7: I Realized There’s a “Fuck It” Adjustment That Comes with Being a Musician with Katie Kuffel - Wilde Musicians Podcast
Singer-Songwriter | Seattle, WA
Website | Facebook | Instagram | Spotify
When Katie Kuffel sings, my jaw drops…every time. She started writing songs in high school to release angst and since 2013 or so she’s been mastering the hustle, running her fully-time music business and juggling illustration and bartending on the side. Katie sings about mental health, sexual identity, assault, general well-being, and recovery and most of her followers are young women, non-binary individuals, LGBTQ, very liberal minded humans.
She currently leads a trio band and like I said, when she sings, I’m always surprised by its power. For this interview, Katie welcomes me into her adorable old house in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle; full of plants, rubber stamps, leather boots drying with fresh polish on the self, a weird-ass retro leg lamp, a cello and a piano. Join us as we drink tea in her kitchen corner and discuss the juggling act of running a business and creating art, how to read the room as a performer, our feelings about fame and big egos, how to connect with fans through social media and what Katie calls ‘the fuck it adjustment”.
“The worst thing as a musician is to get bored of your own set.” — Katie Kuffel
“There's a big misunderstanding that pursuing music is a big egotistic pursuit but most musicians worth their salt is actually very humble. You get used to rejection, bad shows and sleeping on people's couches. Being a musician is one of the most ego checking things you can do. You realize that no one has to support your music and it's very special when people do.“ — Katie Kuffel
“The worst thing you can be is famous. Extreme fame is something that no one is really meant to shoulder and deal with. Someone who has sudden fame should enroll themselves in some kind of therapy. My goal is becoming more pragmatic; I just want to be able to pay my bills and live my life and it's cool if someone says hi to me sometimes but I don't want tons more than that.” — Katie Kuffel
"There's a bit of a “fuck it” adjustment that happens with music." — Katie Kuffel
What advice do you have for your past self?
”People don't care as much as you think they care. Little Katie would be so worried about how things would appear or what people would say. It was like putting shackles on myself. I didn't feel free to express myself fully and take chances in life. I was always afraid that there was stuff being put upon me, said about me, or things would look bad. Straight up, people don't care. Creating is the ultimate ego-check. The beautiful feeling is when you have finished creating something and you're excited to share. It's not about what people are saying. It's about the fact that you made anything at all. It's incredible! "You made something that didn't exist a second ago and if that isn't some kind of spiritual shit, I don't know what is." This mindset is what brings people together. It's creating a space and it's also just for you.
What topic would you like to hear other musicians discuss on a future podcast episode?
I’d like you to interview women and men musicians separately and ask them the same questions and see how the masculine and feminine energy reacts differently. Ask them this question: "What do you want out of a performance? Why are you on stage? What are you getting?"
Katie's Answer to That Question: I'm getting a lot of shit. I am getting immediate feedback on something that I usually have to wait to much time to hear. As an artist or creative person involves so much time alone and in that self-serving place that I finally get to share this with somebody for a moment. That energy is like butter. It's very good. It's also fulfilling one of the reason I'm hear on this world; to create a shared space with people. If people choose to collectively focus on one thing together, even for just one beat, there's something magic there. It's healing. It causes you to think about nothing else. It's like a meditation.
DOWNLOAD TRANSCRIPT PDF
Surrounded by music my whole life. It was always at the center of life but now it's a full-time profession. Started writing music in high school as a way to relieve angsty emotions. Never thought of doing it as a career. The school wasn't for her so she dropped out and moved back to Seattle. She's now at the beginning of doing music professionally full time. She does prints, stamping and illustration work on the side to make cards & wrapping paper. She and her boyfriend also maintain their beautiful leather boots. She does side bartending; lots of side hustle to fuel the music.
You think working as a musician would be 80% music making but it's actually 80% business and 20% music. She's about to head back on tour and she's busy coordinating venues, emailing people, creating a poster. Unless you have a team (which most musicians don't have) you are your own manager, PR person and doing all the different parts of that.
Her favorite part of the business side is design work: posters and websites. Her least favorite part is how much time is spent emailing people to get the word out about a show.
Whenever she travels to a new town, she establishes a new network there and contacting local radios and college radio is a great way to get exposure to people; anywhere that has an event calendar. College radio is great if you're performing at an all-ages venue. It's easier to get into the college radio because they don't have the same allegiances as local radio. There is a greater desire for creativity in college students that makes it more likely that they're going to come to your show.
