‘Unassuming’ is an adjective that, at first nod, one might be tempted to reach for when trying to describe Katie Kim and her music, as they both tend to partake of tentativeness, reticence and nuance. But just as the musician’s shyness can shield a quietly stubborn commitment to her craft, so too her dreamy work contains relentlessly emotional swells with the power to leave the listener fundamentally changed, as is evident on her new release, Hour of the Ox. As if to exemplify this notion, she tells me that the title comes from a traditional Japanese cursing ritual, Ushi-no-Toki-Mairi, or ‘ox-hour shrine-visit’, so-called because it is conducted during the hours of the Ox (between 1 and 3am – a good time for listening to ethereal music). The practitioner – typically a scorned woman – hammers nails through a straw effigy of the victim impaling it to a sacred tree. The ritual must be repeated for seven consecutive nights, after which the curse supposedly causes the target’s death – but being witnessed in the act nullifies the spell. So don’t go taking anything for granted here.
So, how are you?
I'm good. I'm gonna say straight off the bat that this is probably the first in-person interview I’ve had in a good few years. So excuse my social anxiety and word soup – if that happens.
No problem. I think a lot of people feel like that after the pandemic.
I had to go to this event in Universal a few days ago. I was just meeting someone for the first time, and it was one of the most difficult conversations to keep going. Because it’s like, how do I converse with people? Again.
How did you get started in music? In Waterford, when you were in school, were you in bands?
I just listened to a lot of music, and my Mum bought me a guitar when I was 14, for my birthday. She taught me a few chords. So I just started. I mean, I’d always written words or poetry or prose or something like that, not poetry really, more prose in little notebooks when I was younger, but never was ever really able to turn it into music until I got my guitar. So then I started writing songs. As soon as I got the guitar, and was able to play like C, D G or something like that.
Was it always by yourself?
Yeah, like a friend of mine I think maybe played guitar with me to begin with, and then with another friend we actually sang together. I would play guitar and she would sing harmonies with me. But mostly alone.
So when you left school, were you just determined to do music?
I escaped school at 16. Moved out of home.
That was brave.
It was brave. Fair play to my mother for letting me do it, but she just insisted that I do my Junior Cert and then she let me move out and get a job and try to start playing.
So that was it. Your focus was all on music?
Yes, it was, it’s what I was aiming towards doing: playing music for a living.
And doing it solo?
I didn't know if it would turn into a band or solo. I mean, when I around 18, I met Terry Cullen of Ten Speed Racer, and he asked me to be in a band with him. So, then we were a band for a long time, and began touring and recording And so that took over. But I was still recording my own music in between.
You moved to New York after the last record, Salt. Why?
I always wanted to move there. I loved it. I’d been there many times, and I had my friends there. There was a really great music scene happening when I was over there.
You intended staying for longer, but were forced back here by the pandemic?
I was living with two girls, and we were kind of in denial for about two months about the virus. We didn’t have any television in the house or anything like that. So we decided to take out an old telly and plug it in, and we were watching CNN for a few hours. And then everybody decided to scatter and go back to their homes.
You thought you might have been trapped there?
I wouldn't have been able to get any social security over there. So I thought I’d just come back for a while, but it lasted a lot longer than we thought it would.
So did all this affect the composition of the songs on Hour of the Ox?
No, because we had a lot of the album done by the time I was in New York. Coming home, we just added some extra flourishes to it.
That was with John Murphy.
I like his work a lot, the stuff he’s done with Lankum especially – The Velvet Underground meets Planxty.
He's fantastic. I'm just so happy because we’ve known each other for so long, like we were friends in Waterford, from when we were teenage kids. I'm just really, really happy for him that he’s finally getting the recognition he deserves because he’s worked really hard over the years.
You were bouncing files back and forth to each other.
That’s kind of the way we work. I would always write the stuff at home. And I always record the vocals at home as well, like I would never record in the studio with Spud, I would always record them at home, bring them in. But I would send him stuff every now and again, and at some stage in the year, we would decide that we should actually start putting the album together.
I thought maybe Hour of the Ox is, musically, a bit more accessible than previous albums? Are you conscious of a difference?
I have no idea because the only people that have heard it have been people that are close to me. And I know they’re only going to say nice things mostly. So I have no idea how accessible it is, yet.
So that wasn’t a conscious decision?
No, I just thought that it would be nice to try and do something new every time instead of trying to go back to the old tropes all the time. I thought that it would be fun this time to get a live drummer in and play around with synthesisers because I've been listening to a lot of soundtracks over the last few years, and people like Clint Mansell, and a lot of stuff that Invada were putting out, a lot of Geoff Barrow’s soundtracks and things like that. So I was really starting to get into that kind of lush synthesiser kind of sound. I wanted to play around with that.
So there is a process of continuing evolution going on?
Well, I haven't really played around with those kind of orchestrations together before, we’d had strings, but I thought synthesisers with strings would be a really nice thing to try and meld together.
Can you tell the difference between synthesised strings and live strings?
Well, now I can because we had live strings this time.
You strike me as quite determined and single-minded. You’re not going to be side-tracked into doing other things. You’re quite focused.
Do you mean into doing mainstream music?
Not necessarily, just that you’re determinedly sticking at it, doing your own thing.
Look, there’s definitely been times when I’ve just thought, you know, “Fuck this, it’s not going anywhere”, whatever. But that’s not the whole point about doing it. It’s actually quite a big part of what I feel is my identity. And when I have stopped playing or writing or recording for any amount of time, like two years sometimes I’ve gone without doing any of that, it becomes ‘a dark time’ – not a very nice place. Just for me personally – I’m not talking about anybody else’s life – just getting up in the morning and having your breakfast and going to do your job and having to do something else and coming home and going to sleep and repeat the process, it doesn’t really suit my personality very well, I kind of need something else creative happening. So look, even if I make stuff, and I see five plays on it after a year, I’ll still be happy that I made it.
Katie Kim - Hour Of The Ox Album Launch is at The Button Factory, Saturday 10 September 2022