Morgan Lander has been the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in landmark Canadian metal outfit Kittie since the band’s inception 15 years ago. Catapulted to superstardom while still in high school, Morgan Lander, her younger sister Mercedes and the other founding members found themselves contending with the realities of the music industry at an incredibly young age. Since that auspicious beginning, Kittie have remained a fixture in the Canadian music scene, as the members have matured from precocious teenagers to sophisticated and intelligent adults. Talking to Morgan about the highs and lows of her unique experience in the music industry, from someone who has both glimpsed stardom and dealt with the daily realities of heavy metal, was an illuminating experience. Morgan is a bright, capable, tough and intelligent woman both on stage and off, and I was delighted she was able to find the time to talk to Girls Don’t Like Metal.
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You and your sister, Mercedes (along with Tanya Candler on bass and Fallon Bowman on lead guitar), began Kittie when you were incredibly young (by my calculations, you were about 14 and Mercedes was even younger). What was it like having a hit single in “Brackish,” and ultimately releasing a seminal record in Canadian heavy music history, Spit, when you were still in high school?
What a strange life that we have all led. We went from complete obscurity, and high school, to world-wide recognition and fame, basically overnight. I liken the experience back then to being in the eye of a hurricane. Within our camp — our travelling and working circle — things seemed relatively calm and normal. We were four young girls without much life experience who were whisked away into this unbelievable world of travel, concerts, praise and adoration. At the time, our parents were heavily involved in the day to day and the management side of things, which protected our best interests and our mental and physical state. They did their best to try and bestow a sense of “normalcy” while living this vagabond, travelling lifestyle. We were essentially very young, eager and naive, and we just sort of went with it.
Outside the eye of this musical storm, however, there was chaos and intensity, and things seemed to grow beyond our comprehension. It was soon more than what our imaginations could have ever envisioned. There wasn’t a lot of sleep and everything seemed out of proportion and stressful. We crammed a lifetime’s worth of travel and experience into one year. It was quite an eye-opening, unbelievable time, and I am forever changed by the things I’ve seen, and been a part of. It’s hard to believe it even happened at all.
You mentioned in an interview with About Heavy Metal, conducted by Chad Bower, that the greatest misconception people had about Kittie was: “we are the same now as we were in 1999. A lot of people have the wrong idea about the band. We’re not 16 anymore; we’re grown women.” It strikes me that growing up, becoming an adult, in such an incredibly public manner would have been a unique and extremely difficult challenge, especially in relation to your gender and sexuality.
It has been a surreal experience, essentially growing up in the public eye, and one that hasn’t come without personal struggles and lessons. Early on, I must admit that I, as well as the other girls, felt pressure to attain a certain type of a physical aesthetic, one that I quickly found out was near- impossible. As a woman in music, and even more so metal, I found it disturbing that essentially we were being judged not by our accomplishments and our musical merit, but by our looks, the way we dressed, our weight, etc. We were labelled “the pretty one,” “the ugly one,” “the exotic one,” etc., labels that were all meant to shame us or pick us apart. At the age of 17, that’s a lot to handle.
I felt like we were being reduced to tits, ass and a short skirt, and nowhere was there talk of the accomplishments we had and music we made. I quickly realized that if I wanted to be taken seriously, we had to walk a fine line between feminine and masculine. At that point, I was much more concerned with our music and credibility, and for a few years, I made a point to dress more “masculine.” I shaved my head and wore no make-up as sort of an act of rebellion. I didn’t want to be viewed as an object and was angry at the portrayal of the band in the news.
This is all to say that it has been a huge struggle to overcome the way we have been portrayed and over the past 12 years we have made so much progress as musicians and songwriters, and a lot of it has to do with perception and image. We hope that we can also be appreciated for the things we are doing now, too.
We received more praise and criticism for that first album than we have over the duration of our entire careers; we were vilified and heralded as the “anti-Britney.” We were called geniuses and a gimmick; we were accused of sleeping our way to a record deal or not writing our songs. Our merit and validity as a real band were time and time again called into question, and this is the perception we have continued to deal with, unfortunately. If I sound in any way bitter, I am. It’s been a struggle to overcome the negative slant that many mainstream media outlets put on Spit and “prove” ourselves as a viable band worthy of praise and appreciation within the metal community. We have always been considered outsiders, in a way, and have had a hell of a time being taken seriously.
You are Mercedes have been the two static members in Kittie for 15 years now. How has the band changed and defined your relationship as sisters and as fellow musicians?
Mercedes and I are wildly different personalities: she is the more outgoing, boisterous, social one of the two of us. It’s these differences that make for a very interesting dynamic within the band and with our relationship. But she’s sort of like the Cher to my Sonny, so to speak. The bond we have goes much deeper than just blood; we can communicate with each other, both musically and even non-verbally, in a way that most people can’t. We are close enough that I know what her next move is going to be and I think, if anything, our bond has been strengthened by the exercise of creativity that we’ve had since the band’s inception. We are best friends and we know that regardless of what happens, it will be her and I left standing at the end.
Kittie have always exclusively featured female members (barring Jeff Phillips’s stint in the band before going off to Thine Eyes Bleed). Has this been a deliberate choice related to your brand and image?
