Interview with Musician, Artist, and Polymath Kimaya Diggs

By Deborah Krieger

When it comes to music and performance, Kimaya Diggs does it all—composing songs, playing guitar and piano and cello, crafting poetry, directing choirs, writing plays, singing songs in twenty-seven languages—and now she can add recording her debut album, Breastfed, to that hefty list. I first met Kimaya Diggs as a student at Swarthmore, where she graduated one year before I did; our first-ever conversation took place stuffed into the balcony of the college’s concert hall, with me recording and scribbling furiously as Kimaya discussed her approach to playing the iconic Bloody Mary in an upcoming concert staging of South Pacific. Needless to say, her thoughtful and nuanced understanding of the role came through on stage, capped off with her rich, warm vocals, making clear her natural affinity for performing and sharing her heart and soul with an audience. After graduating, Kimaya traveled the world with the Northern Harmony performance group. She has since settled down in Western Massachusetts, where she’s busy composing, performing, and teaching high-school students songs from a variety of global musical traditions, as well as placing the finishing touches on her record.

 Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

How did you get started on your path to becoming a musician? Why music, as opposed to another art form?

I was lucky enough to grow up singing, and playing piano and cello, but I also loved performing in any way! Singing came very naturally to me, and because I have two younger sisters, we sang together all the time. To me, singing with someone is the best way to get to know them and maintain closeness with them, and it feels like a universally appealing storytelling medium. I also love singing because creating a sound with your voice feels like a form of intimacy with oneself. Second to singing, I love playing cello, because resting it on your chest is the next-best way to experience resonance. There’s something really special about being able to experience the movement of sound physically, firsthand or secondhand. 

What musicians, mentors, or teachers have influenced you? 

I’m lucky enough to have studied with Benita Valente for a summer, and learning from her was completely life-changing. Even at eighty-three years old, her voice has so much strength, and her technique is unmatched. Studying with her made me take my technique much more seriously, which set me up well for my second tour with Northern Harmony, the professional ensemble I traveled with performing and teaching international folk music. Switching gears among South African, Balkan, and Georgian music, to name a few, requires immense vocal stamina, and having classical technique to protect my voice was a huge help. I credit that technique to Benita and to another teacher of mine, Sally Wolf. 

Other musicians who inspire me daily are Corinne Bailey Rae, Lianne LaHavas, India.Arie, Esperanza Spalding, Janelle Monae, Solange, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and more recently, Carmen McRae. 

Can you take me through the process of creating a song? Do you write music first, or lyrics? What subjects inspire you? 

I’m not super versatile on guitar, so I tend to mess around with some chords and then start mumbling a melody on top. And then when my voice wants to go somewhere my guitar won’t go easily, I stop and struggle out the chord I want note by note. Lyrics usually come next, but finding the topic feels really passive to me. I just sing the melody until suddenly a word  or two falls out; I try to let the melody direct that moment. I write poetry and prose a lot, so it’s always a little strange struggling so much with chord structure and then being able to write ten verses, but I try to live by a “quantity over quality” rule, because in the process of paring down ten verses into two or three, the quantity usually distills down to quality(ish). Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about family dynamics, and also working through my most depressive period in years, so those subjects come up a lot in my writing. 

What is your ultimate ambition or goal as a musician? For example, do you want to sing at Carnegie Hall?

So many goals! I’m really excited to release my album—that’s been a longtime goal that I didn’t think I’d see realized so soon. I also really want to sing for a Cirque de Soleil show. Their shows use original music that draws from so many cultures, and with my love of international folk music traditions and my classical training, I feel like it would be an incredible challenge and a really amazing experience. Someone call them, and tell them to call me. 

 Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Can you talk about the development of Little Town in the Hills

I wrote the libretto for this children’s opera a while back. It had been written for Guerilla Opera in Boston, but production has stalled for a bit at the moment. The story is based on Chelm stories from the Jewish folklore canon, and is a story about two children born into a town in which all the adults are foolish! One morning, the kids wake up to find that all the adults have vanished, and they go on a quest to find them, encountering scary animals and solving riddles along the way. 

Was it daunting to try and compose music for Scarlet Letters—to turn a classic novel into a musical? How did you approach the project with regards to honoring the original work while still making it your own? 

I would characterize Scarlet Letters more as a “play with songs” than a musical. My writing partner, Patrick Ross, and I have been writing together for almost four years now, so our collaborative process works very smoothly. I don’t know much about writing plays, and he doesn’t know much about writing music, which has led to a process that allows for a lot of growth, because feedback we give each other is never based on aesthetic disagreements, but is focused on moving towards cohesion and trusting the other person to have the same goal.

We wanted to write a story that explored the ways in which shame and sexuality manifest as cultural concepts, both in the nineteenth century and now, which is why I used texts by Isaac Watts in an attempt to mirror the tone of condemnation and searching that the novel held while placing it in a contemporary context. Additionally, I created six loops in D minor, all inspired by different baroque guitar and recorder pieces, marrying older music and tonality with technology, as the entire play is underscored by these loops, which blend in and out in sync with the whole script. 

As the election cycle turned from entertaining train wreck into a legitimate horror show, what was it like chronicling all of that with Hillary the First?

