Kai Orion
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Kai Orion

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States | Established. Jan 01, 2014

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States
Established on Jan, 2014
Solo Rock Experimental




"Kai Orion - Scientist of Sound"

Kai Orion Keefe’s basement studio in Walkersville is filled with instruments: guitar, keyboard, flute, an antique telephone circa 1893.

A huge fan of The National, Keefe entered their contest in 2013 that asked people to cover their song “I Need My Girl.” Keefe had been experimenting with using everyday objects as instruments and created his entry that way — the song composed entirely with miscellaneous found sounds, like wine glasses filled to various heights and buckets, with his vocals over it.

He took first place.

And this is also the story of how seemingly random objects made their way into Keefe’s music for the long run and became a staple to his sound. That win was the encouragement he needed to keep going.

Two years later, the 22-year-old sound artist and filmmaker would release his first solo album, “Pots and Pans,” under the name Kai Orion. In it, he uses household objects to create layered, textured music. The album is made up entirely of these objects alongside the human voice.

“I wanted to make something I hadn’t heard before,” he said during a recent interview at his home.

He admits he had a fear of it being too gimmicky, and he didn’t want novelty to be the reason people listened — trap doors he was very conscious about avoiding. It was the sounds of the wine glasses that were beautiful to him, and the other objects he’d toyed with. The sounds themselves. They had an enchanting yet familiar quality that he wanted to explore.

He’d only ever heard everyday objects used as instruments in two contexts: as percussion and as experimental elements. He wanted to actually write music with them — find the tones these objects made and figure out how to make melodies and harmoneis from them.

For instance, have you ever listened to the dial tone of a landline phone? Like really listened? He did, and it’s not pretty. The chord is made up of notes that aren’t even half steps apart but more like a vibratory noise, a “really ugly, dissonant kind of sound,” as he put it.

He used it.

He found a way to pull the notes apart and put them back together. He used the ring tone and busy signal, too.

Each group of objects in a particular song creates a setting, almost as if Keefe builds a theatrical set to create changing scenery, and the lyrics loosely coincide with the feelings evoked from the chosen places.

For example, he filmed a music video of his song “Quiet Love,” a Tiny Desk Concert submission, in a kitchen and included, well, wine glasses of course, but also a doorbell, a microwave, a wooden spoon, and a kitchen timer that acted as a sort of metronome. A more recent Tiny Desk video submission, “Beautiful Darkness,” was filmed live in a front yard using the sounds of a lawnmower, tools, a garbage can.

To say recording one of his songs live requires a serious attention to details is an understatement. He uses a tiny dropper to fill glasses and bottles to achieve the exact notes he needs (“you can put a drop in it and it raises it two notes,” he attested). For this reason, he’s mostly used samples and loops in live solo shows, but you can see the magic of bringing it all together in his videos.

Keefe’s primary instrument is the flute, though he knows his way around quite a few. He started playing flute in middle school and was 13 when he began playing open mics around Frederick, at Frederick Coffee Co. and Joanie’s Carroll Street Cafe (the building that now houses Gravel and Grind).

“I was like, the definition of shy, quiet and awkward … but I knew performing was a necessary thing,” he said, “even though I’d be shaking so bad, I couldn’t even barely play.”

As a Walkersville High School student, he found his way to the school’s jazz band, organized by Marc Musser, which introduced Keefe to improv. “That was awesome. We’d all get up and solo [at concerts]. … It was probably horrible for parents listening. I just remember one time he [Musser] said, ‘Everyone solo!’ And we all got up at the same time,” he said, laughing. “We just all improved on top of each other.”

When Keefe started at University of Maryland, he lived in an arts dorm and linked up with musicians there to form the band Bare Left as its vocalist and flutist (the rest of the band was made up of music students; he studied film). This came after he asked to play in the school’s jazz class and was rejected, being told there was no such thing as jazz flute.

Though Bare Left never disbanded, Kai Orion, the solo project, eventually became his main focus.

“I think working with a band is kind of constricting at times,” he said. “A lot of times, my ideas are really specific … and if you have a very specific vision, it’s hard to translate that.”

When he started experimenting with the sounds of everyday objects, did it make him more aware of ambient sounds throughout the day? Did it change his entire way of hearing, and therefore experiencing, the world?

“Yes,” he said — “that’s something I remember laughing about at the time.” He spent almost an entire year collecting sounds to use for “Pots and Pans.” He brought a handheld field recorder with him everywhere he went and “was constantly trying to listen for different sounds that I might be able to work with. It became almost like a subconscious reflex after a while,” he said, “and by the end of that period, I felt like I was perceiving sound completely differently. I would walk past something ordinary like an idling bus … and immediately get excited thinking, ‘Ah, this is the perfect bass part I’ve been looking for!’”

