By Way of Japan: An Interview with New Jersey-Based Singer-Songwriter Kate Sikora
by David Chiu
It is not often that you hear about a singer-songwriter from New Jersey who teaches at a school in Japan. But that’s what characterizes the unique life story of emerging artist Kate Sikora of Boonton, New Jersey so far. One of the highlights from her time in the Land of the Rising Sun happened in 2009 playing the Rookie-A-Go-Go stage at Fuji Rock.
“I didn’t know at the time, but I was the first foreigner to play that particular stage,” she says. “It’s pretty easy to be oblivious of where I stand in the music industry over there because I am, essentially, illiterate in Japanese.”
This young performer has recorded two records so far, Grace in Rotation, which was released in 2005, and her recent six-song EP Aparto. Her experiences in Japan plays a role in her music, which draws on various styles and moods—from stripped-down folk to garagey rock–but has in common a melodic indie pop undercurrent. “I’m inspired by the people, sights, sounds, and smells there,” she says. “I’m still discovering it. Being far from familiarity and nostalgia are themes that come up a lot in my more recent songs.”
As she tells it, Sikora hails from a musical family and would listen to the music of her dad such as the Stones and the Doors. “Later on, my older brother would have band practices in our basement and the guys would leave their instruments at our house,” she recalls. “I used to sneak down and play their instruments when they weren’t around. My musical tastes were very much shaped by early 90’s alternative bands like The Breeders, Liz Phair, Hole, Helium, Nirvana, Mazzy Star.”
At age 12, Sikora got an acoustic guitar; four years later she performed at a local café and was the singer of a progressive rock band. She admitted to being a shy performer at the time. “At first, I was really awkward on stage but, eventually, sharing the stage with others helped me to get over my shyness. I’ve always joked about wanting “to be a rock star” but I think of myself more as a songwriter. I’ve had some pretty great performance and recording experiences which keep building up my confidence to do more.”
During a point in her life when she was trying to find some direction, a friend of hers, who had returned from the school where he taught, told Sikora about his experiences there. It piqued her interest. That same friend of Sikora later got her a job at the school and thus began her Japan adventure.
“Before I left for Japan,” she says, “a really great Japanese indie band, Apartment, found me on MySpace and invited me to play a show with them in Tokyo. That show really set things in motion for me as it introduced me to a few great musicians and friends who have introduced me to other wonderful musicians, friends, labels, venues, etc. I’ve been really lucky although my first year was pretty tough trying to balance the job with performing shows. The year flew by and I went home. I realized there was so much more that I wanted to do in Japan so I went back.”
Her ties to Japan remain strong after the four years she’s spent there—Sikora is going back to Japan in the fall. Apparently the Japanese hold Western performers in very high regard—just look at Cheap Trick for example. “There are a lot of western artists touring in Japan and the astronomical ticket prices don’t seem to sway Japanese fans,” says Sikora. “Being an American living in Japan has definitely sparked more interest in my music but I haven’t quite reached Budokan status yet, ha ha!”
In addition to her own music, Sikora is also part of an act called The Loyal We with Lindsay Leuders, an old friends of hers. Together they are working on the next Loyal We album. “Lindsay mostly writes on piano and her songs are very ballad-like and metaphoric,” says Sikora. “My songs are usually written on guitar, so they tend to be more rhythmic and upbeat. For our next venture, we’ve talked about writing the songs together. I’ve never really co-written a song before so I’m looking forward to the challenge. Lately, I’ve been playing drums and percussion on some of Lindsay’s songs. It’s opening a whole other world for me.”
This past December, Sikora had the opportunity to open for Liz Phair’s show at Maxwell’s. “Opening for Liz Phair was a dream come true! I’ve always liked her honest deadpan lyrics and signature guitar playing. She was a big reason why I picked up the guitar in the first place.
“On the day of the show I was determined to play it cool and not embarrass myself in front of her. It turned out that she is really sweet in person so I didn’t have to worry so much. She came right up to me and thanked me for opening the show (and even signed my cassette tape copy of Whipsmart— I know, I’m a dork! ).”
With Japan and new musical projects on the horizon, Sikora says that she would like to get into music licensing. She adds: “I’ve been moving around quite a bit so it’s been hard to build a regular fan base in one area. I’m working on building a larger internet fan base and, hopefully, I’ll get to do more touring. Mostly, I hope to keep the ideas flowing and write good songs.”
Kate Sikora will be playing at Tierney’s Tavern in Montclair, New Jersey on Saturday Jan. 22. For information , visit http://katesikora.com/