Rising musician Charlene Kaye coming home to Ann Arbor for Blind Pig show
“Yeah, Ann Arbor will always be special to me,” says Kaye, who left these parts for New York City in 2009 after graduating from the University of Michigan.
So, when she comes to the Blind Pig on Friday, opening for Theo Katzman, things might get a bit sentimental.
But she doesn’t regret the move, given that New York is one of the centers of the music business.
Kaye is presently enjoying a bump in her music-scene profile, on the strength of the recently released single “Dress & Tie,” which she recorded with her friend and current “Glee” star Darren Criss — another U-M grad who Kaye knows from their student days.
“That’s been a very big deal, because Darren has a lot of rabid fans who love everything he does,” says Kaye by phone from her New York apartment. “So, they’ll go to You Tube to find one of his songs, and then there will be clips from my shows that pop up on the side of the page that people will check out, so I think a lot of people have discovered my music that way.”
However, it was Kaye who wrote ”Dress & Tie,” back when she was 18. Since it was about her then-boyfriend, “who I was very smitten with,” Kaye cast the song aside after the couple split up, but “my cousin recently asked me if I could sing something at her wedding, and that song seemed like an appropriate one, that captured that sense of bliss," says Kaye, now 25. "So, I reworked it, to make it more in line with current situation, and my current musical tastes.”
So, the new, single version is more produced, and Kaye accurately describes it as “more pop, with kind of a throwback feel, inspired by old Motown records, and the kinds of strings you used to hear on Al Green records.”
The well-traveled Kaye was born in Hawaii to parents who are Singapore natives, and she also lived in Singapore herself as a child, but spent her teen years in Arizona. Although Kaye took lessons in clarinet, saxophone, classical piano and violin as a child and young teen, she didn’t major in music at U-M. Instead, she chose English.
Kaye remembers starting out by playing open mic nights during her freshman year, and then “connecting with some awesome people who later ended up becoming my bandmates.” She recalls that her first gig was at Crazy Wisdom, and also doing gigs at the Canterbury House, the Ark and at “random house parties.”She also did a brief stint singing and playing keyboards in the ambient / experimental- rock band Perhapsy, and she actually recorded her debut album, “Things I Will Need in the Past” in Ann Arbor while she was still a U-M student, in 2008.
The album was largely an orchestral chamber-pop affair, incorporating such elements as pizzicato strings, scrappy guitar riffs, tinkling bells and castanets. In November 2008, she was selected as Ann Arbor 107.1’s “Artist to Watch."
Last year, she released a five-song EP, “Charlene Kaye and the Brilliant Eyes,” that was more of a straight-ahead modern-pop-rock effort, and included a couple of “reinventions,” as she describes them, of songs that appeared on her previous disc.
And Kaye’s sound is continuing to evolve, she says. “Maybe it’s from living in New York, but I feel like my sound has mutated into something edgier and more intense,” says Kaye. “I started out playing acoustic guitar, and played it for many years, since I was 13, but lately I’ve been cheating on it, with its bolder and sexier sister, the electric guitar,” says Kaye.
“I think living in this city has inspired me to want my music to have as much sensory input as possible. And I’ve been listening to a lot of rock bands who I think have steered me in a newer direction, like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the White Stripes and Belle and Sebastian.”
But due to her musical restlessness and open ears, she also says her next album —which she will start recording in the fall — will be “totally different than either of my previous two records. There are a lot of electronic elements — I’ve gotten into drum programming and synthesizers, and I’ve been recording demos on my computer a lot. It’s going to have soul and R&B elements as well — I also like D’Angelo, and Usher.
“It’s going to be a 180 degree turn from what my fans are used to hearing,” she says intently, before boldly adding: “It’s going to be epic.”
Kevin Ransom is a writer and critic who covers music for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.