With the band’s biggest festival appearance yet just days away, UN’s Kara Keith was fretting over footwear before set lists.
“It’s all about the outfits, right?” reasoned Keith.
UN, a gothic rock/electro-pop duo featuring Concordia grad Jen Reimer on drums with Keith on vocals and piano, is jetting off to Austin, Texas to play POP Montreal’s showcase at the SXSW Music Festival.
Over 2,000 acts from all over the world flock to SXSW every year to mingle with music industry professionals, debut new material and wrestle for exposure. Buzzing reviews at this festival can change an artist’s life overnight. Just one year after her SXSW debut, former McGill student and electronic musician Grimes has gone from virtually unknown to posing for Vogue.
“I haven’t gone to SXSW before, but I’ve done a lot of crazy shit in my life,” said Keith. “It’s just another five-day-long party where I don’t have a home to go to at night.”
Keith and Reimer have been playing together in bands for over five years, but they first collaborated as UN in 2010 and have just released their debut album, Nu. Keith’s confidence on stage is magnetic, her voice deep, dark and borderline satanic. Backed by snappy synth, piano and Reimer’s fierce animalistic drumming, this is something you must dance to, entranced in your own world.
UN’s sound and stage presence has the ability to whisk the crowd away to a subterranean gothic birthday party, providing an escape from the mundane.
“It’s cathartic for me,” explained Keith. “That’s why it ends up being cathartic for other people.
All the melodies, lyrics and ideas are from my singular experience. I walk about with those songs all the time.”
Reimer and Keith left their families behind in Alberta before becoming Mile End inhabitants. They attended separate classical music conservatories in Edmonton and Calgary, but met at an artist residency program at the Banff Centre in 2007.
“We started jamming together in these little huts in the woods, spending night upon night playing music,” revealed Keith. “We instantly connected.”
At the time, Keith studied piano, while Reimer was perfecting the French horn. Reimer picked up the drums as recently as two years ago for UN’s first performance in New York City, though she had only been practising for three weeks.
“[Reimer] already had so much skill in her body from being a very accomplished classical musician,” explained Keith.
Keith found Alberta hostile to artists, as rent was skyrocketing and it was difficult to find space to practise or play.
“It wasn’t a very nurturing community, and we felt like outsiders,” said Keith. “There were no other women doing anything [like us].”
The pair clicked with producer Howard Bilerman, known for his work on Arcade Fire’s Funeral (2004), while at The Banff Centre. Keith wrote a record while in Alberta, but flew to Montreal in 2008 to record with Reimer, Bilerman and a band of 10 other people.
“That was our foray into Montreal. We were just going to come for two weeks and make a record,” said Keith, “but that record took six months.
“We quickly evolved, realized it was an amazing city, and now we are very happy here.”
Though the songstress was unhappy in Alberta, the record she wrote while living there is curiously upbeat, and became quite popular. Keith’s indie-pop single, “Kick this City,” caught fire in 2008 and was picked up by CBC for radio play.
Since moving to Montreal and forming UN, Keith’s songwriting has turned to gloom.
“What’s funny is that as I’ve gotten my life more organized, been happier, got really good friends, moved to a great new city, and started taking care of myself, I started writing really dark music,” said Keith.
Despite the drastic change in her musical tone, Keith insisted that it’s completely unintentional. She challenged herself to depart from her more complicated classical roots and produce music that was simple, strong and straight from the gut.
“I’m not trying to do anything, I don’t listen to music, and I don’t know what our ‘sound’ is,” said Keith. “Neither does Jen.”
UN debuts at SXSW on March 16 at Hotel Vegas in Austin, Texas.
To download their new album visit their bandcamp: