Kate Grom is proof positive that it is still possible for talent, hard work, dedication, a touch of fearlessness and a positive attitude can get open doors, even within the rough-and-tumble, fickle fortunes of the music industry.
A talented roots/Americana singer/songwriter, Grom spent years honing her talents as a performer and songwriter, while also compiling a selection of original songs that would be her launching point for a career within the business. The result was the masterfully crafted nine-song release Heroine, which came out in late 2016 – a tour de force for Grom and her powerfully evocative and deeply lyrical songs, which hit listeners simultaneously in the head, heart and spirit.
For the recording and production of Heroine, Grom worked alongside noted Nashville hit maker Stewart Lerman, who diverse pedigree worked perfectly with Grom’s unique influences and approach to music. An industry veteran, Lerman’s credits include an esoteric array of artists including Elvis Costello, Neko Case, Patti Smith, Sharon Van Etten and the legendary Willie Nelson. He is also a two-time Grammy Award winner.
“I had been searching for the right producer and I had kind of a manager figure – a mentorship person – who had put a couple of people in my path but I just felt the vibe wasn’t right. So I started sending out my music to producers and I sent the list of people to the manager guy and he said he thought they were all long shots, that I shouldn’t even try. But I said to myself, ‘if you’re passionate about this, you probably shouldn’t listen to that kind of advice.’ So I sent them anyways and if I don’t hear back, that’s okay. But you never really know,’ said Grom from her home in rural New Jersey, an hour’s commute from her previous residence in New York City.
“I assumed it was a shot in the dark and kind of let it go and just carried on. But a week later I got a call from Stewart and he said, ‘hi Kate, can you hear me?’ I was at a barbecue on a windy Brooklyn rooftop so I quickly ran into the hallway and said, ‘yes I can hear you.’ He said, ‘this is Stewart and I heard your demos and I really like what I am hearing and I would love to make your record.’ Then I just started crying and was like ‘oh my God.’ I left the barbecue crying and people were wondering what happened and was I okay. So that’s how I got connected with Stewart.”
How someone with very little profile within the music industry, especially outside of New York City, garnered the opportunity to work with someone of the esteem and experience of Lerner is a testament not only to Grom’s tenacity in furthering her career ambitions, but more importantly evidence of her abundant talent as a songwriter and performer.
“What I learned from working with Stewart was a lot about the technical side of production. I am not very good at what I would call the computer digital world of being behind the soundboard. That is not at all my thing. Stewart has a very, very good ear to what I was trying to get across with the vibe and the sound and the instrumentation and the feeling of each song,” she explained.
“I would come into the studio with a couple of different songs that were kind of cluttered with lots of instrumental ideas that I wanted to put in certain places and he totally removed all the junk inside my brain and tried to capture the essence of what I was going after. Stewart has been doing this for a long time and has such a great resume under his belt that he knows so much about whether a direction we were heading musically or instrumentally was correct or not.
“But he was totally supportive of my vision and didn’t try to control what I wanted to say. If I was pointing something out that didn’t feel right, whether it was rhythm or a chord progression or something that needed to be changed, he was able to help guide me into what options we could pursue. And as a brand new artist, I was also totally overwhelmed, in a good way, to have some of the best players in Nashville on the record, and that was also thanks to Stewart. So he imparted tons of wisdom and was a great leader while not at all encroaching on my vision as an artist.”
After graduating from college, Grom began working on the business side of the music industry at various jobs, while still trying to further her artistic ambitions as much as possible. After a few years of this, she said she reached a sort of existential crossroads. A trip abroad helped solidify in her mind that focussing on the creative side of her life – and all the risks that entails – would be the course of action she would take.
“I had been in New York for a while, after starting off in Nashville. I was working in the music business while pursuing my art on the side. And there was starting to be this big challenge between the two as to which was going to be my priority. How would I sustain myself as a person and as an artist? I moved there not necessarily to pursue my career in the business itself, although my resume was growing and that was a great thing, as it meant I was able to support myself. But my passion for my art and creating was falling by the wayside, and I knew I needed to get out of the city and separate myself from my life there and look at everything from a distance,” she said.
