Kimaya Diggs on Her New Record, Family, Catharsis in Healing, & More

By Carrie Kaufman

Breastfed, the debut album from Kimaya Diggs, is available for download via Bandcamp. In November, we spoke with the artist about lifetime of making music. This month, we talked again with Kimaya Diggs about the album recording process, writing, caring for self and family, plus some of her own favorite tracks. The vibe is thick and dreamy heart-filled songs, showcasing Diggs' vocal range and style. There are rich instrumentals and feels of jazz, folk and rock singing support poetic and tender lyrics.

This album is really beautiful. I love how it takes things from a lot of different places & influences but also feels like it’s very uniquely You.  Can you say anything about your muses for this album?

Thank you! When I first started writing for the album, I was very inspired by my husband’s writing. He’s a proficient songwriter, and his solo work was really inspiring to me, as were many other artists who prioritize narrative—Joni Mitchell, India.Arie, and Lianne LaHavas, for example.

All of those influences definitely come through. Your songs are strong and introspective. What kind of setting or space do you like for writing?

I usually write [at] home, on my bed! I’ve been journaling daily for 20 years, usually at the end of the day, so writing in bed is very comfortable and familiar to me. I like to write in private, with no one else nearby. 

You’ve been making music for your whole life. Was there anything unexpected or challenging that came up as you were making your first album?

Going into it, I knew very little about the steps that came after recording. I didn’t really know what went into mixing and mastering.  I took some missteps during the recording process. There are definitely things I would change next time, knowing what can and cannot be changed or altered in the editing process. 

You do almost everything on this album: Songwriting, singing, playing  many different instruments. Is there any part of the process that you love the most? Or anything that you particularly struggle with? 

I love singing more than anything! Getting to close my eyes, wave my arms around the way I like to when I’m alone, and just sing along with a track [that] I created was complete bliss. 

My biggest struggle was that we tracked every instrument one at a time — and since I usually accompany myself on guitar live, it was tricky for me to play guitar without singing. But it did free me up to really lean into the decadence of the vocals. 

I love that image of you singing alone. Your voice is definitely beautifully showcased.  Can you say more about the decadence and bliss of the vocals?

As a vocalist, I love to improvise. My primary goal in singing is to have a dialogue of some sort. Sometimes that means I’m in conversation with an instrumentalist, but often it just means that I’m in dialogue with the text that I’m singing. When I’m really communicating, I feel swept along almost involuntarily by the dialogue, and I finally really let loose -- I feel free to explore my whole range, to interrogate my own expectations about how the story goes, and let the natural limitations or expansions of my instrument dictate the story being told. There is no. better. feeling. in the entire world. 
Do you have a favorite song(s)? What is it about?

It changes — for a long time it was “Phobia No. 9,” because when I perform it live, it’s the one moment that I feel really connected to my audience — we wind up the tension together, and it really feels like storytelling. Since the release party, however, I’m really loving “Sweet Pea” and “Baby Isn’t Home.” I performed “Sweet Pea” with my sisters on vocals, including a part that’s not on the recording, and there’s nothing that feels as good as sister-sister-sister harmonies. My backing band for the show plays together regularly in LuxDeluxe, and they have unbelievable intuition when it comes to building a song — when we played “Baby Isn’t Home,” I was blown away by the powerful support that rose up underneath me and carried the song to the same kind of breathless release that you can hear in the recorded version. 

Do you perform with your sisters a lot?  What is that like?

I used to! My first professional work as a musician was as a workshop leader at age 11, when my sisters and I went on tour as teaching artists. We’re spread out now, but we try to sing together as often as possible. It’s a wonderful feeling. We have strong intuition with one another, often using hand gestures to negotiate parts or arrangements as we improvise our way through a song, and we have our own language to describe how songs and parts work. 

All of the string backing you use make these songs feel very rich. I am already singing along with your melodies, which are sometimes minor and also sweet. It feels like there's a lot of emotion in these songs. Does that feel true for you?

The strings were fun to do! I had envisioned having violin, viola, and cello, but I ended up playing all the string tracks on cello, which has a really plaintive sound in the higher registers. For me, music comes down to the story that’s being told, and as a writer, I think that great stories build not only to a climax, but to a pivot or hinge point, when suddenly you look back on everything you just heard from a new perspective. Emotion is definitely at the center of my music, and I envision my voice as a thread that weaves between the elements of the story before twisting them in a new direction. 

I think a lot about how my melodies interact with the narrative of the song—whether they are in tension and conflict with the narrative, or in harmony with it. I look for ways to create a melodic subtext to the narrative. 

I saw that this album was recorded in your husband’s studio with the help of his band. Was this your first time working with them and what was that experience like?

