[Cover photo credit to Clifford Usher]
Kaelen Ohm is a tremendously multi-faceted person who pursues career-defining work as an actress, film and video director, and as a musician and songwriter. She grew up in a small mining town in Canada, went to film school, then played in several bands, including Reuben and the Dark. When her acting and directing work took off, she pursued that with as much passion as music, appearing in the show Hell on Wheels, and directing several projects of her own.
A few years ago, she started a very personal project called Amaara, and having released the Black Moon EP previously, the last three years of her life have produced a new EP releasing this week on Ohm's label Lady Moon Records, Heartspeak. The six song project has a history as interesting as Ohm's own, composed in a short period of time, interrupted by her acting work on upcoming Netflix show, Hit and Run.
The songs document an important period in her life, and she expected to return to them to complete the album, but when she revisited them, she found they felt complete, expressing a development which we can all relate to: reflecting on potentially shattering events in our lives only to find that we overcame them with personal growth.
Kaelen Ohm spoke to Tower's PULSE about Amaara: Heartspeak as a songwriter and a director, as well as about the context of quarantine and Black Lives Matter that is such an immersive part of our world right now.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on your new album coming up. I know it’s had a strange scheduling due to work and the pandemic and other factors.
Kaelen Ohm: Yes, it’s been an interesting time. The music itself happened very quickly over a ten day period last August, and a series of work opportunities delayed the record itself coming out.
HMS: It’s an interesting story because you worked on it intensely during a short period. Had you ever sat down like that before with the determination to work on a certain number of songs in a set time?
KO: It’s the first time I walked into a studio space without anything. Usually I would have had some simple demos or a basic outline. My dear friend and collaborator, Brock Geiger, who I played in a Canadian band called Reuben and the Dark with, is someone with whom I’d done a Radiohead cover for House of Cards a few years ago. I knew that we had good chemistry in the studio, and we’d been the two guitarists in Reuben in the Dark, so I trusted that something would happen.
With the Black Moon EP that I released in 2017 is something I struggled a little bit with afterwards, feeling that I hadn’t trusted myself creatively. So, stepping in with Brock, I thought we might make an ambient record, but immediately this daily structure occurred. I’d show up and sit at the piano or the guitar, and something would come through. I’d sit there until it was complete, and then we’d just track it. We’d do that for most of the day.
We entered into this flow, and after ten days, I had to fly to New York for an acting gig. We had only done six tracks, and I had been hoping for ten, but I didn’t get a chance to revisit it until much later. By then the record felt like a transmutation of some difficult experiences, and I felt like those songs embodied that. I didn’t feel like I needed to revisit it.
HMS: That’s really cool. I think that since the world started changing, I’ve become more aware of how important little pockets of time were in the past. It’s great that this little period of time occurred to capture the songs.
KO: In some ways I feel like those intimate creative spaces may be more utilized in the future. As humans, we’re always thinking about bigger and better, and as artists, moving into bigger spaces feel like success, but when that becomes the focus, what you lose is a deeper conversation with yourself. I learned that on Black Moon with a huge crew, but now, after creating this record, all the videos have been created with a maximum of three friends. That’s very nourishing on a personal creative level.
When you’re dealing with budgets and crews, the creative idea can become secondary, but with bands and artists I love, like Grimes, and Dive, they made bedroom projects that became the voice of the 2000s because people were just going into themselves to create these phenomenal records. We have these technological devices that in the past would have required whole studios to create.
TV shows and films require more resources, but music allows me to do things really small and keep the creative in focus.
HMS: That sounds like a great counterbalance. You have all these different professional threads of acting, directing, and music, but keeping the music very close makes sure you have something that’s totally your own.
KO: I still feel like my personal identities are still taking shape in my 30’s, healing things from my 20s. I’m a pretty impressionable person, so I’m using Amaara as a meditation practice in listening to what I really want to do and say, rather than being influenced by others. Especially these days when we’re super-saturated with content.
HMS: It’s entirely possible to spend most of your life distracted by information right now.
KO: It’s also about the type of content we’re drawn into. All the sudden there was the pandemic, and all the sudden there was this chapter of Black Lives Matter, and it created a laser focus, drawing in the brain. It’s been incredibly important to stay up on all this, and Black Lives Matter, drew me in much more deeply than the quarantine. That intensity of information coming through is allowing us to question how we use our mental space.
