Space Through Reflection: An Interview With Kaleigh Wilder

Photo by Karl Otto from the Strange Beautiful Music festival, Detroit.

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I still don’t remember how I found Kaleigh Wilder’s debut album, Placemaking, last month, but it caught me off guard in the best way. It’s one hell of a record that I’ve been returning to at least once or twice a week since. As soon as I heard it, I wanted to know more about her and her practice, so I dug around a bit and then asked if she’d do an interview.

Wilder is an incredibly talented saxophonist, but her skill as a composer and improviser is just as impressive. Not only that, the way she thinks about music and approaches her work hints at so much more to come. Her debut threw down the gauntlet and now I’m ready for the next chapter.

This interview was done in late December/early January. Kaleigh Wilder can be found via her official website.

I always like to begin interviews by learning how musicians first discovered music and sound, so what are some of your earliest memories, whether it’s an album, a song, a sound in your environment, that you remember leaving an impression?

I came from a fairly musical family, so I was exposed to music at a young age. My maternal grandfather’s side of the family, who I was around a lot growing up, all played instruments. Mostly guitar, bass, drums. I remember when my mom got a keyboard, though, which was pretty significant for me. I would sit down at the keyboard and learn the pre-loaded songs by ear. For example, the right hand melodies to “When the Saints Go Marching In”, or “Für Elise”. I didn’t seriously get into piano when I was young (in hindsight I wish I would’ve!), but those early explorations using my ear were pretty crucial. 

I’ve also always sung! My mom and I would sing in the car all the time, or I would sing by myself and even improvise melodies and lyrics as I played outside (I was a huge tomboy so I was outside as much as possible). I loved Queen in grade school, like, I remember the first time I heard “Bicycle” and I was so enthralled by the theatrics of that song and by Freddie Mercury’s voice. Same with Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, or The Cranberries. I always tried to imitate the voices and sounds I heard, so music was pretty cemented in my life at a young age just through my environment.

From there, when did you start learning to play and create your own music, and what was the impetus for that?

I would say I was creating my own music before starting to play saxophone because I sang and vocally improvised so much, but I started playing saxophone in 5th grade and took to it really well. Interestingly, improvising didn’t carry over so much on saxophone as it did with voice. I got very into reading music, playing etudes, and eventually repertoire in 6th grade so my focus with my practicing and my saxophone lessons was there. I was playing jazz in middle, high school, and undergrad so I was improvising in that context. But it wasn’t until grad school that I finally connected free improvisation to my instrument. I’ve been creating my own music on saxophone since 2017.

Photo by Matt Lima

Is there something that drew you to baritone sax specifically?

I first took an interest in bari when I was a freshman in high school. I was second alto in my school’s jazz band but I sat next to the bari player so I heard all of the bari parts and thought they sounded so fun. Then my sophomore year I started playing bari in the show choir band, but in wind ensemble and jazz ensemble, I was principal or lead alto for the rest of my time in high school. The show choir band was fun because I got to play the range of the horn and really hold things down, and we also took a trip to California so that was the first time I ever really traveled to play music. I didn’t play bari in high school after my sophomore year. Then I got to college and my sophomore year I ended up playing bari in every ensemble: wind ensemble, big band, and a saxophone quartet. So that’s when I was finally able to dig in, four years after I first played the horn. I went to Europe with the big band two times in undergrad so once again, bari took me places. What’s really kept me, though, is the timbre, sonic possibilities, and the power/force that the baritone has. I haven’t turned back since.

You went to Ghana a few years ago to do ethnographic fieldwork. Can you talk a little bit about the impact that had on you and the influence it had on your creative practice?

So, I went to Ghana through a graduate certificate program offered at the University of Michigan, called World Performance Studies. When I started the program, I was getting a Master of Music in Improvisation within the Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation department. That year the jazz department had more women in the program than they ever had so there was a big emphasis on gender in jazz. This all tied into my research. The question I was trying to explore in my research was impossible I’ve realized since that experience, but I was asking if the predominance of men in Ghanaian music (or West African music in general) could’ve led to the predominance of men in jazz. I wanted to go to one of the many roots of Black American Music by studying Ghanaian music and also dance since the two are essentially synonymous.

