In “An Epithalamion,” John Donne enthuses, “Call/Thy stars from out their several boxes, take/Thy rubies, pearls, and diamonds forth, and make/Thyself a constellation of them all.” The cosmos is full of treasure—buried pearls in seemingly exhausted fields, ruby-red wine from dying vineyards, and glittering new stars portending much wonder. As I listen my way through Kay Clarity’s ongoing project, The Jewel Collections, each EP stands alone as a miniature jewel. An emerald, an onyx, a pearl, and most recently, a collection of songs that are burnished a golden hue like light filtering through amber.
If you haven’t listened to the music of Kay Clarity yet, I cannot recommend it enough. Her work speaks for itself and is a carefully polished, almost entirely unaltered statement of craftsmanship and an enduring belief in beauty. I’m not alone in admiring her development as an artist. Poet Dana Gioia says, “I hear the voice of a genuine artist in Kay Clarity’s songs. Her evolving artistry shows how natural musical talent is deepened by solitude, contemplation, and suffering. It is immensely important to have a new generation of Catholic artists who bring such passion to their vocation.”
I was able to talk with Kay to get a deeper sense of what motivates her as an artist and why she keeps singing.
Michael Rennier: How did you get started with music? Were you a poet first or a musician first?
Kay Clarity: I began writing creatively around the age of seven or eight, and that is also when I became involved in music seriously. While I love music, I actually consider writing my primary focus, and as it relates to what I do now as a singer-songwriter, that aspect came first. I intentionally grew as a singer in the way I have in order to have a means to say what I wanted to say. Words have always been the driving force for me.
Growing up, I was exposed to many singer-songwriters of the ‘90s who were combining music and poetic lyrics in an incredible way, and I knew I wanted to do that. I started writing songs in earnest when I was thirteen or fourteen, and that became my total artistic focus until recently.
In the last couple of years, I have started adding pure poetry back in to my work alongside the songs, which has been wonderful. I’ve included some poems on my upcoming album.
MR: Why is it important to you to record live and leave your tracks with minimal digital alteration?
KC: With my current project, the best way to achieve the highest quality available to me was to keep the tracks stripped down. This simplicity also fits the focus I’ve always had on melody, vocals, and lyrics. That focus can easily be lost in over-production, which is not uncommon. It’s tempting because flashy sells.
Production is meant to bring a raw musical work to life. Too much production, however, can have the effect instead of distance between the artist and the listener, and can cheapen the art through distraction. Because this is common, it has been important to me to avoid any over-processing. My work calls for, I think, a certain level of intimacy and quiet, so less distraction is generally optimal. And, of course, no autotune is a given.
MR: You have a fairly natural, “live” sound on your EPs. Tell us about your recording process.
KC: I recorded all of the songs on my forthcoming album at home on my own with humble equipment. Everything on the tracks is me, except for some backing vocals done by a friend on one track. I’m not a tech person, so it was an uphill process, but also a new artistic experience from the production standpoint that I really enjoyed.
A tech friend is doing a little bit of polishing to the tracks, and they will also be mastered professionally before official release in November. It has been a simple project, but one I am very happy with.
MR: Being an artist these days can be a real challenge, especially with the pressure to create a “hit” and earn a living. How do you balance that struggle with the desire to craft art that grows and endures over time, even if it limits your initial audience?
KC: This is such a great question. It is, in fact, the question.
It’s unbelievably challenging. The artist’s call seems to be one of suffering as you continue to try to give beauty and stories to a world that is often not listening for myriad reasons. From a practical standpoint, there is utterly no reason I should still be pursuing my artistic work. I am simply convinced it’s what I’m here to do. I’ve gone all-in with my art.
What is crucial is that I fight daily to produce the most authentic art I possibly can. If that happens to resonate with many, as I believe it will one day, then so be it. A “hit” song that is also true to my craft would be an incredible blessing, though unlikely. But I won’t ever chase it or undercut my craft for the sake of that goal. That’s why artists like me very much depend on the strong support—patronage, really—of those who value what we do.
MR: You’re hesitant to be labeled a “singer/songwriter.” How do you see your larger role as an artist, and has your self-conception evolved over time?
KC: Rather than being a genre that focuses on lyrical brilliance and thoughtful melodies as I experienced it in the nineties, “singer/songwriter” as a genre often now encompasses just stripped-down hit songs with an acoustic sound. The poetic aspect seems to have been reduced, so I would like to clearly emphasize that element in my work, which is why I say I’m a poet as well as a singer/songwriter.
As for my larger role as an artist, I first want to create the best and most authentic work I can, so as to have it resonate effectively with my listeners. The world needs beauty and stories, and I want to be a voice that provides that. I also want to work to build a culture around my music that facilitates thoughtful appreciation of art, literature, stories, and beauty, and I will see where that takes me. Long-term, I would love to be able to support other artists through building a platform for the best, hidden artists to be shared because of the challenges artists face.
My self-conception has certainly evolved: only now can I say with clear confidence that I know who I am as an artist. After years of trying boxes where I didn’t fit, I’ve finally arrived at what I call a sort of poetic impressionism with a focus on stories and beauty. There is so much pressure on an artist to meet various expectations, and it is a crucial personal process to come to know what one’s true artistic identity really is. I am most content writing and sharing pieces that face and convey the paradox of mess and redemption in the human experience. Great literature exploring that paradox has been wonderful company in this regard in recent years!
MR: Where can we see you perform live? Buy your music?
KC: I have a new plan hatching for 2018, which will involve playing primarily for those most in need of beauty and stories—I’m thinking rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters, cancer wards, children’s hospitals, hospice care, victims of human trafficking. Information about other live shows will be available to the public on my website and on social media.
My full-length album, The Jewel Collections, will be available in digital and physical editions on November 13th. Audio samples are available for purchase on my website, and there will be more available in the coming months on YouTube as well, with some great videos planned. Those who sign up for my mailing list at any time via my website will also receive a free song download.
Kay Clarity writes and performs music and poetry. Her current project is The Jewel Collections. Visit her online at www.kayclarity.com.
Michael Rennier received a BA in New Testament Literature from Oral Roberts University in 2002 and a Master’s of Divinity from Yale Divinity School in 2006. He served the Anglican Church in North America as the rector of two parishes on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for five years. After discerning a call to conversion, Michael and his family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he is now a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is a blogger for Aleteia’s Catholic channel and an associate editor of Dappled Things.