April Kae: An Advocate for Creativity and Activism

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Photo by Tommy Rizzoli
       

April Kae attributes her career as a bassist to growing up in Austin, Texas, where she felt that playing the guitar would make her too much a part of the crowd. Despite being discouraged early on when she didn’t fit the type to play the bass, she persisted. Now, you’ll find her playing in her band, IMANIGOLD; serving as an endorsed artist for Fender Guitars; and partnering with Nike.

In her interview, April reflects on the role that music played in her teenage years, classifies her sound, and takes us through her writing process. Alongside her music career, April is a social media influencer. She discusses how she’s working on balancing both, lessons she’s learned from being a content creator, and the importance of prioritizing mental health above everything else.

Who is April Kae? 

April is a loving, resilient, determined, and bubbly woman, who brings a lot of energy to the table, and loves connecting with like-minded people. 

So you grew up in Austin, Texas, which is home to some of the greats like Gary Clark Jr. and Janis Joplin. Tell us what it was like growing up with the desire to play instruments. How old were you when you first started playing?

Growing up in Austin, I was always into different genres of music, so playing bass, guitar, and drums was a fixation of mine for as long as I can remember. My parents weren’t huge fans of the drums because of how loud they were, and there were so many people in Austin playing the guitar; it was eye-rolling at a point. I picked up the guitar at the age of 10 but then quickly switched to bass because there weren’t as many people in the city playing at the time. In the sixth grade, I decided to join the school orchestra, which consisted of an entire bass section of six-foot-tall white men. I even had a music teacher tell me that I shouldn’t play because my hands were “too small.” Looking back, there was likely some thinly veiled sexism (and maybe a bit of racism), but all of these were experiences that helped me to grow into the person that I am today. 

So, take us back to the 13-year-old April. What were your career goals, and what were you listening to to get you through your hard times?

When I was a teenager, I was honestly depressed because, at the time, that was really central to everything I was going through. I began to fall in love with emo music because I connected with how sad it was. I remember playing the song “My Bloody Valentine” by Good Charlotte over and over again and crying and just feeling so in it. I would go on LiveJournal song exchange forums and download everything I possibly could labeled “emo.” I’d rip the songs I would download to CD and listen to them on my portable player all the time. My friends and I would bring our CD collections to school and take turns seeing what bands we each were listening to: Hawthorne Heights, Brand New, Dashboard Confessional, Taking Back Sunday, and so many more.

When it comes to what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was still trying to figure that out as a teenager. I was a good kid in the traditional ways; I had good grades and extracurriculars, but what I was going through back then was serious and going unnoticed and untreated. There were things I enjoyed doing, like music, but that’s where it stopped for me. I really didn’t like myself back then, but now, I do, and often it can be overwhelming. There is so much I want in life, and it’s all centered around wanting to help other people.

How would you describe your sound/music? 

Genre-wise, I’m an indie rock player. Americana for 2021 America. Beyond that, throughout my producing, songwriting, bass, guitar, and singing, I like to keep it tasteful. I like to keep it in the pocket. There’s a Miles Davis album called Kind of Blue that is amazing to me because of the way he stretches out notes and lets long pauses linger. He brings in catchy and simple melodies that have all been the prototype for the vibe I want to create. I think part of that comes from how easily distracted I can be. I like music that has an element of everything being in its place. I like straightforward, listenable music that’s easy to like and sneaks up on you with its brilliance.

Take us through your writing process. How do you write your music? Do you get triggered by certain things that might inspire the process to start?

Over time, I’ve learned to really let go as a writer, and I think that comes from doing a ton of writing over the years, not just music. I used to run a digital publication for a social justice nonprofit at the same time as I was building up my independent career as an influencer and musician. I did a ton of writing to the point where writer’s block became a non-issue, and now I can pretty much always sit down and write something if it needs writing, including music. I don’t always like forcing myself to write, but the skill to do that comes in handy when it is needed.

My songwriting process now pretty much consists of making stuff up on guitar and vocals, recording it, and if it is something that I like, then I keep it. If I don’t like it, I change it. My band’s name is IMANIGOLD, and the EP we are working on releasing consists of several songs that I wrote the skeletons for. Over time, we honed in on them, but now my bandmate and sister, Dominique (Nikki), and I are working together from the beginning writing stages now more than ever, which is awesome. After we have the basic chords, melody, and lyrics written out, we practice the song and continue making tweaks until we have a reason to stop. It can take days, months, or even years, but I love to let my ear and heart guide me. 

Who is on your list to collaborate with?

EVERYONE! I love to collaborate across all sorts of industries: fashion, culinary, film, television—let’s make things together! But to get specific, Jaden Smith has been an amazing supporter since he shouted me on Instagram a month or so ago. I would love to create with him on a visual or musical tip. Same goes for Willow Smith—I love her new song, “Transparent Soul.” The way the dope sibling duo elevates “Black weirdness” is so incredible and something I want to be more a part of. They have definitely been an inspiration for IMANIGOLD. It showed us that siblings can do amazing things together.

