Remember who you are: Kaia Wilson keeps it real with new solo album

Originally published February 16 in PQ Monthly.

Photos by Xilia Faye, PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

The dream of the ’90s is alive in Kaia Wilson. To be fair, it never really died.

“This was a running joke for me a long time before ‘Portlandia,’ — a joke that I didn’t even start because I didn’t realize I lived in the ’90s,” Wilson says. “My friends had to tell me I lived in the ’90s solidly into 2008 and I’m like, ‘Really? I do, don’t I?’”

The signs are all there. The 38-year-old queer music icon shows up to our interview at the cozy Beech Street Parlor wearing her signature Vans, Levis, and red plaid jacket. She admits she doesn’t really buy new clothes, instead dividing her collection of blue jeans and band T-shirts into tubs and rotating them every few years to keep things fresh.

It’s a practical aesthetic for the not-quite-starving artist, even as it seems to belie the very real (if not always financial) success Wilson has had as a musician. Though her 20-year career – both as a soloist and with revered queercore/punk bands Team Dresch and The Butchies — has earned her a loyal, global fan base, it never really brought in the big bucks.

Instead, Wilson gets by the way so many Portlanders do. Minimum wage work keeps her fed, while her art keeps her (and, arguably, many of her fans) alive.

“I still rough it. I kinda can’t afford not to,” Wilson says, recalling nights spent on strangers’ floors and in “gnarly” hotels during last year’s solo tour. “For me, [music] is a job that doesn’t even pay my bills. It’s a love. But it also is a job.”

As such, Wilson can relate to the “Portlandia” sketch featuring fellow musicians Aimee Mann and Sarah McLachlan cleaning houses and doing landscape work.

“I cleaned people’s houses, I landscaped, I walked people’s dogs,” she says. “That’s real, man. That’s me.”

Getting by with a little help from her fans

It’s that working-class realness that turned Wilson on to Kickstarter to fund her upcoming solo album, the first since 2008’s “Godmakesmonkeys.” Her current barista gig doesn’t quite cover the costs of producing the as-yet-untitled album (slated for a March/April release), but contributions from fans are quickly helping bring in the extra money she needs to make it happen.

“What’s really cool about it is most of my backers so far, and probably the majority of my backers, will give me ten bucks and they’re gonna get a digital download, which is basically a pre-order of the record,” Wilson explains. “So it’s kinda killing two birds with one stone. It’s getting my record done and people who actually give something do get something back.”

As the stakes increase, artists have to get creative, adding perks that appeal to the serious fan. Wilson admits that coming up with rewards was difficult, in part because they often draw from a concept of celebrity she doesn’t fully buy into.

“It totally stressed me out, like, ‘What’s so special about me?’ I got all weird about it like, ‘Oh you get to have a Skype conversation with me, lucky you!’” she says, rattling off other rejected ideas for ephemera, such as “a copy of my pubic hair” or “a menstrual print.”

Wilson may not be offering any period pieces, but larger donations come with such thank-you gifts as signed album extras, ping pong lessons (Wilson competed in the 2010 Gay Games), a personalized song, and a private show. A fan herself, Wilson says she understands people wanting to have something special.

“If Sinead O’Conner was going to give me one of her hairs — that she now has — I’d give a hundred bucks for that shit,” she admits.

Inspired by love, anchored by loss

Of course, the real reward will be the album itself. Wilson says it’s her best solo album to date — more poetic, technically skilled, and eclectic than past albums. And, because it touches on universal themes of love and loss, she hopes it will achieve a higher purpose —“relating and connecting to as many people as I possibly can through music and having a positive influence.”

Wilson has been writing and recording the album over the past six years, giving it time to absorb a wide range of life experiences.

“I really wrote from a place of a lot of very serious and real grief. A lot of the songs, about half of them, are about really sad shit that happened to me,” Wilson says. “I think it has a lot of material that is very quickly and easily relatable.”

But it isn’t all sad songs. In fact, it was the album’s happier tracks that provided the impetus to move the project forward.

“It’s cause I fell in love,” she admits. “And then I wrote some new songs and I [thought] I might as well record them and then take all the other ones and spruce them up or whatever I’m going to do to them and put out a record.”

It’s those love songs (as well as the anticipated lover-ly cover art) that keep the album gay.

“As a songwriter, my gay content has been mostly brought by way of a love song to a girl,” she says. “I mostly just sing about how much I’m into my girlfriend. Oh, poor girls who’ve dated me … . So in terms of [the album’s] gay content it’s just love songs about my current — and hopefully forever — girlfriend.”

Subtle though it may seem – especially when compared to the more overtly queer music she made with Team Dresch and The Butchies – that openness is vitally important to Wilson.

“It’s an important part of your life because every day, somewhere or other, there’s someone saying you’re gnarly because you’re gay,” Wilson says. “You get uplifted by having a sense of community and validation.”

The message: “It Gets Gayer”

Coming of age as an out lesbian and general outcast in the rural Oregon town of Jasper, Wilson says she got a lot more negative messages than uplifting ones.

“I was pretty fucking angsty. I was just a weirdo too, so I got harassed for being weird, for being a fucking hippie punk goth with hairy legs and fucking half a shaved head, combat boots … . I was a fucking freak and I was gay. I was a vegetarian and I was anti-war,” Wilson says. “I was definitely, along with some nerds, the most made fun of.”

That angst found an outlet in music at an early age; Wilson wrote her first song, “You Make Me Cry That Special Way,” at age 9. But with the emergence of Team Dresch, The Butchies, and Wilson’s solo albums, it also found resonance with a entire generation of queer youth.

Though she may reject fame’s premise that she is somehow “special,” Wilson recognizes that her music and her words have had impressive reach and impact. She frequently hears that her outspoken and accepting lyrics have literally saved lives.

“I think I have a talent at doing something and I’m excited about sharing it. But along with that talent is something that feels a little bigger,” she says. “Which is a message that I didn’t get as a kid and most people don’t get in their lives, or not enough.”

For more on Kaia Wilson’s new album, Kickstarter campaign, and upcoming tour with Amy Ray (Indigo Girls), read the full interview at PQ Monthly.

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