More recently, Keefe has been working with traditional instruments again, which took some adjustment. “Now it’s just like, this is amazing! I can do so many things with this guitar! I can do so many things with this flute!”

He’s working on a project that reverses the traditional roles of instruments, in part because he is seeing them so differently now. For example, he’ll beat-box on flute while playing a melody line on a deep, more understated instrument like the organ, which is typically reserved for backdrop chords. It’s this new thinking — or, more accurately, this evolution of thinking — that he is exploring at solo shows this year, the next of which will be at his old stomping grounds, the Frederick Coffee Co., on Feb. 17.

He’s also working with a band on this same set of new material to see how different instrumentation can take the songs in new directions, how it can evolve them.

What the audience hears, then, is one sliver of an ongoing experiment with sound. - The Frederick News Post

"Kai Orion - Celebrity Playlist"

Anyone who’s been reading this silly little website for some amount of time knows that Kai Orion is one of our favorite artists in the history of forever, and his 2015 set, “Pots & Pans,” was nothing short of a masterpiece. He’s going to be bringing his Gabriel-ian awesomeness to Cafe Nola on Friday, July 7, and not only are we told that the show will mark his birthday, but we also wanted to make sure that you had ample amount of time to adjust your schedule accordingly in order to make it out and celebrate with him next week. In anticipation of the show, we reached out to Kai, who was kind enough to offer up a Celebrity Playlist that features everything from Elbow to Genesis to Massive Attack to Tom Waits. He’ll be taking the stage with Alexander Gallows and Luna. The fun will start at 10 p.m. If you miss it, you’ll be missing out. And that’s the truth, friends. That’s the truth. - Frederick Playlist

"Listening Party - Kai Orion "Quiet Love""

Music is limited only by the imaginations of those who make it. A piece of music can contain as few or as many sounds and ideas as its producer wants it to, for better or worse (there are countless examples of both). Just when you think you’ve heard every unconventional musical idea, someone comes along to let you know that you haven’t. What makes these unconventional methods especially interesting is when they are used to make music that has more conventional structure. A noise album made with found sounds and home-made instruments (Francisco López’s Machines) is much more common than an album of pop songs made the same way (Matmos’ A Chance to Cut is A Chance to Cure,) for instance.
Enter: local musician Kai Orion, who just completed an example of the latter. Orion’s new album Pots and Pans, due out on November 4th, is comprised exclusively of his vocals and sounds from sampled field recordings, household items and home-made instruments. This is the first solo project from Orion, a singer and flautist, who plays in the local psych band Bare Left. A previous foray into pop music with found sounds saw him winning a contest for covering The National’s “I Need My Girl”. Hear that cover here.
Some of the sounds on the album’s first single, “Quiet Love,” which you can stream below, are more obviously discernable than others. It begins with the beeping and humming of what sounds like a microwave, the ticking of a clock and the chiming of a doorbell synched up in time with each other. A less discernable sound provides gentle percussion that becomes the backbeat for the song. Later on, the familiar ringtone of a fax machine can be heard; it provides some welcome dissonance. Orion’s light, airy vocals float above the rest of the music; making for a very pleasant listen that will leave you wondering about the rest of this album. - DCist Magazine

"Kai Orion - "Pots & Pans""

Well, Kiss That Frog, climb atop Solsbury Hill, and grab your nearest Sledgehammer: We’ve found a doppelgänger for Peter Gabriel. And lucky for us, it’s a local kid by the name of Kai Orion. Also a member of College Park quintet Bare Left (who we’ve reviewed before under the name Bluebeard), Orion has gone full-on Gabriel with his latest EP, “Pots & Pans,” and boy, if you’re even a remote fan of the former Genesis frontman, these seven songs will open you up to a fairly impressive secret world of its own.

That’s because, as Orion notes, this is an album that was “created using only everyday found objects, found sounds, field recordings and household items as instruments, with the exception of voice. Each song focuses on a different setting or location common in modern life.” Sound pretentious? You bet. But it takes a special kind of musical mind to pull it all off with proper amounts of both intrigue and accessibility. Kai Orion is just the guy to do it.

Take “Quiet Love” as an example. It’s the set’s second track, but the first on which you can really hear the Gabriel influence in his voice. The song moves methodically through atmospherics that recall some of the spacier material his most prominent inspiration has produced. Echoes and ambiance provide an apt stage for Orion’s voice — so much so that barely (just barely) you can hear a wince of Coldplay’s Chris Martin creep through at the end of a few choice lines.

