Alumna blends worlds together in her music

Scott Pilgrim // Special to Western News

Kara-Lis Coverdale, BMus’08 (Music History) and MA’10 (Popular Music & Culture), is a church organist and modern composer whose work blends and transcends traditions and styles. She lives and works in Montreal.

You’ll find Kara-Lis Coverdale where the old and traditional meet the new and eccentric.

“I had the typical, classical upbringing, had my first organist position when I was either 13 or 14. I was an organist for many years; I’m still an organist. But I’ve always been a bit of a sponge, since I was a kid. Everything that’s in my surroundings, I’ve taken it in and put it back out through music,” said Coverdale, a composer and church organist.

“Even when I was studying as a kid, my teacher was very encouraging with exploring ‘serious’ music with more fun things, like rags and pop music. It has always been this idea that ‘anything goes’ that probably most informed my work and inspired me.”

Coverdale, BMus’08 (Music History) and MA’10 (Popular Music & Culture), has lived in Montreal since graduation. There, she plays organ at her parish, the St. John Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, and writes her own music, electronic samplings that blend and transcend genre and style.

“I can start with a sound, or an idea of form; it can begin anywhere and it plays out in the process. My work is this constant negotiation and indulging in what is ‘candy’ at the moment, and then taking 25 steps back, and planting that in a more stable foundation,” she said.

“As much as I’m interested in this idea of saturation, I have a lot of hang-ups with tradition – maybe not hang-ups – but there’s something about musical tradition that demands a certain criteria of quality that I find compelling. As much as I look out and see what’s new and interesting, I keep coming back to this idea of what is timeless, what is forever and what stands the test of time.”

For Coverdale, those enduring elements are in that modestly sized Lutheran parish. Having been part of it for so long, she is personally and professionally grounded in its tradition, its reserve and its liturgy. Whatever her experiences outside the church, it was where she found the impetus for the rest, she said.

“For me, being an organist in a church is a lot about being a student of more than just religion per se. I’ve always worked in Estonian churches. So, it’s been a study of culture and community, and festivals, and beyond all that musical stuff. Primarily, the job is to put into sound the concept of the sermon and the readings,” Coverdale explained.

She sees her post on the organ bench as distilling the liturgical message, painting it through music and sound and creating something meaningful and palpable that cannot be put into words. As much as she finds herself deep-rooted in the church tradition, Coverdale is still far from reserved and conventional. For as long as she can remember, she has lived a kind of double life.

“In high school, I had the typical teenage life; I’d go to a party one night, then to the organ bench (in the morning). Even now in my work, I am playing on a computer one day, an organ another, a New York basement club on another. That lifestyle of categorizing or compartmentalizing my life has followed me. It’s kind of bizarre – but you get used to the switch,” she said.

Her music has been used in commercials, films and plays. Since 2012, she has worked with Montreal composer and sound artist Tim Hecker on a number of projects, including Hecker’s 2012 album, Virgins, named Album of the Year by SPIN magazine, NPR and others. Alongside experimental producer Lee Bannon, Coverdale has cut three solo records. Most recently, Decoder magazine said each track of Coverdale’s 2015 album, Aftertouches, revealed “deeper and deeper layers of the composer’s brilliance” and the effort, as a whole, provided “living proof, and a true masterwork from a still-young artist.”

Her music might sound like part of a hymn, blended with electronica, an orchestral strand tied to a sound in nature, with maybe some rap added in. Whatever the blend, she makes it seamless.

“A lot of people associate my music with experimental and on the fringes, and a lot of people might find it jarring, that I work in electronic music and church music, But really, everything is one in the same. One informs the other. I’ve been so adamant that it’s important, and that people need to hear weird things. My music lets me speak to so many different people,” Coverdale continued.

She has a poster of Glenn Gould on her wall, but listens to Justin Bieber in the car. “Big composers” inspire her, but she has always loved pop music, as well – Garth Brooks and Celine Dion, Britney Spears and the Wu-Tang Clan.

“I’m probably the world’s worst DJ. I’ll listen to anything in the car. There’s no boundary – I’ll be listening to violin stuff one second, and Skrillex the next,” she explained. “It’s being able to make a career out of these channels, and being able to make it work on a bigger scale. It’s this constant idea of transcendence, and this idea of music, as something that can’t be expressed through letters, is something that follows me in all realms.”