The musical landscape is teeming with singer/songwriters, many of them quite capable, but only a handful have something truly distinctive to offer. Kate Voegele belongs in the latter category. Don’t Look Away, Voegele’s first full-length album (MySpace Records), is a revelation, as the 20-year-old writer/singer, belying her tender years, delivers songs of depth and insight with a powerfully seductive voice that maintains a fierce presence amid dynamic rock grooves and infectious pop hooks. Produced by the veteran Marshall Altman (Matt Nathanson, Mark Broussard), Don’t Look Away is a bravura effort from an old soul with a youthful spirit; think of her album as a female parallel to John Mayer’s Room for Squares—at once a zeitgeist-capturing landmark and the launchpad for a viable career.
The tracks range from the rootsy acoustic ballad “Wish You Were,” with its mandolin and accordion filigree, and the sparse, piano-based “Kindly Unspoken” to the widescreen heartbreak anthem “Only Fooling Myself” and the ironically titled “It’s Only Life,” a soaring expression of female empowerment, which Voegele describes as “a motivational, uplifting song about dealing with situations rather than trying to hide from them.” “One Way or Another” is an edgy rocker about romantic victimization, while the punchy “Chicago,” she says, “is a metaphorical representation of any kind of escape, about just needing to get away. The line at the end of the chorus is, ‘I’ll be on the seven o’clock to Chicago,’ so it refers to a specific city, but it’s universally applicable.”
While the concerns Voegele touches on in her songs are contemporary, her sensibility is deeply rooted. Growing up surrounded by the music of seminal singer/songwriters like Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Eric Clapton, thanks to her musician father, Voegele absorbed everything she heard as if by osmosis, and began writing her own songs at 15. “It’s my personal goal to continue the standard set by those before me,” she says of her timeless approach. “No matter how a song develops, my main goal is to reach people, because there were so many musicians who spoke to me, and still do, to help me to deal with situations. It's so easy nowadays with all the technology for people to fake it. For me, it’s just so important that the true musical talent and passion for the songs be there.”
Voegele, a Cleveland native now in her sophomore year at Miami of Ohio, is no neophyte; indeed, before she’d finished high school, the youngster had notebooks filled with songs and was regularly performing live with the poise of a veteran. Kate was 16 when some rough demos she’d recorded with her father led to an opening slot at a stop on John Mayer and Counting Crows’ 2003 shed tour, followed by second-stage appearances in front of Patty Griffin, Aimee Mann and Mindy Smith. She subsequently opened for Dave Matthews, the Wreckers, Howie Day, John Mellencamp and Jamie Cullum, as well as performing at two consecutive Farm-Aid concerts, Summerfest, SXSW, CMJ and dozens of club shows at venues including New York’s Bitter End and the House of Blues in Chicago. Additionally, her song “I Won’t Disagree” took first place over 4,000 entries to the New York Songwriters’ Circle, winning Pop Song of the Year, while “Only Fooling Myself” was the winner of the USA Songwriting Contest. One early admirer from the A&R world asserted that Kate could be “the commercial Patty Griffin,” in reference to the emotional and intellectual depth of her writing and singing.
Ambitious by nature and powerfully motivated by these gratifying early experiences, Voegele continued to write, including collaborations with pros like Jim McGorman (Michelle Branch) and Peter Zizzo (Avril Lavigne), and to record, working up a set of impressive demos in L.A. with Altman in 2004, marking the beginning of what has turned out to be a fruitful partnership. Inevitably, the music Voegele was turning out caught the ears of a number of A&R reps and label heads, leading to showcases and a number of offers, none of which felt right to the canny and discerning young artist. But after meeting with the staff of MySpace Records at the request of A&R man Jon Pikus, who’d wanted to sign her during a previous stint at Columbia, Kate knew she’d found the right label to partner with.
“When I walked into MySpace, I really didn’t know what to expect because the label was just starting out,” says Kate. “But the atmosphere was really cool and so different from the other labels I’d been to, a lot of which were cold and intimidating. MySpace wasn’t like that at all. Tom [yes, the original “friend” does really exist; Tom Anderson is the site’s co-founder and the president of the label] and Jon were really easy to talk to, and right away I felt comfortable there. The icing on the cake was that everything about the label was something I felt was right for me. I’d been looking for a label where I’d have artistic freedom and where they’d appreciate the music in its original form and not try to make it anything it wasn’t. That’s what I found at MySpace, along with an innovative approach to marketing, which is something I didn’t see at any other label. The people at MySpace are taking an approach that’s really different, and I’m excited to be part of it.”
Voegele signed with MySpace in October of 2006, choosing to work once again with Altman. “She met with me and said she was talking to Jon at MySpace,” the producer recalls. “I love the idea of MySpace—I think it’s a great marketing platform—and I knew Jon would allow Kate to pursue her artistic vision, which had really evolved over the last couple of years, so I told her I’d love to produce her record.”
Soon thereafter they went into Track Record Studios in North Hollywood, where Emmylou Harris had cut a number of classic LPs, and laid down 12 tracks live off the floor in a three-day burst of sustained inspiration. Among the A-list players who worked on the project (drawn by the strength of Voegele’s songs, according to Altman) were guitarists Dino Meneghin (Liz Phair, Ani Difranco, Broussard) and Michael Chavez (Sarah McLachlan, Mayer) Eric Robinson, bass player Jonathan Ahrens (Rosie Thomas, Warren Barfield), drummer Aaron Sterling (Liz Phair) and percussionist Chris Lovejoy (AM, Charlie Hunter Quartet), with the renowned Niko Bolas (Neil Young, Fiona Apple, Rachael Yamagata) engineering.
“Kate is a pop artist, but she has much more soul and integrity than the word ‘pop’ would suggest,” Altman observes. “Her music is organic and has a strong lyrical perspective with a lot of emotional currency to it. It’s so refreshing to hear a female artist as young as Kate is who has such a deep perspective as a writer. She’s got it, and I think this record is pretty special.”
Poised, beautiful, armed with unforgettable songs and a voice to match, Kate Voegele is poised on the brink of something big indeed. You read it here first.