ABOVE: Liann Kaye (A.B. '11), an accomplished filmmaker and Charlene's sister, talks with her about their collaborations.
This is an article from the fall 2015 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Musician Charlene Kaye (A.B. ’09) is a performer as versatile as she is bold.
She shreds guitar as a member of an all-female glam rock cover band. She writes and performs her own music, including two eclectic albums, the first of which she recorded while still an undergraduate at U-M. And she’s not afraid to get poppy, as she did a few years ago on the hit single “Dress and Tie” with friend and Glee superstar Darren Criss (A.B. ’09).
But back in 2005, Kaye was just another first-year student trying to find her place. She was drawn to music and had grown up playing classical piano and other instruments. The event that truly fired her passion, though, took place not in a concert hall or a lecture hall, but at the Blind Pig.
“I saw Feist when I was a freshman—way before she blew up,” Kaye says of the then-rising vocalist. “She was so comfortable but so fierce. I remember thinking ‘That’s what I want to do’ as I walked back to my dorm.”
Kaye hurled herself into the local music scene, seeking out open-mic nights, playing keyboard for an experimental group named Perhapsy (after an e.e. cummings poem) with fellow U-M student Derek Barber (B.F.A. ’08), and even forming her own band. As a junior, she wrote and recorded her debut album, the acoustically hushed Things I Will Need in the Past.
She also made good friends. At her very first campus open-mic at Bursley Hall, Kaye met Criss, who went on to star in the Internet sensation A Very Potter Musical while at U-M and was later launched to stardom as Blaine Anderson on Glee. All these experiences provided plenty of fodder for Kaye in favorite classes like Creative Musicianship with Residential College Lecturer Mark Kirschenmann (Ph.D. ’02).
“It was such an unconventional class,” she says. “We would share and workshop our own music, but sometimes we’d just get way into it and pick apart songs we loved for two hours.”
Turning the Tables
After graduation, Kaye had a choice to make: She could head to graduate school and get her teaching degree, or she could “caravan it out to New York with the rest of the musician friends I’d made and just try to do the damn thing,” she says.
While Kaye was honing her craft as a musician and waitressing, Criss and the other U-M grads behind the Potter musical had formed StarKid, a troupe dedicated to leveraging the web to make theater work more accessible. In 2011, they reached out to see if Kaye would be interested in playing guitar in their backing band and opening for them on their first national tour.
“I said ‘Hell yes,’ and that led to two nationwide tours playing for thousands of people every night,” Kaye explains. “At that point, I figured I had a good enough reason to quit my waitressing job.”
At the time, Kaye was already working on her next solo album, Animal Love, which she made after supporters nearly doubled her original Kickstarter goal. More propulsive and electric than her previous work, it proved Kaye to be an artist comfortable wearing many hats. And that’s particularly true in her gig as the stand-in for Slash in a beloved side project, the cover band Guns N’ Hoses. (The band’s bio promises their sound will “break hearts and a few jaws” at every show.)
“Those shows are great because of how ridiculous we are on stage,” Kaye says, “but it’s also the hardest music I’ve ever had to learn in my life—that ‘November Rain’ solo, though! It’s definitely made me a better guitarist and shredding enthusiast, and now I inject that kind of intensity and fun into every performance I do.”
Stepping into someone else’s shoes also prepared Kaye for the moment when a friend emailed to see if she would be interested in auditioning for Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s band, San Fermin. The band’s richly orchestrated 2013 debut had garnered critical praise, and Kaye admits she was intimidated not only by the idea of singing someone else’s music, but also by Ludwig-Leone’s complex melodies and intricate songwriting and vocals.
But the partnership clicked, and this spring they released the album Jackrabbit, the tour for which has taken Kaye from Dublin to Denver.
“I guess I did it to see what I was capable of,” says Kaye. “And I’m so glad I did. It’s definitely changed the way I sing, the way I write, and how I think about music.”
That perspective is invaluable as Kaye continues to write her own songs, eager for the next challenge and always aware of the uncertainty that she embraced by stepping into that car bound for New York six years ago.
“There isn’t a crest to the wave, not really,” she says. “You work to create more work. You play shows so that you can keep playing shows. The best you can do is make music that feels honest and interesting to you—because if you don’t, you’re not really telling your full story, and you won’t find the people out there who truly resonate with what you do.”
It’s an approach that echoes the refrain of a track on Kaye’s album Animal Love: “Focus hard on every following step, ’cause forever is a long, long time to guess.”