whatever I need to do with that tool. I am still ultimately just a bass player who does it all, I don’t feel limited by the bass. I have never felt like – “I need to write a song on a piano or a guitar”. It comes very easily for me with a bass guitar.
Do you dissociate yourself from the lyrical hero?
No, the songs are very personal, unfortunately. Sometimes I listen to them and cry because it is very much from my soul. In one of the songs that I wrote with Petra Haden (Avoiding), both of us contribute emotions to the track and tell the same story from different perspectives. So in that one, I’m affected by the fact that I have a foil in terms of how we are telling the story. But in other songs, it is really a very base emotion that I’m trying to share.
Some of the songs sound almost like nursery rhymes, e.g. The Ghosts which seems to have picked some things up from a childhood experience. How far in time did you travel while working on this composition?
It’s interesting that you say that because this song delivers the experience of dealing with losses. When faced with a loss, all of the losses that we have ever had come to visit like ghosts. So you are right. My whole life of losses and things that have come and have left come to haunt me like ghosts. So it’s very much a story that encompasses the fact that, even though something might be happening right in that moment, it’s something that has happened over and over again. It starts to come into mind and it’s hard to separate what is happening right now from what was happening before.
You mentioned earlier that over the years your vocals have changed. There is a feeling that you also changed your approach to singing and trust yourself more to experiment with your voice than, for example, on the dos records.
On the earlier records, I didn’t want to sound too loud. I didn’t like the sound of my voice to be projected with force – I liked my voice better when I pulled it back. As my voice has gotten more delicate and I have less range, now I don’t have to hold it back. In general, with age, we all get more confident. I think that the ideas on this record are more my own than in dos. In dos, I’m battling with Mike, it is bass wars. The push-pull that happens between us totally affects everything about my writing and singing process, even if it’s a cover version. Also, I feel that now my voice has more fragility, it wavers more. I definitely have to sing within my abilities – and I always have had to but now my voice has lowered. It has more wavering and I have to allow that to be part of how I’m singing. I have to just let it be.
It adds charm to the record.
Thank you. Billie Holiday is my all-time favourite artist. Her voice, as most people know, changed a lot with the years. She lost a lot of capabilities but I admire how she still was able to express so much emotion even as her voice changed. So I try to utilise some of what I hear in her singing and her later records. I try to use that a little bit in how I approach singing.
Does the creative approach in your solo work feel more liberating than with your other projects, particularly Black Flag?
With Black Flag, I tried to do what was right for that music. Greg (Greg Ginn – a founding member of BF) wanted me to hold down very specific rhythms. I wasn’t being creative, it was more of a physical challenge than a creative challenge. Just play hard and fast, create the song in the way it was written by them. It’s not about me expressing my style. I wrote two songs during the whole time and these had been written before I joined them. It was not a creative time but a time to reflect what was needed in that moment. But after Black Flag, my first job was away from home and I would record bedtime stories for my nephews. I was afraid that they might forget about me while I was away. I would write two bass lines, intertwined along with these bedtime stories from books. I thought the bass was very soothing and one of my nephews had a very hard time sleeping. So I made cassettes for them.
Talking about the cover, it’s not the first time that dogs appear in the visual art related to your music. Do they play a significant part in your life? What is the story of your relationships with them?
After Black Flag, I moved to Connecticut for a year to do a computer job. I was lonely and my friend, a family friend, said “You should get a dog”. She recommended me a Bichon Frise, a Spanish breed. However, I lived in an apartment, was at work most of the time and my life was chaotic, I just wouldn’t be able to take proper care of a dog. Only years later, when I moved to a condominium and started working from home, was it finally the right moment. So I adopted Hombrito, the same Bichon Frise breed, you can see him on the cover. It was the most amazing relationship in my life – it changed me. I have never had children so I think for me, it was as close to having a child and getting to nurture and take care of a being. He got a brother and after we lost Hombrito, we got a girl as we didn’t want his brother to be alone. Now I have three dogs. To me, it’s a beautiful experience. I think, like I said, because I didn’t have children, it helps me to express that part of me that wants to nurture and wants to care for someone. It just creates that perfect unconditional love that is difficult to have with human beings.
The record can be ordered on Kitten Robot Records.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.