The Weight of Lia Kohl’s Small Planes

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I first became aware of cellist Lia Kohl through her debut collaborative duo release with Macie Stewart, Pocket Full of Bees. It’s a wonderful album because Kohl and Stewart have such intense-yet-playful chemistry that bleeds into every passage. I’m guessing I’ve heard her elsewhere, though, without actually realizing it. I’ve heard multiple people refer to her as Chicago’s secret weapon with the role she plays in not just contributing to so many other artists’ albums, but in planning events with multiple organizations too. 

Kohl’s first solo album, the fantastic Too Small to Be a Plain, came out last week via SHINKOYO/Artist Pool. It’s a seamless collection of interspersed moments that hold all their meaning within their ever-shifting shapes. It’s an engaging, heartfelt record that I can’t stop returning to, especially in the quiet moments after dark. 

This interview was done in mid-February. Lia Kohl can be reached via her website.

To begin, what are some of your early music memories, whether it’s a song or an album that really grabbed your attention as a kid, or even some environmental sound that evokes some kind of specific memory?

My mom is a musician, a wonderful singer, and a songwriter, so some of my earliest memories are of singing with her and hearing her sing. We had a book called Go in and Out the Window, which I think was put out by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which pairs English language folk songs with paintings from their collection. My mom and I would sit at the piano and play and sing for hours.  

Also, having a musician parent meant that I saw some amazing shows as a very young child – she would put a bunch of hats on me (so my ears wouldn’t get hurt) and take me to the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note or Avery Fisher Hall. I think I probably slept through a lot of it but I’m sure it still affected me deeply. 

I also grew up in the Orthodox Church and sang in the church choir, which has a very rich and old musical tradition. It was a pretty multicultural place – I was learning and singing Byzantine chant and Russian and Georgian and Serbian polyphonic music, and I know that I’ve been influenced both by those harmonies and the relationship to music as a vehicle for worship and an intentional connection to the divine.

As an older child and teenager, I got really into classical music – not only as a player but also as a listener. I had tapes of Schubert and Mozart and Shostakovich that I would listen to over and over again. I loved Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris and definitely had a moment with bluegrass.

When did you start playing an instrument and what prompted that?

After singing, which started from babyhood, I was always allowed to bang around on the piano but started taking more formal lessons from my mom when I was about five. That went well for a short time and then I think the parent-child dynamic made it difficult, and I remain a pretty terrible pianist. I went to Waldorf school for elementary school, and they have a strong music program, starting with pentatonic flutes and recorders. In fourth grade, we started orchestra, and I was allowed to pick an orchestra instrument. I have no idea what prompted the choice of the cello, maybe I had heard it on the radio or something. For whatever reason, the choice was very clear for me, and we got a rental cello and I excelled at it mildly, mostly because my mom told me to practice, and I was a good kid so I did what she said. I didn’t get more serious about it until high school when I got good enough to play chamber music, mostly string quartets. That’s the first time I really got to play with other people in a meaningful, non-hierarchical way, and fell in love with collaboration as a form for art-making.

You’ve played with a lot of great musicians and contributed to a ton of wonderful albums, so why did you decide it was the right time to make your first solo record?

Yes! Collaboration is definitely my first love and the way I feel most comfortable generating ideas. I am always fascinated and amazed by the specific synergy that comes with each combination of people, the things that appear between us that never exist alone.

Of course, the pandemic had something to do with starting to make things on my own, since in-person collaboration wasn’t possible and I have yet to have a meaningful and satisfying experience collaborating via zoom. As trite as it sounds I realized that I do need to make things, and I had to make that happen however it was possible – in this case mostly alone.

I have had it in my mind to make something by myself for a while, but other things always took precedence — it’s much easier to say yes to other people or to collaborations than to make time for my own work. So as awful as the pandemic has been in so many ways, it did provide some time and space for solo making that I don’t know if I’d have found otherwise.

