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Interview: KC Rae’s new solo record showcases her journey into creative autonomy

KC Rae
KC RaeNate Ryan for MPR
  Play Now [18:24]

by Diane

November 14, 2023

Any musician who successfully creates art for more than 15 years will at some point journey into new and valuable points of self-discovery. As the leader of the Twin Cities band Now, Now, Cacie Dalager was catapulted into the zeitgeist of the American indie-pop world. But a recent autism diagnosis changed her outlook on life. This new information helped her understand her hypersensitivity to sensory input like sounds, fabrics, and visuals — which is a common autistic trait. Also, socializing in groups can be paralyzing, but many neurodivergent people can thrive in activities such as creating masterful art.

As a solo artist, Dalager now goes by KC Rae. Her new record, Think I’m Gonna Die, showcases her journey into creative autonomy. For the first time ever, this acclaimed multi-faceted musician and songwriter took full control over the produced work’s sound and vision. The music’s aesthetic is on par with the pop sophistication of artists like Haim, newer Taylor Swift, and MUNA, as well as the indie-sad-girl vocal touch of artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Big Thief. The album’s songs blend cohesively, each highlighting her gentle voice carrying out unforgettable melodies and introspective lyrics about vivid, experiential memories.

KC Rae will perform her first show as a solo artist at 7th Street Entry on December 14. We talked just before Think I’m Gonna Die released. She opened up about performance anxiety, creative and personal liberation, and we even discussed some of her musical influences — from mainstream ‘90s country to early ‘00 emo and hardcore.

This is Diane, host of a local show on The Current. I have a very, very special guest in the studio across from me, KC Rae.

[Clip of “Happy” by KC Rae plays]

How's it going?

KC Rae: Pretty good. How are you doing? 

Good, I'm just excited that you're here and that we have you in the studio promoting your new record Think I'm Gonna Die. And you have a big show at 7th Street Entry on December 14.

Yes. Correct. 

How are you feeling? 

I'm trying to think of another word other than terror. But that is the main word. 

Terror! Okay (laughs). 

Definitely terror at this point. Haven't played a show in a long time. So I'm sure once we start diving into rehearsal, I'll feel probably more confident with it. But it's been a long time since releasing an album and playing a show. So yeah, definitely feel anxious ... and it's my first solo thing ever. So I don't know what that's gonna feel like either. 

Well, let's give our listeners a little background. Maybe they already know who you are. But Now, Now was your project. And it's been like 16 years since the band (started).  And you've worked with professional labels, toured the United States and Europe.

[Clip “MJ” by Now, Now plays]

You've toured with acts like Maggie Rogers. And you've worked with artists like Ber and MUNA, and, am I right, Paramore? Have you worked with Paramore before?

We haven't worked with Paramore. But we toured with Paramore.

You've worked with Bully, I've seen. And you've really reached the zeitgeist of the indie-pop world — Now, Now has. Just incredible musicians and music all around. And now you broke off into a solo project. And that's kind of what we're talking about right now. So yeah, tell me about getting to — I want to do my own solo thing now.

I feel like I know, there was autonomy decisions that I was making along the way. But I feel like it kind of happened. Like, it wasn't so much a choice. I was writing music that I didn't feel like was right for Now, Now. And I didn't feel like it was right to pitch either. So I was like, well, I guess this is mine. It's not Now, Now. I know it's not the direction that I would want the next Now, Now stuff to go. It doesn't feel like I can have anyone else do it, so that just leaves me. 

Ah, interesting. 

Yeah, so I ended up with an album.

It's amazing. And it's basically self produced too. You produced it, you did mostly all the music work on it, like the synth, (guitars, banjo and mandolin). And then Bradley (Hale) did the mixing and drums and (bass). And how was that experience of self producing, and really putting your work on it?

