Kate NV is bridging the past and the future
When Ekaterina Shilonosova was in kindergarten, she won a local song contest with her father.
The pair would often play together, Shilonosova singing along to the simple melodies that he had written for her. The competition’s first prize was a brand new, adult-size guitar, nearly the same size as her; a symbolic victory for such a small musician. But second prize was an enormous toy dog, squishy and plush, the kind you might see temptingly displayed at a funfair. “I wanted that toy!” Shilonosova pouts over Zoom. “What the hell was I going to do with a professional guitar?”
Play has always come first for Shilonosova. Over a decade, the Russian musician, who goes by the moniker Kate NV, has released a series of audacious, experimental records that take inspiration from 16-bit video games, amateur orchestras, broken instruments and the unexpected sounds of everyday life. Her compositions are put together with the delicate precision of a Michelin chef tweezing micro herbs into position, but offset by a chaotic sense of humour and a strong belief in the power of happy accidents.
Shilonosova’s fourth solo studio album, WOW, is a cabinet of curiosities: an assortment of tactile, playful sounds that are mementos from years of spontaneous experiments. She’s also a prolific collaborator – a founding member of Moscow band Glintshake and one half of a new group, Decisive Pink, with Californian musician Angel Deradoorian – and this generous spirit runs through her work as Kate NV, too; her projects containing tidbits and tiny noises collected from friends and fellow musicians who may have crossed her path.
Last year’s bright early bird single captures these magpie-like tendencies. Buzzing with restless energy, among its morning chorus of tweets and chirps are two very different clarinet sounds. One is wheezy, a sample from the Broken Orchestra, an organisation in Philadelphia that rescues damaged school instruments; the other is performed by Andrey Bessonov, a renowned Russian multi-instrumentalist. Shilonosova is visibly delighted by the contrast: “I love the imperfections.”
Elsewhere on WOW, like on absurd highlight confessions at the dinner table, the sound of instruments sometimes aren’t made by instruments at all. Created in 2018 when Shilonosova took part in Red Bull Music Academy’s residency at Berlin’s historic Funkhaus, she made full use of the building’s more unusual opportunities. One studio, originally built for radio dramas, had a replica stone street: “So, of course, I spent an evening throwing forks and spoons on the floor, to become sort of cymbals,” she explains. Other building blocks for the song include an accidentally recorded squeaky door, a boiling kettle and a violin player who burst out laughing.
Decades after that fateful song contest, Shilonosova remains intentionally unschooled when it comes to guitar – it’s become an ethos of sorts. “I still don’t know the proper notes,” she grins. “I think about this all the time, how it’s hard to stay naive once you learn how to play an instrument. You start taking the same paths all the time, and it can get predictable. I don’t want to be predictable.”
WOW, as the title suggests, is full of surprises. It fizzes and bubbles, like a school science experiment gone awry, turning up new treasures with each listen: razmishlenie (thinking) is a dense, whirring track, with distorted vocals lurking below the surface. D d don’t is cheerful and goofy, the sound of Shilonosova exploring a borrowed Kawai K4 synthesiser, but hidden amongst its childishly defiant lyrics – “I d d d don’t care!” – are eerie, muffled screams and the crash of breaking glass. In the time between making and releasing WOW, the album has even become something of a surprise for Shilonosova herself.
“WOW is light. Not careless, but carefree. I went through lots of stages, thinking if it was right or wrong to release this kind of joyful music in these dark times”
WOW’s tracks were put together in 2019 – though many of them are far older – while Shilonosova was finishing her acclaimed, pop-leaning album Room for the Moon (2020). Now, she’s drawing a firm line between the two, describing Room for the Moon’s material as “proper song songs” while WOW’s goofy, non-linear tracks are anything but. She always planned to release WOW but at this moment, to her, these recordings belong to an entirely different reality. “WOW is light, very light. Not careless, but carefree,” she explains, wiggling her fingers. “Maybe more carefree than it’s supposed to be. I went through lots of stages, thinking if it was right or wrong to release joyful music in these dark times.”
These dark times have been unimaginably bleak. “It was always impossible to live in Russia without a certain level of irony,” she says. But her horror at Putin’s war made staying there untenable. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Shilonosova left the rented Moscow apartment she had lived in for six years. She describes the year that followed as a sinister period in which she could barely listen to music, let alone write anything new, and she’s still actively seeking somewhere to lay down her roots. After some time spent in Turkey, Shilonosova is currently staying with a friend in Belgrade, Serbia, one of many thousands of Russians who have relocated there since the invasion.
