Nothing like a pandemic and band breakup to hone a singer-songwriter’s musicianship. That’s what’s going on with Kenna Mae Reiss, who is in the midst of creating fresh music for their new project, Sweetmelk.
Some may know of Reiss’s solo work and of their time with the now-defunct Relevator, a group that got its name from the term in ballet known as “relevé,” which refers to the act of dancers raising themselves up on their toes. In a similar vein, Reiss said her former band strove to lift up listeners. The members of Relevator have amicably gone their separate ways, but fans of the band will be glad to know that some of the group’s unreleased material may see the light of day.
Ironically, Reiss was experiencing some rough personal issues during her time in Relevator, which made the task of inspiring others difficult. They're not entirely sure what Sweetmelk’s general sound will be, but don’t count on it being Americana or country or any of the other genres they've experimented with. It may in fact be something entirely different from what’s in Reiss’ past musical canon.
When they're not making music, Reiss is a live-in caregiver for her grandma, a job she feels lucky to have during such an unknown time. The singer-songwriter calls her grandma’s home an “incubation station,” a place where she is re-educating and recalibrating. “I’ll be rebuilt after too long,” she said.
Smile Politely: What inspired you to start Sweetmelk?
Kenna Mae Reiss: There has been a lot of inspiration for Sweetmelk. In the same way the name Relevator had spiritual and emotional meaning, so does Sweetmelk. The problem with that at the time was that I was struggling very much with mental illness and substance abuse. I wasn't giving myself the proper nourishment both spiritually or physically, so how could I possibly have been able to be anyone's Relevator? I was chipping away at my own support systems. The name Sweetmelk is a reminder to myself to only create art that is nourishing. Like mother's milk-level nourishing. No fillers, no preservatives, no sugar. Make the art you want to feel, that helps you heal. That kind of energy.
Photo by Kenna Mae Reiss.
SP: Tell me more about Sweetmelk.
Reiss: The whole idea of Sweetmelk is a space to be free of my own expectation and not to be based on the music I've previously done. I wanted to be a country singer, a spoken-word performance artist, a jazz singer growing up. Right after that I wanted to be a screamo vocalist and then worked as a blues singer. At some point all those vocal styles got confused and melted into one. So I think Sweetmelk will be something more of a post-genre variety sound that explores and relies on my voice as an instrument more often than relying on typical structures and form ideas. Essentially, if you want to use your skills to make art that nourishes the heart and mind, and helps to heal each other, then I want to make noise with you. All are welcome.
I’ve been working with a few musicians here and there, and some really cool and surprising stuff has been happening. My goal is to bring song skeletons to a cast of rotating musicians, and instead of positioning myself as the band leader, we create something completely different than I had in mind when I wrote it. If that rotating cast of creators becomes more consistent in the future that would be cool, but for now this is the way it's been working.
So far I've collaborated with a few people, namely Teddy Lerch of Dad's Gym Productions and of the band LLYN, on a song I wrote called "Truck” (available on the Hogchute Homestead album). That was really exciting for me because I'd sent that to Ted looking for guitar, and he sent me back an entire band's rendition, all written and recorded by him. People are crazy talented and it blows my mind.
SP: When will Sweet Melk release new music?
Reiss: Hopefully soon. I have some recordings from a past performance that I’ll release shortly. All heartbroken queer stories there, recorded by the incredible Jake Metz at the Rose Bowl Tavern in October. And then a chunk of songs I've worked on in my bedroom "studio” will be pretty low-fi and nothing like Blue Darlin, my first solo album, or Relevator's work. I recently had the pleasure of getting back into a real professional studio space with James Treichler, who worked as the producer and recording engineer on Blue Darlin, so maybe something crispy and clean will be on the horizon for Sweetmelk. But for now, it’s live takes and background noise.
SP: What do you like about being in a band?
Reiss: Collaboration. It’s how I learn, how I find joy, how I feel love and loved. I can write a song on my own in an hour, but that will only ever truly contain my perspective. When you’re creative with others, your radius of shared experience expands, what you can speak to expands, what you can understand expands. Making music and being an artist is also one of the few spaces I feel worthy. So socializing without being in a band, having bandmates, or really being able to play shows or host rehearsals have all been a very challenging shift in self-worth. I used to walk into spaces and feel like everyone’s thought bubbles simultaneously said, "Why are you here?" And I'd spend most of the evening trying to validate my presence with my ego. But if I'm somewhere with a bandmate, I feel like I belong and my presence is welcome and worthy. I miss the confidence from the camaraderie — the band bond. Without a band, I wonder about my identity. That is both freeing and full of so much pressure for me.
Interested in listening to Sweetmelk? Check out their set from What's Goin On? at Canopy Club last weekend. Their set begins around the 1:14 mark.