The pandemic also forced me to figure out a way to record at home – I do a lot of string arranging and recording for other artists, and I did even more of that during lockdown (I wasn’t the only one making things at home!). So that also helped me to realize how much was possible in terms of home recording and what I could do myself.

And speaking of all those collaborations, how does collaborating and working with other artists on their projects important help inspire your own work?

I am always inspired by working with other people, but it’s a little hard to define. I think the best collaborations feel like someone reaching inside your chest and opening a door, and once that door is open you can go through it any time you want – in other collaborations or in your own work. I also have that experience going for walks in my neighborhood, or reading, or dreaming or talking to my partner. It’s hard to know where things come from.

I’m not sure of the timeframe here, but at some point when the process for Too Small to be a Plain began (or perhaps before!), you were spending time in your studio every day and making something every day. I’m so fascinated and impressed by this as it’s something I’ve tried to do with my own creative practice and failed after only a few days. What was the biggest challenge for you in doing this and how long did you manage to do it every day? 

I was a big practicer in high school and music school, often playing for four to six hours a day. Classical music has (or can have) a very athletic culture, and I enjoyed the discipline and sense of productivity that it brought. There’s a real feeling of clarity there – you never sit down at the cello and wonder what on earth you should do or make; you play your scales and then your etudes and then your solo Bach and then your concerto and then you call it a day. 

As my practice has evolved In more improvisatory directions, I’ve missed that discipline, and for a long time had been looking for a way to go back to some version of it, while honoring the creative place that I’ve grown into. 

Starting this discipline, it was helpful to remind myself that I didn’t have to finish something every day (in fact, I intentionally made myself not finish anything for a long time). As a mild perfectionist, I am historically uncomfortable with rough drafts and works-in-progress, which is not a particularly fruitful place for growth. Once I let go of finishing things, the daily practice came much more easily. 

How has the experience impacted your overall creative practice?

I think it’s been really empowering to know what I make on my own, even if just one version of it. I know it has affected my playing as a collaborator and improviser, helping me define myself more clearly. Not so much that I am improvising in the style of this album, but I think the experience has helped me hear my own voice a little more clearly.

As a kid, I used to be afraid that I didn’t have a personality because I was so good at mirroring and responding to others. I think some version of this fear seeped into my creative practice, so making space for myself to make on my own is affirming. 

I love the description of Too Small to be a Plain where you described it as: “I decided to treat my process like gathering tiny beach rocks — nothing stands on its own initially but after a few months you find yourself with a collection.” When I first listened to it, it felt like hearing a puzzle come together and these disparate pieces falling into place and connecting in ways I didn’t expect. As you began amassing these pieces, these different recordings, how did you approach trying to put them together in a way that made sense to you?

Thank you! I do also have a literal collection of rocks in my house, so it’s an apt simile.

I dealt differently with different tracks. Sometimes I found a “bed” that I liked: a drone or a field recording that particularly caught my attention, and started building a world around that. Sometimes I would make a bunch of fragments over the course of several weeks and eventually find a few that seemed to go together. Often I was also surprised by the ways that things fit together – there is a radio sample on the first track that just happened to be in the same key as a synth bit I’d recorded the day prior, so they went in the same bucket right away. Throughout the process, I was usually working on one or two tracks at a time, so if there were things I made that didn’t fit into those tracks, I would save them for later. By the time the album was finished I had a pretty big library of fragments to draw on.

Usually, a piece starts to build its own gravity once it has two or three elements in it; like a planet with specific atmospheric conditions, there are only certain things that can live there. I’m aware that that’s a scientifically mixed metaphor but I’m not going to fix it.

You mention that a lot of the smaller pieces that make up the songs on the album are improvised, which did surprise me considering how well composed the album feels overall. This kind of builds on the last question a little, but was there a point where the songs started to take certain shapes and you’d then write and record parts specifically for those songs, or were pretty much all the sounds on Too Small to be a Plain pretty much improvised?

