Kate Stables has stories to tell and feelings to unleash. The mastermind behind the indie act This Is the Kit does a lot of ruminating on her new record, Off Off On. Her delicate voice guides the songs into special, intimate places, and it’s as visceral as Julia Jacklin’s Crushing or Fenne Lily’s BREACH. Inspired by writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, as well as her own real life experiences, Stables’ lyricism is natural, sprawling poetry.
Another inspiration for the record, though, was her tour with The National in 2018 and 2019. She views Off Off On as a continuation to The National LP I Am Easy to Find. It makes sense, as both LPs are poignant to the core.
For FLOOD, Stables broke down every track on Off Off On, exploring exactly where it is these songs came from. Check out the stories behind the album below. Off Off On is out today on Rough Trade Records.
Off Off On: some writings and thoughts
These are mainly songs that were written since we finished touring for moonshine freeze in 2018. Some of them had started as ideas from before then, and two or three I’d started playing at gigs. But the rest were all written post-2018 and either written at home or on tour with The National throughout 2019 .
Once I had a collection of loosely song-shaped recordings I sent them to the band, and then we arranged to spend a week together, when none of us were otherwise on tour, in a friend’s cottage in the Brecon Beacons to iron out and work on all the songs. We worked all day everyday on the songs for the week and got a good amount of fresh air and river water in with the bargain, and then a few weeks later we headed to Realworld studios in Box, Wiltshire, to record the album with producer Josh Kaufman and his brilliant engineer Dan Goodwin. Their energy and pace and patience and motivation and sense of humor was spot on and exactly what we all needed. Both very intuitive and musical with super keen ears, but also very perceptive at reading people’s feelings about stuff. Super gifted guys.
I think I first met Josh face-to-face (although I had known of his work through mutual friends and acquaintances) when working with him and Anaïs Mitchell on a cover of the Osibisa song “Woyaya.” Then our paths crossed again at the Berlin PEOPLE residency, and then again at the 2019 PEOPLE residency at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. Every encounter I had ever had with Josh led me to believe he’d be an excellent person to make a This Is the Kit album with, so it was so great when he was up for it and it all started happening.
There was a slight snag in the plan, though, in that we were supposed to finish it together in his studio in New York, and then finish the mixes with Dan Goodwin upstate. That, of course, couldn’t happen once COVID-19 had established itself all over the world. So we were forced to adopt a correspondence course-style way of working and finish the record off long distance. This meant certain limitations and challenges that we hadn’t planned for. When you can’t just simply be in a room with someone to work on music, it slows everything down. So it took a bit longer—but not much, all things considered.
1. “Found Out”
I thiiiiink this is the first time an acoustic nylon string guitar has ever made its way onto a This Is the Kit track…? Could it be? Good work, Josh. Busting through my hangups and opening my eyes to the possibilities. We recorded two versions of this song—one with the prominent nylon stringed guitar and another one with a horn section and a vibe more similar to when we play it live. The one that made it onto the album is the first one with the nylon-stringed guitar, which was nicknamed “Bert” after Bert Jansch I think?!
Do we say it enough when we’re proud of people?
Especially when we see people being taken for granted?
What links people together.
When and where does it begin and end.
The link between two people.
Watching someone grow into their strength.
Watching someone you love move away and away.
The knocks and the blows.
Being honest with yourself.
There’s no one else listening so see if you can be honest with yourself.
The emotional hoo-haa we carry around and cling on to and use to define ourselves.
Meaningless identity baggage.
That’s not really who we are.
Is it stopping you from knowing yourself and what you’re capable of.
The power of saying things out loud.
A kind of exorcism.
Letting go of all the crutches.
The things that gnaw at you because you hide them.
2. “Started Again”
This is one of the few songs that the band had had a go at playing at gigs beforehand. For me, playing songs at gigs is a big part of finding out what they need next, so it was good to be able to do that a bit with this one. It was still a bit of a puzzle, though, and luckily Josh came along and really brought it into a better place energy-wise. He has the ability to play something seemingly simple, on the piano for example, that ends up really gluing everything together. Magic cement.
It’s what we all do all the time all through our lives.
Everyone needs to learn how to start again. Everyday. Every hour. Every minute.
It’s how we survive. It’s how we learn. It’s what we do and what we did.
This is what we’re strong at and also what makes us strong.
Carrying the emotional baggage about again. Rocks and water. The sometimes lethal combination of the two.
Letting it go. Starting again.
But also rocks and water is all we have really to build our lives out of.
All we spend our time carrying to and fro and back again.
Does it feed us? Or is it just heavy? Soil?
3. “This Is What You Did”
Another one that uses the drum sound on the trusty “fun machine.” Originally entitled “Banjo Hunt.” Again, simply because that’s what I called the chords before they had any words. The song is, of course, not about a banjo hunt, so I felt I had to change the title.