Katie hates naming songs. It's so hard to name something you create; essays or songs. Cha finds it easy to name songs; names just bubble up naturally. Katie named her song 'Cantaloupe' randomly. One of her bandmates had a New Zealand accent and she thought it was funny when he said fruit names. Cantaloupe is a song about 'daring to be kind in the face of your own shit that's going on.' and remembering that everyone is going through stuff. Do a service for the world when you see a fruit salad, eat the cantaloupe first.
When Katie's performing she changes up the intro stories to each song based on her mood and the vibe in the room. Being a musician as given her a lot more awareness about feeling a room and being aware. In between songs, jokes, chitchat, stories and no talking, all have a time and place. Smaller more intimate audiences will hear more fine details of the songs. Larger audiences are less in-depth stories because she doesn't want to slow down the momentum of the show. Have a drummer & a bassist help keep the energy rolling which makes it easier for you to include more talking.
Katie's dream is for everyone who has heard her music to be able to hear her live. She doesn't love recording and she feeds a lot off of people and the energy in the room. She feels like the energy is lost when she records. She primarily writes music to be shared. There are a lot of ups and downs during her live show, a lot of drama. She has a lot of fun performing and her shows have a fun wave.
She intentionally structured her show to be a wave, lifting the energy up and then bringing it back down. From experience, she realized it's hard to hold people's attention, especially if you're singing somber songs.
Musicians are conduits; channelers of energy, either inwards or outwards.
Performing in yoga studios, the energy is very poignant and it's easier to hold people's attention. The energy in the air is a lot more absorbent. It's the same as a listening room where people are quietly sitting and paying attention (versus a noisy bar).
How do you as a musician, read a room and see what people are ready for and then take what you see in that room and then bring it into the music? Sometimes you drop a song based on the environment of the room. What makes you drop, add or change a song to your set? Katie has an "aspirational set list" that she closely abides by. Katie's music covers a lot of controversial topics so when she's touring around the country she is aware that different communities may be triggered by different topics. In these sensitive situations, she will play the music but perhaps not tell the audience what the song is about. Unless they are listening to the lyrics, they might not know what it's about. If the energy in the audience is high, she might drop slower songs so she can keep the energy upbeat. She just yells are her band which song to play.
She plays with lots of people but her main trio is herself on vocals & keyboard, Jordan ___ on drums and John Robbinson on bass. She stole them from a different project. One of her best friend's boyfriends was in a different band and when that band disintegrated she invited them to join her. They've been playing together for a year and a half and they meet up every week or every other week to keep momentum with creation and development of their set. They don't need to meet up as often right now because they're on tour so they're already in the flow state. The worst thing as a musician is to get bored with your own set.
Katie did a lot of solo work when she was starting out; back before she had a connection and she was shy. She was nervous to invite people to come to play with her. She would only embarrass herself and not embarrass anyone else; worried they might not like her music.
She'll still perform solo and she loves it. It's harder to play a live show as a solo artist. You don't have people to fall back on. You don't have the same support as a band and it's hard to create the same shape as your show. Your show ends up being a lot of the same. How can she use her voice and her instrument to keep people engaged? Those solo shows though are some of the most connected music that she plays. She goes much more inwards when she performs solo. When performing in a band, she's a sponge and she soaks in the audience energy. Performing solo is more meditative and people get to watch her. She's like a fish in the tank.
What kind of stuff has been going on in your mind recently with your music? Music is hard. No duh. It can be easy to feel like I'm unbalanced and I feel burned out easily sometimes. I'm hard on myself that I'm doing all this work to promote the music instead of actually making the music. I'm realizing there are an ebb and flow of the music cycle and I need to be kinder to myself when I'm in those dip moments when I'm recharging. If I don't recharge then it's like putting my foot on the gas pedal with an empty tank and then I'm not able to enjoy what I'm creating.
There's a big misunderstanding that pursuing music is a big egotistic pursuit but most musicians worth their salt is actually very humble. You get used to rejection, bad shows and sleeping on people's couches. Being a musician is one of the most ego checking things you can do. You realize that no one has to support your music and it's very special when people do.
How do people support your music? There are a couple of different tiers of support. Life partners, friends, and family are all proud and vocalize their support. There are people showing up to shows and messenger her out of the blue. The craziest thing was when she was in San Francisco this week, a girl walked by and recognized her. She was in a city that she's not from and someone knew her. It's really exciting but also twitterpated feeling.
❤ MOMA, San Fran
What do you think about fame? The worst thing you can be is famous. Extreme fame is something that no one is really meant to shoulder and deal with. Someone who has sudden fame should enroll themselves in some kind of therapy. My goal is becoming more pragmatic; I just want to be able to pay my bills and live my life and it's cool if someone says hi to me sometimes but I don't want tons more than that.
I think fame is the extreme end of being someone who can influence things. When you have that power of influence and you have all those eyes on you, you can't get to the nuance of what you're making, the human connection through conversation. I'm not even at the fame part yet. I just want to make music and get some money for doing it.
What do you think about influential people in person vs. on social media? I'm very present on social media and somedays it feels very superficial. It feels like a proding reminder to people that I'm still making stuff; don't forget about me. It's really good though for connecting with fans and making connections I wouldn't have been able to make. I'm choosing to be on social media and I'm choosing to be very visible about my life and what I make. With that, it's become clear to me that people respond to those things that I may or may not be trying to say.
Don't try to sell yourself. I was doing that for a while trying to get some kind of response. Try to be genuine. At the end of the day, be clear on why you are sharing something. If I have a show coming up, my posts are promoting that show; emploring people to help spread the word. Sometimes it's a little diary and it's a way to release thoughts of the day; especially when I've been banging my head against the wall all day. It's catharsis.
I have a theme of mental health in my music. Depression, anxiety, therapy. I've come a long way out of that and I want people to know that shit still happens and I feel sad sometimes but there are tools and ways to get out of it.
There is something about seeing people post about their own experiences that let you align with them; esp. if you don't have people in your own life you can talk to about these things. She does welcome the messages from people. She lets them know that she has read the message and heard people. She doesn't give advice. She's just a sounding wall. I listened and I believe them and tell them they matter and she can just hold that little thing for them.
Musicians don't know what to post and don't feel engagement with people. They feel like they're shouting out into the void. They wonder why they're bothering. Any tips? I flaunt a lot of my 'pretty young white woman' self online to build my following and I use that as a strategy. It can be disheartening that the cute selfie is getting lots of attention and the post about the things she cares a lot about is getting no attention.
Reach out to people that you like what you're doing or people who are inspiring to you. You can self-promote, cross promote or collaborate together. Things were a snowball. I've been building my Instagram for 3-4 years and it's a slow roll. It's not a measure of what you're worth or how interesting you are. It's just a representation of what people are interested in passively at that moment.
Instagram is especially hard for musicians because we don't have a visual product to share. It's harder for musicians to break the mold and be visually stimulating. The photos that get the most attention are the ones when I'm looking good. "Feed the machine." The things that are actually relevant in my life, people don't appreciate on Instagram.
If I saw my Instagram without knowing myself, I would think "You're really into yourself,". But I kinda have to be. As musicians, we are the products. We can't just make good music. We also have to be a personality.
❤ Spence Hood
”These days, the art doesn't stand on its own anymore. It all depends on who made it”. -- Spence Quoted....____
I don't believe art should be separated from the artist. Especially with the Me Too movement. If you're consuming a toxic person's art, you're condoning that behavior.
❤ Kevin Spacey
The art becomes a part of the person's persona. This is challenging if people are introverted. Katie is a very approachable, likable person that people relate to and this helps people connect to her art. If the art stood on its own it would struggle more.
Most of Katie's followers are young women, non-binary individuals, LGBTQIA following, very liberal minded humans. This comes from the fact she's currently dating a man but she's openly bi-sexually and gender identity has been an issue; she now feels comfortable identifying as a woman but it was a journey getting them. She sings a lot about sexual identity, assault, general wellbeing, recovery etc...
It's difficult to be a young person in the world right now. There is so much to navigate. Our generation is facing a lot of negatives, a lot of mistrust in institutions, debt, we're under a magnifying glass with the available technology. It's hard to grow up healthily when every action is recorded and every part of you is on display. You're constantly in the public eye.
Do you feel like your music is being watched, that you don't have privacy, or that you're always having to share? If I create a song I do feel like I should share it. I don't release songs that I'm not proud of. If I didn't feel like I had to share then I probably wouldn't.
Instagram makes us feel like we are journalists with a daily deadline rather than a free artist who can wander into the world and create in secret for a while. As a young creative, it's hard to stay relevant. Katie reminds herself that Instagram is a tool to promote her music and it is not the priority. She sometimes feels distant from her Instagram.
