The new album by Russian producer Kate NV is quite the statement. Rooted in avant-pop, ‘Wow’ teems with colour and playful electronics, while nodding in the direction of Can and Anna Meredith. As the title suggests, it’s a textural and multisensory revelation

Ekaterina Shilonosova is well aware of the disjunction between the mood of her new album and her current state of mind. Better known as Kate NV, the Russian producer and singer (who’s also a qualified architect) has just released ‘Wow’, a giddy, brightly coloured and disarmingly gleeful electronic album that pops with impish discordance, favours wild switcheroos and sudden pauses, and revels in its own cartoonishness. At times it’s almost funny, but right now its author’s headspace could hardly be more different.

Shilonosova is in Belgrade. She’s with a friend who had to leave Russia last September because of the draft, and she has no idea how long she’ll be there or when – if ever – she’ll return to Moscow. Only her father and two of her friends still live in the city – everyone else she knows has left. As she explains from her temporary bolthole, she feels very much adrift as a result.

“I cannot even say I have a home right now,” she says. “I have no place in Moscow I can go back to, and most of my stuff is at Dad’s home or my mum’s. I left the country at the beginning of the Ukraine war because we were getting so scared. In March last year, my friends who didn’t leave the country packed up all my stuff and moved it. It was pretty hectic and chaotic. You have to think of a lot of things… trying to settle down somewhere, to find a place that you can call home or at least set up a studio or bring your synthesisers.

“I have only a few things with me – I don’t even have proper headphones or speakers – and I still have to figure out a lot of stuff because I need to prepare for the live performances. This thing is actually killing me emotionally because I have ADHD. It’s very overwhelming.

“But I’m kind of fine,” she adds reassuringly. “It’s not like I’m in the street or something.”

Maybe not, but anxiety and upheaval are hardly conducive to creativity, which is why it’s so surprising that the temperament of ‘Wow’ is the polar opposite. It’s actually a collection of older tracks, completed in 2019 alongside her previous album, ‘Room For The Moon’, and it represents an altogether different time.

“I have to explain why ‘Wow’ is such a happy-sounding record,” says Shilonosova. “Because I think some people might think I’m out of touch with reality. The record is very old and that’s why it feels joyful – because it was finished before the pandemic.

“I’m the kind of person who makes music when they’re genuinely happy, when I’m in harmony with myself and the rest of the world. Right now, the times are very intense. I’m trying to make music but it’s a bit different, although it’s not super-sad or dark. I still make joyful music because I think that’s my character and that’s the way I feel about the world – I still feel some hope.”

Shilonosova’s optimism is an important impetus for her, but she’s also drawn from a wide variety of sources for the energetic and playful ‘Wow’, some of which she’s been channelling into her work since 2016’s ‘Binasu’. Her first solo album away from her post-punk/art-rock band Glintshake (in which she sings and plays guitar), ‘Binasu’ is a blend of sweet synthpop with soft, innocent vocals reminiscent of Japanese city-pop.

Two years later came ‘For’, inspired by her Moscow hometown. It’s a leaner, more ambient LP, made mostly on a Buchla and featuring simulated natural sounds, including birdsong and rain. In 2020, she released ‘Room For The Moon’ which, despite wistful lyrics reflecting on childhood and the passing of time, is a set of colourful, expressionistic songs that mix library sounds and parts played by live musicians.

‘Wow’ takes the same approach, including the sample pack of US arts agency Found Sound Nation’s “broken orchestra”, a collection of sounds made by over 800 busted instruments from Philadelphia’s public schools. That pack supplied Shilonosova – who’s performed with Moscow Scratch Orchestra – with much of her raw material.

Live acoustic instrumentation is also important, although it’s sometimes used in unorthodox ways. The marimba, central to the dreamily tinkling, stop-start ‘Mi (We)’, is in fact the treated sound of Shilonosova throwing sticks at the instrument rather than playing it, while the ringing dial-phone at the start of ‘Meow Chat’ is actually a clever bit of mimicry on flute by a friend who is a contemporary classical musician. For Shilonosova, using open-source material like the FSN sample pack is a no-brainer.

“I use the default sounds of Ableton all the time,” she reasons. “It doesn’t really matter what kind of sound you use – it’s just when and how you use it. It’s the same notes and they still exist in that 12-tone scale.

“I don’t have problems using something that is available to everyone. When I’d just started making music by myself, one of my male friends said something like, ‘Only stupid people use patches on synthesisers – cool musicians make their own’. I immediately felt under pressure – the idea that if I wanted to be cool, I needed to create my own patches – but over the years I’ve realised it’s not about the patch.”

Other elements that have shaped Shilonosova’s playful, finely detailed fusion are 1980s Japanese pop (the band Kidorikko were once a favourite), videos, manga and anime, old Soviet kids’ movies and Chinese cartoons.

“Me and my friends started to listen to Japanese pop from the 80s a long time ago, even before Google Translate was a thing,” she remembers. “We were browsing through different Japanese blogs, just randomly downloading stuff illegally because you couldn’t find anything online but you could download it from the blog. We chose stuff because of the covers – it was a very simple way to find new music.”

Photo: Jenia Filatova

‘Wow’ suggests kindred spirits including Bogdan Raczynski, Giant Claw, Kraftwerk, Anna Meredith, Nobukazu Takemura and Tune-Yards, but there’s another aesthetic at work too. With its hyper-colouration, mutable, hectic nature and innate humour, it also nods to chiptune, which is a flashback to Shilonosova’s childhood.

