A Conversation with The Yellow Kites

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Local folk-rock band turns IUPUI Journalism lounge into stage.

By Breanna Cooper

The sounds of humming and acoustic guitar filled the journalism lounge on Wednesday as Kendall and Erina Ludwig, married since 2009, warmed up to perform a small set for a Campus Session. Their folk-rock group The Yellow Kites formed in Indianapolis in 2007. Since then, they have put out two albums and are currently working on their third.

Despite getting their start in Indy, Kendall, a native Hoosier, and Erina, hailing from London, have done shows across the United States, as well as in Rome, London, and South Korea. As a band, it is their goal to reintroduce the love of music, sound, life, and people back into places where they believe it has gone missing.

After wrapping up a three-song set [that] featured “A Tree Love Song,” “Devil in Me,” and “Well Paid,” complete with their young daughter strapped to Erina’s back, The Yellow Kites sat down to discuss their band, music, and the Indianapolis music scene.

How did you guys form?

EL: Kendall was a singer-songwriter in his own right, and when we got together I started harmonizing with him. And then we went to a friend’s house, it was a fellow musician, and we sang the “Tree Love Song,” which was at that point just Kendall’s song, and I harmonized with it and people said it sounded good. So, we started working together.

KL: And then we got married. (laughs)

How do you balance being married while at the same time being bandmates?

KL: It’s hard. I don’t know--how do we?

EL: We just do it. We communicate, we talk about things. We have crisis band meetings.

KL: We also have really unique skill sets. I don’t really care for computer stuff all that much. I mean, I can do it. Facebook and stuff I use to chat with friends and we use it for promotion, but Erina is much better with Facebook and Twitter. I think I had a Twitter at one point, but I don’t know where it went. It kind of ran away from me. (laughs) Instagram and all that, she’s really good at taking pictures and writing blogs and making people remember that we’re out there, whereas I deal with soundgear, repairing stuff that’s broken, restringing guitars and making sure that we have chords and picks and sticks. We both write the music, we share it. Some songs, recently, I’ve been writing by myself, because Erina has been busy with the baby and taking care of the baby, which is a good preoccupation but it’s a preoccupation nonetheless.

EL: Yeah, I think, as well, we have a set time for practice. We have other things going on, and we just talked about making sure we still have date time and time of our own that is not business or with the band. We have other projects going on like renovating a house, and I sew and make baby shoes, and there’s always other facets to our lives. But with the married part, we’re actually thinking about our anniversary coming up in November. So, just being intentional and being sure to make the time. You have to stay on that, because having a fifteen-month old will keep you busy. (laughs)

Who are your musical influences, both individually and as a group?

KL: We were trying to figure that out. And I think, as a band, our inspirations are a mix of our individual inspirations. I can speak for mine, but I think Erina’s are a bit different than mine. When I go to write something, there’s a lot of older folk artists that I really like from the 60s. Everybody says Dylan and, I mean, he’s okay. I don’t own any of his records, but I think he’s a good writer. There’s people like John Prine, and he’s pretty well known. I mean, he’s not known like Bob Dylan or whatever, but I think he’s a really great musician and I like his writing. And guys like Kris Kristofferson, I also enjoy his writing. Sort of that cast of characters I really enjoy. Erina?

EL: My musical taste is a bit diverse from Kendall’s. (laughs) We always joke that when you go to the car, you can tell who’s been driving from what station the radio is on. I really like pop music. (laughs) My mom kind of raised me on pop music. I also like really old-timey music, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James--there’s just a richness to their music. And, I really like the 30s for women’s fashion and things. Yeah, and then lots of pop music from the 80s. Guilty pleasure, but it’s true.

KL: Michael Jackson.

EL: Of course! He was a great entertainer.

KL: He was.

How do you incorporate those influences into your music?

EL: Well, I think we spoke a bit about my singing style the other day, and I think my vocals--maybe not with all songs, like the last one we sang was sort of a country tune, but with ballads and other songs--I can kind of hear my influences coming through in the song, sort of a more jazz influence.

KL: I think a lot of the writing I do is really influenced by those people. A lot of our music, especially in the instrumentation, we’re trying to push folk music on a bit and incorporate world music a bit in the writing and also in the instrumentation.

Do you have a specific process when it comes to songwriting?

EL: I always say that Kendall, I think, is the song wordsmith. I think it’s because he was a songwriter on his own before we got together. But what might happen is I’ll get a tune in my head and send it to Kendall.

KL: We’re like the ultimate 21st century songwriting duo. (laughs)

EL: I know it’s ridiculous, we just send voice memos to one another.

KL: We do. It’s a bit nerdy, but it works.

EL: It does. It gives us a chance to communicate before we have time to actually sit down with one another and work the song.

KL: We spend a lot of time away from each other. We have different jobs; so I was traveling to Bloomington for a job, and Erina had written a really lovely melody a few days before. I took the melody and came up with some lyrics. So, I recorded--this isn’t safe, I don’t recommend this, (laughs)--as I was driving. [...] I sent it to her and said sing this to the melody, record it, and send it back to me. So, we were literally writing a song via text message and voice memos.