LuxDeluxe hired me and my sisters in 2013 to play strings on their record, and since then, we have sung backing vocals for them every now and then. I have known all of them for about eleven years, though, because we all went to the same high school. Having them learn my songs for the release show was a wonderful and strange experience! I have never played my own music with a full band before, and they learn, adapt, improvise, and adjust with such deftness, it was so easy for me to slip into comfort playing with them. It’s also a real godsend to have so much support in summoning the energy needed to bring a song to its peak and carry a show through its arc. 

You also said that you & your husband played all the instruments. Were there instruments/parts in particular that you personally focused on for this album?

I did most of the guitar tracks, and all but two of the backing vocals. Jacob was really instrumental (hah) in terms of bringing keyboards into the songs, and I put a lot of time and energy into writing string parts, all of which I played on cello. 

The cello is gorgeous. Can you talk a little bit more about how you ended up playing all of the string parts on cello? And how that ended up changing or not changing things? 

Thank you! I ended up playing all the parts simply because I didn’t have time to get other players in the studio, but it was an emotional challenge getting back to playing cello after a long bout of tendinitis-like issues. Being forced to explore my instrument for the first time in a while, and also playing parts that a cello usually wouldn’t, was special 

How have the shows on your tour been going? Has there been a favorite so far?

The shows leading up to the release party were fun! We did a duo show at a sweet little brewery last weekend, and this weekend I’ll be headed up to St. Lawrence college, and then playing in MA again at a show featuring all women-fronted bands! The release party has been the best-ever, though. It was very magical playing through the album and beyond, surrounded by an intergenerational crowd of friends, family, coworkers, children, elders, and strangers!

These songs are very personal and very tender.  In “Baby isn’t Home“ for example, you seem to be talking about a struggle with balance, and about self-care and this complicated idea of independence. Can you talk about your connection to some of those themes on this album?

The themes of the album really started to make themselves known through the recording process. We recorded “Breastfed” with one set of lyrics, and then after listening back to it, I sat there in the studio and rewrote the whole thing on my phone because I had suddenly realized what it was really about. The whole album circles around a moment of serious illness in my family, a moment when the role of caregiver expanded so suddenly that its boundaries became diffuse. When you don’t know who is supposed to be taking care of whom, there’s a shift in the power balance of a family, there are serious growing pains, there’s an acute, painful awareness of previously-unknown weakness, there’s posturing, crippling uncertainty, and most of the time, against all odds, you survive. This album is an ode to survival. It feels so monumental and special, but at the same time, it’s just a rite of passage everyone endures while growing towards the sun.

Sometimes you need a first draft that you completely scrap just to get to the actual thing. I love that you just rewrote the whole thing on your phone. Illness and care dynamics really can teach us a lot. Did you learn about any new ways that you can take care of people or yourself?

I have been working recently as a hospice volunteer, and stepping into the midst of a family in crisis and meeting them exactly where they were gave me a new perspective on illness, death, and the directions of dependency within a family. The biggest lesson I have learned in terms of caring for myself and others is simply to work with what you’re given--to commit to adapting to physical and mental changes, to embrace the newness of a changed person and a changed relationship, to make room for grief and discomfort, but always to evolve towards the new.

Your songs really resonate with a journey of learning and love.  Was making this album cathartic or healing in any way?

It really was cathartic, in a couple of ways. First, it was a special experience writing my thoughts on paper and building tension around them with melody. It was special watching the perspective of the stories change over time, as I gained distance. Secondly, the album was being made for almost two and a half years. The day we started recording, I was ready for it all to be done, and yet, I had to wait. Revolving around these songs for so long as they slowly grew into what they are today taught me so much about myself as a writer and as a performer. It also reinforced the idea that closure is a myth—there’s nothing that can happen that will seal an experience or trauma permanently into the past. Time passes, you grow, or you shrink, and then maybe you grow again. Thinking that finishing the album would close something seemed more and more dangerous as the album neared completion, and I’m grateful that the experience took as long as it did, because I was given enough time to point myself in the direction I needed to grow in instead of waiting for a moment where I could get back on track exactly where I thought I deserved to be.  

You mentioned that your parents are responsible for getting you hooked on performing when you were only 3. A lot of the themes in this album have to do with family and care. What is the role that your family plays in your life & music making today?

My parents have always been so supportive of me as a performer, and as a writer. They place so much value on creators, which was a gift growing up. Today, my sisters and I still sing together, and just recorded our third trio album in January, and my parents are always pushing me towards a more business-minded approach to my music, which is helpful because I’m usually just frowning over a notebook, not thinking about my website. 

What have you been listening to lately?
My friend Sen Morimoto droped a new album in May, and I have been loving his single “People Watching,” [ you can find it on spotify ] I have also been listening to Solange’s “A Seat at the Table” and this newly-released live Ella Fitzgerald recording, “Ella at Zardi’s,” which has changed my life!