Everything is improvised! Often things are improvised on top of each other – for example, the cello parts are often added last, played over whatever already exists in the track. Unless I’m arranging strings for someone, I almost never write things down. I find writing music (and reading music, actually) to be very foreign to my creative experience; I only use it as a tool for memory or learning things quickly.

What’s the story behind the album title?

There are three tracks that feature field recordings more prominently (2, 4, and 6). All of them feature someone talking or singing, so I just named the tracks after things that people say in the tracks. Track four, “Too Small to be a Plane,” is something I say to my friend Ryan as we’re watching the stars in Colorado (he’s asking if something is a satellite or a plane). For the album title, I just used a homophone of plane, plain. Vaguely, I’m thinking about how this album was made in small spaces, sometimes spaces that felt too small, or spaces I needed to create in my own mind to feel any sort of expanse. Maybe a nod to my home, the Midwest. These are ill-defined, intuitive meanings but meanings nonetheless.

I wanted to ask about a few other things not related to the album as well, if that’s okay. I’ve been absolutely loving the Honestly Same album the last couple of weeks and was totally unaware of the project until I somehow stumbled on the Bandcamp page. Can you tell me a little bit about how the project started and how the new album came together? Honestly Same is such an awesome band name.

Oh, thank you! Honestly Same is a project with some musicians who are very dear to my heart, and it’s been such a pleasure to build a practice with them. We’ve all played together in various capacities before – I’ve been in a trio with Zachary Good (with Ryan Packard) since 2015, I’m in a performance art ensemble with Zach Moore and Zachary (Mocrep), We’ve all played New Music with Mabel Kwan, and pieces by Sam Scranton, who is a wonderful composer. So they’re all long relationships, just a new combination. We got together in August at the initiation of Zach and Sam. I think they saw an affinity in our improvisatory styles and maybe our creative personalities. The rehearsal was so awesome that we just kept getting together, recording everything we did, and building a sound world. It’s unusual (in my experience) to have such a developed, regular practice of improvising in rehearsal with a specific group of people, especially when we’re not playing tunes. We have a good number of gigs lined up this spring, I’m so excited to see where it goes.

Okay and then I have to ask about your collaborations with Macie Stewart, which is actually where I first heard you play (or at least knowingly heard you play! I’m guessing I’ve heard you on a bunch of albums that I just didn’t realize at the time) and they are still two of my favorite releases in Astral Spirits sprawling catalog. How’d you and Macie meet and start playing together? Any new stuff in the works?

I love Macie, and I love playing with Macie. We met playing in a jazz combo some years ago and got along right away. It’s one of those creative relationships that always feels easy, even slightly familial. Our brains are connected in an inexplicable way that started immediately, and it’s been really fun to find ways to explore that together. Our first album (Pocket full of Bees) is a live recording of the second time we played together. The second one we recorded at the Comfort Station, an amazing little venue in Chicago with great acoustics, surrounded by a traffic circle. You can hear the buses braking and horns honking occasionally, which we love.

Growing from that experience, last summer we did a few “shows” in the parks around Chicago, experimenting with playing in different spaces and seeing what it does to our improvisation, treating the space as another improviser, in a way. We’re planning on developing that more over the next couple of years, doing something a little more long-term. 

Let’s end on a positive note (maybe!) – what are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year?

Yes! I’m working on some new solo stuff that I started in November at an artist residency on Vashon Island. It’s a lot of radio samples – I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the radio as an instrument, so I’m building things around that.

I’m also excited about a couple of projects that fall more on the performance art side of my practice. One, a duo with Nick Meryhew, which we’ll present at the Audible Gallery at Experimental Sound Studio starting in March. It’s a collection of video and sound work with bicycles and bluetooth speakers. And two, a new piece with Jasmine Lupe Mendoza and Corey Smith, which is a 24-hour durational movement piece that we’ll perform at ACRE in Wisconsin, and then release this fall as a book and an album. 

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