For her new album, Stronger, Kate Earl dug deep.
By Colin Stutz. Photographed by Stella Berkofsky
I like to live someplace where you feel smaller than nature, not the other way around,” says Kate Earl, sitting outside a hillside home in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighbourhood, beneath a wooden trellis snaked with a few plants. The singer-songwriter—wearing a black leather biker jacket over a playful floral romper, her thick bangs almost obscuring her heavily mascaraed eyes—looks up at the gray sky and forces a smile. “You can see beauty anywhere you are if you want to find it, but there’s a small level of guilt that I don’t live outside Los Angeles with my two-year-old.”
L.A. is far from Earl’s hometown of Chugiak, Alaska, which she left for California at 18, set on making it as a musician. She grew up there playing around the gun range near the airport, making finger puppets from the shotgun shells, and in the forests that surround the town, coming home coated in silt and algae like the Swamp Thing. She worked the cash register and stocked shelves at her parents’ gas station, listening to oldies on the radio or her four older brothers’ Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac records, and on Sundays sang in the church choir.
Earl’s new album, Stronger, came from a longing for her hometown—and a general need for comfort. Last year she left her husband of three years and decided to raise their son, Hank Wonder Jeffrey, on her own. To pay the bills, she hocked her electric guitar and her piano, as well as the diamond from the engagement ring that her late father had once given her mother.
This was a trying “new chapter” in her life, she says. “I started reflecting on what I’d come from and that sense of community,” she says. It pushed her to seek out musical collaborations with old friends, including guitarist Blake Mills, and team up with fellow Downtown Records artist Brett Dennen as a producer and songwriting partner. Together, they struck upon a sound reminiscent of the rootsy folk of the 1970s Laurel Canyon scene.
“There’s really something so uplifting about that entire period of music,” Earl says. “It’s very positive, but it doesn’t shy away from anything you need to chew on, so I think that was—” she trails off, gazing at a hummingbird. “Oh, that’s good luck,” she says in a sweet, light voice.
During the writing sessions in New York and L.A. that birthed Stronger, Earl says, “I just cracked myself open like a nut.” Working with Dennen, she digested the brutalities of the past couple years and found catharsis. “I do share these very personal and intimate details,” she says, “but I hope that I’m still able to reach people on a very human level about the identifying element in those [songs], such as wanting to belong, or wanting to feel safe, or wanting to overcome a struggle.”
The songs came quickly, starting with the album’s opening track and namesake, a steadily chugging anthem of resilience: “Times are hungry, could be worse, because my baby he eats first,” Earl sings in her pure, but vulnerable voice. Rather than write on piano, as she has on her past two LPs—2005’s folky debut, Fate Is the Hunter, and her poppy, radio-focused, self-titled release from 2009—Dennen pushed Earl to pick up her guitar. The new approach led to a far more breezy rock sound as she enlisted “some of the finest players in the business” to record with her at Santa Monica’s world-famous Village Studio, where The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, and Fleetwood Mac all once laid tape.
“Six months earlier I’d been hocking jewelry,” she says, as a few raindrops start to fall. “Like, are you kidding me? I’m all for the power of visualization, because I would sit in my apartment…thinking about being in a booth surrounded by people like that, and it happened.”
“And I don’t mean to say, ‘Oh, wishful thinking is the answer,’” she corrects herself with a grin. “But it’s OK to never give up. That’s what I mean.”
Kate Earl’s five favourite songs to hear while working at her family's gas station in Chugiak, Alaska.
“Proud Mary” - Creedence Clearwater Revival
“Because I actually have rolled down the river, I totally grew up in canoes, and so as a child I was like, ‘Oh yeah, get in a canoe,’ and as an adult looking back, I’m like, ‘Yeah you just have to make it go. Just do it.’”
“Mellow Yellow” - Donovan
“We had Mellow Yellow at the gas station, so I would crack one open when I heard ‘Mellow Yellow’ come on.”
“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” - Stevie Wonder
“This was childhood, so the perception at the time is, How can I identify with this personally? ‘You are the sunshine of my life’—that makes sense to a kid. And, later, I named my son after him.”
“American Girl” - Tom Petty
“My brothers turned me onto this one. I had a Huffy bicycle and I had this tape player in the fanny pack and I would listen to that song biking around town thinking, ‘I’m an American Girl.’”
“Gypsy” - Fleetwood Mac
“I remember my brothers listened to this. It was a huge influence on this record. Thank God for their record collection.”
Styling: BETH HOPPE
Hair: ALEX POLILLO
Makeup: BETHANY MCCARTHY