There’s an ethereal sound to Relevator that feels so natural and unselfconscious, as if the band isn’t even aware it creates such music.
It may be this vibe that makes the five-piece group a hard one to pigeonhole. Its 2018 album, For Raelyn, is an airy mix of country, Americana, and folk with some toe-tapping rock numbers to boot. The organic, lo-fi feel to the music makes its atmospheric sound all the more impressive.
A large part of the personality of Relevator comes from lead singer Kenna Mae Reiss, whose roughened vocals bring depth and feeling to the accompanying world-weary, from-the-heart lyrics.
The bluesy, soulful guitar solos by Colin Taylor, meanwhile, seem to spring from hidden corners and further the gravity of the compositions. The talented Taylor is no longer with the band and was replaced by Charlie Harris, whom Reiss said the band is “stoked to now play with.”
Rounding out this fine five-piece outfit are Sarah Cramer, who plays bass; Cody Jensen, who handles the drums and has mandolin and trumpet bits on the album; and the newest member, Emily McKown, who plays the keys. All these musicians lend their backing vocals behind Reiss, who took time to chat with me.
Smile Politely: You have such an authentic, no-nonsense sound. Where does that come from?
Kenna Mae Reiss: It’s just who I am. It’s how I live my life. That’s just what happens when I open my mouth. And there’s something to be said for the fact that I want to inspire the band to show up emotionally like I do, to make something and feel something. I think why it sounds so raw and honest as a band is a testament to how the rest of the band invests. They never leave me to be just some singer-songwriter yelling alone on the stage.
SP: For Raelyn is described on Bandcamp as "written in catharsis and in an effort to heal" and "a story of transition, self-honesty, and forgiveness." Can you expand on that?
Reiss: It’s really just how I write. Up until For Raelyn, my songs had always been made in moments of self-deprecation and pain. I've never had a therapist for long, but the guitar has been a stand-in. For Raelyn has some of that self-doubt, but also it is an album of transition, and these songs were a part of my journey into putting down self-hate. It’s named after my niece Raelyn. She’s a creative, expressive, hard wall of a little human, and I just wanted to give her the freedom to be herself. I named it for her to be able to look at it and realize that we can struggle and be stronger on the other side.
SP: My favorite part of the album is when the bass, guitar, and drums kick in on the otherwise quiet song "Shade." Your band seems to have a penchant for that sort of soft-loud dynamic. Where does that come from and who are some of your musical influences?
Reiss: It comes from people being emotionally invested in the song and listening to what it needs in order to convey its presence and reason for being. Words and the emotional arch of a song will inspire and influence me.
I find a lot of inspiration from local musicians. I'm not really sure how to pinpoint our influences. Boy Genius is an inspiration for me. Our influences are from all over the place. We all have a lot of different ones to bring to the table.
SP: Tell me about your bandmates.
Reiss: Cody [Jensen] and Charlie [Harris] are multi-instrumentalists, seasoned musicians who play everything under the sun: bluegrass, rock, honky-tonk, blues, funk, jazz, classical, folk, and world music from a multitude of cultures. They have all of this incredible technical knowledge, skill, and love of the craft and artistry that is the life of the working musician. Sarah Cramer and I are original members, and we’ve been playing together for a number of years in different projects. The smatterings of our varying backgrounds and individual passions lead to some pretty nuanced, beautiful moments that make even my saddest and rawest of emotional expressions uplifting for me and for one another.
SP: The song "Loser" has despondent lyrics but also a message many can relate to. What is the meaning behind it?
Reiss: That song I wrote a long time ago. I would’ve been maybe 21. Definitely the older modus operandi for my songwriting. It’s just about liking a person and believing that leagues exist and looking to that someone for validation while not feeling pretty enough, or cool enough, or not knowing any of the right references — but mainly just not pretty enough. It’s a song I wrote while fully indoctrinated into the gender roles and the way that system of thinking functions off of our insecurities. At that time, I was fully buying into that. I'm trying now to put songs like that down, though I will likely keep the song around. It’s not a feeling I want to sit in for very long. I've been calling myself a loser long before I wrote that song. I'm pretty done doing that. The truth of that song that I can still stand for is that the pressures of this binary system are real. They shouldn't be taken lightly or brushed off. I was 20-something, beautiful, intelligent, capable, and talented and somehow only felt worthy enough of attention when I belittled and degraded myself. That’s the toxicity of the binary. Its traumatic abuse from the moment we open our eyes and look to learn how to survive.
My eyes are fully open now, and I don't see any space left for self-hate or fulfillment based on comparisons. I keep this song in our rotation and intentionally placed it on this album for the sole purpose of recording the process of unpacking our shared trauma of societal conditioning and to finally bury it. If your readers love that song, don't put it on to sulk and succumb to those toxic, negative thoughts. Put it on, turn it all the way up, and yell about it. Yell about every time you've ever been told or made to feel that you're not worthy of acceptance and love, about every time someone made you feel small and incapable and anybody ever said you couldn't or shouldn't based on your gender.
Listen to Relevator's new single "Marijuana & Chocolate", which was recently released.
Relevator's next show is Saturday, September 28th at Rose Bowl Tavern with Dead Horses as a part of this year's PYGMALION.
Top photo by Emily McKown