The crucial act of adolescence is not angst itself, but the expression of angst. Kara Lu ’22 (alias Father Koi) has scaled the mountain of her teens with her first full-length album, “Late Afternoon National Anthem,” assembled over the course of four years and released Friday, May 22. Her clever songwriting and production sense make this album a must-listen, but above all her emotional intelligence and authenticity shine.
Slow, anticipatory snare drums open the album in “Boxer,” followed by swelling strings, the ding-ding of a boxing bell, bouncy acoustic guitar and equally energetic piano. Although the song eases you in for a few deceptively simple seconds, the rest of the musical ensemble’s arrival makes clear this is not just accompaniment for the artist’s anecdotes or confessions. The instrumentation is just as integral as her lyrics to worldbuilding, evoking the sweetness of childhood and its moments of trepidation and change too, suggesting the general time (late adolescence I believe), place (home) and conflict (she has had a good time but departure is imminent). In such tracks, Father Koi does not transcribe her memories in a straightforward way. Instead, she opts for vignettes; she explores the feeling of, say, driving late at night, never explaining how she got in the car in the first place. You get hints of backstory in the form of details both biographically precise (“Trying to find out who you were as a sophomore/Paper thin stockings at the dollar store”) and hauntingly symbolic (“Cynicism, cyanide, close your eyes they’re one the same/Who will mourn the dead and gone when there’s nobody left to blame”).
Because of this balance between biography and poetry, “Late Afternoon National Anthem” is highly nostalgic. You reflect with a romantic instinct; all memories exaggerate the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, while diminishing the boring. What is extraordinary about Father Koi’s nostalgia is that it romanticizes the ordinary moments as well. “Indian Burns and Cage,” for example, is about the fervent, fast-paced camaraderie of teenage friendship; the dynamics of the relationship Koi describes in the song are matched by its tempo and playful guitar riffs, but the lyrics are incredibly intimate in their sheer averageness. She smiles and rolls her eyes amicably at her younger self: “My mother shaved your hair a layer of jet black hair/Fake tats and piercings and cage ‘cause well/Nothing dies in a world of me and you.” As I listened to this, a half-embarrassed, half-wistful feeling creeped through me. She reminded me that the kind of embarrassment I feel for my high school self is akin to the annoyance and unwavering protectiveness you might feel for a younger sibling.
When I spoke to Lu about her song-making process, I puzzled over how such a highly personal album stirs up nostalgia in a detached listener. She revealed that each song in “Late Afternoon” conjures a certain memory or time in her life, like a diary entry, and I learned that a lot of the songs were written contemporaneously rather than retrospectively. For example, she wrote “Eighteen” the night of her 18th birthday—a conscious effort to document a moment in time. While she was writing “Eighteen,” she accounted for how she would feel about that night years later: “It was the end of the world, when I turned eighteen/Didn’t really think about it, didn’t really want to talk about it.” To assume a voice that isn’t yours takes immense maturity and artistry. Not to mention the most difficult character to imagine is your future self; you are intimately tied to this person, but must somehow postulate how you will change.
It’s not like Lu and I share all the same experiences described in “Late Afternoon,” but certain emotional states—being entertained and exasperated by your previous immaturity, or the push-and-pull between vulnerability and bashfulness we hear in “Icarus”—will resound with many. In this way, Lu shares her process of remembering with us. Her instrumentation also acts as a universal language for the sensation of growing up. The build up in the last third of “Icarus,” from lone bass line to acoustic guitar to Lu’s fluid voice to a whiny electric guitar, simulates, for me, flight. You’ve said goodbye to someone you won’t see in a long time, you get on the train, the train feels like it’s going a million miles an hour.
I could go on about Lu’s clever songwriting and production sense, but above all her emotional intelligence and authenticity shine. As I bombarded her with questions about how she makes her musical decisions (When to introduce a tempo change? Why this kind of percussion here?), I got the impression that “Late Afternoon,” in all its verbal and instrumental poetry, came naturally to her—the natural resolution to a chapter of heartbreak, anxiety and giddiness.
For a full version of Taylor Stewart’s interview with Father Koi, click here.