Kate Sikora
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Kate Sikora

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Growing up in Boonton, pop singer and songwriter Kate Sikora didn’t worry too much about seismic activity.

That changed in 2005 when she moved to Japan to teach English and make music. In Tokyo and its suburbs, standing on shaky ground was an occasional, uncomfortable fact of life.

"It became commonplace," says Sikora, who has traveled frequently between the Garden State and the Land of the Rising Sun over the past five years.

"I’d probably experience two or three earthquakes a year. Sometimes they were barely noticeable. You’d feel nauseous, and at first, you wouldn’t know why."

Sikora woke up in Morris County on the morning of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern provinces of Honshu last month. Her fiancé Makoto — a guitarist in the Japanese pop group Mamimi Fouksong — was at home in Tokyo.

"I got a message from a friend that morning. She told me that the earthquake had been a really bad one, and I should do what I could to get in touch with him. But e-mail service was out, and nobody could get a cell phone call through. I was on pins and needles all day."

By the afternoon, Sikora was assured that her fiancé was safe. Others Makoto knew weren’t so lucky. A friend of his sister’s was rescued by helicopter from a cauldron of seawater choked with bodies. Acquaintances of Sikora’s who were working in trembling Tokyo office buildings wondered whether their co-workers’ faces were the last they’d ever see.

Sikora will be returning to quake-battered Japan later this month. She won’t be going empty-handed.

Next week, Sikora, whose adventurous, endearing guitar-pop has been likened to that of Chan Marshall and Liz Phair, will be hosting a benefit concert for her adopted country at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. She’s calling it Bands for Japan, and she’s enlisted the support of the Roadside Graves, one of the Garden State’s most respected groups.

Sikora herself will perform as half of the Loyal We, an indie pop duo she formed in Japan with fellow English teacher Lindsay Lueders. All proceeds from Thursday night’s show will go to earthquake and tsunami relief efforts through the Japan Society.

"Maxwell’s was great about it. (Club owner) Todd Abramson got back to me the day after I asked and told me he’d love to do it. I didn’t know how okay he’d be with the charity event, so I suggested donating a percentage of the door to charity.

"He said, ‘Well, why not 100 percent?’ "

For Sikora, Bands for Japan is an effort to give back to a nation that has always welcomed her. Although she’d always wanted to live abroad, she admits she had no particular interest in Asia as a high school student. Sikora imagined journeying to Spain or elsewhere in Europe. At 25, she jumped at the opportunity to run a classroom in Japan. But unlike many young Americans who take the trip across the Pacific to teach English, Sikora wasn’t fluent in Japanese.

"I didn’t know what to do at first. I didn’t know the language at all, and I admit I was a little afraid to leave my apartment. That first week, I memorized a few lines from a phrase book — mostly, I said: ‘Ii otenki desu ne,’ which means: ‘It’s nice weather, isn’t it?’ "

The gregarious singer picked up Japanese basics by talking to friends, and by eating out ("I’m great at restaurant Japanese," Sikora jokes). To properly introduce herself to her new home, however, her guitar proved more useful than anything in her guidebooks. A Japanese band called Apartment had heard Sikora’s music on MySpace; even before she’d settled into Tokyo, she found herself invited to play a concert. There, Sikora was introduced to a tight coterie of bands, and she made personal connections that she maintains to this day.

"Playing music in Japan is definitely different," says Sikora. "I feel like a lot of the bands become close, and play shows together. I know that also happens in America, but there, the musicians almost become a little family."

Sikora also found that Japanese audiences responded to the idiosyncrasies of her songwriting and her arrangements.

"It’s pretty much an open playing field. I’ve never felt shy about doing anything onstage, and I’m inspired by all the gadgets and tricks in Japanese indie pop: glockenspiel, melodica, toy instruments."

In 2009, Sikora became the first American-born performer to play the "rookie" stage at Fuji Rock, one of the largest outdoor music festivals in Asia. The invitation was an acknowledgement of the following she’s built in Japan and also how well she’s integrated herself into Japanese society.