While I was there for a month I had 30 hours of music/dance lessons a week. I also studied with a female master drummer, Charlotte Amonoo, during the last leg of my trip. I learned djembe, gyil, and Ewe drums all by ear and I even got to lead an entire dance troupe as the master drummer in my culminating performance. There was so much musical information during that time that I’m still seeing it unfold in my artistry 3.5 years later. The main thing I notice is how I feel and orient myself around time. The interlocking polyrhythms have found their way into some of the music I’m writing now. In Ghanaian music, what feels to us musical outsiders like the downbeat often isn’t, so I’ve enjoyed exploring that in my own music too. I had the privilege to study music theory with Ghanaian ethnomusicologist, Senyo Adzei, at the University of Cape Coast who taught me about Willie Anku’s teachings on regulative beat, how to notate Ghanaian music and bell patterns (from their perspective, not a Western one!), and how to orient myself within time and the regulative beat as I improvised. I also took away being a more confident dancer and mover! Which seems small, but I always thought I couldn’t dance, and then doing traditional Ghanaian dances got my feet moving and parts of my body I didn’t know I could move. Which was amazing once I moved to Detroit because of the techno and house scene. I love going out dancing now.

Something that really resonated with me was when Charlotte Amonoo talked about the taboo of women playing drums during our interview. She said, “At first they said that women shouldn’t play, drums are not our work. So I decided to play to break that down”. She went to an all-girls school where she was part of the very first all-female drum and dance troupe in the 1980s. She actually teaches drums at that same school now so she’s nurturing and empowering that change in the next generations. But she was set on changing these traditions by being herself and drumming. It’s something that really resonates with me because I’m a woman but I don’t really think or care honestly about my sex or gender in music. I just want to play! I want to break these things down by just being myself and not having to emphasize that I’m a woman. I am, so I just want to be. I want my music to speak for itself and not be preceded by my sex or gender. Charlotte Amonoo further empowered me with that.

Okay, let’s talk a little about your new album, Placemaking. For me, it’s an album that is just saturated with a heavy emotional undercurrent that really opens up whenever I listen closely. What was your mindset like as you were in the studio recording and improvising these pieces?

I’m really happy you like Placemaking and that the emotions come through to you as a listener. My mindset was definitely on what I was trying to emote to the listener. I was also somewhat nervous honestly because this is my first studio album and album as a bandleader, so I wanted things to go well and for us to say what we wanted to say. The day we recorded the album was actually the day of the verdict for George Floyd’s murderer, so that energy was palpable and found its way into the music. It also snowed that day (cue “Sometimes it Snows in April” by Prince) so the energy was, at least to me, a little subdued by this unwelcome reminder of winter. So all of these things added to this deeply reflective and vulnerable space Everett and I were in. 

With that emotional weight, though, there’s also something so freeing about the record. I keep thinking about how it’s like the idea of facing these difficult moments and feelings and acknowledging them, it sets us free in some ways to find some kind of peace in the world. Placemaking creates these spaces for listeners to really let go, but I wonder how, for you, this music allows you to process your emotions and how it helps you situate yourself in the world?

I love that you hear the weight yet also feel free. That’s what this music is for me. It’s my way to lay out pain, or emotional weight of any kind and let it go. I actually wrote something like this in the many iterations of my liner notes about “These Tears I Cry”. I wrote, “‘These Tears I Cry’ is an original composition that intentionally brings melancholic sounds and emotions to the fore, holding space for them to let them go.” I decided not to explain every piece in my final liner notes because I wanted the listener to be able to take what they needed from it without me prescribing how they should feel. But part of playing this music is how I can tell my story, express the pain, the anger, the emotions in my life without having to use words because I can speak it through the horn. It’s cathartic for me, and I’ve had so many people come up to me after shows and say things like “When you sang through the saxophone, I felt like I was in my mother’s arms”, or, “Your sound is so empowering”, or, “I feel so much more relaxed and whole”. I think people feel me when I play, and this record is really about that. Connecting with people at whatever level they need to be seen and heard. Ultimately, that’s how I relate to the world because I, just like all of the listeners, are experiencing life and the human condition, I’m just sharing my experiences sonically.

One of my favorite moments on the album is on “Dyad” where you’re playing these short burst runs and you do these guttural, cathartic vocalizations. It’s incredible! I know you describe “Dyad” as an orchestrated, improvised piece, so were those parts just something that happened and felt right in the moment? It’s so visceral that it blows me away every time.

Those vocalizations are rare for me. Like it has to be some intense energy on stage or in this case in the studio for them to come out. But they were completely in the moment. What was orchestrated was Everett playing kind of soft but high density, or with a lot of notes, and my part was to do these extended techniques and build to a really big point together. So the vocalizations were part of that build. Everett was bringing the heat and I had to match his intensity. This like, fire bubbles up inside me, and then sometimes I just yell or scream through the horn as the only way to really get that energy out of me. It takes me by surprise often times, too.

What’s the story behind calling it Placemaking?

The title was several things, things that are maybe disjunct but in my mind, they connected so clearly. So, last summer I was in a meeting with a group talking about grants for a project. The person we were meeting with was giving me some pointers on the draft I wrote, and he was emphasizing the importance of place and why we were doing this project of this person’s work in Detroit. He said the phrase “centrality of place” and it was such a pithy phrase it just stuck with me. A seed was planted.