“I had an opportunity to travel to Paris and I took it and I had a great time while I was there. It was reaffirming and encouraging to me that I should be pursuing this art. There was a series of random events where I was meeting artists and got asked to play out and I would up going and renting myself a guitar for a little guitar shop in Paris and began writing everything and putting my stories to songs. It was a really great experience because I needed to be in an environment that was beneficial to an artist. The French are so welcoming of the arts and it’s just such an important part of their culture. It felt alive and there was an energy there that can sometimes run dry in New York. It was a huge thing to take that trip because by the time I returned I knew I needed to go for this singing and songwriting career all the way.”
Grom’s musical influences are a true musical melange, ranging from the emotive pop stylings of Stevie Nicks, through the poetic profundity of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel through to roots/country icons like Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn. She also sang in choirs at her local church as well as throughout high school, learning about the importance of harmony as well as melody and honing her vocal chops at the same time.
“I had this uncle who had this eccentric lifestyle and he used to pick us up once a week from school and drive us home and along the ways he was like a walking rock and roll encyclopedia. He knew so much about music and the music industry and he would share great stuff with us like Patti Smith, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac to the Beatles, CCR and America. He really rubbed off on me and since then I have always been interested in music and the storytelling aspect of it,” she said, adding that also from that moment on, she knew she wanted to do music as a vocation, but had to abide by her family’s wishes to go to College. After a couple of years studying in a classically-focused music program at the private Moravian College in Pennsylvania, she transferred to Belmont University near Nashville where she then got a degree in music business.
“In Nashville I explored the bluegrass, roots, country scene and got into artists like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, but also lots of Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline and Emmylou Harris. Everywhere I went I was just looking to absorb new music. I spent a lot of time in record shops and listening to new bands and going to shows as much as I could. By the time I got to New York I feel I was ready to make my own sound and I started creating music and seeing what sounds that came out of that. And I would say that my music, if I had to define it, is emotional, melancholy, comforting Americana.
“Some of the tracks on Heroine are autobiographical and others about friends and people I know and experiences they have had or I have read about. I am also inspired by nature and the landscape of the setting I grew up in out in the country [not far from where she currently lives with her actor partner in Frenchtown, New Jersey, an hour outside The Big Apple.] I spent a lot of time lost in my imagination to create stories from the inspiration of the settings and the people in my life.”
One of the songs most indicative of this approach and feel is Whistle Cry, a nostalgic, almost plaintive story of lost love turning into a hopeful new beginning.
“It’s a very special song to me. I would say the overarching themes of it are love, loss and freedom. I was living abroad and went through a heartbreak that spurred a chain reaction of getting out of London where I was at the time to seek the comfort of a friend that I knew in England. So I hopped on the train and rode it all by myself up to the north of Scotland and then later back down again and it was such a freeing experience,” Grom said.
“I thought I would be devastated and heartbroken and all the things that I was feeling, but in the end it was such a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel that is sometimes lost and you actually realize you were just bound up by something you didn’t need and there’s a freeing experience that happens. And when the whistle on the train would blow and I knew I needed to put this feeling of freedom alongside the sound of the whistle cry of the train.”
The tune This Storm was inspired by watching the heartache of a friend locked into a toxic and seemingly unshakeable relationship.
“I was just sort of watching this relationship go down and it was very unhealthy and I think many of us have been in those relationships where you keep spiralling into the arms of someone who is not good for you, whatever the reasons, and how hard it can be to just finally say that you can’t do it any more. So This Storm is sort of a parallel to it being the proverbial last straw,” she said, adding that the song Tricks was inspired by the duplicity and dishonesty of an individual who came into her life.
“It was inspired by one of my own stories where I really was struggling to leave the memory behind of someone I didn’t necessarily even care about, but who I just felt duped by. They had been kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a person and I felt like a trick had been played on me. And I know so many of my friends have experienced that too. I wanted to write a song about it because it happens way too often where you think that you know someone and then you’re totally tricked by who they really are.”
What isn’t a trick is the limitless potential Grom has for a successful, lengthy, productive and fulfilling career as a maker of music. More recently, she released a cover of the Christmas hit All I Want For Christmas Is You this past fall, where she was able to take the best of Mariah Carey’s original vibe and translate it into something more reminiscent of Patsy Cline.
For more information, visit www.kategrom.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at email@example.com.