"It’s always exciting to go back to Japan," says Sikora, "but it’s bittersweet, too, because I know I’ll miss my friends in New Jersey. I will be bouncing back and forth forever, probably.

"As long as I can play music, I’ll be happy wherever I am."


Bands For Japan: Ohnomoon, the Loyal We, the Roadside Graves, Sarah Renfro
Where: 1039 Washington St., Hoboken
When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
How muc - The Star Ledger


By Way of Japan: An Interview with New Jersey-Based Singer-Songwriter Kate Sikora
by David Chiu

It is not often that you hear about a singer-songwriter from New Jersey who teaches at a school in Japan. But that’s what characterizes the unique life story of emerging artist Kate Sikora of Boonton, New Jersey so far. One of the highlights from her time in the Land of the Rising Sun happened in 2009 playing the Rookie-A-Go-Go stage at Fuji Rock.

“I didn’t know at the time, but I was the first foreigner to play that particular stage,” she says. “It’s pretty easy to be oblivious of where I stand in the music industry over there because I am, essentially, illiterate in Japanese.”

This young performer has recorded two records so far, Grace in Rotation, which was released in 2005, and her recent six-song EP Aparto. Her experiences in Japan plays a role in her music, which draws on various styles and moods—from stripped-down folk to garagey rock–but has in common a melodic indie pop undercurrent. “I’m inspired by the people, sights, sounds, and smells there,” she says. “I’m still discovering it. Being far from familiarity and nostalgia are themes that come up a lot in my more recent songs.”

As she tells it, Sikora hails from a musical family and would listen to the music of her dad such as the Stones and the Doors. “Later on, my older brother would have band practices in our basement and the guys would leave their instruments at our house,” she recalls. “I used to sneak down and play their instruments when they weren’t around. My musical tastes were very much shaped by early 90’s alternative bands like The Breeders, Liz Phair, Hole, Helium, Nirvana, Mazzy Star.”

At age 12, Sikora got an acoustic guitar; four years later she performed at a local café and was the singer of a progressive rock band. She admitted to being a shy performer at the time. “At first, I was really awkward on stage but, eventually, sharing the stage with others helped me to get over my shyness. I’ve always joked about wanting “to be a rock star” but I think of myself more as a songwriter. I’ve had some pretty great performance and recording experiences which keep building up my confidence to do more.”

During a point in her life when she was trying to find some direction, a friend of hers, who had returned from the school where he taught, told Sikora about his experiences there. It piqued her interest. That same friend of Sikora later got her a job at the school and thus began her Japan adventure.

“Before I left for Japan,” she says, “a really great Japanese indie band, Apartment, found me on MySpace and invited me to play a show with them in Tokyo. That show really set things in motion for me as it introduced me to a few great musicians and friends who have introduced me to other wonderful musicians, friends, labels, venues, etc. I’ve been really lucky although my first year was pretty tough trying to balance the job with performing shows. The year flew by and I went home. I realized there was so much more that I wanted to do in Japan so I went back.”

Her ties to Japan remain strong after the four years she’s spent there—Sikora is going back to Japan in the fall. Apparently the Japanese hold Western performers in very high regard—just look at Cheap Trick for example. “There are a lot of western artists touring in Japan and the astronomical ticket prices don’t seem to sway Japanese fans,” says Sikora. “Being an American living in Japan has definitely sparked more interest in my music but I haven’t quite reached Budokan status yet, ha ha!”

In addition to her own music, Sikora is also part of an act called The Loyal We with Lindsay Leuders, an old friends of hers. Together they are working on the next Loyal We album. “Lindsay mostly writes on piano and her songs are very ballad-like and metaphoric,” says Sikora. “My songs are usually written on guitar, so they tend to be more rhythmic and upbeat. For our next venture, we’ve talked about writing the songs together. I’ve never really co-written a song before so I’m looking forward to the challenge. Lately, I’ve been playing drums and percussion on some of Lindsay’s songs. It’s opening a whole other world for me.”

This past December, Sikora had the opportunity to open for Liz Phair’s show at Maxwell’s. “Opening for Liz Phair was a dream come true! I’ve always liked her honest deadpan lyrics and signature guitar playing. She was a big reason why I picked up the guitar in the first place.

