May 1, 2005
by Ray Routhier
After a first-hand look at Third-World poverty and a personal inventory, the singer is coming at her songwriting — and her life — from a new place.
Kate Schrock’s music and life are going in a different direction these days, thanks to detours in Kentucky, Jamaica and Ecuador.
Schrock has been a successful Maine-based singer-songwriter for the past 10 years. She’s released five albums, and toured all over the country. While she hasn’t had a commercial breakthrough, she’s gotten lots of critical praise. But Schrock began to think differently about her music and her career after meeting a Jamaican horn-player named Glen DaCosta in Lexington, Ky., in 2003.
DaCosta had played for years with the late reggae legend Bob Marley and still plays with Marley’s band, the Wailers. DaCosta saw Schrock perform at a club and instantly thought her voice, energy and presence would make her perfect for some songs he was writing. Schrock went to Jamaica with DaCosta to record. She was struck by the way shanty towns mingled with luxury resorts, how poverty and wealth, Third World and First World, clashed so openly.
Since that experience, she’s made a trip to Ecuador with a humanitarian aid group, she’s invited DaCosta to come record with her in Portland in May, and she’s fused reggae into her own eclectic mix of music. And she’s begun to write songs that look at questions that are a little more far-reaching than whether a lover is faithful or whether a romance will last forever.
“Those are still viable things to talk about, but they are no longer as interesting to me. I’m trying to grasp more global themes,” said Schrock, 40, who lives in Westbrook. “My own survival, my own daily life, is not as interesting to me as a lot of other things.”
For instance, Schrock has written a song about “the strength and clarity of people like Bob Marley and Che Guevara, who are so bold as to take on something outside of themselves, to have a vision of how to bring about the betterment of people.” Not exactly a boy-meets-girl type of song.
Schrock says that she would still welcome the traditional trappings of making it big in music — an album on a major label, radio airplay, millions of people hearing her songs. But it’s not something she’s too worried about.
“To connect with people and have your song or your project really take off, who wouldn’t want that?” said Schrock. “But record deals are pretty elusive.”
Schrock’s five albums, including her most recent, “Indiana,” are distributed around the world. She sells pretty well in Canada and Europe, especially among “audiophiles,” people who are into expensive stereo systems and want just the right music to play on them. She credits that success with the fact that two of her albums were engineered at a Portland facility called The Studio by Steve Drown, a Grammy-nominated engineer who works with local and national acts.
But right now, Schrock’s focus is on making music that is different from what she’s done before. She’ll still use her soulful voice, her piano playing, her ear for musical innovation.
“I think the most profound thing that has happened to me musically was going to Jamaica and getting into the cross-cultural thing, getting more spiritual about the music,” Schrock said.
Schrock grew up in the coastal village of South Bristol and describes her parents as “a playwright, novelist, and herring fisherman father and schoolteacher and peace activist mother.” There was a piano in the house, and her father’s theater friends were often there to provide music and entertainment.
Her mother, Jan Schrock, remembers arranging piano lessons for Kate when she was about 9. But after a couple lessons, it was learned that Kate played by ear, and trying to learn to read music overwhelmed her.
As a young woman, Schrock’s musical influences included singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley and Rickie Lee Jones. She said for a while she “sort of mirrored” Jones’ style and attitude.
Schrock’s parents divorced when she was a teenager, and she left home for New York City when she was 16. She was working in a retail store in the suburbs, “getting yelled at by my boss,” when she decided to follow the advice of the many people who told her she should be a model.
So she went into New York City, applied at a modeling agency, and eventually started working as a fashion model for photo shoots and on runways.
“I just wanted a job where I could make more than minimum wage and not get screamed at all day,” said Schrock.
Modeling took Schrock to Paris, where she met filmmakers and musicians and started writing music herself. By her early 20s she decided to leave modeling and pursue “something more creative.” She enrolled at the University of Chicago, became the singer in a rock band, and has been pursuing music in one form or another ever since.
Schrock came back to Maine in the early 1990s and started performing in clubs around Portland, playing piano and singing her own songs. In the ’90s, she began to get national attention from various music magazines and critics. Titus Levi, in “Keyboard Magazine,” wrote that Schrock blended “rock, jazz and even a touch of gospel to create a very personalized style that brings to mind some of the great singer/pianists of the past.”
In 1996, thinking Portland’s music scene wasn’t the right place for her to gain a national audience, she moved to Chicago and based her touring from there. She began touring the country and sharing stages with people like Mick Taylor of the Rolling Stones, Stephen Stills, the Samples and the BoDeans. She then lived for several months in Los Angeles before moving back to Maine in 1998.
“When I came back, the local music scene had taken off, and that’s what has kept me in Portland,” Schrock said. Her brother, Nate Schrock, is also a Portland-based musician, and part of the band the Coming Grass.
Though traveling to Jamaica got Schrock thinking about global issues, about the daily struggles beyond traffic tie-ups and getting to work on time, her interest in helping people less fortunate than herself may be an inherited trait.
Her grandfather started the humanitarian aid group Heifer International, which provides livestock and training to farmers in Third-World countries and rural parts of the United States. Her mother works for the group and convinced Schrock to go with her to Ecuador for two weeks in the fall of 2004.
“For a while, I had been pretty myopic about my own career and my own survival, physical and artistic,” said Schrock. “Now I’m very interested in what the heck is going on in the world.”
And that interest is making its way into Schrock’s music.