Kat Steih thoughtfully assembles a majestic, restorative alternate universe for near and far like-minded souls.
Inside that mystical world, the Ann Arbor alt-folk singer-songwriter invites listeners into a captivating electro acoustic dreamscape on her new EP, Songs from a Faraway Galaxy … And West Park Volume 1, which dropped Aug. 28.
“My music has a strong element of escapism. I’ll be in the middle of an experience that I don’t want to be having, feeling that inner roar of resistance, and then suddenly a melody with words and a vibe will pop right into my head,” Steih said.
“A big part of musical journey is increasing my skills so that I can capture those ideas to convey them to others. It’s really important to me to share (the ideas) because they arrive like gifts from the universe.”
Throughout her latest release, Steih packs an expansive, cerebral and folky sound across four hypnotic, ethereal tracks while venturing through past experiences, changing relationships, personal growth and long-awaited renewal. It’s a mesmerizing, introspective follow-up to her breathtaking, spiritual 2019 Americana album, Hymns of the Huron.
“I’ve always loved theatrical music production like Pink Floyd, Queen and Kate Bush. The sound of this album is influenced by my collaboration with Samn Johnson while the sound of Hymns of the Huron was very influenced by the band that Ben Lorenz put together,” she said.
“I bring the melodies and chord progressions, but the final product is colored by who’s there and the vibe of the environment we’re in.”
Geniuses and Willows
Steih beautifully captures that exhilarating vibe on Songs from a Faraway Galaxy … And West Park Volume 1’s free-spirited, St. Vincent-esque opening track, “She’s a Motherfuckin’ Genius,” as bouncy bass, energetic drums, vivid keys and smooth electric guitar pay homage to strong, inspirational women.
She reveals, “All those motherfuckin’ goals in the way/All those motherfuckin’ lows in the way/All those motherfuckin’ games you’ve had to play/Though life is but a dream.”
“She’s a Motherfuckin’ Genius” also pays tribute to Steih’s mother and includes excerpts of women reflecting on the impactful female heroes, mentors and role models in their lives.
“My mom Gail is someone who’s comfortable being on the verbal offense. Whenever I’ve experienced a conflict with someone, she’ll say, ‘You should have said …’ and then make a joke. We’ll riff on it, and sometimes it’ll become a funny song.
“For example, one time she drove me to a show audition where I knew the judges would want something upbeat. I had brought my most upbeat, pop-sounding songs, but apparently they weren’t upbeat enough. After the judges heard me, they said, ‘You seem very timid.’ Do you have any upbeat songs?’
“Afterward, I went out to the car trying to hide my sadness, and when I told my mom, she said, ‘You should have told them, Wait, you wanted an upbeat song? And then you should have made one up!’ The whole car ride back we laughed and made up upbeat songs I could have sung to the judges.
“Those experiences of funny verbal responses definitely inspire me. ‘Genius’ came about when I had a great idea, and my brain responded with the ‘I’m a motherfuckin’ genius’ lyric and melody. A very Gail-esque response … then ‘I’ became ‘she’ so that the crowd could get involved if I played it live,” Steih said.
While Steih celebrates a collectivistic mindset on “She’s a Motherfuckin’ Genius,” she seamlessly shifts to vulnerable internal thoughts and feelings on the atmospheric, acoustic gem, “Weeping Willow.” Her delicate vocals flow, swirl and glide alongside the track’s breezy, romantic feel as she searches for everlasting peace.
Contemplative acoustic strums, calm strings, soaring bass, deliberative violin and vibrant, floaty synths surround Steih as she ponders, “Weeping willow, won’t you weep for me/By the willow tree, I’ve been waiting for you/To come and hold me/Weeping willow, won’t you weep for me/By the riverside, I’ve been waiting for you/To come for me, too.”
“The songs, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Weeping Willow,’ are special for me in that they’ve captured the feelings of moments when I’m by myself. When my drive to do things isn’t there, and my people aren’t there, I’m in a moment of profound stillness with pure awareness of my thoughts,” she said.
Collaborations and More
Steih started writing and recording tracks for Songs from a Faraway Galaxy … And West Park Volume 1 remotely last summer with producer Samn Johnson. Together, they compiled a dozen new, multi-genre tracks filled with shimmering melodies, compelling harmonic contexts and versatile, electronic instrumentation.
“I sent Samn the songs with just me playing the chords on my Yamaha keyboard and singing. Then, he re-recorded all the instruments, made more detailed arrangements, designed the sounds and mixed. He has a classical music composition education, a mind that eats technical details for breakfast and an artist’s heart that was open to my vision.
“On the song, ‘Staring at the Ceiling,’ I’d written the song with a minor chord in the guitar and the same chord, but with a major interval in the melody, so it was a dissonant sound. If it had been just me producing, I would have just left it the way it was.
“If it was someone else with Samn’s level of knowledge producing, they might have said, ‘You can’t have a major melody over that minor chord.’ But Samn said, ‘That’s cool, let’s make it even more dissonant and really shine a light on it,’ and designed a sound that was a cluster of dissonant tones filling in the background. I think that’s my favorite song on this EP,” Steih said.
While sequencing her newly recorded tracks, Steih opted to release a cycle of three, four-track EPs instead of a full-length album. She said she “got permission” for that approach from Rick Rubin, who recently mentioned on a podcast that he and Tom Petty might have released Wildflowers in shorter increments had it been released today.
“The different genres on the album naturally grouped the EPs, and those moods always had a seasonal feel to me. It’s as if they would be best heard in the fall, winter and spring,” Steih said.
“I also really like the idea of 20-minute music experiences where you give your full attention to the music. We’ll release Volume 2 in December and Volume 3 in March or April.”
Songs from a Faraway Galaxy … And West Park Volume 1 also allows Steih to return full circle to her longtime electronic, intelligent dance music (IDM) roots. She started writing songs in 2012, but began releasing improvisational electronic music singles, EPs and albums three years later under the artist moniker iO Megaji.
“I started making electronic music more because I couldn’t remember how to play any of the songs I was writing. I discovered that the music I was making was very different from my conscious persona,” said Steih, who’s influenced by Dave Matthews Band, RX Bandits and My Chemical Romance.
“I have an extroverted persona that gets tons of energy from interacting with people, and up until then, I only accepted that side of myself. Then, I discovered that the music I was making was coming from dark places inside me … it was so disconcerting because it didn’t feel like I could present that side of myself to the world as Kat Steih.”
By 2017, Steih dropped her first release, Songs from a Faraway Galaxy and My Backyard, under her actual name after studying songwriting and electronic music production in Denmark. The two-track EP showcases a striking acoustic collaboration between Steih and Danish musician Per Worm.
“Per came up with the idea for the title. He told me, ‘Kat, Some songs you write make so much sense as songs, and other songs you write seem like they come from another galaxy. You could name an album Songs from a Faraway Galaxy and My Backyard,'” Steih said.
“Then, that title idea came back to me over the pandemic because I was hanging out in West Park a lot, and the songs with Samn were becoming more highly produced and intergalactic.”
As part of that creative release, Steih recently celebrated her new EP with Kid Cooper Levy, BURN mARALAGO and Christopher during a show on Washington Street outside Ziggy’s. She was joined on stage by Alex Anest (guitar) and Johnson (bass).