“On the day of the show I was determined to play it cool and not embarrass myself in front of her. It turned out that she is really sweet in person so I didn’t have to worry so much. She came right up to me and thanked me for opening the show (and even signed my cassette tape copy of Whipsmart– I know, I’m a dork! ).”

With Japan and new musical projects on the horizon, Sikora says that she would like to get into music licensing. She adds: “I’ve been moving around quite a bit so it’s - New Beats


Kate Sikora interview---

Barbie Martini: Many have been compared you to Sheryl Crow and Liz Phair...how would you describe your sound?
Kate: Ah, the dreaded question at the top of the list (haha). I definitely go through changing musical phases. My music is sometimes sweet and playful and, other times, it gets a bit edgier. A lot of my lyrical content can be sad but the music itself I think is more hopeful and uncomplicated. My main instrument is the guitar although, recently, I've been playing around with the keyboard (the cheesier the better) and some percussion. I haven't quite figured out what my "sound" is but I always try to make it interesting and change things up if it starts getting repetitive. I can hear a little bit of Liz Phair influence in my lyric writing and guitar playing style and some Sheryl Crow in my voice so it's not a total shock to hear those comparisons. Liz Phair's, "Exile in Guyville" happens to be one of my favorite albums.

Barbie Martini: You have played with other groups (The Fauxmonks, Red Sonja, Joan, Mamimi Fouksong). Do you prefer being part of a musical group or taking the stage on your own?
Kate: I don't think anything beats sharing a stage with other talented musicians and making great music together. It isn't easy for me, or most musicians I think, to find people who you can connect with musically. It's especially difficult to find those people at a time in your life when everyone has the time and the enthusiasm to make it work. The groups I've played with have all inspired me and made me a better musician. Playing with Mamimi was (and is) a nice change for me because I am not center stage and I get to contribute to some else's songs.

Barbie Martini: You lived in Japan for a year. How did living there influence your music?
Kate: I came up with an analogy about this actually. There is very little seasoning in Japanese food and, after eating it for an extended period of time, I found that my palate was cleansed and I was noticing more of the subtle natural flavors in the food. Likewise, taking myself out of my familiar environment really forced me to notice my surroundings more and also to see myself more clearly. I think I've gotten some pretty good songs out of my time there and also some great life experiences.

Barbie Martini: It seems that you really are a worldly traveler, what place have you been to influenced you the most?
Kate: I've traveled to Italy, Ireland, Japan, and across the United States and all of those places have had very positive affects on me. I think Ireland was particularly influential because it was my first big trek by myself and I built a lot of confidence in my ability to navigate and get around on my own both physically and emotionally. It was inspiring to see how music is such an integral part of the culture there. Japan certainly took me out of my comfort zone and taught me patience. Being unable to speak or read Japanese forced me to communicate in other ways. I'm really good at charades now haha!

Barbie Martini: Since you know a lot about other cultures, what do you think about Gwen Stefani's harajuku girls? Do you think she portrayed them in the right light?
Kate: I was surprised that people in the states knew about Harajuku girls when I returned from Japan last summer. It was a while before I heard Gwen Stefani's song about them. I don't really have any negative opinions about it although I can't say it's my favorite song. I think it's gotten more Americans to take a look at Japanese culture and it's various subcultures. I see Harajuku girls as being fun, energetic, and obsessed with style. I think any public attention they've gotten from Gwen's obsession with their style is probably alright with them. I think the song is pretty accurate, they are "chou kawaii!" (very cute)

Barbie Martini: What is the most played song on your ipod?
Kate: I just got a "Zen" for Christmas, pretty much the same thing as an ipod but cheaper I think. Let me see…Mamimi Fouksong's, "Tokyo Cho Kanzu" and a close second is Animal Collective's album, "Feels."