For years, I’ve been posting on Instagram about wanting to tour with Blink-182, so when I saw that Willow featured Travis Barker, I immediately knew that they would be part of my dream power trio: Willow Smith, Travis Barker, and myself. Also, this interview is already fulfilling a collaboration dream with Guitar Gabby! When you hit me up to create this with you, I let out an audible scream. The way you have cultivated this powerful, forceful, underground multifaceted Black-femme first community and message is something I’ve looked up to for years. I also have to mention Radiohead and Death Cab For Cutie. They are both massive influences on my songwriting and my approach to music. 

How do you balance music and being a boss influencer?

If I’m being transparent, I don’t have a lot of balance right now. I feel bad saying that because I want to be an example of self-care and all that, but right now, that’s just not where I’m at. But mental health care will always remain non-negotiable for me, as it’s the platform on which the balancing scales rest. I go to individual and group therapy every week, and sometimes it doesn’t happen, but 90 percent of the time, it does. Amidst my crazy work schedule, I put a lot of energy into setting aside time for things I love and need in life.

When it comes to my work schedule, I am constantly working from the time I roll out of bed, which tends to be between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. I try to go to sleep around midnight, but I often find myself staying up until 3 a.m. on TikTok just to laugh for a bit. There are certainly gaps where I’m not working and spending time with friends and family, but a day doesn’t go by that I spend less than a few hours working. My sister, on the other hand, genuinely shoulders half of that work, which is fantastic. She does most of the visuals for our duo, but with the world opening back up and us continuing to build our brand, there are never-ending amounts of work. We self-produce our music videos and photoshoots, so we are both very hands-on with everything we have going on. 

I’m trying to do better at being gentle with myself while also delegating some of these responsibilities to other people that work with us. Most days, it’s a fun learning experience, so I’m grateful. 

What is one of the most important things you have learned while building your social platform to where it is now?

Social media isn’t real. This has been both helpful in my life and in growing my platform. Thinking that your Instagram page has to perfectly reflect who you are or your work can be a sinkhole that a lot of artists fall into. In my experience, getting caught up in this notion leads to a complete disconnect where you don’t want to post at all, or you end up stressing yourself out to unhealthy measures. I like to think my Instagram isn’t a “highlight reel,” and I make an effort to show the ups and downs of my worlds, but it’s impossible for it to capture all of who I am, and I like to maintain some degree of privacy.

I also have to remind myself that social media is a tool, a very powerful tool that can be a life-changing tool. I keep that in mind as I perceive others around me on the app. I don’t find myself “doom scrolling” as much as I used to because I’ve gotten better at seeing other people’s posts simply as images they share, rather than a condemnation or wild celebration. As a creator, that’s freeing for me. If I post a bass reel and it’s a little out of tune, or it’s kinda weird, that’s okay because it’s not all of me as a musician, and certainly not as a person. 

What is your go-to home setup for recording music and content?

Well, my first video that went viral was on a Mexican-made, cream-colored Fender Precision Bass. It cost less than $500. I also used the Universal Audio Apollo Twin, which we used to record our IMANIGOLD EP. I get comments under my bass videos all the time where people assume I’m recording with a regular-shmegular amplifier, but I live in Harlem, so recording with that amp can be problematic. It is so loud that even recording direct-in with headphones can still be so loud that I can’t hear myself playing through speakers. So yeah, going direct-in is a must. I also like that my work represents the notion that you don’t have to “have everything” to make your mark as an artist. Those two pieces of gear, the Apollo Twin and the bass, still cost over $1,000 combined, so I hesitate to call them humble. But compared to the rigs I grew up idolizing, it’s a pretty humble setup.

I’ve never thought about the line between content creation and recording until this question. In 2017, IMANIGOLD put on a fundraiser. We built an entire home studio, which included insulating my closet and making it into a vocal booth that was imperative for recording at home. Even with this setup, it took me a month to record my first viral bass video because that was me bridging those two worlds that I hadn’t bridged much before. 

Do you have to have certain environments that you are most creative in?

My bedroom, for sure. Even before the pandemic, we already had the recording studio set up in our apartment, and I had worked from home in years prior, so having a productive space has always been important to me. I recently rearranged things so I could face the windows more while working and recording. One thing I’ve come to appreciate over the past year is the sky and the sun. 

What is one piece of advice you would give young kids following in your footsteps?

I’ve always been an advocate for creativity and activism. As a teen, I was very involved in the local youth music scene and organizing benefit concerts. Being so young in a “serious music city” like Austin, I dealt with all sorts of pushback, but I just kept going. I kept finding new ways to do what I was passionate about. If one venue said no, I had nine more I was ready to reach out to. I became unafraid to ask and equally unafraid of rejection. My heart races when I think of how much I’ve achieved since then. It’s unreal. And it happened because each time I got a “no,” I stuck to the vision and the mission. I always remind those that listen to my podcast to keep creating and to persevere. Make what you want to make. Build the world you want to build. It’s all up to you.