Rare Candy sat down with Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Kim Tillman at La Monarca Bakery in South Pasadena to talk about her first experiences with music, her writing practices, building an art community in Oakland, touring, and much more.
I first met Kim Tillman while attending her show with Apollo & Samara and Via Intercom at Los Angeles’ Junior High , a non-profit organization dedicated to showcasing marginalized artists and providing arts education. From the moment she took the stage with her acoustic guitar, she was authentic. She was present. She was herself. In between songs, she would stop and nervously remind the audience to wear sturdy shoes or drink lots of water, thus proving the magic that can happen when artists leave their egos at the door. I was immediately inspired by her and wanted to learn more about her career and her process of art-making.
RARE CANDY: Would you say your mother and father’s music taste impacted your own?
KIM TILLMAN: Absolutely. I think even just the way they used music in their lives impacted mine. My mom is someone who really wants to consume media that makes her feel good. You know, like Sandra Bullock movies and movies where the black characters advance the Civil Rights Movement so, when it’s time to listen to something, it’s Tapestry, it’s Stevie Wonder, it’s upbeat. That’s all she wants. She seeks things that are uplifting for her. My dad has a lot of cool taste in funky music, so it’s a lot of soul stuff, a lot of James Brown. Both my parents were really good at introducing me to songs that made me feel really good, and a lot of times, when you’re making those songs, it feels the way it sounds. In middle school and high school, I started getting into music that made me feel terrible. That was fun too.
RC: It’s funny because Tapestry (Carole King’s second album) has a lot of songs you can get with, rhythm-wise, but lyrically, they are so sad.
KT: That’s something that I feel like I do a lot. You know some people have completely different ideas of the songs they like. Some people want songs that sound that way or feel this way emotionally. I think if you’re lucky you can do both. Carole King is amazing at that. Now, Bill Withers has a fantastic ability to include some really complex emotions in his songs. Like “Use Me” is not what you think it is at first. When you hear it, you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so funky,’ but then, you think, ‘Oh. I know those feelings.’ He’s got a song called “Take It All In And Check It All Out” that I heard for the first time just recently. It’s about not just consuming media that upsets you, but considering what it means before you storm out in the world and start doing things. It’s a more thoughtful sentiment than I think you’re getting from pop songs.
RC: At what age did you realize you could sing or had musical ability?
KT: I was always really good at mimicking other people’s sounds, like the Boyz II Men songs I would listen to. Eventually, I joined the choir in elementary school and at church. Once, in middle school, during choir practice in the church, I was singing something and I had a friend, who I had known forever, look at me, for the first time, like, ‘Whoa. I had no idea. Do you get that you sound great?’ I was very aware that she was looking at me in a different way. That was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m really doing something.’ People are responding to me differently now.
RC: At what age did you begin writing songs?
KT: In elementary school, like in second or third grade, I always thought of myself as a poet. I found a book of poetry in the library that no one ever checked out. There was a poem in it called, “Thoughts on getting out of a nice warm bed in an ice-cold house at 3 a.m. to go to the bathroom.” The poem was: “Maybe life was better when I used to be a wetter.” I always thought that was so funny. It taught me that poetry could do anything. I was reading all the time and it was stuff that no one around me was really reading. I was simultaneously collecting poems and collecting lyrics, so I just had a wall of words in my room by the time I was eleven. I went from collecting other people’s lyrics to trying to put together my own. Then, I moved away from poetry and started moving toward songwriting because I felt like I didn’t just want to say that stuff, but I wanted to sing it.
RC: Do you remember the first song you wrote?
KT: I was an angry little middle schooler, so my first song was about everyone in the world either being a dragon or being consumed. I was saying it, and then, I started singing it. My parents were probably miserable with me being so loud. Songwriting has always been a really good escape valve for all this hot air I have moving around.
RC: How would you characterize your creative process when writing songs?
KT: I feel a certain way, regardless of what it is. I got a feeling, and I can’t get rid of it. If I feel a certain way long enough, I start looking for the chord that matches it. Once I play that chord, I try to describe what it is I am feeling, which usually comes out as a metaphor. Then, it’s describing what I’m feeling while I’m doing it.
It starts with something that I have already been turning over in my head for a while. Then, I start trying to work my way out of it. "I think of songwriting usually as, your verse is your problem, your pre-chorus is your next step, and, ideally, your chorus is a resolution."
Only because y'know I'm trying to make songs that are potentially helpful to people & if your hook or chorus is your resolution ideally that means the catchiest part of your song is the advice. Like in TLC's Waterfalls for example, hopefully that's the part that people remember: "Don't go chasin' Waterfalls...I think you're moving too fast." Even if it’s not resolved, but this is where we are. There’s a painter, John Baldessari that has quotes on art. One of his paintings, it’s my desktop background right now, is all text. Art is the result of someone constantly thinking of one thing and the result is to figure out what that one thing is by creating.
RC: So, would you say that writing a song is something that comes out fast or is it something you have to labor at?
