‘Goofy, free, imperfect.’ How the 80s forged an aesthetic for Kate NV

Her upcoming album, Room for the Moon, is a mischievous throwback to 80s TV shows — yet her sound is deliciously disorientating and original as ever.

9 June 2020
Top image: Talib Shillaev

Hearing Kate Shilonosova talk belies the stereotype of the whimsical experimental artist. The Russian musician, otherwise known as Kate NV, is an immediately galvanising presence, even over the phone. Her voice, beamed in from a playground not far from her Moscow home, is buoyant and giddy. She is an artist who dons numerous guises, equally comfortable in them all. The music she is on the cusp of releasing on her new record Room for the Moon brings a playful touch to free-form tales of loneliness and disaster, and under any other circumstances would be something of a breakout moment.

Her work has moved on both from the crushing art rock of her band Glintshake, and her first forays as a solo artist on her Japanese city pop-inspired debut Binasu. She has since worked on an improvisational collaboration with the Moscow Scratch Orchestra, a collective that makes music based on theories developed by English composer Cornelius Cardew, and the ambient, spacious landscapes of для FOR, a kind of abstract love letter to her adopted home of Moscow (she is originally from Kazan). Her refusal to colour in between the lines of genre and form has seen her lauded in the New Yorker and Pitchfork. And now, on Room for the Moon, she embraces her voice, and rhythm, fully for unabashed avant-garde pop.

Since Russia was thrown into a state of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, Shilonosova’s one constant has been the friend with whom she is editing her upcoming video “Lu Na” (which she describes as “very nice, very beautiful…with dancing cats”.) Just like the videos that Shilonosova has already released for Room for the Moon —Sayonara”, “Marafon 15”, and “Plans” — it plays on memories of musical performances from 80s TV, an aesthetic which informed much of the record. Each day, Shilonosova downloads a QR tracking code for permission to travel to and from her friend’s home. It’s not what she had envisioned for the lead-up to her album’s release.

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“[Working during lockdown] has been hard,” she says. “I really admire those people who have managed to do something cool and new, but I can’t. It took me a while to stop blaming myself for not doing stuff. I’ve always loved spending time at home by myself, but I would have this fear of missing out on something. Then, when lockdown happened, you think that you finally won’t have that feeling. But then the next thing is seeing people learning an instrument or a language on Instagram and it’s like, oh my god, I can’t do anything like that. I can’t even work out.”

Room for the Moon seems like a clear break from the instrumental movements of для FOR, but in reality, many of these songs began life before that record, Shilonosova rediscovering melodies after a period of deep introspection. “I went into a kind of quarantine some time before the real quarantine began,” she mentions, laughing.

“When I was finishing this album, I was pretty lonely,” she goes on. “It was a moment in my life when I felt that I didn’t have friends. I don’t know why. It’s not really true — I have friends. But at that moment, I just felt so completely alone. And now this experience seems to be repeating itself for a lot of people.”

But if Shilonosova paints a dark picture behind the making of this album, the music inside each track doesn’t hint at the pain in its creation. These songs are mischievous, even lighthearted. “I let the music tell me what she wants to be and how she wants to sound,” she says. Shilonosova likes to personify her work in this way. “It’s always a conversation between the two of us, and I’m just helping to finish the job. I feel like my body and my brain are instruments too, getting everything together. And she [the music] doesn’t tell you exactly how you should feel, she just lets you choose every time,” she explains.

Throughout this music, Shilonosova uses her voice to tie knots in multiple languages. She tilts from Russian to English in the course of one track, then on to French in another. On “Lu Na”, she entangles her own voice with the oblique spoken Japanese of collaborator Nami Soto over a thumping beat and frolicking synthesisers. It’s deliciously disorientating. On “Not Not Not”, she teeters close to scat singing, while on “Sayonara” she rolls around the title gleefully. The last time that the word “sayonara” rebounded through my head for days was thanks to Sosuke’s similarly expressive delivery in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo. For Shilonosova, meanwhile, it is a simple, one-word kiss-off. But language and lyrics are more of a means than an end for the artist. “I want the listener to imagine their own situation, their own mood, to perceive their own reality,” she says. “The words are an additional, abstract layer, but the music dictates the rules.”

Across all of her solo work so far, Shilosonova has remained in dialogue with other collaborators, significantly members of Glintshake, who have recorded and toured her material. “It’s super important to have the opportunity to work with others, and they are the people I like to play with most. The level of understanding is insane,” she says. Her Glintshake bandmate Jenya Gorbunov plays the record’s unusually prominent, rubbery, propulsive basslines, a stand out component on “Plans” and much of the album. On “Ça Commence Par” it comes together with percussion to become almost carnivalesque.

A far cry from the comparatively austere для FOR, Room for the Moon is a thoroughly accessible work, combining this desire to dance and sing with her willingness to experiment on the fringes. It also combines with her love of 80s signifiers, from Western synth-pop to, again, her beloved Japanese city pop. She puts her reverence for the latter down somewhat to the similar compositional patterns found in Japanese music and the traditional songs she absorbed at home in her native Russian region of Tartarstan. “When you’re growing up and you listen to this kind of music, and you even study it in school, it affects you a lot,” she says. “When I listen to Japanese music, I feel like I’m at home.”

Image: Johnathan Miles

Image: Johnathan Miles

But while hints of heritage and the structural integrity of her music points to Shilonosova’s high art leanings, Room for the Moon is just as preoccupied with something more base. At its peak, the slick maximalist sheen of Japanese city pop garnered little respect, and at its worst was dismissed and derided. Yet Shilonosova says the “goofy, crazy, free, inauthentic, imperfect”-ness of both the genre, and of much of the 80s — the shoulder pads, the bouffant hair; its artificiality and humour — is just as aesthetically inspiring for her. It means where для FOR was domestic and rooted in Shilonosova’s present, Room for the Moon is multi-cultural, borderless, both esoteric and populist.

In the comments that accompany the album, it notes that many of the album’s songs were born of “unlived memories”. It’s a reference to the impact of Shilonosova’s mother, who raised her on kids’ movies from the 70s and 80s — a second hand nostalgia. When Shilonosova was overcome with sudden feelings of loneliness, she reached back inside herself to find these childhood moments of comfort. “My mother created a magical world for me growing up. It went straight to my core. When I was alone, I couldn’t bring myself to go outside, so I travelled deep inside myself. I was figuring out everything that would make myself happy, and find this happiness in very simple things. I think lots of people are going through something similar just now.”

With no indication of when she will be able to tour the album, Shilonosova, like most people, is stuck. “I love Moscow with all my heart, but with this quarantine, I feel like I’m living somewhere in between,” she says, stumbling a little. “The political atmosphere has been dark and Moscow is full of enthusiastic and artistic people who really want to do something good for the country, for the city, for the scene. But being an artist here is a struggle; so is being Russian. It’s unpredictable. I cannot even say what is normal right now. It’s intense. It must be for everyone. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole — something is happening but you cannot see the bottom.”

Room for the Moon is released on 12 June via RVNG Intl.