Over Zoom, Shilonosova gestures to the small kitchen in view behind her. “I can’t say I call it home,” she says, softly. “I’ve been here a month, but I still need to figure out visas, where to stay, where to move. I wish I could just sit still.” She takes a breath, appearing to weigh her words. “But I can’t complain,” Shilonosova continues, her voice becoming steely. “It feels weird, very uncertain and very unstable, but there are lots of people who are in the worst of circumstances.”
A portion of WOW’s sales will be donated to War Child, a specialist organisation which supports children and young people affected by conflict. For Shilonosova, it’s an important way to stand in solidarity with Ukraine’s victims of war, and to reconcile the joyful exuberance of the music with the grim reality of the present. Similarly, in May 2022, she released a collection of improvisations to fundraise for Helping to Leave, a charity directly assisting Ukrainian refugees. “I’m happy we’re releasing WOW because I wouldn’t be able to make something like this now,” she says. “My only concern is that people will hear the music and think, ‘She must be really unaware of what’s happening.’ No. I’m pretty aware.”
In sharp contrast to the present, WOW feels to Shilonosova like a diary of a half-forgotten past life. Some tracks feel like small mysteries; the gentle serenity of slon (elephant), for instance. “It’s still part of me, but I really don’t remember how I made it,” she admits, apologetically. “It’s become unrelated on a very interesting level; it’s like watching yourself from the side, remembering yourself as a person. I listen and think, ‘Wow! How did I manage to do that?’”
One of the biggest surprises, for Shilonosova, has been remembering the coincidences behind oni (they). The album’s opener and single, it’s possibly WOW’s closest thing to a song song. A sparkling, spiralling OB-6 synthesiser and a scratchy texture – like scrunching up plastic wrap in your fist – underpins simple, repetitive Japanese lyrics, penned as a favour by the producer Takahide “Foodman” Higuchi: the lyrics translate to “Lost item roll/ Rolling on the roadside/ Vegetables and fruit”. The closing 60 seconds build into gentle chaos, with the comic timing of a whoopee cushion.
“It’s hard to stay naive once you learn how to play an instrument. You start taking the same paths all the time, and it can get kind of predictable”
Written back in 2017, the unruly vegetable concept was all Foodman’s, Shilonosova remembers. “He’s not a songwriter, but I thought it would be a great idea to ask him. He even sent me an audio file with him singing, so I could repeat how he pronounces the words. I was so happy; it was so sweet.”
More recently, when Shilonosova asked another friend to help with the song’s music video, they tapped into a strangely similar concept: something akin to an early-2000s internet game, with a central figure who is constantly tripping over discarded objects. “He wanted lots of things to be rolling,” she laughs, “but he never knew about the lyrics! It was this subconscious translation of something that must be in the track.”
Amid these twists of fate, at the heart of oni (they) is a more bittersweet memory. Shilonosova suddenly recalls that the heavily distorted kick drum “with a very funny sound” was recorded in Kyiv, while her boyfriend at the time lived in the city. “It adds some level of insanity to my whole experience of the track. It’s surreal to remember that it was created in that place, and I’ll probably never be able to travel there again.”
But as much as WOW is out of step with Shilonosova’s current reality, it’s not unusual for a Kate NV record to feel as if it’s a document from a different time. Room for the Moon, for instance, provoked varying responses; critics agreed on its artistic merit, but for every review praising the album’s nostalgia and the tender way it reworked tropes from 70s and 80s electronica, another would declare it thrillingly futuristic. It was both old and new, but somehow not ‘now’.
Naturally, this contradiction tickled Shilonosova. “Sometimes I’m scared that my music is too retro – that it’s not trendy! But I never think that my music is futuristic, because to me that’s something new; it’s a huge compliment.”
WOW is another Kate NV album that bridges the past and the future. But meeting her in what is a difficult present for her and others, the record’s warm heart, and its memories of the experiments and collaborations that have fuelled her so far, makes the timing of its release feel right. Although much more than a stop-gap, it also gives her a way to think about what comes next. First up, the immediate future, with its questions of visas and borders, and the logistics of touring now that her live band are scattered across different countries. “I need to reinvent my vision of the album for this life,” she murmurs, brows furrowed.
But on the horizon is the future future – what it might look and sound like. “I still feel like there’s a lot of space to explore,” she says, eyes suddenly bright. “I still need to evolve somehow, to go somewhere else. And maybe then I’ll come up with something that I could call futuristic.”
WOW is out on 3 March via RVNG Intl.