“When I was a kid in the 90s we had these Sega 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, and there were lots of games with funny music,” she says. “I think I finally realised why I’m so attracted to a perfect loop – it’s because you play those games on the same level. There’s a short track on a loop and it has to be so entertaining that the person who plays the game doesn’t really notice it’s a constant loop. You learn all the strands by heart and they’re so simple and funny at the same time.”

This open-mindedness, coupled with a genuine joy of discovery and the pleasure delivered by composing, lies at the heart of Shilonosova’s process, which values listening and responding as highly as doing. The idea of working on something that won’t click into place or that she’s just not enjoying at the time makes no sense to her.

“When I’m making music, I’m trying to be as sincere as possible and catch my vibe, my own presence – the Kate that exists in the moment,” she explains. “The most important thing to me is to be honest with myself.

“I’m always working on multiple tracks and have lots of unfinished projects. I jump from one to another, so I’m in constant conversation with myself and my music through them, and I’m always trying to figure out which I would like to work on at any particular time. I don’t force myself to work on something if I don’t feel like I’m representing that Kate or I don’t get the vibe. Sometimes I start tracks as one person and finish them as a completely different one.”

It’s telling that Shilonosova describes her methodology as “some sort of scientific research”, though she doesn’t mean it in the clinical sense. Quite the opposite.

“Because I collaborate with the music when I make it, I’m just trying to improvise with myself. It really helps me not to push myself too hard to get a certain result that is expected by society. When you think of the creative process as scientific research, it helps you to enjoy it. It’s like having a garden – you plant the trees or whatever, and you just watch them grow.

“Maybe it’s because I have ADHD, but I always need some sort of dopamine, and if I’m going to be sweating on a track, it won’t make me happy. What’s the point of doing something creative without being happy? That’s the only meaning of it, I guess. You have to be into the stuff you make.”

There’s often been an element of humour in Shilonosova’s work, but the cartoonish qualities of some sounds are more striking on ‘Wow’, with its pings and squiggles, childlike parpings, wordless vocals and stuck-CD stutterings. Using humour in electronic composition is a balancing act – one step too far and you’ve made a novelty record – but Shilonosova holds it. Her comic impulse has been boosted by some of the gear she’s used, including “a very funny and ridiculous synthesiser” from the late 1980s – the Kawai K4 (on ‘D D Don’t’).

“Its sounds are so stupid – really so funny – and it’s very hard to use them because they don’t sound serious,” she says. “What I like about 80s music is that there was a boom in synthesisers and drum machines, so people were just having fun exploring new sounds and the new abilities of the gear. It’s not like I had a specific intention to make it sound funnier. I just love it.

“Right now, I feel like that’s coming back in some way. I think TikTok has helped a lot. It has ridiculous melodies and funny music, and people remixing tunes and videos and making new tracks out of it – basically, people just having fun. That’s what I like about TikTok. There was a long period of time when everything was very serious.”

Joyful engagement is central to Shilonosova’s creative MO, which is one of the reasons she’s teamed up with Angel Deradoorian (ex-Dirty Projectors) for a new modular synth project called Decisive Pink. The two first met in Tokyo in 2014 at a Red Bull Music Academy event, but they didn’t get a chance to work together until three years later, when they were both in Europe.

After convening in Cologne, they finished recording sessions in 2018, but due to individual commitments and then the pandemic, they couldn’t finalise the vocal parts until last January. Eventually, just before Christmas 2022, they released ‘Haffmilch Holiday’, the first track from an upcoming album.

On paper, it’s an unlikely combination – Deradoorian, the maker of darkly meditative, slightly psychedelic alt-rock and Shilonosova, the improv enthusiast with a playful streak and a love of old Japanese synthpop – but the two bonded over a shared appreciation of Can, and it seems their natural chemistry made the recording sessions a total hoot.

“We got a lot of inspiration from German bands like Harmonia, Neu!, Kraftwerk and Can,” says Shilonosova.

“Angel loves Can and I think they are the best band in the world. We were working on the record in Cologne, so we were hugely influenced by all this stuff. Some people might find the music kind of psychedelic, I guess, but I feel like it’s krautrock-pop. And we have different stuff on the record. We have funny songs and it’s very ironic, actually. I remember going to the studio and crying every day because I laughed so hard. I was literally in tears.

“It was also a happier, healthier time because we were just making jokes and fooling around. Right now, it’s complicated. Both of us went through a lot in the pandemic years, but that time was insane. The record was born in these happy, creative moments of joy and fun. Angel has a very cool sense of humour I appreciate a lot.”

For Shilonosova, any dissimilarities between her and Deradoorian aren’t obstacles to be overcome. If anything, they bring energy and curiosity of spirit to the project.

“It’s true that our approach is different, but it’s interesting to collaborate with other people because sometimes the way they make music or come up with ideas is unexpected,” she says. “For sure, that wave of amazing German bands like Kraftwerk and Can was really the bridge between us, musically speaking. But if you’re open, it doesn’t matter that much if you’re listening to completely different stuff.

“I’m not sure that Angel is really into crazy-intense Japanese pop from the 2000s, for instance, but she can appreciate it because she’s really open to music and likes to listen and watch people perform. Yes, we’re different, but why not?”

‘Wow’ is out on RVNG Intl

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