Barbie Martini: If you could record your next song with any other musician, who would it be and why?
Kate: Wow that's tough…I think I'd like to record with Shugo Tokumaru because I'm in awe of his musicianship (he plays almost every instrument…and plays them well), and his songs are orchestrated so well. He has opened for some of my favorite American musicians that came to Tokyo (Of Montreal, Mirah, Animal Collective, M. Ward… to name a few)

Barbie Martini: Which song that you perform means most to you?
Kate: There are definitely songs that I enjoy playing a lot because they are audience favorites ("Usually" and "Wonderful Princess") but I think that "Leaving Shore" is my most personal song which also makes it one of my most difficult ones to play live.

Barbie Martini: What is your favorite kind of martini?
Kate: I'm more of a Jameson on the rocks girl but I like a good vodka - Barbie Martini


KATE SIKORA
Grace In Rotation
(www.katesikora.com)
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"I have a hard head and a soft heart," says New Jersey native Sikora, who now finds herself a regular on Tokyo's concert scene. And such is the material on her debut Grace In Rotation, where standout "Wonderful Princess" finds her aggrieved at the failed expectations of true romance, stubbornly declaring, "It's your problem." Crunching guitars on opener "10 Hours" recall early Liz Phair, but from there on in the delicate guitar work and somber tone is more Kristin Hersh, and the best tracks, "Usually" and "Window Reflection," match such lofty standards. A real talent and a delight from start to finish. Robert Poole - Metropolis, Tokyo's #1 English Magazine


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Kate Sikora
Title: Grace In Rotation

From: Boonton, New Jersey. Kate Sikora played for a while in the Fauxmonks, a New Brunswick outfit that straddled the line between collegiate jam band and angular Rutgers alt-rock. I liked the Fauxmonks fine, but there is almost no resemblance between their music and the stuff that Sikora is currently recording. Although some prominent Hub City names contribute to this debut, this singer-songwriter has left the New Brunswick sound behind. Her new act, Red Sonja, is an indiepop outfit closer in spirit to Crayon Rosary than Aviso’Hara.

Format: Full-length album, ten tracks. A few of them are short, but none feel insubstantial.

Fidelity: The first tip-off is right in the liner notes: Josh Saltzman of American Altitude plays drums on this set. Saltzman’s own American Altitude was a textbook indie recording: huge and lush and occasionally stratospheric while never sounding slick. Now, Grace In Rotation was recorded by Sikora’s bassist, Michael Voorhees, at Rubber Music Studios. Voorhees has gotten one of the better indie rock sounds I’ve heard this year there -- full, rough and dirty when necessary, earthy, brash. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression -- Grace In Rotation is by no means heavy rock. But Sikora’s guitar sound is made gritty enough that when she wants to hit hard, she’s got enough punch to do it. Voorhees has also managed to give these songs a percussive kick while never stepping on the singer’s toes. For reasons that I’ll explain later, though, much of the credit for that achievement goes to Sikora herself, rather than her engineers.

Genre: It is a sexist cliché to pretend that “female singer-songwriter” is a genre, rather than a description of a kind of human, and I have been rightfully called out by longtime readers for using that terminology. But it is hard to talk about Kate Sikora’s music without rehearsing a litany of names that will be familiar to fans of tough, rootsy distaff pop: Liz Phair, Juliana Hatfield, Lucinda Williams, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Tracy Bonham, Kim Deal. Musically, Sikora is closest to Liz Phair (a tough thing to do, considering what a unparalleled writer Phair is when she really puts her mind to it), building songs around tricky changes and banging away menacingly at one-string guitar parts. Her concerns aren’t quite so literary, or arch -- or, for that matter, as un-romantic.

Arrangements: Grace In Rotation leads with the rock stuff, and leaves the requisite acoustic balladry for the second half. Even there, Sikora is rarely content to settle for simple guitaranvoice -- “Venus”, for instance, culminates in not one but two flute solos. There’s a cello on “Swallowed By The Ocean”, and incidental piano and organ on the margins of other mixes. But generally, the focus is on the kick and snare, the bottom strings of Sikora’s electric guitar, and her bright-eyed, wise-girl voice.

