Fraser balances music & academic life

Western grad student launches EP in midst of dissertation

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Kaya Fraser

Courtesy of Joshua Hakin

ENGLISH TA BY DAY, SINGER/SONGWRITER BY NIGHT. Western grad student Kaya Fraser uses her Canadian Literature studies to write folksy acoustic songs.

Western boasts some of the most talented students in the arts. This week, local singer/songwriter and Canadian literature TA, Kaya Fraser, takes the spotlight.

One question most English students are asked is: what are you going to do with your arts degree? English grad student Kaya Fraser chose to write music.

Currently in her last year of her PhD program in English, the Canadian literature TA is carefully balancing her academics and musical career. Between her album release show this Friday and her dissertation due date, Fraser admits it’s a tricky feat.

After attending McGill University for her undergrad, Fraser came to Western to do her master’s in English. Once she came to London, she began focusing on music.

“Part of it was that I started connecting with some of the musicians here in town and London has a really lovely music scene in that, in my experience, people are so open and welcoming and friendly. It’s not a sort of closed shop the way some music scenes are ... so it was very easy for me to get my foot in the door.”

Recording her EP, Tremor and Slip, however, wasn’t as easy as she thought. As a perfectionist, Fraser admits it took an incredible amount of patience before she got the right sound.

“It can be very trying no matter how good you are or the musicians you’re working with " there are always moments when you just feel like tearing your hair out, saying, ‘Why does anybody ever bother doing this!’” Fraser says with a laugh. “But it’s worth it ... and for every moment where you want to tear your hair out, there are 10 moments where you just think, ‘I am so lucky to be doing this.’”

The result is a debut album with a combination of genres, including everything from the funky jazz, disco-influenced song, “The Only Exception,” to the folksy, roots rock title track, “Tremor and Slip.”

One of the songs she was most delighted by is “The Stars.” It started out as a very quiet, finger-pick style folk song, but digressed from its ballad personality with the addition of drums and the cello.

“It’s especially surprising when a song changes quite a bit from how it was when you were sitting on your living room floor and writing it to how it sounds on the CD,” Fraser explains.

With a range of influences from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell to old ‘70s soul crooners like Al Green to more contemporary singer/songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fraser was indecisive about the musical direction she wanted to pursue.

“I loved all these kinds of music but I couldn’t figure out how to synthesize them into my own style. But I guess what’s been happening more recently is that you don’t have to really think about it. At a certain point, all the music that you love will combine itself in the work that you’re doing. It’ll find its own combination.”

Fraser’s “burst of songwriting creativity” over the past 10 months has snowballed her musical career. Aside from being broadcast on CBC Radio 3 and being a prizewinner of Western’s “Original and Unplugged” singer/songwriter competition last March, Fraser has also performed at shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and received a Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) grant to make the CD.

As thrilled as Fraser is with her success, she hasn’t abandoned her academics. In fact, she feels that her two fields, music and literature, aren’t as far apart as they may seem. Canadian literature has enabled her songwriting and has given her confidence to perform publicly.

“Studying literature has almost made me hyper-aware of language and that really helps with songwriting. I feel like telling my students, who are aspiring poets or songwriters, that this is really worth it because just going through an English degree makes you aware of the way language works.

“Part of my philosophy as a teacher is [that] those elements to my students’ lives can and should come into the classroom. It makes the classroom a more diverse place ... all these elements can enrich the process of learning because someone will always know more than you.”

Kaya Fraser is playing at Aeolian Hall tonight at 8 p.m. as part of her CD release show. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door.

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