But that’s just barely. Because the rest of the set? It’s all Gabriel, all the time. “No Conversation” is where that formula comes together the most. If it’s not through the signature vocal cracks heard at the conclusion of a few verses, then it’s the ambition with which this guy crafts his art. What does that mean? Well, check out the list of instruments used, in addition to his voice, throughout the five minutes and 16 seconds at hand:

Drawers. A typewriter. A knock on wood. A busy signal. A dial tone. A no-service signal. Phones ringing. A printer printing. A stapler. Pots and pans being struck. Wine glasses. And, of course, wine glasses being blown. That’s it. That’s the list.

The thing is, you’d never even know that actual instruments weren’t being played. In fact, for a brief set of seconds, the backbeat even evokes the early tones of perhaps Gabriel’s most politically charged song, “Biko.” Then, as if that’s not enough to get you to reminisce about a song like “Moribund the Burgermeister,” the singer throws in a chorus that draws upon all those great chant-like cadences the more famous artist in this equation has used brilliantly throughout his career. It’s eerie how similar the two are.

Elsewhere, the smarts keep coming and the grooves get weirder. “Machines” showcases a bit of Tom Waits ethos with its clunkiness, the banging of the machinery providing a texture that could … well … only work if it was the actual sound of actual banging on actual machinery (which it is). “Beautiful Darkness” takes the noise of a dribbled basketball and somehow manages to make it appear at least slightly funky. And “A Silent Car Ride” is both charming and witty, the various vehicular intonations proving to be a fantastical way to anchor a song.

“A Dream Of You” then wraps things up slowly, Orion’s voice taking its time with a touch of melancholy and a spate of layers. As the song begins to fade, and the effects are turned up on his vocals, it becomes the perfect way to end a confounding and calculated collection of songs that deserves as much credit for its imagination as it does its resolve. You don’t need to look much further than the “snow melting off trees” instrument to truly grasp as much.

And if it’s not “snow melting off trees”, then maybe it’s “whistling wind.” Or “tea kettles boiling.” Or “car keys jingling.” Or … you get it. Kai Orion’s “Pots & Pans” is, without question, the most ambitious record of 2015, and, considering how much influence he seemingly takes from one of the most forward-thinking pop artists of the last 30 years, it’s probably safe to proclaim this EP a grand victory on all ends.

The nuances are many. The ingenuity is unparalleled. The execution is mind-blowing. The end result is genius. A secret world, indeed. - The Frederick News Post

"Glory in Sound: Kai Orion"

The amount of creativity and work that has gone into creating Pots & Pans is astounding. Kai Orion has taken the sounds from life and turned them into something beautiful. - Glory in Sound

"Song Premiere: Kai Orion - Beautiful Darkness"

We’re pleased to premiere this new song by Kai Orion. “Beautiful Darkness” has a Peter Gabriel vibe (somewhere between 1986’s So and 2002’s Up which is a good thing) that isn’t nearly as prevalent as one might imagine in today’s pop spectrum. The track was created entirely from found sounds. According to the song description, it was created with a lawnmower, basketball dribble, a home-made rubber band guitar, metal bowls, wine glasses, construction beeps, and vocals. Definitely headphone material. - Brightest Young Things

"A Q&A with Kai Orion"

Oh, this is going to be a treat, friends. Tomorrow night (that’s Friday for those keeping score) Kai Orion is heading to Frederick Coffee Co. to perform and goodness, gracious you should care. Why? Because if you remember, he released one of the most brilliant albums we’ve ever heard a couple years ago. So, when he reached out to alert us that he’d be coming to town, we absolutely had to ask him a few questions. And among the issues discussed in those questions were how the hell “Pots & Pans” came together, how big of an influence Peter Gabriel had on him, and how on earth he can even think of playing some of those songs live. If you do one thing (besides go to the Frederick Music Showcase tonight, of course) this weekend, this should be that one thing. Honestly. Truly. Madly. Deeply. - Frederick Playlist


Still working on that hot first release.



When Kai Orion takes the stage, the first thing noticeable is the strange array of instruments before him: a flute, mini synth, guitar, a vacuum cleaner. He grabs the flute first and abruptly launches into a wild beatbox-flute loop, channeling some sort of urban Jethro Tull. The room quiets and heads turn at the novelty of the sound.

But then Orion starts to sing, and the true depth of his performance is revealed. With a hauntingly soulful voice reminiscent of Peter Gabriel, he delivers heartfelt lyrics and melodic vocal lines that stand in marked contrast to the eccentric arrangements that accompany them.

Orion’s ability to marry wildly inventive ideas with accessible, intelligent songwriting has earned him praise throughout his young career. His debut found-sound pop album “Pots & Pans” was called “without question, the most ambitious record of 2015” by the Frederick News Post, and in 2014 he won a nationwide cover contest held by indie rock band The National for his cover of their song “I Need My Girl,” using kitchen objects to accompany his voice.  

Whether he’s playing a lawnmower or a flute, it’s the sincerity of Orion’s music that sets him apart, and watching his arrangements come together on stage is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Band Members