A bit of a panic attack song.
The negative voices of other people that are actually your own voice.
Or are they? Hard to say when you’re in this kind of a place.
How to get out of this place?
Needing to get outside more.
Cosmically topical what with these recent days of inside all the time.
Knowing the things you should do because they’re good for you and make you feel better but for some reason you still stay inside and fester in your own self-doubt and regret and self-loathing.
We all get into negative mind loops sometimes.
Especially when you’re not getting the fresh air and outside time you need to stay healthy.
4. “No Such Thing”
Another song we’d been playing a bit at gigs towards the end of the Moonshine Freeze touring.
A letter to one’s self about things that need to be addressed and ironed out.
A conversation with a friend and trying to make sure it doesn’t escalate into an argument.
It’s a choice we can make.
The part we play in situations getting out of control and blown out of proportion.
The electricity between people.
Good and bad. Used for good or used for bad.
Listening to recordings of Jack Kornfield talking about the principles of Buddhist psychology
Delusion, aversion, grasping, etc…
The illusion of self. Again what we carry around and use to define ourselves.
What is there if we strip away all of the outside.
Owning our own fuckups.
Shelving our shit and getting on with life.
And a line from a Jane Austen television adaptation (I assume it’s in the novel too, but I’ve not checked. I should check.) that I really enjoyed thinking about, so I put it in this song. I think of my sister Emily every time I sing it, and hope that she spots it one day.
Lorenzo Prati was one of the horn players who came to record with us for the day, and we asked him to do a couple of passes at playing all the time through the whole song. It was one of the best moments of the whole week for me. There was a kind of mezzanine in the room we were working in and I sat up there just watching and listening while Lorenzo played the most beautiful music over the track. Making noises I’d never heard before. I wish we could release the sax track on its own with the rest of the instruments muted. Maybe we should!
In the end, of course, we just used his playing in certain parts, but it’s my favorite thing about this recording. Lorenzo’s playing and remembering the energy from everyone watching in awe and silence. It’s called “Slider” simply because that’s what I called the demo I had of these chords before there were any words. But it stuck and still seemed to fit the story of the song after I’d added the words. Sliding out of things and along in life.
Needing it all to stop.
Deciding it and making it happen.
Who’s responsible for how much you do or don’t take on.
Guilt trip from others.
What do we need?
What is the right balance between work and life? But surely work is life? Or is that a luxury? Should it be? Should we separate it?
Yes and no. Case by case. Horses for courses.
Who is your home where is your home what is it?
The relief we feel when things get cancelled.
Trumpet lessons getting cancelled.
Who is there for you really?
Who has been there?
Who has left?
Combinations of personalities.
Year of the dog every twelve years.
6. “Coming to Get You Nowhere”
This one really made me laugh in the studio, as it accidentally turned into a kind of police cop show theme tune. Everyone was in stitches. But now I’m laughing on the other side of my face as it’s time to turn it into an appropriate song for the album and not a police cop show theme tune. I wonder if we’ll manage it in time for when we have to hand the masters in to Rough Trade?
Update! We did! I no longer feel it’s a police cop show theme tune. But maybe it’s just that I’m more used to it now? The ping-pong horn theme in between the singing was something Josh had been playing on the “fun machine” organ that was in the studio (you can hear it in the intro) and then asked the horn players to take turns playing the notes. Like a kind of game. It was a good game and the horns mastered it masterfully.
Maybe a response to this is “what you did” (banjo hunt).
Basically all these external things and internal judgment don’t get you anywhere.
They just come and get you.
But there is freedom to be found when you decide to let it all go.
Also this song was me trying to use a different song writing approach.
Making the chords and words up as I went along and not being too precious about what came out. Kind of talking in tongues.
And just going with chords as they came out even if they’re kind of predictable and kind of more poppy and less droney than the chords I usually get drawn to.
I think I was probably looking for some kind of Velvet Underground feeling.
But I’m not Lou Reed so it came out sounding like this instead. Doh!
This song briefly mentions reverb.
Being a female singer I have all my life been plagued by sound engineers who think they have to put tons of reverb on every female voice that steps on stage. This assumption is wrong.
I have nothing against reverb as such.
It’s a tool/musical instrument to be used properly and only when appropriate. i.e. when the singer desires it.
Stop assuming I want to sound like a folk maiden in a cathedral cave.
Fuck off and leave the vocals dry please.
Please excuse my outburst.
7. “Carry Us Please”
Everyone was so patient sitting and waiting while I honked my way through the choruses on this one. It’s a fun one to sing, though. I wanted to try singing from a different part of my body for once. To try and sing loud. Not sure if I managed it, but it was good fun to try. I’m really envious of people who have loud voices.