KT: I think labor is the wrong way to think about it. I make music because I want to, and I try not to make myself hate it. Generally, I’ll write something and hit a wall. I have a notebook that just has ideas here and there. If I have a piece, then I’ll record it, make sure I have demo or write it down. Then, I’ll just leave it alone because other things will happen which will inform that piece, whether it’s talking to friends or watching the news. Those things tend to change the way I consider all this stuff. I end up sitting with these ideas for so long that by the time I sit down to write them, they come out pretty quickly. But, there were certainly songs where I didn’t know where I was going when starting them, but I liked the chord. Then, suddenly, all these things I was thinking about turn into a cool idea.
RC: And, you never know what the thing is going to be that resonates. There’s no way to distinguish a unifying principle behind all those things.
KT: It’s also not necessary. It’s this medium that allows you to do anything you want. Like, I could kick a trash can and really like how that sounds rhythmically. If other people like that trash-can-sound, then that’s enough. It just depends on how elaborate you want to make it. It needs to reach a certain level of satisfactorily good for me, but my expectations can be completely different from anyone else’s. Ideally, I’m going to be the most obsessive person about the music I make. I’m letting myself now have permission to know it’s good whether or not I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve recently been writing stuff that’s not music, like longer pieces and prose. I don’t know what it is. It’s just coming out, and when you aren’t writing songs, it could be anything. With songs, you have to be very precise because you don’t have a lot of time to say what you want to say. With this, it’s just a matter of getting it out, and I think a lot of what makes good writing great writing is editing. Saying to yourself, ‘What is this? What did I make?’ I also have had a hard time making myself put things down. The editing and what you want it to be is important. You can’t pressure yourself to be perfect when it comes out.
RC: Also, it is scary to try out a new medium you aren’t familiar with. It’s great when you are able to do something new that doesn’t make you scared.
KT: It’s even better when you’re scared, and you do it anyway. I think that journey is really exciting. I’m scared of things all the time. I feel like if I did a fraction more of the things I wanted to do, I’d be so much further along. For example, when I went on tour in Texas, I went to places I was scared of. I was scared when I got in the car, and I met wonderful people, people I felt like I already knew. It’s a great opportunity to do something that is scary and let that fear dissolve. You’re there to offer something, and generally, people are very sweet and are quick to give. I find that I am going to a lot of places that I would have previously been nervous about and encountered something wonderful.
There is something really exciting about showing up somewhere and creating a moment. Doing it over and over again is exciting. It’s nice to have this new opportunity to go see these new places.
Photos by Linda Wang
RC: On your website, you say that your music has this sharpness to it. For example, in your song “Lullaby,” the first lyric is “It’s a fucking miracle that I’m alive.” Where does that energy come from?
KT: Certainly, during that time when I was writing those songs, I needed to make them. Like, I’m a lot better now at addressing things before they get too big and taking care of myself. But, I haven’t been at other times in my life, and it’s shocking to me that I am alright, especially because I hadn’t figured out how to make myself okay and was just so mad all the time. Playing those songs made it a lot easier to feel those things and get them out. I didn’t have a process before that. Usually, when I am upset, I angrily play the guitar. That can’t be the only way you address those things, but at the time, it was. I have been lucky because playing music and playing in front of people has opened a lot of doors for me. It certainly gives people an impression of me that I don’t have to build interpersonally, which is nice sometimes. I think that sharpness, in a lot of ways, comes from things that are awkward or uncomfortable to talk about.
My songwriting partner Chris and I have been making this alt-pop record, and one of his friends thought it should be called anxiety pop. We’re called Tragic Gadget . We have some songs that we have been wanting to make a move on but haven’t because we live in two separate cities, me in LA and him in New York. A lot of the work we do together feels so exciting and feels so fun, and I don’t think that happens the same way when we are not in the same room.
RC: How is it different writing songs with a partner than it is by yourself?
KT: There are certainly times when it happens faster. I wrote “Overboard” with three friends of mine. It all happened very quickly, and I had never seen a song come together that fast. I think the collaborative aspect of making music mimics broadly why it’s important to have a community because you are creating a frequency that is resonating with someone who bounces it back to you. How satisfying is that! Maybe, I could do that with a solo album that comes out in a couple years or I could write with Chris, and we just pick up a guitar.
I can’t remember who it was, but I think it was Borges who said that writing is so lonely and being an author is so lonely because all of these people [meaning readers] feel like your family and you never see them. For the most part, you never interact with them. You’re broadcasting this thing that never really bounces back to you. Look, I don’t know Kurt Vonnegut, and I don’t know how he feels about his fans. But I know how I feel about his fans, and I feel like we are connected in a way. There is something about what is being said that resonates with them, and they are carrying it as a part of their life. So, when I see a “So it goes” tattoo, then I’m like, ‘Yeah! Yes! We’re good.’
RC: Have you seen Almost Famous?
KT: It’s been a long time, but yeah.
RC: In the movie, these rock stars are the protagonist’s heroes, and he needs them to be so great that when they fall short his expectation, it becomes so painful for him. It’s almost like, you need your heroes to stay your heroes.
