Natasha Kmeto’s breakthrough album Crisis was a striking collection of electronic soul with deep grooves, warm synths and even warmer vocals. But on her follow-up, the Portland-based artist wanted to go even bigger.
Crisis bonded syrupy R&B with frantic electronic pieces and relied on intricate synthwork and Kmeto’s vocals, whether full-throated (‘Idiot Proof’) or sampled as textures (‘Vodka Diet’). Channeling the raw emotions of her first relationship with a woman, Crisis was a late-night album full of “desire and longing” that bounded between the dancefloor and the bedroom.
Inevitable (due out September 18 via Dropping Gems) is more cohesive: Kmeto’s vocals serve as a powerful throughline over songs that build, layer by layer, to ecstatic crescendos. “A lot of Crisis was subtle and quiet, and I wanted to contrast that,” she explains. “From an emotional perspective, it’s very much the bookend to the storyline of Crisis: What I was going through has a lot to do with me becoming more secure and more confident, and the writing and the sound parallel that.”
While they contrast sonically, Kmeto used the same approach on both albums. First, she “picked her band” by choosing a limited palette of sounds, reflecting her influences by reinterpreting patterns and tones in different ways. Then, she derived the album’s tones from a single song. On Inevitable, that centerpiece is the title track, which features full-frequency trance synths and the percussive elements and rhythms of techno, both unmoored from genre conventions.
“The songwriting is in how I’ve designed the sound.”Natasha Kmeto
Kmeto began navigating towards full-frequencies and vocal-forward songs after playing more live shows. She lives in the space between DJ-focused electronic shows and band-driven performance, which caused its share of problems when she started performing solo a few years ago. “There were very few people adding a live element to laptop stuff without a band,” she says. “I think that’s way more common now, which is great.” But at the time, she had to deal with audiences expecting a DJ, and ones that didn’t even realize she was singing live. “Are you not looking at me singing?” she wonders with a laugh. “I think that’s a compliment, but that means you weren’t really paying attention.”
While live PA sets like hers are common these days — and audiences generally know what to expect — there are still some listeners that want music like Kmeto’s to be broken out and arranged for a band. “I don’t think a live kit would sound good on my music,” she explains. “The songwriting is in how I’ve designed the sound.” Plus, there are sexist expectations that continue to dog the music world: “The moment I add someone else on stage, someone will probably assume that I don’t make the music myself, which is a sad reality.”
“The dialogue has definitely increased,” she says of an uptick in people talking about the issues women face in music. “People are feeling more open to expressing themselves in a more honest direct way. I’ve seen more dialogue in my community,” pointing to artists with large profiles like Björk and Grimes that have shared their experiences. “I don’t think it’s necessarily changing really quickly, but I think more people are aware, whereas before it was an unspoken thing.”
While noting the systemic bias women experience from promoters, writers, bookers, agents and other artists, she is quick to note larger problems, too. “I don’t think that it’s an experience that’s totally different from women working in other industries,” she maintains. “What would be the most helpful is if people challenge their thought processes, and be more conscious and conscientious of what they’re trying to put out. And it shouldn’t have to be a separate section that they’re mentioned in.”
Those issues of bias and representation are doubly personal for Kmeto: Inevitable is her first record since she has officially been out as a queer woman. While she was “hesitant” to have her sexuality be a part of Crisis, Inevitable finds her bolder and more honest about her identity. “I want to stand as a representation of a different narrative,” she explains, and in that way, Inevitable succeeds: the songs on which she is most explicit are the most memorable, from the hypnotic ‘I Thought You Had a Boyfriend’ to the seductive narrative of ‘On A String’. “I find myself constantly in search of art in all forms that I can relate to,” she says, adding with a laugh, “without having to switch the pronouns in my mind.”
“I want to stand as a representation of a different narrative.”Natasha Kmeto
One pronoun that Kmeto is hesitant to use with her music, however, is “we.” Inevitable represents the first time she worked with anybody else, both in mixing (“It was nice, I got to take a little pressure off myself”) and in songcraft. The haunting ‘Grind’ features TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, whom she met through Dave Sitek. Kmeto needed another vocalist for the song, and Sitek connected the two artists, who were mutual fans of each other’s music. The 20-minute recording session went smoothly, despite Kmeto’s early hesitation. “I feel like my art is so personal and so close to my heart that turning it over or sharing it with someone else is a really intimate experience,” she explains. “Tunde is the sweetest man, he’s an amazing person, so it felt natural.”
Recording with Adebimpe might be the exception to the rule as far as her solo work goes, but Kmeto has started working with other artists on different projects. She sings backup vocals and provides production and keys for Chanti Darling, a Portland R&B band focused on 80s boogie. “It’s totally different from what I do — there are dancers on stage, it’s a full production,” she says. “The production I’m doing with them is the first time I’ve collaborated in a direct way and had it work seamlessly, and it’s been really nice.”
Portland, where she moved after decamping from Los Angeles nearly a decade ago, has been a key part of her artistic growth. During her first few years of electronic music production, she started a producer meet-up, trading tips and tricks with other nascent talents. And when she outgrew the rigidity of the city’s electronic music scene, she connected with artists in the indie scene and the queer community. “A lot of different people hang out and are all lumped in together,” she says of the city. “Portland influences me a lot.”
That spirit is definitely different from what she found in Los Angeles, where she attended the Musicians Institute. “The business-side was too prevalent” in both the city and the school, and it was too hard for her to “navigate the separation” between art and commerce. “In my heart of hearts, I just wanted to make my own art,” she says, “Music has to be this emotional, personal thing for me.”