Charlene Kaye was born in Honolulu and subsequently moved to cities all over the world, developing talents for a number of instruments including guitar, bass, piano/keys, vocals, violin, and more along the way.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, where she was involved with the local indie folk community, Kaye moved to her current home of New York to fully immerse herself in her music career, collaborating with Glee star Darren Criss and performing in various bands, including NYC all-woman Guns ‘n’ Roses tribute Guns ‘n’ Hoses as lead guitarist, Gash. In 2011, she released a theatrical, electro/rock-tinged solo debut, Animal Love, to critical acclaim.
In 2014, she joined the esteemed baroque pop group San Fermin, and put her guitar aside to step into the role of vocalist. However, she couldn’t stay away from her favorite instrument for long, and she soon began to compose songs for a new project under the moniker KAYE.
On KAYE’s first EP, “Honey,” Kaye provides guitar, bass, and vocals. Over five songs, she infuses her infectious pop sound with glam, indie, dance, and R&B, layering it all together with introspective lyrics inspired by topics close to her heart including self-discovery and empowerment, breaking free of toxic relationships, and working in the often-frustrating environment of the music industry.
Stream our premiere of “Honey” now and check out our interview with Kaye about her musical journey and defying expectations. Honey is available for purchase now.
She Shreds: With San Fermin, you had to put your guitar aside to step into the role of vocalist. What was that experience like? At what point did you pick the guitar up again and begin to develop your solo music as well?
Charlene Kaye: Before I joined San Fermin, I had a very different relationship with my voice than I do now. I fell in love with music at a young age and figured, “Okay, I guess that means learning how to sing,” but I never liked my own voice very much—in a way, it was a necessary byproduct of desperately wanting to be a musician. It felt completely different from playing guitar, an instrument I was immediately obsessed with and couldn’t keep my hands off of. So when the opportunity to be in San Fermin arose—a job that required me only to sing—it was dauntingly uncharted territory. When I first joined the band, I was replacing three phenomenal singers [Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig from Lucius, and Rae Cassidy] and all I wanted was to do the songs justice. Ellis and Allen encouraged me to put my own spin on the music and make it my own, and the more I did that, the better it sounded and the more we all gelled as a band.
[Picking up the guitar again] happened organically after time apart. I just started missing it. Some of the songs on the EP had gone through many different iterations, many of which had more electronic/ hip-hop-leaning production, and I scrapped them because it just didn’t sound like me. But as soon as I started playing guitar along with the songs, I was like “Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like.” It was a wonderful moment of illumination, when I realized the first instrument that made me want to be a musician was still the key to my evolution as one, years down the road.
The bulk of the music on your EP was written while on tour with San Fermin. Can you tell us a little about that experience? What was it like to be immersed in both projects at the same time and what, if any, effect did that have on the new songs?
I’d been working on new music for a couple years before I joined San Fermin, but I constantly got in my own way by the enormous amount of pressure I was putting on myself, which I tend to do. My state of mind was very fraught. I think I needed to relax and step away from myself a little bit in order to write freely again, which came easily after so much touring, throwing myself into someone else’s music every night. I discovered that I felt really inspired to write on tour. My muses usually strike when I’m doing something else and not actively mining for good ideas, so it happens a lot in the van, at which point I’ll have to run off into a gross gas station bathroom to hum a melody into my phone. And then I’ll make a song out of it on my laptop. That kind of thing.
As far as the new songs go, I don’t think they actually sound anything like San Fermin. I’ve always loved pop and have had a very pop-centric mindset, so it’s in that world, but the guitar is much more of a voice in this EP than it’s been in the past.
As a guitarist, bassist, and vocalist, do you have a “go-to” instrument when it comes to the first steps of songwriting? What is your process for fleshing out the initial components into full songs?
As of late I’ve found that starting songs with drums—albeit MIDI drums—yields very interesting results, probably because I’m not a drummer. Like many musicians I know, I’m extremely sensitive to background music playing in public places like hotels, drugstores, restaurants, etc. And if a song catches my ear, the thing I will usually notice first about it is its groove. I heard “Overnight Celebrity” by Twista at a party earlier this summer and was like, “How could I forget how great this beat is?” And I went home and wrote a song based on that beat, which took a few turns and ended up sounding completely different, but it was born because I was so psyched about that groove. I think it was Paul McCartney who said if you’ve got writer’s block, try messing around on an instrument you don’t play and see what happens. He knows!
Although the songs are inspired from different situations and experiences, the overarching theme on your EP is the idea of being true to yourself and breaking away from others’ expectations, on both societal and personal levels. Can you tell us a little about that, as it pertains to your songs? Was that an intentional theme, or simply a result of where you were at in your life at the time?
I wasn’t planning on there being any kind of overarching message, but yes, I’m very pleased with how this EP accurately reflects this period of time in my life and the bigger life themes I was mulling over. I was observing other people a lot, kind of at an anthropological level, in a way that I hadn’t for previous records. Seeing how the machine of the music industry works is how “Porcelain” was born, thinking about how I’ve wasted a lot of time comparing myself to others, wondering what kind of artist to be and how my being a woman had affected certain decisions I’ve made regarding my image or my sexuality. “Carry You” is my favorite song on the EP, which I wrote for my sister after a particularly hard year. “Honey” was written after a long slog of self-doubt and heartache where I was so sick of feeling down about myself, I had to write a song to remind myself that my spirit was indomitable, trusting that my body would catch up. And it did.
On a similar note, any musician who has worked in as many styles as you is challenging others’ expectations just by doing your thing. How have these different experiences, whether your solo work, singing in other bands, paying tribute to Slash, etc., impacted your development as a musician?
Thank you! I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that serving other people helped me save myself. In times of cosmic frustration, it helped immeasurably to look up, look around me and be an active part of the world, contribute to it, say yes to things before you think you’re ready for them—Amy Poehler’s Yes Please was very inspiring/reinforcing in this department. So, I said yes to being Slash in this crazy all-girl Guns N’ Roses cover band before I had ever played lead guitar. I said yes to being in San Fermin before I had sang anything that high or that challenging, not knowing how just yet, but knowing I was going to. And that mindset—committing to doing something before you’ve done it—was fucking scary at the time, but it made all the difference.