Kate NV: pop-music, cats & failures
interview
Jane Penny
13 FEB 2021
photo
Pavel Kling
text
Roma Pavlov
This interview was released after multiple requests from the fans of both artists.
In November, I interviewed Jane Penny, the frontwoman of TOPS, for Deep Cuts. While preparing for the conversation and reading her interviews, I noticed an interesting thing – whenever she was asked to recommend new music, she would mention Kate NV, a solo project of Katya Shilonosova, also known for her work with Glintshake and Decisive Pink.
Last year, Katya released Room For The Moon ― a project which strengthened her status as an international artist. The album was covered by The Guardian and I-D, with Pitchfork and Stereogum adding it to their year-end lists and calling it one of the best albums of 2020. Soon it became easier to buy a physical copy of the release from Amazon and Target than in record stores in Russia. This was an excellent chance to offer Jane to interview Katya, so that’s exactly what I did.
Album artwork for Room For The Moon
In early December, they connected through Google Docs and discussed the concept of pop music, cats, and their strange choice of a platform of correspondence.
Roma:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So, basically I wrote a lot of questions when I was first approached about doing this interview, and then the past two days, I decided to do some more research, and there are many interviews with you on YouTube; basically, I answered a lot of my own questions by watching them haha. So this will be more of a conversation!

My first question for you is about making pop music. I wonder, knowing your work with Glintshake and the different experimental orchestras, was it almost rebellious for you to make a pop record? When did you decide to make pop?
Jane:
Oh my god (laughs), first of all: I didn't know [these interviews] existed… I hope they are fine.

I actually don’t think of Glintshake as a “rock-rock” band. It’s pop for me, too; it just has a different approach at its core. I think I can say that with Kate NV, I explore imaginary worlds, and with Glintshake, we explore the absurdity of our reality. In both projects, we are trying to make it pop; I just don't think that we have succeeded (laughs). [By the way,] I could make a lot of mistakes, sorry in advance!
Kate:
No worries! It will all be translated into Russian anyways, right? So no one will ever know (laughs).

I totally get what you’re saying about Glintshake, I feel the same way about my band TOPS, that we’re trying to make pop but often failing, and these missed attempts have become the definition of our sound in a way.

In regards to the imaginary worlds you explore with Kate NV, I’m curious about the iconography, or visual identity of the project. When it comes to the clown aesthetic and the theatricality of your visuals, did you always have a fascination for these things, or did you develop this character and these visual tropes specifically for the project?
Jane:
I understand you as far as the failures [in trying to make pop]. I feel like failure plays a big part in my music. Especially when you just start and [still] search for your own musical language. You often try to imitate someone, and when you fail — that's where the real you appears.

I don't really know why I love this theatre/clown esthetic. I guess it comes from my childhood and soviet movies. With this record, I just started to [think of] different characters for the videos, and they randomly came to me. It was almost the same as making music. I basically do nothing, and it just comes to me. Like a cat, you know (laughs). But I guess as an artist, I have some similarities with [my characters]. I interpret my own music on stage, and I'm always trying to tell a story.
Kate:
I often find that certain themes, or a specific visual style, will emerge in the work of musicians unconsciously. Being able to identify this inspiration and cultivate it really takes the visual world of a musician to a new level. I find it really impressive the way that you’ve been able to recognize these themes for yourself and use them in new and interesting ways from video to video.

Also, back to failure in music. For me, my mistakes are usually my best ideas! Mistakes, and also unconscious expressions. Like, the chord progressions I’m the most proud of often came from me recording myself at home. All of a sudden, I just play them out of nowhere, and they’re much more complex and emotional then when I sit and really TRY to write interesting chords.
Jane:
I always fail when I have some specific idea initially because it brings so much pressure like you have to build up everything around it. Sometimes it works, but [mostly] I just let the music do its own thing. It’s more natural and honest, I guess.

I love mistakes. It is the way I can accidentally learn something new about myself, too.

It's like improvising with other people — you have to listen carefully and deal with something unexpected. And it’s the same when you are alone with yourself, but there is always music. And when you let it happen — it’s the best. It shows you so much more, like a conversation.
Kate:
A musician friend of mine once gave this advice to making music: she said that you can imagine inspiration to be this beautiful woman. Each day, or night, you set the table and put out the flowers and light the candles, by which I mean you sit in your studio with your instruments, and you try to woo her, to coax her into showing up. She’s very picky and she won’t come every night, she needs you to prove your devotion to her. I think about that when I’m having a lot of trouble writing music.
Jane:
That sounds very beautiful! I sometimes compare making music with fishing (laughs). Sometimes you just come, and there is nothing there. But you still have a moment when you can enjoy the view tho, [even if] you won’t catch any fish. So you just have to accept it the way it is.
Especially when you improvise on stage. Because there’s a pressure that you have to come up with something. Music taught me a lot of things.