What's this record about?: I’ve always felt that even the best writers can either do men or women, but never both. All of Elvis Costello’s songs are ostensibly about women and how they’ve mistreated his narrators -- but when you strip away his derision and invective, there’s never any character left underneath. Costello writes about his own feelings and his own interiority, and his universe is relentlessly male, populated by Poor Fractured Atlas, his comrades, and their catalogue of desires and disappointments. Phair, too, only illustrates men in any detail -- “Johnny Feelgood”, “Jeremy”, the protagonists of “Shitloads Of Money”, “Uncle Alvarez”, “Nashville”, and countless other stories. Hers is a world organized around male privilege and male priorities. Kate Sikora draws women. Some of these women are figures for their author, but others are just passersby, illuminated by telling detail. Sikora is jealous of some, critically supportive of some, and dismissive of a few others, but they all shine, and they strut through these tracks like stars. Her imagery has a young girl’s fairy-tale quality: there is royalty, queens and princesses, boats and the seashore, and prevailing sense of peril and release. Drowning is a motif, as is makeup application and dress; the characters constantly seem to be submerging. And like Suzanne Vega, her most prominent male character turns out to be a transvestite.

The singer: Brassy, clear, engaging, infectious. Frequently it feels like she is singing with a smile. Sikora often sounds like Sheryl Crow, especially on “The Parade”, the album’s centerpiece. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but honestly, guys, Sheryl Crow is a very effective singer. There are times when Crow acts brain-dead because she think it’ll help her get on the radio. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. At her best, she takes herself more seriously than that, and makes muso-friendly roots rock records like The Globe Sessions. That’s the version of Crow that Kate Sikora resembles. Now, Sheryl - NJ.com


August 17, 2006
Day Job: Kate Sikora

Kate Sikora

Kate Sikora recently got back from Japan, where she was teaching English to kiddies, and playing music when she found the time. The 25-year-old singer/songwriter from Boonton writes beautiful songs, ranging from pop-rockers to quiet, aching meditations (dare I say ballads?). She’s currently playing shows around the area, including one tonight at the Lockwood Tavern in Stanhope, for all you west Jerseyans.

Day job: Teacher

What's the worst or most interesting thing that's happened to you at work?
Teaching in Japan was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’ve had many teaching jobs: preschool teacher, gymnastics coach, summer camp counselor, and I still substitute teach for grades K-12. Throughout my experiences I’ve learned many different teaching tactics. Teaching is challenging to begin with, but I had to deal with a whole other set of issues in Japan because, in many cases, my students couldn’t understand English and I couldn’t speak Japanese. I became quite good at charades!

I found out that there are so many ways to communicate even without language -- music being one of them. One of the best things about living and working in Japan was that I was the minority, I couldn’t speak the language, and my brain was constantly engaged. I have a whole new understanding and respect for many students who are coming from a different cultural background, speak a foreign language, and are trying to manage and excel in American schools.

Does work ever conflict with your music?
Not so much with jobs I’ve held in the states. I’ve always had flexible hours and gigs are usually on the weekends. With teaching in the states, I’d always be done by 3 or 4 pm which left me a lot of time for practice and getting to shows. However, at my job in Japan, I was always struggling with time management. I only worked 20-25 hours a week but those hours were scheduled over six days and randomly between 9 am and 9 pm. I had to pass up a lot of good gigs, and finding time to rehearse with band mates was really hard. The trains stop running around midnight and I lived 45 minutes from Tokyo. My classes were always being rescheduled at the last minute so it was hard to make plans in advance. I tried to communicate my frustrations to my boss but I don’t think she could understand that work wasn’t my only priority.

Do you have health insurance?
I wish! I had to pay for my own insurance in Japan and, now that I’m back in the US, I’m, again, without insurance.

Who are the three people you'd most like to have at one of your shows, in terms of helping your music career?
This is a tough question because three is just not enough. I’d have to say Ani Difranco because I’ve always respected her DIY musical career. I’d love to talk shop with her. I haven’t been on an “Ani” kick for a while but I think she’s a brilliant woman and very talented. Chan Marshall (Cat Power) is someone whose music is really inspiring as well. She’s a unique character and I also read that she pretty much does her own booking despite her popularity -- no manager either. Finally, I’d pick Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel, because I think his lyric writing is unmatched. Neutral Milk Hotel has this cult following that is still growing years after it disbanded. All three musicians are well respected by a large audience and yet they all seem to be able to live outside of the limelight of fame. I’m not sure if I’d be able to talk let alone play if I knew they were in the audience though – ah, but now I just sound like a gushing fan.