It was interesting. It felt good in a lot of ways. And it was strange also, because I'm pretty stubborn. And I'm pretty assertive and forceful with my opinions. I'm pretty intense about my opinions on working on music in general. But this was the first time where I didn't have to ask anyone else. Like, what do you think of that? Like, I could if I wanted to, but it ultimately didn't matter. And I've never experienced that before — being like, no one else's opinion matters except for mine. Like, I can override anything. And I had never experienced that kind of power in a creative situation before. Brad and I, we tend to be on the same page most of the time. But it's still a collaboration. And this was the first time where I would ask Brad, but it didn't have to listen to Brad. It was an interesting sort of dynamic shift.

[Clip of “Bathroom Floor” by KC Rae plays]

Cool. I got to feel like it's kind of liberating, or like there's a certain kind of freedom. 

Yeah, it's freedom, and also, there's like a complexity to having power in a situation, especially when you're used to feeling like you're not supposed to have that. You're kind of like, I'm not supposed to be taking control of the situation … Me coming in and being like, no, no, we have to do it this way — doesn't feel good to anyone. So it's kind of like retraining myself to be like, it's okay to feel that way because I can do that here.

[Clip of “Blockbuster” by KC Rae plays]

And so far, the response for the album has been — the fans are loving it, I'm seeing. I'm a fan. I've been playing "Blockbuster" a lot on the show. And now I've really gotten into "Bathroom Floor," discovering the greatness of it. And a lot of the things that, as I've been researching and preparing for this interview, I have been like, oh my gosh, I relate to that so hard. And even just when I listen to this music, I'm feeling a sense of comfort in some of the sadness and self-discovery. And one of the things you bring up a lot is this diagnosis you had of autism and how that's kind of shaped your outlook on life. Tell me about coming into that.

So many portals just opened up. I feel like discovering being autistic has probably been the most powerful experience for me, just in sort of reframing my existence. All of these things that I thought were something wrong with me, can be explained by this. And realizing how much of my existence is informed by my wiring and my sensory, hyper-awareness, and how that informs my creativity and my writing and just my existence. So overall, it has been a really wonderful experience to figure that out. And to understand myself in that way, and I feel like I'm still understanding it — like more and more different pieces of it, and how it affects certain things that I had no idea that that even had anything to do with it. And then being like, oh, my God, I never understood that with this context. And now it makes so much sense. So still, like learning those things all the time. So yeah, it has definitely been really helpful. And it's something that I wouldn't ever want to change. Like, I can't change it. But I wouldn't wish to have been created differently. I wouldn't have wished to not be autistic.

[Clip of “10 Minutes” by KC Rae plays]

I was thinking of a word to describe your singing style. And I think the perfect word is gentle … as opposed to like this big boisterous (voice). It's very gentle, comforting. And there's comparable artists out there that you could think of. A big one is Phoebe Bridgers. But your style is not like hers exactly, but it's still like in a wheelhouse — a very in-touch-with-her-emotions voice. Or even like Billie Eilish, who has more of a pop style, club electronica — but it's still this really gentle ...

It's really funny, too. I know that's true. But there are so many moments where I'll be recording and be like, I feel like I'm yelling. I think I'm pushing too hard. And then I'll play it for anyone or Brad will be like, "No" ... I'll be like, I feel like I'm yelling. I feel like it's too forceful. Everyone's always like, it sounds like you're whispering. And I'm like, Oh (laughs). I have such a different perception of what I'm doing with my voice. I think because it's so breathy that I'm like, I am kind of pushing hard. But my voice is so small. So even like me pushing is still so tiny. 

Interesting. Because yeah, I wouldn't describe it as breathy. I would describe it as gentle but yeah, your voice is like literally your superpower. It's so beautiful. And that range is like this pocket that you have that really people latch on to. And yeah, I'm curious — as the most cliché question — where you do find that inspiration even maybe from what you're listening to or what you were growing up on. I think of Now, Now and I almost think a little bit emo. 

Oh, yeah, for sure. 