At first, writing a farewell song for every candidate was hilarious—especially because with the sheer number of Republican candidates, I often had to say goodbye to more than one candidate in a single song! It was also a treat to write new music to pair with Patrick’s Shakespeare-style recaps of the week’s election events. But as things went downhill, we were constantly preparing for any possibility—so I would write more than one farewell song just in case. I was deeply reluctant to write Hillary’s farewell song, and in fact, the version that we ended up using is a recording of me improvising at the last minute with an abridged excerpt of T.S. Eliot’s East Coker, the poem she quoted in her speech at Wellesley—I think I recorded it half an hour before Patrick needed to post it online. To me, that song is less for Hillary herself and more a portrait of the strange, surreal bleakness of the morning after the election. (My favorite songs from Hillary the First are here). 

How did your album Breastfed come together? Why this title? What’s it like recording a whole album? 

I had always assumed that recording would be expensive—and it is!—but my husband’s band recorded two albums in their practice space, and I was lucky enough to use their setup to record (thank you, LuxDeluxe!). It started as a bunch of acoustic songs with guitar and voice and lots of cello tracks, but expanded to include some of the things they had in their space—a Wurlitzer, this old, raunchy-sounding piano, etc. For me, it was like being immersed in a magical world of infinite possibility, and it was really overwhelming and exciting. 

I did discover that I suck at playing guitar when I’m not singing, which I had to do for recording, and also that I get pretty anxious and critical while recording my voice, and that my sense of rhythm vanishes into a black hole once there’s a mic near me. Jacob (my husband) was really good at stopping me when I wanted to do a sixteenth take of a vocal, and came up with several parts that supported my guitar parts really beautifully. 

Most of the songs were written during an extended period of serious family illness. During this time, I developed an extreme irrational fear of contracting a serious illness, which manifested in intense scrutiny of my body, unhealthy eating habits, and an obsession with plastic surgery before-and-after photos, which I would look at for hours every day. Through it all, the strange shifts in caregiver/caretaker roles were changing my family dynamics, which was jarring, and I kept returning to this image of being near my mother’s heart, breastfeeding, and the jealousy I felt when my sister was born and needed that nurturing more. To me, the growing pains of shifting family needs really captured the essence of my health anxieties, which led to the title Breastfed.

 Photo by Jo Chapman.

Photo by Jo Chapman.

Can you talk about your teaching work? What are the twenty-seven languages you sing in? 

Right now, I direct middle school and high school choirs, and I do a lot of foreign-language music with them, because I feel like one of the best ways to learn about another culture is to sing its music! I’m lucky enough to have had many years of study under teachers from the countries whose music I teach most frequently, and I’m always trying to tie in current cultural information and keep the music living and respected—a pet peeve of mine was being in chorus when I was younger and having South African choral music or a Bulgarian song be “the fun song” and be treated really topically, as if the only thing it had to offer was syncopation. Additionally, I work really hard to keep up to date with the evolution of a song, instead of presenting it as a historical artifact. 

My teaching philosophy revolves around singing as curative and connective—hat there’s nothing like resonating with someone else to help you understand them and gain a type of intimacy that has nothing to do with romance or sex. I think that learning to develop intimacy in this way is really important to school-age children who often struggle to connect with one another amid the maelstrom of hormonal weirdness.

Some of the languages I’ve sung in are Sotho, Xhosa, Corsican, Bulgarian, Finnish, Wolof, Ladino, Spanish, French, Italian...the list goes on. I like to seek out songs in languages I haven’t sung in before because I love learning how to fit new sounds into my voice!

Is your poetry related to how you write lyrics for your music, or is it a totally different process or mindset?

I’m very craft-oriented when it comes to poetry, but as a newer songwriter producing a song still feels like magic to me. Somewhere in my mysterious brain I’m probably slowly connecting the dots between poetry and songwriting, but I haven’t been let in on it yet. 

Many of your bigger projects are collaborations. Is that how you typically like to work? If so, why?

I frickin’ love collaborating! Anyone who makes anything can probably identify with the terrible spiral of self-correction that can happen when you work alone. Finding your dream collaborator is extremely tricky, but once it happens, being able to be vulnerable really opens me up to going in so many directions I’m too afraid to go on my own. It’s really hard to have an accurate self-perception, so having another mind and pair of ears and eyes is an incredible gift, whether they’re yay-ing or nay-ing ideas. I am unbelievably lucky to have collaborated with Patrick Ross on so many projects, and also with my husband Jacob Rosazza, who recorded my album and pushed me out of my self-critical comfort zone into creating something I absolutely would not have been able to even conceptualize on my own. 

What musicians are you listening to these days? Who has you excited? 

I’m hopelessly addicted to Lianne LaHavas, but it’s a very love-hate relationship, because her guitar playing her voice are amazing, but every time I sit down to write a song I find myself playing one of her songs instead. Lianne! Please leave me alone! I’m also inspired in so many ways by Solange. Her approach to musical experiences as immersive aesthetic and political moments is really incredible, and unlike anything else I’ve seen lately. 

What has been the biggest challenge as you develop your career as professional musician? Have you found support in this endeavor, or has there been pushback? 

One of the biggest challenges has been trying to figure out if I should focus my performance a little more or not—currently I perform my singer-songwriter stuff solo and as a duo, but I also sing jazz and classical music regularly, and I’m always wondering what I could accomplish if I just stuck to one thing. It’s also challenging having an income that can increase or decrease by more than fifty percent each month depending on how many shows I have and the fact that I teach freelance at four places and bartend on weekend nights. My precious, highly-educated parents, bless them, have been fantastically supportive, and have only mentioned that I should consider graduate school once or twice, because they know they got me into this situation by encouraging vain little three-year-old me to sing for their friends at dinner parties. They created this monster!