Exclusive Kaleah Lee Interview – Popdust

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When Kaleah Lee tells me she only started writing songs during the pandemic, I can’t hide my surprise. Her lyricism has the practiced sharpness of someone who has been honing their craft for decades. And her production — which she does herself in her bedroom — is subtle and simmering with emotion. This is bedroom pop at its peak, but not what you’d expect.


She wasn’t the only one to pick up a guitar, a pen, and a camera during the pandemic. But she’s one of the most deft lyricists to emerge from the confessional-folk, alternative-ambient side of TikTok Music.

Perhaps it’s because she had been writing poetry for years before she set her musings to music. Maybe it’s because her themes are startlingly relevant. Lee sings about getting older, about nostalgia, about yearning for your old life and a new one.

The title of her debut EP, Birdwatcher, comes from a song of the same name. “Thinking with grace about what I’ve become / A birdwatcher,” goes the song’s refrain. Indeed, her lyrics have the sense of being outside yourself, watching your life like you’d watch the birds.

But don’t confuse this perspective for disconnectedness. Her songs jump from embodied descriptions of selfhood to abstractions and meditations on life and growth. Her ability to seamlessly weave personal details with universal emotions makes her music feel intimate and refreshingly full of perspective.

As a student of the school of social media covers, her music is heavily influenced by her listening habits. She cites an eclectic mix of Dijon and Adrianne Lenker as some of her inspirations. And she covers Beyonce’s Daddy Lessons” on stage.

With influences like Bon Iver and Taylor Swift, we won’t be surprised to see Kaleah Lee packing stadiums with her hypnotic vocals, gut-wrenching lyricism, and ever-evolving sound.

Fresh off an intimate show in LA and a few supporting gigs, Kaleah Lee is gearing up to support Del Water Gap on his summer tour. These will be the largest shows Lee has played so far in her career. And while she might joke about pulling the fire alarm, her gradual growth has prepared her for bigger stages.

Popdust talked to Kaleah Lee from her bedroom/production studio, about writing, Taylor Swift, touring, and more.

kaleah Lee BirdwatcherBirdwatcher EP Kaleah Lee

POPDUST:

You started making videos in your bedroom. Do you still record there?

Kaleah Lee:

Yeah, I don’t leave my house. Get me out. [Laughter] But yeah, I do everything from my room.

POPDUST:

So do you self-produce?

Kaleah Lee

I do everything. My project coming out is the first batch of songs that I’ve made myself fully produced myself. So I mean, I love GarageBand. And yeah, it is all from the room.

POPDUST:

What’s it like to go from recording alone in your bedroom to performing on stage?

Kaleah Lee

I’m just always nervous. But I think it’s all been very gradual. Which is nice. Like, I say everything’s scary, but nothing’s super scary. It’s been a nice glide into things. Like my first time performing in front of people was at a coffee shop. I did an open mic. And then after that, I played like a little restaurant show and it was just really small. I like the pace it’s going up because I would get overwhelmed fast. But yeah, I’m loving it.

I toured with Leith Ross last spring. That was my first show-show in front of more people in an actual venue. I was threatening to pull the fire alarm before I went on, like, two seconds before. My managers were like, no, don’t do that. I was freaking out. It depends, I guess on the audience. But Leith has a very warm, welcoming community that supports them. So to have that as my first experience was very beautiful. It made me enjoy it. So almost immediately I was like, Oh, I feel okay here because everyone’s very nice. I didn’t get booed off the stage. So that’s a good sign.

POPDUST:

The worst thing didn’t happen.

Kaleah Lee

Now I know I love performing. I do love it once I’m up there, maybe a couple songs in, and I’m having fun. I’m just still nervous about being watched by people right in front of me. Being perceived. Like, do not perceive me. I’m not real. [Laughter] Having the audience like …right there. It’s crazy, but we’re getting by.

POPDUST:

Well, you mentioned Leith has a very warm community. Do you feel like you’re on your way to cultivating a similar community?

Kaleah Lee

I do. And it’s fun to watch. It’s very cool to watch. There’s a solid group of people online that I can recognize by username, which is cool. And like they’ve made group chats and like accounts, and it’s fun interacting with that, and kind of getting to watch it and be in it with them is cool. It’s cool to see a small, little community growing, which is nice. And they all like, just become so close to each other. So I’m like, that’s cool to watch you guys making friends through music and the different artists that you like.

POPDUST:

How does that influence — if at all — your process? Since you know who your audience is in some ways.

Kaleah Lee

I don’t want to say I don’t think it does at all. But it’s not a big thing that I think about, I think, when I’m making a song or writing, especially. It’s a very personal thing. It’s something I need to do just to process things. It’s like coping. Yeah, it is very personal. So I think more so after the writing, maybe. When I started doing production, if something sounded different than what I had previously put out, I would think about it a little bit. But yeah, it’s not huge. It doesn’t impact my process, at least not in a negative way. It’s exciting. Just to know that there are people who are anticipating something or wanting to hear something. So that just makes it more exciting.