If Wal-Mart approached you about putting your music in an ad, for a large sum, would you do it?
I’d have to say no despite the temptation of paying off my college loans in one shot and moving out of my parents’ house. I don’t like Wal-Mart and honestly wouldn’t want my songs associated with something I don’t like. I’d like my music to get out there and reach people but I don’t think people would take me seriously as a songwriter if I started out by writing jingles for Wal-Mart.

Any additional thoughts on the relationship between work and art?
I hope to have a long musical career that can coexist peacefully with my day job. Maybe it would be nice to not have to have a 9-to-5 “jobby job,” but sometimes I think it helps me focus more on my music. By having the responsibility to be somewhere from such a time to such a time, I need to make time for my music and stay on top of it. Otherwise, I might just spend the whole day in bed reading or drinking coffee in my pajamas. I do love teaching and it allows me to travel and introduce children to new ideas (and music!) so maybe it’s not so bad having a day job after all. I’d never stay at a job that made me miserable or kept me from my art. The trick is finding a way to support yourself both financially and mentally.

On the Web:
Kate Sikora

Day Job is a weekly column examining the contradictions, conflicts and converge - City Belt


Discography

Debut LP
~"Grace in Rotation" (2005 US release, 2009 Japan release)

Radio/Streaming Airplay
1. 10 Hours
2. Usually
3. Leaving Shore

Kill Your TV 2009 compilation (Avocado Records, Japan)
"The Counting Song"

~"Aparto" EP (released on Phantom Signals label December 7, 2010)

Photos

Bio

Kate Sikora is an indie pop gal who can rock! She writes lyrics which are inspired by life, stories, colorful characters, and veer away from the traditional "love song". Kate has been writing songs since her childhood in the quiet suburbs of New Jersey. At the age of 18, she began playing venues in New York and New Jersey as the front woman in an experimental rock band, the Fauxmonks. The band broke up amicably in 2001 and Kate continued on to write and play solo. In 2005, Kate Sikora independently released her debut album, "Grace in Rotation." Shortly after, she brought her quirky, straight-talkin', energetic songs with her abroad where she spent the next 4 years making a name for herself in the Japanese music scene. She and her pal, Lindsay Lueders (The Bracelets, Vilorena), began collaboration on their indie folk duo, "The Loyal We" in 2006. They caught the attention of Japanese label, Contrarede, shortly after who released their debut album, "Homes" on January 20, 2010. Kate continues to perform as 1/2 of the Loyal We while also playing with various Japanese musicians she met and befriended in Tokyo. She and her band recorded "The Counting Song" at EMI studio Terra which was included on the Avocado Record's compilation "Kill Your T.V 2009." When the Loyal We went on a brief hiatus (Lindsay went back to the U.S), Kate decided to stay in Tokyo to work on new material and recordings with her band (Kishida Yoshinari (drums), Horikoshi Takeshi (bass), Minmin (organ)) Sticking around soon paid off as they were invited to play at the 2009 Fuji Rock Festival on the Rookie-A-Go-Go stage. Soon after, Kate began work on her ep "Aparto" with Glaswegian producer and engineer, David Naughton. In September, 2009, "Grace in Rotation" was re-released in Japan on the Contrarede label. In the winter of 2010, Kate opened the show for one of her biggest influences, Liz Phair, at Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ. When the tragic earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan's shores in March 2011, she decided to organize a benefit show to send her support. She contributed to the UK's Gabby Young's "Song for Japan: We're All in This Together" and continues to support Japan with her music. Kate is currently working on releasing her second solo album, "Aparto" and has begun work on a sophomore album with the Loyal We. She is living in the US for now with plans to return to adopted home in Tokyo later this year.