Kirsten Opstad drives us down the coast of California with lyrics and melodies that makes us wish for a permanent sunset and hands that don’t remember letting go or holding on.
* What is your earliest memory of music?
When I was really little, my dad used to play the upright piano in our living room to let everyone in the house know that we were all running late for church. “Let’s stand and sing together,” he’d say then play a hymn as if he were broadcasting live what was happening at church without us. Remembering the sound of that piano unlocks a ton of memories from my early childhood. That and the sound of electronic doorbell chimes, which count as music in book.
* When did you buy your first album and record your first song? How did one influence the other?
There was a five year gap between when I bought my first album (Smashmouth’s Astro Lounge – I was 13) and when I recorded my first song (an untitled, almost-wordless musical ramble – I was 18). It took me a while to consider myself capable of songwriting. I was scared of sharing the songs I wrote because I wrote truthfully and at the time, the truth was really dark. I’m frankly glad that I didn’t start recording until later. I could barely sing and play at the same time. I made home recordings for my girlfriend in college, then I started putting songs up on Youtube. But the fear of being too dark or too real stayed with me – when I revisit those recordings, they strike me as kind of polite, as if I’m avoiding something. The music I loved at the time – Rilo Kiley, Regina Spektor, Tegan & Sara – all had an emotional authenticity that I really connected with and probably mimicked.
* Do you see music in everything or is it parallel to life?
To me, that doesn’t seem like an either/or question. Music is in everything – just close your eyes and listen. But it’s also parallel to life. Because music is our most abstracted form of expression, it seems to exist on a different frequency. This is why so many people with different perspectives, emotions and experiences can intensely relate to the same song.
* Your music sounds very clean and light. Did your style develop over time or was it there from the first song?
It’s funny that you should call it light, I usually warn people that it’s pretty heavy. As far as style I want to say that it’s been there the whole time, but I don’t know. This is the first album that has really captured me accurately. The recording process on Stay Strangers was very innocent – we kind of just fell into it – it took me by surprise and helped me access some of my best performances.
* Without the ability to deeply connect with a listener, music floats on the surface. It’s the difference between listening to an album 20 years from now and forgetting about it in six months. Your music is a mix of childlike laughter and inevitable heartbreak. How has life shaped your music?
What a phenomenal line: childlike laughter and inevitable heartbreak. Recently, my music feels like a direct reflection of my life. All the songs on Stay Strangers are about real experiences. What’s great about songwriting is the insane amount of license you get to switch roles. You can write a honest, sad break up song from the perspective of the person whose heart you just broke. You can put yourself in other people’s shoes and pretend to know how their brains work. I use songwriting to understand my life. I think the laughter and heartbreak you hear is just me. Heartbreak is inevitable; isn’t it funny that we should hope for impossible things?
* What moment in your life, became the hardest song to write? The easiest song to write?
For me, writing about happy moments is incredibly difficult. I struggle with trying to write about falling in love without sounding like an idiot – partially because I think that the act of falling in love is kind of an act of willful ignorance. I am obsessed with Stephin Merrit’s songwriting, specifically on 69 Love Songs, because of the way he simultaneously celebrates and ridicules the cult of love. Angry songs are easier, because all the things I think but don’t say are just waiting in a bank in my brain, patiently organizing themselves into clever, rhyming pairs. Sad moments in my life, moments of heartbreak and loss, are for me both the easiest and hardest to write. They’re easy because the poetry is in the experience and it’s therapeutic for me to think through a feeling until the right image or phrase presents itself. They’re hard because in order to think through that feeling, you have to revisit it again and again. It’s messed up because it perpetuates the tortured artist myth, but I do think that it’s both creatively and emotionally productive to sit in those dark moments and go back to them.
* What do you want to write about but haven’t?
I’d like to write a song for my two year old niece, but I’m very intimidated by her.
* How long did it take to record “Stay Strangers” and what is your favorite song from the album?
It took about two years to make. The actual recording process, if you compressed the sessions into consecutive days, was probably only a few weeks but the songs really evolved in that time. Almost all the songs were written before we started recording. It’s hard to chose a favorite song because they’re all so dear to me. Each song has an iceberg-size backstory that makes me feel ten things at once. I think that my favorite song on the album is Money Now. It was the first song we recorded and it’s the most cathartic song on the album for me. I’m proud of the songwriting on that one, especially the words.
* I can hear/see California through your music. Were you born and raised in CA? If so, what childhood memories became songs or at least, music?
You caught me. Born in Torrance, raised in Orange County then in Claremont, the city of trees and PHDs. I left California for almost a decade while I lived in Boston and when I returned I found that a lot had changed. The song Frame explores the idea of memory being eroded by age. Visiting family in Long Beach and Garden Grove after being away for so long, it shook me up. I remember Long Beach looking different. I remember my grandma’s house being different. I remember those people differently.
* Music has the ability to take us away from or back to ourselves. Where does your music go?
It does both. I love that it can do both. That means I can keep doing it forever without staying lost. I use music to try to understand other people better and to be closer to myself. I sing things I would never say. Even when I’m singing about someone else, I am the most myself when I am performing my songs.