Erika Kulnys: Born with the Heart of a Wildcat

Erika Kulnys: Born with the Heart of a Wildcat
By Sam Schreiber
Urban Code Magazine, September 2007
Warmth, humor and intelligence aren’t qualities found in great abundance in mainstream music. Finding all three at once is uncommon. But then, there isn’t much that is mainstream about Erika Kulnys. She is comfortable at the piano or with a guitar strapped to her shoulder. Her voice is bright, melodic and as mighty as Stan Rogers when she wants it to be. She sings songs about lust and love, tragedies and miracles, and, every once in awhile, her ex-girlfriends, in chronological order. Approaching the end of this particular tune, she’ll apologize to the audience over droll, but skillful strumming. She can’t sing about the last woman on the list because, as of now, they’re still together.

There’s a rare blend of confidence and sensitivity behind her smile, and resilience as well. Kulnys has endured her share of hardships, some of which she recounts in music and poetry. But there’s an untouchable core of joy beneath even her most sobering subject matter.

Canadian roots
What Kulnys’ fan base may lack in sheer volume, it more than makes up for in its broad global reach. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she has made a musical exodus across North and South America, India, the Caribbean and Europe, guitar case slung behind her back and a song on her lips. But for all her international appeal, her style is homespun, a testament to her roots in maritime Canada.

“Halifax is my home,” says Kulnys. “The music scene is so rich and so full of history. I grew up singing traditional Nova Scotian folk songs and I continue to love traditional music. I love the focus on making music communally. I went with my family to wild kitchen parties where professional musicians, old men and babies, husbands and wives would all sing jazz and go trudging through the snow caroling to neighbors who offered hot mulled wine. But I have always spent time alone in Nova Scotia with the ocean. The ocean has been a constant source of inspiration. When I moved to Ohio, the cornfields had to make do.”

On to Oberlin
Drawn by the respected music conservatory and fairly unique creative writing program, Kulnys enrolled in Oberlin College during the late 90’s. As it would turn out, the flat, blonde landscape of the Midwest would not be the only source of inspiration she would discover. After all, Oberlin is practically this country’s School of Indie Rock, producing such giants as Liz Phair, Josh Ritter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Deerhoof and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

“Oberlin was a highly stimulating environment,” reflects Kulnys of her alma mater. “I love that singer-songwriter music is not fixed, that we have moved into an almost genre-less generation where musicians mix and match, borrowing from different traditions and constructing a unique sound . . . I think the music scene opened up my mind and ears to the complexity and variety of soundscapes we consider music, and inspired me to think big and lush.”

Which, one can be sure, she does. Lush, as can be heard in her tribute to reggae, “Persimmon Tree,” and her Celtic cover, “Escape From Alvie.” Big-hearted, as can be heard in “Angel.” “Angel,” a gentle ode to a wronged father, is perhaps one of her most moving songs. “Angel deals with a man I met in Venezuela who was homeless, expatriated from the [United] States for castrating the man who raped his daughter, and [he] didn’t speak any Spanish. He was wandering the streets of Venezuela seeking forgiveness from himself and the world. I connected with his humanity and wrote a song about him, but also about fallen angels, the angels who have something to offer the world but slip through the cracks, often unseen and unheard.”

Kulnys’ latest studio album, Hurricane, is a well-rounded collection that is both courageous and tranquil. According to Kulnys, these, songs are about heartbreak in an expansive sense of the word. It’s important to note that while she is a force in her own right, she is not the gale from which the album takes its name. Listen to the title track and it becomes clear.

Playing with others
Though she admits there is a certain invigorating thrill to performing alone onstage, Kulnys is very much a musician’s musician, eager to share the limelight with other skillful performers. This is one of Hurricane’s many strengths, as her open collaborations not only add texture but also underscore her broad influences.

Matt Myer’s jazzy muted trumpet adds a cheery kind of nostalgia to the romantic retrospectives “Travelin’ Light” and “Song for Cari” while Jessie Tessolin’s cello provides a peaceful undercurrent to “Thank You,” a thoughtful reaction to a brutal car accident.

When asked whether she prefers working with others, Kulnys replies, “I love the humor and joy that playing with other musicians brings. I find I learn a great deal playing with other musicians and am pushed to look at my songs from new perspectives. Being alone onstage can be invigorating in its own way but is never as fun as sharing a laugh, a look of ‘oh shit!’ or trying to fix a defunct sound system as a team.”

Activist and musician
Failing to acknowledge Kulnys as an activist would be a disservice. She’s fighting for causes every time she sets foot on a stage. Homophobia, racism, misogyny and wartime rhetoric all walk away from Hurricane with black eyes. Couplets such as “Bombs are falling on a people, there’s no place to run/You are sitting in the White House playing war, having so much fun” from “Letter to the President” could read as shrill and airless on paper, but to Kulnys, this is not a cynical or trivial moment. There’s genuine sorrow in her voice, not only for the bombed victims, but for the President of the United States. Kulnys will not pull her punches. She will not pretend to respect both sides of this particular debate, nor will she grant the opposition any benefit of the doubt when it comes to their motives (“Stop pretending to free them when it’s oil that you want,” she sings in a grave alto over a dissonant chord on the piano). But explicit in her invitation for the President to “take a walk” with her, to “close [his] eyes and be silent,” is the belief that even the hopelessly lost may see the error of their ways.

Kulnys is not afraid to politicize the domestic and prove her craftsmanship while she’s at it. “The Housewife’s Ascent” would be little more than a clever pun without Kulnys triumphant chords rescuing her downtrodden protagonist from the ugly trappings of an abusive marriage. Over and over, Kulnys illustrates how little divide there can be between “content” and “form” in the hands of a disciplined artist such as herself. Interestingly enough, she’s of two minds when it comes to her formal training. “Studying classical music and poetry has been a mixed blessing for me as a songwriter. I am often exacting and self-critical while writing, which makes it hard to get anything done. I hold myself to some aesthetic that is not necessarily useful in writing a song that speaks to me and will speak to others. At the same time, I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to study poetry and music in university, to have been in such stimulating environments. [It’s] made me yearn to create art that works on many levels, that is alluring as a chandelier but dense as basalt. My experience outside of the academic environment allows me to give up all expectation of writing something clever, and lets me just write honestly. I hope to write songs that can speak to anyone, regardless of their education and experience.”

Rockin’ in New York City
Kulnys resides in New York City, where she performs regularly and in a range of forums. She’s been spotted at the Brooklyn Lyceum as well as the Rockwood Music Hall and is currently promoting her live album. A new studio album is in the works, with music bridging the gap between personal and broader peacemaking. Whether she will make the Big Apple her new home away from home or go back on the road again can’t be said for certain. But whether she continues to work the New York scene or hits the road again, there is sure to be music involved. “What I love about music is its immediacy,” Kulnys finishes. “Throughout my travels, music has been an instant way to connect to people – a medium almost everyone can relate to. I love that it provides a haven for people from the urban struggle of daily life. There have been times riding on the train through Brooklyn when teenage girls came up to me and, seeing my guitar case, asked me to play original tunes. Suddenly, the train car is a community. People unplug their iPods, smile at each other and sing along.”