What typically comes first, the lyrics or the melody?

KL: It either comes at the same time or the melody comes first.

EL: Yeah, I’d say that it’s usually the melody that comes first.

In the last song you performed (“Well Paid”), there was a line about corporations, and the first thing that came to my mind was the Pete Seeger song “Which Side Are You On?”. How has folk music changed since the 60s in terms of social activism in the lyrics. Is it coming back to more activist songs?

KL: I would like to see that. I don’t necessarily like a really preachy song, but I like a narrative that tells a story. I think that’s the idea behind a lot of folk music, telling a story about what people are going through. I feel like we’ve become a bit passive as people, and [...]what I like to do with music is try to maybe not call people to action but at least shine a light on something and say, “hmm, that’s not how this should be.”

EL: Yeah, I think that’s definitely missing. When I think about folk music now, I also think about pop music. Pop music is used to entertain, you know, to make you feel good. That’s really wonderful when it’s nice. I think our lives are so stressful that we like to just go places and not have to think about the deep, dark world. That said, I think in this time of social media of all forms, the conversations about things, and stuff like hashtag protests, it shows that people are caring. And maybe that will bleed over into the world of music.

Do you have a specific theme or message that you try to send out through your music, or does that message differ from song to song?

KL: Music brings me a lot of joy. And, almost regardless of the subject matter, I think music is just an expression of something that’s bigger than us. It’s really wonderful and amazing that we get to take part of it. I think it was Vonnegut who said that “the only proof I needed for the existence of God was music,” or something like that. And I think, for me, that’s a big part of why I do music, because I find a lot of joy in it. That’s what I want people to take away. I mean, the lyrical content is what it is, but personally I just really excited and happy to perform.

EL: I think, also, with the second album that we wrote, [it] came after losing two very important people for us. So, the album was about grief but also hope. The great thing about music is that it can do that. It can be happy or it can be just straight up sad and miserable. And that’s the honest truth about life. It’s not always great and dancing the night away; sometimes it’s just wanting to cry.

KL: I think even in that though, in writing and performing those songs, we found connections. People would come up to us afterwards and say, “hey, that song really meant something to me,”and that creates a connection. Maybe not a joyful one necessarily, but the start from grief onto something else.

How would you describe the Indianapolis music scene to someone not from around here?

KL: It’s really underground. Well[...]there are some pretty big names. Joyful Noise is doing some really great things and so is Big Cat Records.

EL: Especially with all the festivals popping up everywhere.

KL: It’s a growing and expanding scene. It’s really lovely. It’s not to the point where a lot of people are making money here, but it seems like it’s heading in that direction. This is a really exciting time to be in Indianapolis, because the art scene is really growing.

EL: And, I think you make a lot of musician friends and you go and support each other. We were going to go see a local band from this area, and as we were going we saw another friend going to go see another friend at a venue. It’s fun. I think it’s exciting, and I don’t know how many people know about the Indianapolis music scene. People know Chicago, but I don’t know what they know about Indianapolis. But it’s good stuff.

You guys played in the Campus Center about a month ago. How did you choose IUPUI as a venue?

KL: We’ve been playing around here for a couple of years now. I played here by myself, so we had a friend who worked with an art gallery that was in the Campus Center. And he knew this guy who was trying to get people booked, and I got a text message to come and play. We did, and Brian Starkel, a really wonderful guy, he heard us play in the gallery and [has] had us back a couple of times since then. Another band I was in, more of a country band, had played in the gallery a couple of times.

EL: It’s sort of a one show led to another kind of thing.

You guys have played internationally. Is there a difference between American audiences and audiences from around the world?

KL: We did a kickoff for one of the fraternities here. It was a guy who saw us in the Campus Center, he ran it. Afterwards, he was like, “oh, we need to get a group picture.” I was like, “last time this happened, we were playing in Korea.” In Korea, you always have to get a group picture with the performer. I’m assuming that stops after a point, because you can’t really get a group picture with a concert hall. But every show we did [in Korea] someone would come to the front of the stage and snap a picture.

EL: In London, we played in a lot of pubs.

KL: London is pretty saturated, but it’s a really great place to play because there’s a lot of places to play. If you have friends with artistic endeavours, you can get a big group together and play a bar, and people are brought in and just listen to you. We’ve had a lot of really cool shows there.

Along with the US and London, you’ve played shows in Rome and South Korea, where I’m assuming there was a language barrier. Does that speak to the power of music--the fact that people were coming to listen despite possibly not fully understanding you?

EL: Definitely. Especially in Korea, I think. In South Korea, there’s a lot of exposure to American culture, through films and stuff, but I’m not sure they understood what we were saying.

KL: It depends on the setting we’re playing, too, I think. One of the cities we played in Korea was sort of a backwoods town where people weren’t really as exposed to English as they would be in, let’s say Rome. We had someone translate when we were talking and [to explain] sort of the general idea of the song.

