Duke Coffeehouse, Durham
“I guess I write out of pain,” the Connecticut-based musician Kath Bloom says by phone in February. “I write out of confusion. And sometimes, out of happiness. I don’t set out to write about anything in particular really, just what comes to me.”
What often comes to Bloom is the experience of romantic and familial love, both simple and infuriatingly complex. She explores it from every angle. It’s humiliated randiness: “Why do you come here with your shirt off? / Why do you tell me that you’re hungry? / I say there’s something in the kitchen / You know without you I’ve been itching.” It’s a window into strained parental exhaustion: “My baby cries when he’s tired / My puppy howls with the moon.” It’s an open-hearted plea for connection and reciprocity: “The key that opens you / And the key that opens me / It’s the same.”
This naked poetry, sung in a wild voice that seems perpetually on the edge of either breakdown or ecstasy, was a potent tool in Bloom’s early collaborations with the avant-garde guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors.
“In a lot of ways, Loren saved my life,” Bloom says. “His teachings to me were so important.” Connors’s textured playing lent a cagey reserve to Bloom’s openness, and their records from the late seventies and early eighties, like the recently re-released Restless Faithful Desperate, earned Bloom the kind of cult psychedelic-folk following afforded to enigmatic musicians like Karen Dalton and Michael Hurley.
Bloom never stopped writing music for guitar in the decades that followed, as she raised her children and lived a scrappy existence in Florida. But she wasn’t recording for public consumption or touring widely. Acclaim trickled in over time—most famously, her song “Come Here” was prominently featured in the 1995 Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise—and eventually, Bloom began to dip her toe back into releasing and performing music. Reflecting on the reasons for her sometimes-tentative approach to a career in music, Bloom says that “it was just a mixture of not believing in myself and not knowing where the opportunities were.”
In 2009, a spate of Kath Bloom covers by artists like Bill Callahan, Scout Niblett, Josephine Foster, and Devendra Banhart on the Chapter Music tribute album Loving Takes This Course led to deeper connections with patrons and collaborators, including Mark Kozelek, who released Bloom’s music on his label, Caldo Verde.
“This is what happens,” she says, laughing, about the proliferation of new albums and reissues. “People get ahold of me, and they want to know what still is underneath the bed.”
Most recently, Bloom has settled into performing and recording as a trio with guitarist David Shapiro and percussionist Flo Ness. The music is still intense, but Bloom says playing together brings a dimension of buoyancy and lightness to the performance.
Bloom’s back catalog can be dizzying and slippery, including dozens of releases with varying levels of commercial availability and titles that weave and bleed into one another. I was surprised to learn she released a children’s album in 2000, an album that’s nowhere to be found on Discogs, Allmusic, or Spotify. So much of the appeal of shadowy folk figures from the seventies lies in their lack of output and the potential for rare recordings to be uncovered. Bloom seems happy to simultaneously play into this myth with scarcity and dispel it with a bounty of low-profile releases. She’s not precious about her discography.
“I have a problem: I can’t look back that much,” she says. “It might be a mechanism for keeping me sane and going forward with things, but I don’t get very sentimental.”
She now writes new music only sporadically, noting that a host of family problems have kept her occupied in recent years. But she’s got plenty from which to pull. Bloom estimates that she has about two hundred demo tapes at home. In this way, she’s tending a fire, rather than building it anew. Often, when an obscure folk hero is dusted off to release new music, the result doesn’t have the same magic as the old stuff. But Bloom’s 2017 duet with Kozelek, the murkily sexy “Oh Baby,” stands up to anything she’s ever released.
Around 2009, Bloom settled into a steady profession of teaching music to children. It’s a way of looking forward rather than backward.
“It gives me so much hope and joy and belief in what we can do all together,” she says. “Music is a giving state of being. It’s about giving back and forth, about listening on the most intimate and intense plane. It’s an emotional and spiritual quest.”
The quest, for Bloom, has been one riddled with personal setbacks, brushes with fame, and now, an easy joy. One happy result of her time off from music is that she still feels fresh to performing live.
“I haven’t been playing long enough to feel burned by it,” she says. “I’m kind of like a kid in a candy store.”