Time has felt pretty weird over the last 12 months. Days last forever while months spin by in the blink of an eye. Yesterday can feel like a decade ago.
This is the theme of the upcoming second EP from KAHLLA, aptly titled Time, about how time shifts and shapes us. Deeply personal, yet oddly universal, the EP demonstrates KAHLLA’s progression as an outstanding talent in writing alternative pop songs that go straight to the heart.
“I thought the past was set in stone,” Freya Volk says. “But nothing ever really is. What the pandemic has done to me, and to a lot of other people, is that I’ve started to look inward and backward. A lot of the EP is about how time can change you and how your past influences your present and future.”
We’ve been treated to two singles from the EP so far this year. February’s ‘Thread’, with beautifully layered keys and vocals, looked at being lost in a relationship. As she explained when the song was released, “Where do I end and where do you start?” March’s slow-burning ‘Participant’ used minimalist pianos and anthemic drums in a beautiful song about protecting your mental health in a relationship, even though every fibre of your being wants to help that person.
Freya was raised in rural south-west Germany, in a suburb of just a couple of thousand people. Small-town life had its frustrations for an adventurous child, and music became an escape. “Music’s always been around in my life,” Freya says.
Both her parents are musical and all her four sisters play music. Freya herself started piano lessons at the age of five and continued until she was 18. Although she didn’t always enjoy the discipline of regular classical training as a youngster, Freya’s pretty grateful to her parents for it now.
“I can’t play half of the stuff I used to play now,” she says, “but it gives you an understanding of music that I think can be really helpful. It’s like you’re given the tools and then you can make the sculpture. The basic structure of classical music is there in pop music. I can always hear my old piano teacher saying, ‘Oh, this is actually like what Beethoven did in his Fifth Symphony’.”
Forming bands at high school with friends was an important part of Freya’s childhood, and the first sign that music could be something she could make a career of.
“I was always more ambitious at band practices than the others were. I was at every practice without fail, always on time, prepared, wanting to know when we were next playing. I think it was then that I started to seriously consider doing music.
“I distinctly remember the first song I wrote back then. We thought we were like a pop-punk, blink-182 kind of outfit. It had a really funny title. This was at the time when Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco were the thing. It was called ‘The Song I Can’t Read Myself’. I thought I was being really deep, you see, because I’d scribbled down lots of notes in my notebook and when I came back to them I couldn’t read what I’d written down. I thought I was being Patrick Stump or something!”
‘Songwriting stresses me out a bit’
After taking a year out after finishing high school working as an au pair in London, Freya did a songwriting degree at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in Kilburn, London – “It probably sounds more avant garde than it was, but it was good fun.” The main benefit, Freya thinks, was to finally have a music scene and other songwriters around her, people she could work with and bounce ideas off, something that was lacking in her hometown.
The degree enabled Freya to develop a songwriting instinct that was already there, an intensely personal approach rooted in life experience.
“To me, personally, I wouldn’t want to sing about anything else. I think artists do their best work when they know what they’re singing about and it’s something they’ve personally experienced. I don’t know anything else, do you know what I mean?”
All the songs for her Time EP were written last summer when she “still had a reservoir of things to pull from” before lockdowns stripped everything away. But it’s always a difficult process.
“Songwriting stresses me out a bit,” she admits. “I think because I second guess a lot and because you have to make decisions that, to me, can feel really final. It’s like, oh, I have this chorus now and I can record the song and release it, but what if a month later I come up with a better chorus? Songwriting to me feels really final.”
‘Creative control is super important’
A KAHLLA song begins at the piano, with a melody line or riff sparking thought processes and inspiration, and with Freya in control of every step of the process.
“Creative control is super important for me, especially with the kind of music I make. I have to feel that it comes from me, otherwise, I automatically reject it. I want at least 90% of what I do to be my ideas or my contribution. That’s not to say I don’t like other people’s ideas, or I don’t value other people’s expertise, I just like being in control of the process and what I do.”
Right now, with the new EP finished and ready for release later in the spring, Freya is writing again, but lockdown has made things difficult, especially for a writer who thrives on personal experiences.
“At this point I do struggle with lyrics,” she says, “because I’m not experiencing anything! I’m sort of getting to the stage where I’m, pppphhhhh. I don’t know what to write about because I’ve not really experienced much worth noting in the last year. I’m trying to hark back to stuff that I’ve been meaning to write about for years but that I’ve never managed to get out, or to revisit or redraft older songs that haven’t been released. That’s my approach right now.”
Regardless of the difficulties the pandemic has thrown up for a songwriter like Freya, there’s no doubt she’s hit a real groove with her latest material and that magical sweet spot where an artist truly starts to discover who they are and what they sound like.
“For me now, it’s not about picking an artist and saying, ‘I want to sound like that’. Before, I felt I was picking and choosing artists, whereas now I pick and choose components of songs rather than a whole artist, and then implement that inspiration in my own way, rather than making a pastiche or a copy. I arrived at this place last summer, pretty much, while doing the EP. I feel I’ve just hit the streak where I feel very focused on what I want to do and feel much clearer than before about how I want to sound. I’m trying to ride that wave.”
KAHLLA’s latest single, ‘Participant’ is out now – available to Stream/Purchase here.
Photo Credit: Emily Talbot