POPDUST:

So when you’re writing, you’re not thinking about the audience.

Kaleah Lee

Fully myself. I’m like, super selfish. [Laughter] But no, if you think about it, it’s really crazy. So not that I’m not thinking about them, but it feels more like just like a coping mechanism. Like, I’m going through it. I’m like, Oh, my God. I’m actually spiraling. [Laughter] I think it’ll be more fun once I’m also just more comfortable in this to be able to let myself have more fun with it.

POPDUST:

As you write and release snippets online, are those posted when the song is finished? Or is it extemporaneous? Like you wrote it minutes before posting.

Kaleah Lee

It’s both. When I first started, I would write and immediately share it. I’ve gotten more hesitant to do that as time has gone on. I don’t know if it’s just fear or that there’s more people watching. But it’s definitely a mixture of both. Like, “Where’d the Time Go?” That’s on the EP. I had written it like, a few days before I posted. But some of them are not done at all. So it just depends.

POPDUST:

Do you ever get feedback from an unfinished song? And people are like, put this out right now. How does that feel?

Kaleah Lee

That’s encouraging, because I’m like, Oh, you like it? That’s great. But there’s pressure for sure.

POPDUST:

Do people ever comment on a song that you don’t want to release?

Kaleah Lee

All the time. I’m like, I don’t want to put that out ever. Actually, I’m gonna delete the video. [Laughter] That’s a little bit hard, because I physically can’t put something out that I’m not fully proud of or fully into. I just feel bad sometimes.

POPDUST:

What’s the song that you’re most proud of?

Kaleah Lee

Most of the stuff on my EP, I’m very proud of just because it’s new. But like, I was listening to it the other day — I rarely listen to myself; I cringe for some reason. But I was listening through and the last song on the project called “Wake,” I was like, Oh my god. I like this. I’m proud of this. I think that was like the first song I intentionally wrote also for the project. So there were a lot of emotions, and it was a very specific time. And I think I had fun with the production on that one. It’s a little different. Not too different. But for me, the topic. That one and “The Same” has been a favorite of mine. I think that’s like the oldest song on the project.

The past three singles I’ve put out are on there. And then there’s a few new ones that I haven’t put anywhere. Not even snippets. So that’s gonna be fun. Yeah, I think I like having it be more of a surprise for people. But then I also am like an oversharer. So like, I always want to post them before.

POPDUST:

How long have you been writing?

Kaleah Lee

I’ve always written poetry and I’ve always enjoyed writing, since I was young, but never music. That started around like COVID time. So not too long ago, really. I got into it by adding the music to poetry. That was helpful at the beginning. I still do that now. But yeah, it’s fairly new ish music writing, I guess songwriting.

POPDUST:

The poetic aspect definitely comes through because your writing transcends the personal into the universal. How do you go about writing?

Kaleah Lee

Every time it’s different. I have to be alone. I have to be in bed, most likely. I’ve noticed that I love riding in cars if I’m in the backseat or in the passenger seat. I’m on a long drive and I don’t need to be talking or anything, I can kind of make a little space for myself. I can get into a little space when I don’t necessarily need to be physically alone but if I feel comfortable enough that I feel alone. But usually it’s my room. I think the process itself, I’ll have things I’ve written or saved in different places — whether it’s my notes app or my journal — or lines of different things and I’ll revisit them if I need to. But a lot of it is like how am I feeling right now? What is going on? And then I’ll go from there. But yeah, it’s different.

POPDUST:

In terms of your sound, who are your influences?

Kaleah Lee

I feel like the main or like the biggest, foundational influence of mine has been Bon Iver, since I was a teen I’ve loved his music. It’s just so depressing, but if you relate to that … [Laughter] He’s been a big a big one for me. More recently, I’m so obsessed with Dijon. Totally does not sound like my music at all, but I’m very inspired. I love Adrianne Lenker and Big Thief, huge fan.

POPDUST:

Do you have a preference? Adrianne herself or Big Thief?

Kaleah Lee

I listened to more Adrienne I think. And when I started playing the guitar when I was like nine, I loved Taylor Swift. Of course. She was an initial big influence — just to feel comfortable writing about personal things. It was cool to see a young woman doing that. Now I’ve branched out to what I listened to a lot more. So I’m like, this is a new world. Like, I can do so many different things. I don’t have to feel super boxed in, which is helpful, but also kind of scary if you want to change up what you’re doing. I feel like I love everything. Like, I find something from everything that I’m like, I love that. And I can build on that in my own way.

Originally Posted Here

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