There hasn’t been a lot about this COVID crisis that I’ve enjoyed but one little blessing is that I do not have to jump out of bed as early as I used to when I had to commute 90 minutes to my office in the morning. I have had the pure pleasure of being able to listen to music or a podcast uninterrupted with no distractions. It’s kind of like the way that I used to listen to all my vinyl records back in the day. I have a running list of musicians who have intrigued me and I have vowed to listen to them in this manner. I had the opportunity to see Kora Feder sing a couple of songs at last fall’s NERFA conference and then I saw her pop up on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and then I heard her do a podcast interview on Basic Folk with Cindy Howes. YES! So that brings us to this blog entry. You may not all have the time to sit down and soak in some songs, but I hope this little interview gives you a taste of who Kora Feder is and all the excitement that is surrounding her these days.
Rich Warren, a member of the Folk DJ Hall of Fame and much heralded broadcaster in Chicago says of Kora: “The most talented new singer-songwriter I’ve heard in the past decade.” Check out Kora’s website.
Here’s a video of Kora singing her song “Automatic Times.”
Here’s the song that Kora wrote upon news of John Prine’s death this spring.
Your parents are both musicians…so I’m wondering about your thoughts about how you were able to develop your own voice since you had been listening to them and playing with them for so long!
Yeah, my mom is a country-folk singer-songwriter and my dad plays every stringed instrument and drum under the sun. They’re both absurdly talented. I’m sure that my voice (as a songwriter and musician) has bits of both of them in it, inherently. There was never a point where I thought, I need to sound different from my parents, it just sort of happened through playing by myself. Once I left for college and started writing about my new surroundings and musings outside of their world, my own sound started to develop.
Your first instrument was the violin. Did you study classical violin or did you gravitate toward down-home fiddle music?
I started with the Suzuki books at age 4 or 5. Then, I played classical music in my school orchestra from 3rd to 8th grade. I was also a part of an old-time and Gypsy fiddling group through my school. When I got to high school, I stopped practicing violin/fiddle and dove into the guitar/mandolin/banjo world in a sort of self-taught, casual manner. I still pick up the violin occasionally and love to play some “Ashokan Farewell” or “Tennessee Waltz,” but because I think a lot more about songwriting and lyrics than anything else, I’m usually on guitar these days.
In checking out your YouTube channel, FederFilms, it’s fascinating to see your collaboration with some students from Buffalo State University. How did that creative liaison come about?
A friend of mine is a professor in the Media Studies department at Buffalo State. She teaches a production class and thought it would be fun to bring me in as a sort of ‘client’ who the students could make music videos for. It was really exciting to watch a group of students who had never heard my music or even listened to much folk-singer-songwriter stuff dive into the meanings and vibes of my songs. They’ve done a really amazing job, and I’ve learned a lot about how much work goes into just a few minutes of video!
And speaking of global travel, what were the most important lessons that you learned from your study abroad? Tell us in a nutshell, how your degree in Global Studies has impacted your life.
Spending time in China, Thailand, and India, specifically, really changed my worldview in ways I don’t know how to fully explain. Being in places that do not stem from white Christian culture was a beautiful reminder of how relatively insignificant the European and American ways of being are. I often think about little details of my life in other countries, like the snack stand on my way to school in Varanasi, or the way water splashed out of broken cement after a big rain on my walk to school in Hangzhou. Knowing that those communities I came to know are still bustling and existing, makes whatever my current reality is feel a lot less big and important. I guess it sort of taught me to zoom out, see the bigger picture, see how we are all different and the same.
I think the world would be an incredibly kinder and humbler place if every public high school required an astronomy class and a month-long homestay in a non-Eurocentric country. I realize the logistics of that are tricky and I am incredibly lucky to have traveled as much as I have, but it’s a dream. 🙂
Taking a deep dive while listening to your music, I felt that you conveyed a spiritual and sometimes mystical connection to the lyrics and music of your songs. Did your travels inspire you to learn more about faith and how people incorporate it into their daily lives?
I’m glad you picked up on that! I’m definitely fascinated by religion as a social power structure. It frustrates and amazes me to no end. Spending time in non-“Western” countries opened my brain up to religion being embedded in culture as opposed to a structured weekly visit to a church or a temple. In many places, people’s culture and religion are inseparable. I see religion as groups of stories that help people cope with not knowing, with space and time, and with human existence. You can’t talk about human history or creativity without bringing in some religious leaders and traditions. So, yes, I think about religion a lot, but I do not consider myself religious in a traditional sense. I call myself an Atheist Jew who Loves Christmas, but I probably know more about Buddhism than anything else as it’s what I studied most in college.
What did you learn during the production of your EP, Marigolds, and how did that influence your decisions with your full-length CD, In Sevens?
Since Marigolds was my first release, I wanted to accurately represent what I sound like in my most basic form. It’s just me and my guitar. Some of my favorite records are just guitar and voice, so I was excited to just do that. I also didn’t have any money, or a fan base to crowdfund from, so it was the cheap route. Naturally, I was excited to make a fancier recording the second time around. In Sevens was a much bigger production in every way. It had a bigger budget thanks to crowdfunding, I traveled to Austin and worked with an amazing producer (Rich Brotherton), it was a full length album, etc etc. Rich and I tried to keep In Sevens feeling like a solo record, while taking advantage of the magic of a studio and adding extra instruments and harmonies here and there. I see myself doing more Marigolds-like records in the future, and more produced stuff too. There are so many options!!!
By the way, what does the title of the album mean?
The number seven comes up in a few songs. (Buddha meditated in a cave for seven years. I painted seven pictures. Seven hours in an airport. My grandpa was 14 when he fled Nazi Germany. Etc.) So, it was just a common theme that emerged accidentally. Also, my friend and I have been journaling on the 7th of every month since 2015, so the number just felt right.
A much-talked-about track on this album is “Automatic Times.” What led to you writing this song? It is a seriously powerful song and needs to be heard by so many more people!
Thank you! When I was traveling, I was often writing about social and global issues relevant to the region I was in. It wasn’t really on purpose, but that’s what I’d be learning and thinking about, so that’s what would come out in the songs. I had recently moved back to the States when the Parkland shooting happened, and I was kind of seeing the States as another cultural case study. “Automatic Times” came naturally out of existing in and studying American culture and history. It’s one of those songs I wish would become history, but it feels more and more relevant each time I play it.
Another song on this album that seems to have struck a chord with people is your song about your grandfather, “He Wants to Live Forever.” He sounds like a special man. The production of that song is especially poignant.
Yeah, that song has sent me into a lot of intense emotional conversations with audience members who hear it and connect it to their own loved ones. When I see someone crying on their way to the CD table after a show, it’s safe to assume they want to talk about their experience in relation to that song. Being moved to tears by other people’s writing is what made me want to be a songwriter, so I’m always really touched and happy when the song gets to people. I guess it’s just relatable to want to live longer than you can, and to lose people you love or worry about losing them. On the record, Kathy Brotherton does a beautiful accordion part that I think adds a lot of emotion to the recording. My grandpa is 94 and still rocking it!
Finally, tell us about your Tiny Desk entry called “In a Young Person’s Body.” What prompted this song?
I started writing that the day after John Prine died. It’s one of those therapeutic processing songs that I needed to write in order to accept and understand more of what was (and is) going on. It’s just a straightforward reflection of my life during Covid, especially at the beginning in March and April when it was all so shocking and new.
Photo by Will Allen-Dupraw