Audra Kubat is speaking in a stream of consciousness — but it's mostly because of the circumstances of this special interview. It's rare to be able to sit down with an artist and interview them while they listen to their latest creation, and she's threading her observations along a circuitous path of considerations.
"I don't know if I was always aware of the power of music," she says, "and the power it has to inspire, and to create self-reflections."
We meet in Hamtramck, utilizing the best speakers we could possibly find, and we're the only two people in the world, at this moment, listening to the songs on the Detroit singer-songwriter's new album, The Sliver and the Salve, which will be widely available this weekend, after her Friday performance in Rivera Court at the DIA.
And it's not every day I can witness an artist's profound realizations about the arc of their creation in real time.
"I first got into songwriting because I needed to heal myself, and early on it was this way for me to find myself, to figure things out," Kubat says. "Hopefully I'll always be figuring it out, and figuring out how to wield this amazing gift; but I am closer to it. And I think that I'm still using music for that same purpose: for healing."
With The Sliver and the Salve, Kubat decided "I really wanted to spend a lot more time with each of these songs, and really get in there and get my hands dirty," she says. "And I have. I feel like I have."
The sun slowly sets in front of us, with an orange glow spilling forth through crinkly, yellow leaves. Two cups of tea waft steam across the dashboard of Kubat's car as we go through the album on her stereo, track by track.
"I feel like the songs on this album are about change, about moving on, about realizing truths," she says. The record is more personal than 2016's Mended Vessel, "which was more like these travelogues or these vignettes about people; it was a warmer, comforting album. (Salve) might not be that kind of album, but that doesn't mean there's not still hope in these songs."
Kubat is a self-taught songwriter and composer; she grew up in Northwest Detroit in Rosedale Park and started making music on the piano by the time she was 8 years old. As a teenager she picked up the guitar (again, self-taught) and started hitting the coffeeshop circuit, eventually forming a band called Stunning Amazon, and releasing a debut album in 1999. She got onto the radar of major music tastemakers like NME in 2004 and 2006, when her signature voice, dynamic guitar style, and prevailing lyrical theme of compassion and worldliness came into vibrant fruition with two albums, Million Year Old Sand and Since I Fell in Love with the Music.
Along with several Detroit Music Award nominations and wins, her artistic progression has been documented here in the Metro Times, as well as other publications, and there have been several in-studio performances over at WDET. But if this is your first time encountering Kubat, her latest songs could stir the deepest and most universal kind of resonance with new audiences, inclined toward the storyteller aesthetic of traditional folk music that builds narratives with relatable themes, while also mixing in her own personal revelations and recent confrontations of hard to face truths. In many ways, this album is about the difficulty of change, and the ways in which moving on, moving forward, can be both painful and restorative.
"Empathy is a gigantic concept for me," Kubat says. "I often think of the Octavia Butler novel Parable of the Sower, which is about these young people who have this hyper-developed empathy, but they are seen as having a disease. But I look at the main character of that book as being part of evolution. Hyper-empathy could be part of a revolution, as well as our evolution." When Kubat recalls the plot of this book, which is usually shelved in the science fiction section, she thinks about how the empathy of these characters "would have saved the world."
And just that, saving the world, is absolutely on her mind during one of the album's stand-out tracks.
"The song 'Oh, Mother' is the most, I think, globally significant song on the album," she says. "It is me saying that I will sacrifice everything to do this work. I did want it to be an anthem, in a way. These are bold lyrics masked in this lovely melody, and softened by the hymnal sort of vibe that it has. But, yeah, the words are dangerous. I felt like it was time that I wrote something that is not about me — it's not about you; it's about us, and beyond that, it's about just this bigger idea. To me, Mother Earth is god, she is my goddess. I feel similarly about the universe — that it is the proof of my existence in a godly form."
The album art was conceived by photographer Nomadic Madam (a.k.a. Miles Marie), with artist Daniel Land, centering Kubat as a verdant, pale-green life force framed by a violent smog of pollution and industry. It echoes the "Detroit Industry Murals" frescoes that adorn the DIA's Rivera Court, where she'll be performing, as muralist Diego Rivera similarly contrasted the disparate and awe-inspiring energies of nature and industry.
