Carla Kihlstedt

Open your mouth and sing. It’s one of the most vulnerable and powerful ways we humans have of expressing ourselves. Our songs pass on histories, and wind fantastic tales. We use them to woo, to mourn, to celebrate and to rally. A great song, no matter the genre, is a braid of words, sound and intention. The older I get, the more personal my music becomes and the more I am committed to the craft of song.

The songs I write sit on the border between popular music and art song. Where exactly, depends on the subject matter and on the language and strengths of the performers I’m working with. I’ve never worried that ‘one kind’ of audience won’t understand the ‘other kind’ of song. Every listener has their own musical reference points, but I’ve always found people across the (hypothetical) divide to be incredibly open-minded and generous.

I started out as a student of classical violin – an intensive and single-minded pursuit, at least in the high-pressured way I was introduced to it. It suited me. I loved the focus, the challenging music, the community of obsessive nerds, and the incredible expressiveness and clarity it demanded.

In the midst of my conservatory experience, I got the itch to create my own music. I discovered the vast world of improvisation – a practice I return to over and over again at different points in my life, with extraordinarily different results. I explored the world of musique concrète and sound design. That too, has extended into my writing today… the idea of looking for the right sound, not just the right instrument. A whole world of questions and possibilities had opened up to me.

When I moved to the Bay Area, for many years, I said yes to everything… I played in bands, I sang, improvising and composed in a dizzying array of contexts. For 15 years, I lived an exciting, but eventually unsustainable life as a touring musician. That experience gave me some great skills: I learned how to travel in the most luxurious style to the most punk rock style, and to prioritize clarity/expression regardless of genre/venue. I learned how to sing with total conviction, how to make an old song new night after night, how to use my violin and voice as much more than pretty melody instruments. I learned to deepen my own expressive language far beyond anything I’d previously imagined.

After many blurry years of travel, I began to take what I’d learned from so many collaborations and focus it into a larger vision of my own, with an understanding that my best resources are the people I work and play with.

My song-writing falls into 2 basic categories: Individual songs that stand on their own, and long-form song cycles. In the first category is most of my songwriting for my own bands/collaborations, both past and present (Rabbit Rabbit, Tin Hat, 2 Foot Yard, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Book of Knots) as well as a few commissions: A Gathering Storm (for the Paul Dresher Ensemble and Amy X Neuberg), A Woman’s Body (for NY Festival of Song) and Herring Run (for the San Francisco Girls Chorus).

In the second category sits my first full-length piece called Necessary Monsters, At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire (for the International Contemporary Ensemble plus me), Pandæmonium (for ROVA Saxophone Quartet), and the piece I’m just beginning to work on with an expanded version of my band Rabbit Rabbit, temporarily called Lost City: Songs from a Changing Sea.

These larger projects let me explore a single idea from multiple angles. I love this format of a set of songs linked by single subject because I can let the ideas I’m exploring be as complex and kaleidoscopic as they truly are: Necessary Monsters, based on entries from Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, looks at facets of human nature as seen through the creatures we imagine. At Night We Walk in Circlesexplores the world of dreams by setting imagery given to me by the musicians themselves. Pandæmonium describes different personal perspectives on the introduction of the machine into people’s lives in the 17th-19th Centuries.

The piece I’m just beginning – Songs from a Changing Sea – explores our relationship with the ocean, using interviews with people whose lives revolve around it in different ways. (I live in Woods Hole, MA – one of the top oceanographic research centers in the US, so I am quite literally surrounded by inspiration for this project. You can follow and help support this project by subscribing to it at

In addition the albums of my various bands/projects (see the discography page), I’ve loved making records with Tom Waits, Mr. Bungle, Tracy Chapman, Pretty Lights, Carla Bozulich and Madeleine Peyroux, largely playing violin. As a singer, I’ve found myself at the center of a wonderful trend of expansive song cycles that effortlessly blend genres: Jeremy Flower’s The Real Me (2016), Ben Goldberg’s Orphic Machine (2015), and the live version of Sarah Kirkland-Snider/Ellen McLaughlin’s Penelope. I’m an adjunct faculty member of both the New England Conservatory and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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