With her debut album, it’s almost like Kat McLevey could have been speaking to her future self.
The 2012 recording, called “Turn Here, My Friend” and created for that year’s RPM challenge, is optimistic and bubbly, with songs like “Make a New Discovery,” about seizing the moment, and “Inward Giggle.”
“Be thankful for the birds, the bees, the sun and the trees/Be attentive to yourself and each other’s needs/But you can’t deny that we’ve got all that we need to get us through,” she sings on a track called “You Can’t Deny.”
By the time McLevey, now 18, released the record, she had already been playing music for a while. Having gotten her start learning instruments in primary school, McLevey — who sings and plays bass, guitar, ukelele, percussion, keyboards, organ and mandolin — was spending time in her basement, writing and playing music with her sister.
The siblings were, in fact, planning to do the RPM challenge together, but when her sister was unable to take part, McLevey decided to take a leap and do it herself.
“That was the first time anyone had ever heard my music,” McLevey explains. “It was received really well, and things just went from there.”
Along with playing bass in local teenage outfit City on the Coast, McLevey has earned two Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Awards, placed second in the national RBC Emerging Artist Mentorship Prize, second in MusicNL’s Newfound Talent Contest and won the MusicNL Statoil Christmas Songwriting Contest with her solo material.
She had begun thinking about working on another record when something happened to her which changed her life.
“I had a concussion in January of 2013,” McLevey explains of an injury she received playing basketball. “In May they finally did MRIs and realized that part of my brain goes down into my spinal cavity. I was having all these symptoms, I wasn’t in school, and they didn’t know what was wrong with me. Then they figured out what was going wrong, and I had surgery last October. They took out part of the spine and part of the bone.”
While McLevey was sick and before doctors had figured out the problem, she used her situation to her advantage, drawing inspiration from it to write songs. She has compiled five of them into an EP, “Drifter,” which she’ll officially release tonight with a show at Rocket Room in St. John’s.
An introspective little collection of songs, McLevey’s soundscape on the EP is varied, and runs from simple acoustic numbers to full-on songs with strings, drums and electric guitar.
The title, McLevey says, ties the songs together thematically.
“I feel like before (the brain injury), my sense of self was based on all the things that I was doing. I was doing a lot of sports and I was super involved, then I wasn’t able to do any of that anymore and I haven’t played sports since, which were a huge part of my life,” she explains. “The EP is about being a drifter and not knowing where I fit in anymore and having to construct a new sense of self.”
While McLevey may seem particularly accomplished given her young age, singer/songwriter Ian Foster, who produced “Drifter,” considers her a rising local star regardless of how old she is.
“A lot of people will say to young musicians, ‘Oh, you’re so talented for 18,’ but she’s talented for any age. It’s not even a qualifier for her,” Foster says. “She’s just talented. The music she writes relates to everybody.”
McLevey says she doesn’t feel that her brain injury has caused any personality changes, but has drastically changed her life. She admits she’s not yet back into a routine, and doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to play sports again.
She’s not short on things to look forward to, though. In August she’ll perform at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, and she recently got accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston to study electric bass. While she’ll defer her attendance for a year, until she has recovered a little more, she’s considering doing a degree at Berklee in songwriting. Over the next 12 months or so, she’s hoping to get funding to record a full-length album.
The “Drifter” release party will start tonight at 8 at the Rocket Room in St. John’s. Along with McLevey, there will be an opening set from Foster, as well as accompaniment by special guests Rachel Gauntlett on cello, and Maria Peddle singing harmonies. Tickets are $15 in advance at $18 at the door.
Kat McLevey will release her debut EP, “Drifter,” with a show at the Rocket Room tonight. — Submitted photo by Tom Cochrane