KT: I think now we are all being challenged to reexamine what a hero is. I just came off tour with a friend of mine, and he was telling me that you may know everything about an artist’s art, but that doesn’t mean you know that person. Especially now that everyone is on Facebook and Twitter, it’s very easy to become disappointed by the person whose work you love. I do think it’s nice in terms of like, ‘No, no. I’m gonna make mistakes, you’re gonna make mistakes. I’m gonna sit down and try to write about them, and maybe what I have to say in the outcome helps but…
It’s specifically a focus of mine not to be harmful in my music. I have written things that were mean-spirited, and I heard it sung back to me at a concert once. I was like, ‘No! Everyone in this room is saying this mean shit because I wrote it down, and I sang it to them.’ They listen to it however often they listen to it, and now, it’s a part of how they interact with other people and the world. That really only had to happen once for me to realize that I need to be more thoughtful about what I’m saying. It would be really easy to put a lot of trash in the world.
RC: When we met at Junior High I remember you saying that spaces like that are so important. What did you mean by that exactly?
KT: So, like I said, I’ve been playing for eleven years now, but I am not so famous that I get to play at the Troubadour. There are venues I have been looking up at starry eyed for a long time, and there are fewer and fewer places that allow you to develop your craft between here and the Troubadour. I just listened to Carole King and James Taylor who have a live record there. Every time I drive by, I picture their names there, and then, I picture my name there. But, if I never get to do that, I can still play for hundreds and hundreds of people if I have a chance to get in these rooms where I can play for twenty people at a time. I also think of spaces like Junior High as community centers where people can gather and why that’s important. Let’s continue to offer these sorts of places. I was playing music in the Bay area, and I kept watching all the venues that I had played shut down because they couldn’t afford the rent there. I knew someone who had a place for a long time and ended up moving to the East Bay and lost her place. Now, that’s one fewer room where people can enjoy new music, get together, and know each other without having to spend all their money to have a genuine experience. Stuff like that really matters. It’s accessibility, and it’s art anyway.
RC: How long were you in the Bay area?
KT: I left my house to go to school when I was 17, and I lived in Marin. Then, I went to Oakland for eight years.
RC: Was that a very important time in your artistic development? Or, does that time symbolize something to you now?
KT: Yes, absolutely. I started playing music for other people when I was in college. They had an open mic on campus. Me and my friends, freshman year… because we were all poets and thought of ourselves as very cool and beatnik, would go there all the time. Over time, my performances were more and more musical. I didn’t really realize it, but I was there a lot, like all the time. The student who was running the club, gave it over to me when she was a junior. All I had to do was show up on Sunday night with my guitar, and hope that other artists wouldn’t take like three hours to show up.
When I graduated, it didn’t really stop. I started playing shows in other places and started meeting other artists I was very impressed by because I was invited to play at all these shows. A lot of times, the shows would be filled with people I didn’t know at all and they’re my friends now. I learned what it’s like to build and nurture an art community in the Bay, which is especially important there.
I was playing a show in Oakland with some friends from the open mic back in college, and I needed other artists to play. Even if they had never played a show before, it didn’t matter. My community came in. I was playing electric at the time with my little amp, and something broke down. I’m just standing at the front of the room, completely unaware of how to deal with this, and two people jumped out of the audience and offered to fix it. They were a bassist and a drummer, and we have been friends ever since. That’s how it is up there. If you have a problem, someone will step in, especially in art. It carried over when we went on tour.
When we got to Phoenix, none of my stuff worked. Some people at the show ran home and grabbed their equipment for me, and at the end of the show, they let me keep it. They said, “Take it. You’re supposed to have it.” I don’t know a lot of jobs where people do that. Like, I don’t know a lot of accountants who just give people their computer. It’s especially meaningful in music where everything is so iffy. The regularity with which people who are at the same level as you and will just say, “Hey, you can have this,” is just incredible.
RC: I do think that’s rare, and it’s something specific to the arts community.
KT: I hope that it’s not. I’m willing to believe that it’s not, but I feel like that’s where I see it the most.
RC: I’d love to see it in other places as well, but I also like the idea that it sets artists apart. And, collectivism, knowing that you’re not alone, can be so powerful.
KT: I do think we are spreading that to other places. In the past few weeks I realized that I hadn’t been taking advantage of the relationships in my life. I had been feeling like I didn’t have a lot of people around me and I was wrong about that. I’ve been a self-conscious person for a long time. I didn’t want to make ripples or upset people or be grabby. I think that has prevented me from asking for things that people would have gladly offered to me, and these were people that would have helped me at any time. Now, I’m realizing that I should have asked for the help that I needed in the moment.
Ira Glass talks about, when you get into art, you’re the kind of person that has good taste, and you know that you have good taste. But, for the longest time, you can’t reach that level that you know is good. It takes that work, but in the meantime, because you have high standards, you are telling yourself that you don’t meet them. There is a learning curve to that. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t ask for help. They have a certain idea of who the kind of person who needs help is. A lot of times, they think, ‘I’m not reaching my potential, so who’s going to help me?’
Check out Kim’s official website here !