The messy and dire situations we get into.
As individuals but also collectively as communities and as the human race.
People getting into the habit of complaining about what other people are doing but not making any effort themselves to make any positive change.
Getting stuck in the mud is all too easy.
Needing someone to save us.
Needing an honorable leader.
Deferring to authority and responsibility.
Needing it to be someone else’s responsibility?
Wanting to take back power that has slowly been taken away from people.
Needing to shout. From your heart. From your soul.
Using a different voice.
A collective voice.
Looking at political/social movement as a living thing.
A creature grown out of many.
In these times it feels like we’re in need of some kind of rescue. Big change.
Some huge dragon to come and take us away and burn down all the mess and start again.
Possibly more Ursula Le Guin influence here.
The dragon Kallessin might be who comes into my head during the “carry us please” section at the end.
8. “Off Off On”
About a friend who got very ill and then didn’t make it. But I remember visiting him in the hospital and seeing everything differently there. The people working there, the other visitors, the buildings, the grounds. Everything going on there. I wrote this song long before coronavirus. But now it feels pretty spooky looking over the lyrics.
“To assume makes an ass out of me and you”
hospital equipment. Blinking lights
death and life on and off.
The people left behind to grief
there is grieving to do.
And growing and learning.
Simple things like sickness and breathing
the responsibility we feel.
Being awake to things
the world continuing to do what it’s always done.
Freedom and responsibility.
Making friends with / coming to terms with your own death.
9. “Shin Bone Soap”
The “fun machine” was an electric organ that was in the studio. Josh used it a lot for keys, but also for the drum rhythms you could get on it. Then we’d use that to play along to rather than a click track which can sometimes just kill the energy of a take entirely. Playing to a strange-sounding old keyboard rhythm did the opposite, and seemed to set a nice intention for everyone. This is a song we had worked as a whole band and I recorded along to the “fun machine” electric organ rhythm so that everyone could overdub their parts on top later. But in the end it felt wrong to pile it up and better to just leave the space.
And here is another example of a nylon-strung guitar getting in there. And this time it’s actually me playing it. Unheard of. Josh’s work again. And good work. It brings out a different approach/attack in the way I played the song and was very much the right choice for this one.
The image and imagined sensation of gnawing on a dried-out sun-bleached white shinbone.
The sensation of flakes of soap or snow falling past your face.
getting left out or left behind.
Whose responsibility is that? Maybe our own?
Owning your own solitude.
Love despite obstacles.
Going too fast.
The people we will always be tied to.
The people we love.
The people we shouldn’t love
how shouldn’t we love them?
Why shouldn’t we love them?
Maybe we just should.
10. “Was Magician”
It was just nice to be playing this song in a live situation with the band. The fact that we’d set it up so that we could all play live together really helped the energy of the song, I think. And it brings back good memories of the session.
This song is partly a kind of mind wander through some of the books I love that were written by Ursula K. Le Guin.
The wizard of words herself.
This song started off when I had been reading The Annals of the Western Shore
not directly about them. But someone who knows the books would definitely see the references.
Thinking about the gifts/skills and powers we have.
Whether we like it or choose it or not.
How we interpret them.
How we use them.
When do we realise that we have them?
People who try and take them away from us.
Or belittle us or what we do.
Finding your own tools.
People won’t give them to you or find them for you.
Often it’s children who have underestimated powers .
They have an understanding and wisdom about things that we think beyond their abilities.
But in fact they are often leaps and bounds ahead of the adults.
People like Greta Thunberg.
The young people who we have borrowed the earth from and who we have to give it back to.
And hope that they will take better care of it than we have.
The world’s youth deserve to be more informed and have more of a say in how their world is managed.
11. “Keep Going”
Oops, this one came out really long. It was a lovely zone to get into with the band and with Josh, so our attempts at finishing the song earlier kept failing. Listening to it now I can hear Josh saying, “I love it, radio hates it.”
The idea in the first line came into my head when I was at a Bill Callahan gig with my friend Jenny. He was so grounded there on stage. It was like he was plumbed into the earth.
Direct line of communication. Very powerful. The guy is a wizard.
And then since then I’ve noticed the quality in other people too.
On and off stage.
It’s rare but a real pleasure when you see it in someone.
Skin and scabs.
Sometimes you get an infection sometimes you don’t.
No one can take our love away from us.
Be it between people or simply one person’s love.
The thing that makes humans hope against hope and keep going in adversity.
Otherwise what else is there and what are we doing here?
Having faith in each other as people and as lifeforms living on this planet is all we can do.
But the hope is real and the reasons for hope are real. People are strong and resilient and loving and we all need to set the example.
Rough patches come and go.
There’ll always be a better time after this rough time after a better time after a rough time.
Keep going and keep doing our best to be kind and compassionate.