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Q&A: KAYE Finds Her Freedom on New EP, Neon God

Just a few short weeks ago, singer-songwriter KAYE (Charlene Kaye) released her brand new EP, Neon Godon Red Lily Records.

KAYE’s previous work included an album released back in 2020, titled Conscious Control, which happened to be her first full-length album in four years. You also may know her voice from her work in the indie band San Fermin.

In the Q&A below, KAYE answers some questions about her inspiration, how her unique childhood influences her sound, and gives us the inside scoop on the track “Respect Me,” my personal standout from the EP.

If you like the politics of artists like Self Esteem and Baby Queen, and love the synth ’80s sound of Jessie Ware, the angst of Marina & The Diamonds, and the funk of St. Vincent’s Daddy’s Home, I think you should give KAYE’s music a solid listen.

Staged Haze: What was it like growing up in different parts of the world and how did it influence the way you listen to and create music?

KAYE: I think living in a bunch of different environments and cultures really whet my appetite for touring. I love being in new places and seeing how people in different countries and cities experience music. It’s interesting though, in Singapore (where my parents are from), there really isn’t a desire in the culture for original music, which is why there’s historically been such a disconnect with my family about why I do what I do. If you’re a musician in Singapore, you’re playing as a cover band, playing songs other people already know. So it’s been interesting to break out of that as a first generation American kid, being like: actually, I have ideas that are my own, and things I need to say. So I’m gonna go ahead and say them.

Staged Haze: The music on Neon God is pretty different sonically from your work as the singer in San Fermin. Can you describe how you’re able to express yourself in both roles and what makes them different?

KAYE: I have such a deep love for San Fermin, that band is my family. Our group chat lights up 50 times a day with the most depraved humor, which I will spare you from. When I joined that band in 2014 I was actually feeling really burned out from doing my own music. I was bleeding money and feeling really jaded. I’m so fortunate that this band afforded me the ability to JUST SING, without a guitar, without hiding behind an instrument. I can’t describe the growth I experienced as a performer over those years. 

Staged Haze: You released your first full length in 4 years, Conscious Control, in November 2020: a very tumultuous time in America in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election. Did this time influence your work back then, and does the current climate we’re living in influence your new EP?

KAYE: In 2017, I ended a long-term romantic relationship, left San Fermin, and temporarily left New York. I experienced the ground falling out from under my feet in a way I have never experienced before, and it was painful and terrifying, but completely made me who I am today.

The experience felt related to what I’d read about one’s Saturn Return, where one experiences a lot of deep, tectonic change (often accompanied by loss) in order to truly enter adulthood. It reminds me of a quote by the great spiritual writer Stephen Mitchell who says, ‘The way, the great way, involves this: First the rug gets pulled out from under you. And then the floor gets pulled out from under the rug. And then the ground gets pulled out from under the floor. AND NOW YOU’RE GETTING SOMEWHERE. You’re getting to the recognition that there is no ground.’ But of course it’s unbearable when you thought you had security and control. Of course, we never do.

With this new EP, I was really feeling trying to channel some fluorescent joy. Coming out of such a sad record, I was feeling ready to dance again and write about some other things besides heartbreak. I’m pretty proud of this EP in that it ALMOST passes the bechdel test (one stray emo song about a boy made the EP). But every other song is distinctly non-romantic and has everything to do with my relationship with myself, which I love.

Staged Haze: Who and what inspires your creative process?

KAYE: Right now, I’m in a zone where I’m trying my best to sit back and let things happen instead of making them happen. I’m fastidious about my music and my art because I really enjoy the details, but sometimes that can result in this kind of toxic perfectionism that can result in anxiety. So I’m trying to listen more than I act, really channeling my intuition for what ideas or melodies happen to me.

I talk about this all the time, but I highly recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, which is all about living a creative life and treating it as a spiritual practice. In it, she says, “You must regard your art as if it’s the most important thing in the world, and also the least. Hold this paradox in your brain: It matters/it doesn’t matter.” Knowing that my work is incredibly sacred to me and ALSO inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, has helped me relax a lot.

Staged Haze: If you could collaborate with anyone, who would it be and why?

KAYE: I adore MUNA. I love every record, but their new one hits deep for me. I think Katie is such a special songwriter. Her lyrics have gotten me through a lot, as someone also trying to be more compassionate to herself and accept those messy bits, instead of constantly trying to correct every flaw. 

Staged Haze: What’s next for you? Any touring plans?

KAYE: Absolutely! Watch this space.

Staged Haze: We love to ask this to everyone we talk to, as our publication’s tagline is sharing ‘music’s best kept secrets.’ What artists are you obsessing over that we should get on our radar?

KAYE: I host a podcast that spotlights Asian musicians called Golden Hour, which you should listen to!! I want to shout out some of them – SuperKnova, EMIA, Shanghai Restoration Project, Mike Park. Next season, we interview Apl de Ap of the Black Eyed Peas.

Staged Haze: Can you talk about the video and song Respect Me? How did that come to be?

KAYE: Respect me was born from a myriad of experiences I’ve had both as a woman and as an Asian American woman while on tour and you know, just existing in the world every day. I had this experience last year where I was entering my apartment building in New York and this person said to me “Ni Hao, baby.” I ignored them, as I often choose to do. Then they said to their buddy, “Oh, she must not speak English.” I heard myself yell, “I speak English, I just don’t want to talk to you!!!!!!”

I got home and started to write a really earnest song about it, but with every version it just became wackier and wackier, with progressively more animalistic yelping and whooping. I didn’t fight it. Songs want to be what they want to be – I guess this one wanted to be like Talking Heads if David Byrne vogued and got his wig snatched at the end.

The video was insane to make. We had two looks—masculine, where I’m wearing a suit—and feminine, where I’m wearing these thigh-high boots and voguing. Some of the masculine choreography I straight-up lifted from the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” video, because that seemed like the right tone for such an irreverent song. The feminine choreography was done by my dear friend Frank Lombardi and it’s all really intense voguing. It was so clear how much harder the feminine choreography was. I was in heels, my wig was falling off, I had to do multiple takes of every dance. But when I was in the suit and sneakers, I just blazed through the whole thing because the standard of perfection was so much lower!! It made me think about how much harder it is to perform femininity than masculinity, how society holds men and women to wildly different standards.

Staged Haze: Anything else you’d like to add?

KAYE: The next record is already pretty much written! But I’m dying to tour this one and explore this live show even more. I really feel like I’m at the top of my game as an artist and it’s been so exciting to feel like these different avenues of interest that I used to feel were separate—dancing, playing guitar, stage design and costume design—are all coalescing in this exciting way. 

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