EL: It was sort of a preamble at the beginning of the song! (laughs)

How important is social media for promoting your work?

KL: (To Erina) I’ll let you answer that one. (laughs) I don’t know.

EL: We had this conversation last night. It’s massive now, much bigger than when we first started. Most people have smart phones, and they check them very regularly, So if you send a quick update of where you’re going to play--we put out that we were doing this interview--and people see that instantly and get excited for you. You get exposure, which is great. It’s a good way to stay in contact with people. There is a woman who liked us on Facebook and bought one of our records, who really enjoyed one of our songs about grief [because] she had just lost her mother, and she sent us an email about what the song meant to her. It was great to hear her story. And it’s a great way to get feedback.

I saw on your Facebook page that you were looking for people to play on your album. I noticed that you were looking for a mandolin player, and immediately I thought of George Harrison playing the sitar on Beatles’ records and how that brought Indian music and influence into England. Is that sort of what you guys are trying to do, incorporate world music and bring it to the Indy scene?

KL: We haven’t done that as much as we would like, with the exception of a few songs. But I do think that the instrumentation that we have, we’ve kind of collected some instruments from around the world. There’s a lot of musical traditions from around the world that I find really beautiful, and they don’t really fall in line with how we accept music here, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less worthwhile. I could see us pushing into that at some point in the future, but we don’t have any plans at this point. It’s also the practical side of it. What can you fit into a sedan, because, you know, we’re trying to save gas money and we have a bass player and a drummer that have traveled with us for a while. So, on the album, sure. But I think it might be a while before we could do that live.

EL: I think on the second album, I played a harmonium, which is a portable organ. It sounds great, but it’s such a beast. It’s the heaviest thing ever, and I was like, “I don’t play enough songs to justify bringing this,” so I just played it on the recording.

Are there any instruments that you would like to learn how to play to incorporate into your music?

EL: I picked up the viola about two years ago, and for most of 2013 I was pretty consistent. And then I got pregnant with Juniper and grew tired, and I stopped. We had a friend who was our cellist for a while, and she had showed me some stuff on the viola.

KL: I have a tendency to be jack-of-all-trades, master of none. So, I like picking up instruments and dabbling with them. I would really like to hone in on my craft with guitar. I play lead electric, acoustic, and lap dulcimer, and a myriad of other string instruments. So, I think I’d like to spend some time sharpening up a bit.

Is there a specific song or musician that you guys listen to when you want to tune out for a bit?

EL: Yes, I listen to Erik Satie. I go straight to classical music, because it’s got no words. I find that if music has words, I get distracted and get into what they’re saying and I can’t switch off. I have trouble with talk radio, because I just get really into what they’re saying. (laughs) So, yeah, just no lyrics, and I’m good.

KL: I like really random, off-the-wall stuff. Stuff without lyrics as well if I’m trying to space out. I believe I’m pronouncing this right: “Amiina.”

EL: Oh yeah, they’re really nice.

KL:They’re an Icelandic band that traveled with Sigur Rós, and I enjoy Sigur Rós as well. Yeah, bands with no lyrics. There’s a band called The Books that I really like. I enjoy kind of weird stuff but also stuff that I can space out on. And some classical stuff. I enjoy John Cage a lot. You know, minimalism, stuff that doesn’t have a lot to follow. I like stuff like that a lot.

If you could do a show anywhere in the world, where would you choose?

KL: There’s an amphitheatre in Sicily. I lived in Sicily for a bit, and there’s a town just north that has an amphitheatre--it’s just gorgeous. And the acoustics are still really good, even though it’s old and sort of deteriorating a bit.

EL: I’d either like to play at this little church in London called Union Chapel or the big old Royal Albert Hall. (laughs) Either really small and cozy or really, really big.

A lot of musicians talk about their defining moment when they knew they wanted to make music. When was that moment for you guys?

KL: I honestly have no idea, because I grew up in the Church and I remember from a really young age just being super excited about singing. I have old cassette tapes that my parents recorded of me just being really silly and belting out church hymns. I think I was up at the podium singing when I was three. And, I always really loved it. I saved up some money and bought an electric guitar at a yard sale when I was eight or ten, and I just felt like it was in my DNA. I don’t remember ever consciously making a decision. I just knew that nothing made me happier than music.

EL: I’m sort of similar to Kendall; I can’t pinpoint an exact time. My family sings a lot.

KL: (laughs)

EL: Yeah, he’s laughing because my mom sings all the time. (laughs)

KL: When we were in London, we stayed at Erina’s parents, and our bedroom was right next to the kitchen, and her mom would be in there by herself and singing about whatever she was making. I’d be in there trying to work, and I’d hear (singing) “and the fish, the fish, the fish, and the rice.” Stuff that she wouldn’t be able to sing again, because she’s making it up as she goes along for that moment.

EL: But yeah, that was just something that I always remember having in my family. And now we have the smallest one to come [our daughter].

To hear more from The Yellow Kites, check out: http://theyellowkites.bandcamp.com/


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