By Gabe Sherman
Partially completed before the pandemic hit and assembled during quarantine, the EP feels uniquely suited to ease our collective glumness.
Kate Bollinger, A word becomes a sound
It’s hard not to feel restless in the world today. We are cooped up, isolated, stuck staring at screens, often filled with anxiety and dread about the future. When was the last time someone told you they were doing better than “OK”? Almost six months in, social distancing has taken its psychological toll — on communication, on community, and on personal peace. Kate Bollinger’s new EP, A word becomes a sound, doesn’t solve any of these problems, but it marvels at them in a way that feels therapeutic. Partially completed before the pandemic hit and assembled during quarantine, the EP feels uniquely suited to ease our collective glumness.
The phrase “a word becomes a sound” serves as the title of both the EP and its fourth track. It was inspired by the Vladimir Nabokov short story, “Terror.” In the tale, the narrator loses his grip on the meaning of words; he describes feeling unhappy when he is in isolation but equally sad, even overwhelmed, when he is around another person. Sound familiar? Bollinger explains in her notes that “A word becomes a sound,” is about “those things and also the flawed nature of verbal communication, the weight of your word, and the harm it can cause if it is misused.” Acoustic and minimalist, the tune is reminiscent of Brittany Howard’s more recent work, both solo and as a part of Bermuda Triangle. In her paradoxical ode to miscommunication, Bollinger waxes poetic: “A word only a sound if you let it/Things become only their name so instead it/Takes its new life, you never meant to give it wings that way/Watch it take flight and then land in another day.”
The project’s third track, “Feel Like Doing Nothing,” chews on an all-too-sympathetic topic: the urge to do nothing. Like a lot of Bollinger’s music, the song wafts somewhere between contentment and melancholy. The instrumentation on the track is dreamy and sedate, but not inert. Crooning alongside the wah-wah guitars and smooth keys, Bollinger appears nonjudgmental when considering the value of laziness. She sings about trying to “rearrange the pleasure so it outweighs the pain/It doesn’t work all the time,” and how “When daylight comes, I call my friend/She won’t pick up, I call her back again/I wanna spend all my time/and I feel like doing nothing.” As she floats downstream, Bollinger evaluates her unproductive days; she isn’t resentful or completely accepting. Instead, she finds reassurance in the simple acts of trying and being.
This sense of acceptance of “what is” recurs throughout the EP. On “A Couple Things,” enlivened by its bubbly guitar and rattling hi-hats, Bollinger reminisces on the impact of a formative person in her life: “You always told me when I was wrong/I never minded it, I needed someone to tell me okay.” In the chorus she asks a simple question, “What if I fuck up a couple things…What if I fuck up everything?” Her voice remains quiet and relaxed as she embraces uncertainty, her questions born of curiosity rather than panic. The lo-fi “Grey Skies” outlines this thoughtfully laid-back perspective more clearly: “Grey skies, they don’t scare me/I find them unnecessary/There’s no telling when the bad will come around/And it’ll come around no doubt.” Friendly, hazy synths, and a soft acoustic guitar imbue the song with an infectious zen. At times, she even sounds like she’s smiling while she sings. Across the record, she frees herself from suffering without ignoring pessimism, and invites you to do the same.
Part of Bollinger’s strength as a songwriter comes from her understanding of the power and malleability of language. In a statement accompanying this release, she says “It is rare that my words represent my thoughts accurately and even in the instances where I feel that they do, I know that I can’t be responsible for the hearing of those words or for the interpretation of them.” The perspective she outlines there holds true in her music. She leans into the murkiness of words and willingly relinquishes control of her messages. Throughout A word becomes a sound, she consciously utilizes a linguistic simplicity — she dances nimbly between concrete imagery and loose metaphors, finding beauty in the meaning of words or in the resonance of sheer sound.
Bollinger’s mother is a music therapist, which seems to have had an impact on the musician. A word becomes a sound is a healing record. The vocals and instrumentation are intended to be soothing and soft, and Bollinger’s musings — composed of crisp, carefully chosen words — are honest and universal. The album doesn’t tell you how to feel; you are encouraged to feel whatever you like. Contentment is hard to find right now. Comfort comes and goes, often giving way to ennui or malaise. This EP confirms that these feelings of insecurity are not just real and legitimate — they are an integral part of what it means to be alive right now. Art has the power to create understanding, of oneself or another, and Bollinger uses her music as a means to build a sense of community. Language may be an imperfect tool, but it still binds us together. Knowing that we are all grappling with similar thoughts right now feels like a much-needed hug, even if it’s only a virtual one.
Gabriel Sherman is a student and writer from Brookline, MA, currently studying history at Pitzer College.