HMS: I agree. That’s true to my experience. We’re kind of out of shape, mentally and emotionally, to handle the intensity of the information right now. Maybe we’re getting into shape, though. Maybe we’re learning to prioritize information better.
KO: I can get distracted and feel like I’m tending to everything and nothing at the same time. Time is such a strange entity at the moment, but with this big collective step-back that we’re doing, maybe we’re starting to understand that we need to dismantle most of the systems that we’ve created.
HMS: [Laughs] That’s a good point. That’s a big one.
KO: We should have honored Indigenous sovereignty. We never should have treated Black people and People of Color the way we have. We should honor and celebrate the spectrum of non-binary humans and LGBTQ+. We’re realizing that these binary systems that we’ve created are not serving us. Nature is our biggest teacher and it’s showing us that things are not a straight line, but definitely something much more artistic and wise. I think the most important thing is to be present with that.
HMS: I feel like the linear idea, that everything moves upward toward progress, was something that I was brought up with, but several of the things that are happening right now point toward cyclical patterns, that if you don’t learn it the first time, you have to learn it the next time around.
KO: Totally. Hopefully we can listen more to Nature. Even in my own lifetime, in the last 25 years, the lakes I used to swim in as a kid have changed, and the forests of my hometown in Canada have been clear-cut. Everything is just changing so fast.
HMS: I was going to ask you about growing up in the mountains in a rural community: Do you think that created your views and perspectives, or do you think you might have drawn these conclusions anyway?
KO: I think my upbringing was a massive factor in what informs me in art, for sure. I was born in an off-grid community with no electricity and running water. We kept that space, but my parents moved to a mining town, still very much in the mountains. My whole upbringing was in nature, but of course I rejected that and moved to the city, and went to film school. I’ve been living in cities, but the older I get, the more I come back to nature as a way to re-center myself. Living in the cities means that nature becomes a holiday from daily life, now. Now it’s the biggest inspiration for me. All but one song video project I’ve done was shot in nature. It’s the best set.
HMS: That’s wonderful. Does any of that affect the sounds that appeal to you when you’re working on music? Does that connect to the idea of the cosmic or natural world for you?
KO: I first started getting into music when I listened to bands that used reverb. And I also started meditation in my life that involved ambient music, and listening to people like Brian Eno. I think that music feels like a soundtrack to the cosmic, the cosmic spaces that we can’t see but seem to understand.
Sounds like a lot of synthesizers, and a lot reverb, are vibrations to me that feel really calming to me. Things in Nature, like the wind through the trees, waves, birds, if you slow them down there are a lot of synth sounds that sound like that. They feel good, so that probably means they are connected to our true natures.
In the song, “Gone”, the most indie, Shoegaze song on the record, has an ash branch as part of the percussion, so it’s definitely natural. There’s actually a record I’m listening to right now called, Stasis Sounds for Long-Distance Space Travel. It just came out this year by 36 & Zake, and I listen to it every morning. It’s so good, and it’s like, “This is what being connected to the universe sounds like.”
[Photo credit to Clifford Usher]
HMS: The layered vocals in “Gone” made me think of this idea of vibrations. Also the repetition of the word, “gone” is very haunting and makes you reconsider the word’s meaning.
KO: The death of things, which is ever-present. Going back to nature, again. We’re afraid of death and change, and I had to go through that process of befriending grief. It’s been a really amazing lesson for me in many areas of my life.
HMS: There’s a more driving pace in that song, too, and that made me think of change. The song “Awake” really makes sense as one to release as a single, with a very strong presence to it. It kind of made me think of waking up as a process, rather than something that happens instantaneously. What were some of your thoughts on that song?
KO: It’s definitely about waking up out of delusional attachments and finding personal truth. A friend of my mine when I was young, a Yoga teacher taught me that a situation will change when you change the way that you look at a situation. Eventually you will transcend things, whether you’re trying to or not, but in relationships with other people, you can get really caught up in ideas and opinions of what things should be.
The song was a bit more of a commentary on a relationship that I was in, and my opinion in the moment of what I thought that person would be like, but that story has taken different shape for me as I transcended my own stories. It speaks to the importance of really staying open to allowing new perspectives to come in. To remain expansive is to avoid these painful experiences in our lives where we get so disappointed. You need to be far more in tune with your own potential.
HMS: It’s very easy in relationships to define yourself by that relationship and if it changes, you’re in danger of losing your own identity, especially if you can’t come to the realization that you are more than that. Thank you for trying to convey that in music. I think that’s therapeutic.
KO: Thank you. Understand our autonomy is so important. Joni Mitchell said, “You’ve only ever got yourself, man.” It took me so long to understand that. We really only do. If you can’t clarify this in your relationships, the same issues will keep coming back to you. You have to take responsibility for how you walk through the world.
HMS: In the end, you’re only able to help others if you help yourself.
You mentioned earlier that we’re more able to use limited technology to make art ourselves now. In your video for “Awake”, was that shot on cellphones, or did you have access to more equipment to work on it?
KO: It was actually a 16-millimeter camera, that Shaun Hannah had. It was a little hand-held camera, and I directed and produced the thing. The third person we had was a friend who drove the truck across the Brooklyn Bridge. That was actually going back to a more analog way of doing things. But you get the film back in a digital form, so I was still editing digital.
HMS: I wanted to bring it up because some of the imagery in it reminds me of what we’ve been discussing. There’s wind, there are birds, and movement in nature. Of course, the most shocking thing about this video is seeing a person able to move around New York without any other human beings around them.
KO: The crazy thing about that is that it was shot in October.
HMS: What? No way! How did you manage to do that? I assumed it was filmed during quarantine.
KO: It was shot in the Far Rockaways, and the interesting thing about it is that in my treatment, I wrote about an empty New York. A lot of people think it was filmed during quarantine. I was out in the Rockaways in September, and it’s such an apocalyptic-looking space that it struck me. It had low-flying planes and it was so wild.
HMS: The coincidence between that imagery and the experience people are having now really wigs me out. The Rolling Stones released a song called “Living In A Ghost Town” during this pandemic, and I thought, “Wow, what a great song inspired by our times.” Then I found out that it was recorded before the pandemic, and it’s just for the video that they had friends collect footage of abandoned cities. It’s amazing how predictive music can be, just a step ahead.
That’s definitely true of this video, too.
KO: I think as artists, if we’re tuned in, in a way that I think all humans have the potential to be, we’re all receiving messages before things take shape. I think art is way ahead of its time. I love when those things happen.
HMS: When you had your director’s hat on for making that video, did you have any other goals aside from that apocalyptic feeling?
KO: There’s definitely a psychedelic aspect to it because it can be psychedelic being out there in the Rockaways. It’s also about grief, and the multi-dimensional aspect of time. There are also visual effects that a woman named Shelly Fields did in Calgary that were supposed to be surreal and undefined about where and when the video was taking place.
It was about journeying through spaces that are usually very populated, but alone. Because grief is usually a very lonely experience. I think that is what I experienced. You can be at a festival or protest with tens of thousands of people, but if you are grieving, you can feel totally and utterly alone. I think that was a big theme in that video, but also for the entire record.
HMS: So, it’s like an emotional reality? It’s as if no one else is there.
KO: And New York, which is so full of action, can be a very lonely space. There’s an anonymity that you have there that’s unlike anywhere else.
HMS: I live in the New York area, which is one of the reasons I had such a big reaction to the video, probably. I recognized so much of the feeling of it.
I have to ask you our Tower Records question, which is about our motto, “No Music, No Life” or “Know Life”. Which resonates with you most, and how does it apply to your own life?
KO: For me, I would say, “Know Music, Know Life”, because there are times in my life when I’m not making music. I’m not a musician who needs to play my guitar every day, since I do other things that fulfill me creatively, but I think to know music is to know life, and to know life is to know music. That statement speaks true to me in the last three years of my life, the period of this record.
As I began to know love, and to know grief, and to know myself, I began to listen to music differently. I grew up with so much music, and my parents ran a Folk Festival in my hometown. I’ve been around vinyl my whole life, and there’s always been radio. It’s been looking back at all the records and songs I hold so dear, and feeling like it speaks to me in a way that it never has before, and being able to hear it from a place of experience, which I never have had before.
Heartspeak comes from the center of my very being and what I’ve been through, so that statement speaks to me. To me, music is a conversation with my daily life.