Obviously, and this kind of naturally happens as people get older, there becomes more sophistication within the music. So yeah, I'm kind of curious about the trajectory of like these influences that come over your music.

I know this isn't gonna make sense, but I think my biggest vocal influence is Shania Twain.

No kidding. I would not guess that.

I don't know. It's like, her voice isn't gentle, but it's like, she has her pocket. And I don't I don't really know why, but that really affected — like, I listened to Shania Twain a ton. And, like, playing with my voice, trying to match what she was doing, but in the way that I could. Like, emulating it but with my own voice. So I think that was like the biggest vocal influence for me was listening to Shania Twain. 

Isn't that interesting? I can hear it for sure. Shania Twain's voice is incredible. And also her songs are incredible. She has unforgettable songs. Like, her catalog is insane.

Yeah, every single song.

It's not something you guess. And then we're where's this emo influence coming in then? 

That started pretty early, I would say. Like, in the teen years, I listened to a lot of Thursday, if you remember that band. 

[Sings]: Falling from the top floor, your lungs fill like parachutes!

Yup. Exactly. 

Love Thursday.

Jimmy Eat World. A lot of Jimmy Eat World - "Bleed American" 

[Sings]: Salt sweat! Love that album.

That one. The specific song of "This Place is a Prison" by the Postal Service. That wasn't necessarily Emo, but it was dark. I don't feel like, to me, the rest of Postal Service or Death Cab — that one goes to like a new place for me. So that one lives in its own worlds. 

I was just sitting on Pure Volume or MySpace entering in emo/indie band constantly. So I don't even remember the bands, but that was all I was looking for. Just like indie/emo, emo/indie, like, Pure Volume, all day, all day. I would sit home, not go to school, and try to find as many ... like, someone's local band that they just did. And I would just be like, the fewer listens this has, better for me. I don't know why, I just felt so excited about finding these bands that —

Obscure bands, yup. Same.

Yeah. And again, I don't remember any of them. But I would just get so excited if they had any sort of like different sound to them, but still in that emo world. 

And you were in Blaine, Minnesota of all places. Do you feel like you were paying attention to what was going on in the Minneapolis industry? Just in this kind of smaller town, a little bit removed from the Twin Cities.

I can't really speak to where it is now, I guess. But I would say at the time of being a teenager, my parent's house — when we moved into that house, there was like a cemetery on one side, the neighborhood wasn't really fully developed. And then once you pulled out of the neighborhood, it was sod farms, and then the high school. So it was pretty isolated. And there was Myspace, but this was before social media. So I didn't really have a way to even be plugged in-to anything. And also, now, learning that I'm autistic, it wasn't naturally happening. And I wasn't seeking it. So I definitely grew up in a bubble in that way. 

Yeah, I can relate to a lot of that. I used a program called Rhapsody. It was kind of like Spotify before Spotify was Spotify. And I used Xanga to see what other music nerds were liking.

Oh my gosh. I remember Rhapsody.

So excited to have you as Artist of the Month for the third month on The Current. 

You were the first person to reach out, out of anyone.

I was?

Yeah, so thank you. That was a confidence boost for me being like, oh my gosh, somebody cares!

I literally have to give another shout out to my fiance Betsy who's incredible and such a music fan ... We first start dating and she puts on a Now, Now t-shirt. And I was just like, "You have Now, Now T-shirt? That's so cool. I'm literally a music ambassador for Minnesota and like you love really cool local bands." Because if you know Now, Now, you know them and you're a fan of them. But they're not known ... 

We're not like a household name by any means.

But anyways, I was like, oh, that's so cool that you love Now, Now. They're such a good band. And we were just sitting in her living room one day and I was like, Is this Now, Now? And she's like, "Oh, no, it's new KC Rae." And I was like, what?  And so I literally got on it and was like, I gotta play this on The Local show. I'm honored that I was one of the first.

No, you were actually the first — not one of, you were the first. So, thanks to Betsy.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.