I'm learning all the time. Especially now. This year was really hard for everyone, and now I'm learning not to blame myself too much for not doing a lot and not doing it constantly.

And yes, she’s very picky (laughs) like a cat.
Kate:
Yes, just like a cat! Reminds me of the way a cat will scratch you when you pet them for too long. One of my biggest lessons with making music is to anticipate the feeling of being let down by a song. When I first make a recording and it went really well, or I’m just caught up in the inspiration of making music, I used to get so disappointed when I would come back to it and it wouldn’t be the most incredible thing ever. Now I know to expect that some of the fairy dust will go away, and I look forward to hearing the music for what it really is the next time I come back to it. That sense of disappointment after being inspired and kind of glorifying the product of inspiration used to be really hard for me. I find getting to the finished stage of a song the most difficult.
Jane:
It’s interesting. I have lots of unfinished projects on my laptop: songs or tracks. And I realized that sometimes it’s just not their time to be done. I usually go through them and start working on the one that makes me excited at the moment. I think this helps me a lot. It’s like (here comes another comparison, haha) with flowers. Some of them grow really slow and need more time to bloom. Sometimes it feels like I have a small garden and I’m just checking them. It happened with this record. Some of the songs are really, really old. There were moments when I had literally no idea what to do with them. Like I had some short sketches that I loved and then nothing. So I had to leave them and wait for myself. That's why I started enjoying the process of checking old projects: because sometimes you can finish something old you started a couple of years ago. It helps me not to get really upset about something. I always keep in mind that everything has its own time.
Kate:
Yeah, definitely. It’s important to be patient, and [it’s] interesting how songs actually change over time like that. What program do you use when you make music? Do you use a lot of samples, or are you mainly recording drum machines and synths, etc.? I would love to know what your setup at home is like!
Jane:
My setup is very, very boring, haha. I have a laptop, I use Ableton (because it’s very user-friendly), and I have lots of synths. Sometimes I borrow some of them from my friends. I don't have drum machines, but I have LOTS of samples collected by my drummer friend, so they all sound good (laughs). I have my guitar, and I have a friend who is a guitar player in Glintshake; he also plays bass really well. And just because a bass guitar is [less familiar] for him, he comes up with really cool riffs and hooks, ‘cause he’s not using his trivial and familiar [ways] that he usually does with his guitar. He recorded most of the basslines on this record.

I used some samples from a great sample pack that was made by my friends. “Broken instruments orchestra” or something like this [Broken Instruments -Ed.]. I think you can still download it for free. It's a pack that was recorded on different broken instruments. It sounds so silly sometimes, but I really love it.
Kate:
That sounds like an excellent setup! I’m not a gear head at all. Since I moved to Berlin from Canada, I’ve just been using a keyboard midi controller and my laptop with Logic, so I have access to hundreds of sounds on my computer but no analog synths, which is how I first fell in love with writing with synths. When you write your drum parts, do you trigger them with a keyboard or a midi device? or write them in? This question is literally just for me, it’s so nerdy, but I was so obsessed with your drum programming, and also the fidelity of the samples, when I was listening to your record.
Jane:
Thank you! I just use a simple midi sequencer, the default one in Ableton, called Impulse, and I just use my laptop keyboard with seven knobs. I attach some samples, and then I just play. I have 2 or 3 tracks with Impulse, [depending] on my needs in a specific track; like I usually put percussion separately ‘cause it’s easy to mix it later). so yep, I just use my laptop keyboard (laughs).
Kate:
That's amazing! I think anything that can capture physical playing does the job just fine, if that makes sense. I have a friend who used his laptop keyboard for writing chords and his computer speaker for recording vocals and made some amazing songs that way.

Going back to your bandmate who played bass on the record ― how was the process of involving other people after spending so much time in the private space of your room with these songs? It’s incredible how the additions from other people meld perfectly with the existing elements. I was especially impressed by how the saxophone parts fit within the rhythmic structure of the music. It's hard to imagine how it sounded before they were there.
Jane:
Thank you! With my bandmate, it’s always pretty easy, ‘cause we know each other for years, and he’s probably the only person who gets all of my references immediately. We definitely have a very similar sense of music. Sometimes we can just meet up at home or at our studio place where we rehearse, and randomly record something. With some of the tracks, I could just play the chords and tell him what I would like to hear, but usually, he understands it without any explanations. I’m really grateful that I have such an amazing person in my life, haha. The saxophone is a bit different, but I must say that when you meet someone who has similar views and vibe, haha, it’s so easy to make music together. It just happens naturally. Also i must say that the saxophone in «Plans» is a saxophone that was chopped and stretched from that sample pack with Broken Instruments, lol. And sometimes I open my very oooold sketches where there’s only bass and a couple of synths, and I have no idea how it led to something that I now have on the album. Especially the track «Telefon.»
Kate:
You’re inspiring me to rectify my old sketches! Also happy to hear some of the secrets behind your songs, «Plans» is my favorite song from the record lately.