Then, one night really late at night my partner and I were driving around Detroit and we found ourselves at Heidelberg Project, Tyree Guyton’s installation on his childhood street/neighborhood. We walked around and through the rows of things and ended up sitting down somewhere and talking about what this space meant. Guyton created this in the 1980s, during a time when crack had ravaged Detroit and many other cities and black communities across the country. His installation was a reaction and commentary on that (among other things). It made me think of how the specific circumstances in Detroit and the US in the ’80s caused this reaction in Guyton, how his embodied experiences and his alone bore what we see and visit still to this day. (Granted, Heidelberg Project has changed and I never saw the original because some of it was really unfortunately burned down, but what remains is still so powerful.) I guess what I’m trying to say is we wouldn’t have been sitting there late that night discussing Detroit and its history, or the history of the Heidelberg Project and Tyree’s pioneering vision, if not for all of these circumstances and histories culminating inside one person at that specific point in time. That’s when the name Placemaking hit me. That seed I’d been carrying with me bloomed that night.

I was at this place in my life where I was ready to put out my first album, and with that, I’m making a place for myself in the music scene in Detroit and within the broader lineage of improvised music. All of my embodied experiences have come together and this is the place I am right now and this is what I have to say right now. I’m the only one who can tell my story, so it’s on me to make that place for myself.

Everett Reid & Kaleigh Wilder. Photo by Karl Otto from the Strange Beautiful Music festival, Detroit.

How did you come to work with Everett Reid on the album? His drumming and rhythmic approach and your playing work so beautifully together.

I met Everett when I started grad school at U of M in 2017. I was so touched and taken by his energy, he’s such a positive light. I remember one time at someone’s gig I heard him play free and I was like, “Oh, okay, he can play in that context and he sounds great, maybe that can be something that we do together sometime.” Fast forward to fall 2020, I got called to play Kerrytown Concert House’s Edgefest and they specifically wanted a duo. I had this informal duo with a really great drummer already, but what went through my mind was do I want to do something I’ve been doing already, or do I want to try something new and push myself to write a little and get out of what’s comfortable? It was my gig after all, so I was being really intentional about what I wanted to say. I chose to push myself out of my comfort zone and the first person that came to mind for me to call was Everett. Thankfully he said yes, so we played Edgefest, and then that started it all. 

Can you tell me a little about the ensemble you play in, Gnostikos? How did you all meet and start playing together and what’s happening with the project? I only recently heard the social distancing album, but I’m super into it. It’s a totally different feeling than your solo work and I love hearing your playing in this different context.

Gnostikos was started by Michael Malis, the pianist in the group. If memory serves (the pandemic has really warped time!), Michael wrote his Dualisms project which had a piece that featured us as a duo and then another piece that featured Michael and the drummer in Gnostikos, Thom Monks, as a duo. I think that came first, then Gnostikos came after that where he added the final person, the french horn player, Zara Teicher. We had a performance in February 2020 and we were working on some music and ideating some performance concepts before the pandemic hit. We decided to do some Zoom sessions and just do some playing, then Zara wrote the pieces for social distancing and we said what the hell, let’s make it an album. These pieces are unlike the stuff we were working on before but we adapted to the time and found some refuge in being able to play together, even if it was through a computer. We’re currently on a pause because Zara and her husband just had a baby! We did some playing in person maybe a month or two before her due date and also had a couple gigs this summer, so we’ve done some things since the album came out. But we’re saving those pipe dream gigs we were dreaming up for when there’s more certainty in the world and stability in our lives. Literally, all of them but me have had babies during the pandemic so they’re a little busy with life. But this group is in no rush.

What are you most looking forward to in 2022?

It looked like 2022 was going to be better, then this new variant hit so there’s still some uncertainty. But I’m excited for the performances I have on the books right now. I’m also excited to book myself some stuff now that the album is out! I also want to deepen my duo and actually add another player now that Everett and I are established. And part of deepening this project is working on the material for the next record, which Relative Pitch wants to put out on their label. So that whole process is going to be incredibly exciting for me. In terms of life beyond music, I’m excited to deepen my relationship with my partner. He made the sculpture for the album cover and he’s been my biggest supporter during this entire process. He actually was the person who said I should make a record after Everett and I played Edgefest. He’s a pretty incredible human so this year I want to experience new things, new restaurants and go exploring even more with him. We like to take impromptu trips so those are always a ton of fun and much-needed getaways from life in Detroit. Long story short, I’m just excited for growth and another year of life filled with joy, successes, and love.

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