"I think I wanted to write something akin to 'The Times They Are A-Changin'' because it is brash, and aggressive, but, like I said, masked in this beauty, this beauty that was feminine. I didn't want it to be angry-sounding while I was singing it. I wanted it to be a beautiful ode."
The Sliver and the Salve is also the name of one of its songs; that title track, along with several others, details the quiet and very personal anguish of big life changes, and musters as much inner peace as is possible in times of upheaval. Along with that, this album is one of Kubat's most richly adorned musical productions: its contributors include Sean Blackman on classical guitar, Chuck Bartels on bass, Drew Howard on electric guitar, and Aaron Markovitz (of Escaping Pavement) on mandolin. It also includes not only touches of pedal steel and mandolin, but also treatments from acclaimed, visionary singer-songwriter Shara Nova (aka My Brightest Diamond).
The aforementioned "Oh, Mother" was dazzlingly augmented by a once-in-a-lifetime alignment of contributing vocalists — a choir-like arrangement of contemporary singer/songwriters such as Anne Erlewine, Annie Bacon, Emilie Rivard, Jo Serrapere, Sodra Jane, and Marbrisa, along with two other singers from a separate Kubat project, the harmony-centric folk trio known as Kubat, Finlay & Rose, i.e., Tamara Finlay and Emily Rose.
One comes to appreciate the power of music even more so when the listening is a group experience; it's quite another level of intimacy when it's only two people, and one of them is the mind and voice and heart behind the words and melodies. When Kubat mentions "realizing truths," I ask a bit further about that potentially being the purpose of her artistry. And she answers that she may have found a truth: "that I was meant to roam..."
She pauses for a deep sigh. "I feel very much that with my work, I wouldn't be able to do it if I'd chosen another path. And I feel like I've gotten to a place where I'm not struggling with that choice anymore, or wondering or regretting. I'm no longer grappling with that. So it's been freeing to feel that way and to move away from just the idea that 'I'm a folk musician,' or 'I'm a girl with a guitar...' I'm a woman with a voice and with abilities to play whatever I want and put it in whatever direction I want. I no longer feel that I need permission. And I'm no longer afraid to ask the tough questions of myself."
This consciousness of her creative process and musical existence was heightened over time through her role as an instructor at the Detroit Institute of Music Education, as well as teaching positions with the Living Arts nonprofit and the DIA's Inside Out Literary Arts creative writing program. "I'm often teaching about how important it is to be able to step back from a song and really look into it, and until I started teaching six years ago, I wasn't doing that with my own work," she says. "So I started practicing that myself. Coming into music education has utterly changed my life on so many levels. Beyond how important it is to bring songwriting into schools and teach kids performative skills, these organizations have given me a different way to live; I've found a place for my artistry to thrive and for me to make a living."
Once she realized she could make a living through music, her next natural impulse was to find a way to give back and expand access to music and song creation. Kubat is deep into the work of renovating a house in the NW Goldberg neighborhood on 14th Street, just north of I-94 — the Detroit House of Music — that will become a community resource for the musical arts, an artists' residency, and a performance space.
"The house was a natural progression," Kubat says. "And I wanted to be able to live there and record there, and do workshops there. I want it to be flexible and continue to change as the needs of people in the community change."
It's notable how "cultivate" is a word Kubat repeats a few times during our conversation; cultivating a house where all ages can familiarize themselves with music, cultivating a steelier sense of self as she worked through these songs, and cultivating the courage to no longer mince words in her own lyrics.
"If I don't start practicing that, I certainly will not flourish," she says. "I want to continue to embrace and bring people in, but I have to always be strong first, and to be completely clear before I can do that. This album is me practicing that in the face of challenges."
There is a beat, as the last song fades. She takes a breath. "I'm ready."
Audra Kubat will perform a release show at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 29 at the Detroit Institute of Arts' Rivera Court, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-7900; dia.org. Admission is free for residents of Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties.
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