I can’t agree more about finding people that share your sense of music, it’s very important! But I also love the way that different perspectives can make something more unique, when that happens, which is not always. That's a very rambling story!

I wanted to ask you again about your videos, because they also seem like the product of collaboration. They actually seem really hi-fi, like they’re filmed on a professional sound stage. At the same time, they are obviously the product of one individual, interior world. How do you go about developing the concept and then bringing it to a finished product? Is there a team you worked with for multiple videos?

And another question while I’m at it, haha ― did you always dance and choreograph your performance the way you do in the videos, or was this something you developed as a solo artist?
Jane:
I know what you are talking about [with different perspectives]! Yes, and it’s very important to think outside the box. And sometimes, when everything is too smooth, you kinda lose something. I don’t know how to explain [it], but yes, it's great to find [the] courage to try to work with different people and let unobvious things happen. Like with mistakes :~)

So, about videos,

We filmed three videos together with an awesome team in Moscow in August 2019 (yes, haha, long time ago): «Lu Na», «Marafon» and «Telefon» (and yes, there’s a «Telefon» video that I need to edit haha). We filmed three videos in two days with really great people. I came to the director, Gina Onegina, with an idea for one video, and it accidentally turned into three. I remember I was just sitting at home, and those characters just came to my head. That happened to me with cats from «Lu Na.» We filmed everything on Betacam, ‘cause we really wanted it to look like old tv shows. As if you were a kid and you turned the TV on, and there was a weird show where you don’t understand a thing but you see a short part, some sort of a performance from a fairy tale or something.

[For] «Plans,» I worked with my great friend: he usually makes videos for my bandmate (the one who plays bass), and he once made a video for Glintshake. So we just decided to make something together. I actually came up with a storyboard (laughs). I just can’t help it: sometimes I see something in my head and I need it to be released somehow!
And I actually don’t really know how to dance, and all of these dances are improvised (except cats, cats are pros and they can do a lot of stuff) and I can't do as much. But I have some pictures in my head, and I'm just trying to get as close as possible to the way I imagine it.
Kate:
It's very impressive that your movements are all improvised! And it really makes sense that you filmed those videos together: it actually adds so much to the visual identity of the album, because you really feel like you’re entering a world and spending time there from song to song, even though the concept shifts.

I don’t want to talk about the pandemic so much, because it affects everyone in such different and personal ways. Instead, I’d like to ask: what [are you] preoccupied with musically right now?
Jane:
Pandemic hit hard on me. I was fine in the beginning and now I feel kinda lost. Really, sometimes I feel so uninspired, especially knowing that lots of people went through this stage in May and I'm just enjoying it now, haha. But I just remembered again that [inspiration] is like fishing. And it’s important for me to learn again not to expect too much from myself and music. and just do something that makes me excited. I have plans to record more music on my guitar because it feels that she misses me a bit.

I need to finish some old projects that I started with my good friend. So I do not have crazy plans, haha. This year made me more patient, I guess.
Kate:
I can relate! I’ve just taken a huge break from making music, the longest in my life.
Jane:
Wow, me too! This is crazy!
Kate:
Yes, here we find ourselves! What have you been doing instead? I taught myself how to knit, which has been a nice lesson in patience again haha. It takes a long time, and the outcome is unremarkable, but it activates my brain in a nice way, and it’s a very low pressure activity. I heard you like to bike! But maybe it’s too cold for that now.
Jane:
Yes, unfortunately, I can’t bike [right] now. I wish I could, tho. That's my favorite thing. It’s amazing that you learned how to knit! It really helps the brain. I've been reading a lot about the brain recently and it's good to choose different directions and knit or do ceramics. etc.

I've been drawing a lot this year: got myself [some] amazing markers [from] AliExpress. It was very cheap and so great. I think I haven't been drawing that much since university. And it feels so great! And I also sleep a lot which is also amazing.
Kate:
Jane:
Me too! I sleep and knit, I’m an old lady now.

I feel like I’ve taken so much of your time, but it’s been so amazing to talk to you, and interview you in this experimental style.
Kate:
This is one of the best interviews I've ever had! I didn’t even notice that it’s already 18:20 I've been smiling the whole time. Surreal way to do the interview but it was so intimate, I don’t know why!
It’s been a huge pleasure for me, it’s my first interview, being the person asking the questions! So you saying it’s one of the best fills me with so much happiness. I’ve been really looking forward to this!

Hopefully we can meet someday! Until then please know that your music is so inspiring and is being appreciated all over the world!
Jane:
Kate:
Thank you so much! We definitely need to meet up once the pandemic is over! And thank you once again, all the questions were amazing and it’s so nice to talk to a person who understands the process and who makes awesome music and it just warms my heart.
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