When we formed the band in 1996, we really had no idea about the implications being an “all-girl band” would have, nor did we understand the weight and responsibility that would carry. We had no idea that it would be such a source of debate. We were just a group of friends who wanted to get together and learn and have fun making music. It was all very innocent and our initial intentions were exactly that; we had no agenda in mind at all. Over the years, as we’ve grown up, we’ve come to respect the power that being an all-female band has and also the fear and controversy it generates; it has been both an advantage and somewhat of a disadvantage. Again, it’s a fine line that we walk: knowing the importance of our unique situation while not wanting to be pigeonholed for the very thing that makes us unique. I suppose that we have wanted to adhere to the original format that we unknowingly created some 16 years ago while proving that, with the addition of Jeff, the gender of the personnel in the band isn’t what makes us Kittie. I want us to always be judged on musical merits alone.
While the term “confessional” sometimes can carry derogatory connotations (which I in no way want to convey), Kittie‘s lyrics often strike me as deeply personal and tend to swing between anthems of strength and camaraderie, and songs that chronicle pain and healing. How autobiographical is the songwriting?
The songwriting is almost always autobiographical in nature. I’ve always felt most comfortable connecting emotionally with things I have experienced firsthand and expressing them in our music, rather than writing something fictitious with more of a storyline. Kittie, from the beginning, have drawn our strength from raw emotion and the feeling the lyrics evoke, rather than the strength of the words themselves.
On our most recent album, I’ve Failed You, I tried to be a bit more open and honest with myself and my lyrics to work through a difficult period in my life. Everything I had known was turned upside down, and I was basically left to start over. I felt like being much more literal and less veiled was going to be the only way that I could truly express the way I was feeling, which in turn gave I’ve Failed You a bit of a different vibe compared to our previous releases.
Kittie have always maintained a relentless and aggressive touring schedule. You will soon be playing two shows in London and Toronto, then going to Australia to play dates, as well as the Soundwave festival, before returning to tour the U.S., effectively keeping you on the road from February to the end of May. How do you prepare for a marathon like that?
Lots of practice and lots of crying [laughs]! In all honesty, gearing up for a huge tour like that, for us, anyways, involves more than just making sure we are well rehearsed. We have to take care of transportation, visas, CWAs and hiring crew, among a million other things. We are usually up to our necks in paperwork well before the first note is played in the practice space. But once we have all of the finer details in place, it’s just all about making sure the ladies and I are comfortable with the set, that my voice is in good shape and that we have everything in order to leave for that amount of time. There isn’t a magical secret, other than: catch up on sleep now because you aren’t getting any for six weeks!
Last year you played at the Gathering of the Juggalos, which may as well have been playing on Neptune for how far away it is from my concept of reality. What was that experience like?
I will preface this by saying that when we were first offered a slot opening for ICP in early 2010, I was vehemently against the idea. I had heard horror stories and thought it would be bad judgement on our part to want to participate in a cross-genre tour like that. Needless to say I was eventually outvoted and we went into Juggalo country.
After seeing and experiencing the group and how professional they are, the magnitude of their show and the devotion of the fans, we gladly accepted their invitation to be a part of the Gathering last year and, this time, went deeper into Juggalo country. The Gathering is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced organized into a festival: absolute debauchery, lawlessness, excessive drug use, pageantry, fanaticism and people from all walks of life. It’s like a demented circus, where the audience is actually the entertainment — the people-watching is the best. We really felt quite out of our element, but the show went well; we had such a blast and the crowds really enjoyed our set and welcomed us with open arms. We would do it again in a heartbeat!
Your most recent album is titled I’ve Failed You. Who have you failed? Or who has the speaker of that fictional/poetic statement failed?
I’ve Failed You is, as I said before, a deeply personal and very apologetic album. It’s an album full of regrets and ill-made choices, of watching those that you love suffer, of that love gone wrong. I’ve failed myself and those I love; I’ve failed to protect them.
What is your relationship like with your fan base? Do you feel pressure to create a certain type of music in a specific genre? What kind of a relationship do you actively work towards fostering with your fans?
While I would say that the four of us aren’t the hippest and most tech-savvy band in the world, we certainly pride ourselves on the level of personal interaction that we have with our fans and listeners. Since our inception, we have made sure that we are the ones in control of our careers, image, music and presence, be that online or in print. We update our website, control our Twitter and Facebook page, own our publishing and merchandise rights, run the company and manage ourselves. I think all of that gives us a true sense of our identity and also allows the band to have a unique platform on which we position ourselves. We have always been wary about the public’s perception of us and we feel that being able to interact with fans, answer questions and even go as far as to get to know them on a first-name basis has allowed us to be more real and human to them. We want our fans to get a sense of who we are as people, and the way we interact with them reflects that. We are down-to-earth, easy-going, generous and don’t take ourselves too seriously.
What advice would you have for women, especially young women, who hope to build a career in the heavy metal industry? What advice would you give to an aspiring performer?
I believe the best advice that I can give to anyone, women included, is be good at what you do. Be proud, work hard, talk to people, but first and foremost, practice and hone your craft. This is essential to getting anywhere. Also, I know it sounds cliché, but the “don’t take shit from anyone” adage really is useful and important when dealing with this industry, especially if your desire is to be a performer. People are going to tell you that you suck, people are going to tell you that you don’t belong, people are going to ask you, “whose girlfriend are you?” at your gig. Ignore it, rise above it, because the best revenge is getting up on that stage and being great at what you do.
That being said, another piece of advice I’d give is educate yourself on how this industry is run, so you know what you’re getting into before you sign a deal, get a manager or anything. It is backwards, strange, cutthroat and not at all the glamorous facade that it’s made out to be.
Kittie plays this Friday, February 17th at London City Music Hall, London, ON, and Saturday, February 18th at The Opera House, Toronto.
WARNING: This video contains gory imagery!