Do you have any tips for musicians mentally struggling with Instagram? Am I selling out? It was a lot of mental gymnastics; reminding myself that I'm in control and it's my tool. It's an effective tool and platform for young performers that are useful. Instagram is not my life. It's .005% of what is happening to me every day and the things I actually care about.
There is a lot of social media fatigue. For creators and consumers, we are inundated with so many things competing for our attention that it can start to feel like our lives when it's not. It's not about new habits or new mindsets. It's just a reminder.
We love to connect with people and music is a way to connect quickly and deeply with people. Unfortunately, as musicians, we need to spend more time alone that we would like. Social media can become a surrogate for a social life.
I struggle with feeling lonely or feeling like my voice is very quiet. I don't have co-workers in the traditional sense. I'm usually bringing finished songs to people to work with them. The day to day hustle of emailing everyone and the logistics of planning a tour is all on her alone. It can feel like 'what's the point?'. The point is that this work allows me to become the kind of person I want to be; to be able to make music, connect with a lot of people and make money doing it.
The business side and lonely times are "like the flossing of music." Do anticipate less loneliness in the future because you'd have a team? The future is hard to think about. I've never had a gameplan. There is no end in sight. Maybe that's why I feel lonely. I just try to reach out and hang out with people more and go outside. I try and find things that help me feel more balanced. Otherwise, I'm just alone in a room all day. Sometimes I'm making something beautiful but often I'm just on a computer.
Does it feel egotistical to be creating music about yourself, by yourself? There's mainly just a lot of negative self talk like "people must think you're really into yourself" because you spend time alone making music or "don't you realize that there's so much more to care about than what you're doing; what you're doing is just a little tiny part of the bigger things happening in this world". But those are just the voices and the doubts going on in your head. Maybe I'm just recklessly like "fuck it" these days. "There's a bit of a fuck it adjustment that happens with music."
I'm just realizing that I'm a person who needs to create and have that outlet. In a sense, it's selfish that I'm making music for myself and it's what I need but everyone has things they do for themselves. It's a matter of me asking, 'How do I move through the world and be genuine to myself, which then radiates outwards into if I am at peace with myself and what I'm doing, you're not going to be fucking people over, or being a dick cuz you're good."
What advice do you have for your past self? People don't care as much as you think they care. Little Katie would be so worried about how things would appear or what people would say. It was like putting shackles on myself. I didn't feel free to express myself fully and take chances in life. I was always afraid that there was stuff being put upon me, said about me, or things would look bad. Straight up, people don't care. Creating is the ultimate ego-check.
The beautiful feeling is when you have finished creating something and you're excited to share. It's not about what people are saying. It's about the fact that you made anything at all. It's incredible! "You made something that didn't exist a second ago and if that isn't some kind of spiritual shit, I don't know what is." This mindset is what brings people together. It's creating space and it's also just for you.
Cha's most valuable feedback from people isn't compliments but rather when people say that they have been inspired to go create or do something themselves. It's a chain. The thing I did for myself ended up helping someone do something for themselves. That feels better than just compliments.
The universe is expanding constantly. When we create something we're expanding. As long as we're expanding it's good; we're in flow with the universe. Things go badly when we start to contract and hold back. Whenever there are too many social constructs, rules that's when people rebel. If I'm shy to create music in front of other people (like when I'm improvising music at home and I know someone else is in the house and can hear me), I can get stiff, my throat closes up and it feels horrible. Eventually, it gets so uncomfortable that I break through and realize that like usual, it's not a big deal and cared. It's the same for how people are living their life; if they're not freely expanding then they're withering inside.
Interview women and men musicians separately and ask them the same questions and see how the masculine and feminine energy reacts differently. "What do you want out of a performance? Why are you on stage? What are you getting?"
Katie's Answer: I'm getting a lot of shit. I am getting immediate feedback on something that I usually have to wait to much time to hear. As an artist or creative person involves so much time alone and in that self-serving place that I finally get to share this with somebody for a moment. That energy is like butter. It's very good. It's also fulfilling one of the reasons I'm hearing on this world; to create a shared space with people. If people choose to collectively focus on one thing together, even for just one beat, there's something magic there. It's healing. It causes you to think about anything else. It's like a meditation.
Namaste. The light in me acknowledges the light within you. Deep down, we are all the exact same. That's when people are happiest. When all the other layers are stripped away. All of us are here. We're not individuals. We're all one. It's a circuit. It comes through you as the musician and it needs to go to somebody.