~ Talking rats, NYC and the cathartic nature of creativity with Karlie Efinger ~
words by trevor elkin
Karlie Efinger, aka ‘Ratbath’, makes music that speaks to your soul. Quite how she does this is part of the enigma. Asking ‘how?’ is a bit like watching David Blaine’s hands intently during a card trick – it misses the point. Each song is a vignette, or a snapshot of a dark moment in time that is so personal, honest and ultimately captivating. I’m listening now while writing this and I’m having to stop to look away from the screen. Not paying attention to that vulnerability and sadness seems rude, or insensitive somehow.
Having encountered Ratbath completely by chance last year in the almost infinite nebula of Bandcamp, I was keen to track down and learn more about the person responsible for these mysteriously simple yet beautifully crafted recordings. When she agreed to do an interview, she insisted that it was her honour to have another piece written, which you might think tells you all you need to know about this genuinely lovely human being, but I assure you that there is much, much more – so read on.
Hey Karlie! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. When we found your music on Bandcamp last year, you were something of a mystery – and still are! We did a bit of research and while there wasn’t much about you as a musician, there were other things around the creative arts, photography and film… so, how did the Ratbath project come about?
Well, I’m naturally drawn to anything that allows me to translate creative energy, but music gives me a completely different kind of expression. It’s like a secret way to sort through dark energy. I know film and painting can do the same, but I mostly find myself doing that work for the reaction of clients and professors. Music is basically the only art I didn’t study in school, so it hasn’t demanded as much productivity and publicity. It’s my most hidden work and in turn, my favorite. It totally allows me to escape from the restless world, to a place of restoration. It’s the one form of art that has served only my well-being and I could make privately. I guess that’s how songwriting/ratbath started, from a need to create but also do so freely.
Is there anything significant about the name?
It never had a real name before Tyson Ballew wanted to put it on his label. For Soundcloud, I lightly called it “dupes the gaping crow” (a line from one of Aesop’s fables), but my songs on Tumblr were uncredited. I really just named the project for Tummy Rock. I’ve always identified with rats, maybe in how they’re misunderstood and don’t fit into society. Their essence is just raw and real, which are qualities I appreciate but unfortunately don’t see much in life. I’ve found the word “rat” itself oddly lacing through my life, in slang, usernames, and other projects. The “bath” suffix could have been a subconscious connection to writing music as a cleansing technique, but I just thought it had a nice flow at the time.
So what’s the story there, how did the Tyson Ballew & Tummy Rock thing come about?
He was involved in my music scene back in Missoula and followed me on Tumblr, where I’d post my super rough recordings. He was usually the only one that reblogged my songs and supported my music, other than my sibling Ry. Tyson eventually asked to put out some of the recordings on his label in Bellingham, Washington. I was stoked and flattered, but far from confident in my music’s place in the world. I totally struggled to put together something he could actually use. I was (and still am) terrified to spill that secret part of me. By the way, those tapes will finally be released on Heavy Black Curtain’s anniversary, January 31st!
Yes, each song on ‘heavy black curtain’ feels very personal – bare and direct. Were you surprised at the reaction you had?
That people actually like my songs? It still surprises me. At the time, it may have surprised my community even more. I always worked so privately and felt too uncomfortable sharing anything. People would come compliment my piano album and I’d brush it off and just say like, “oh those were just silly iPhone recordings”. I was never trying to do anything great, just find an outlet to process the nonsense of the world. Even my parents were like, “wow, I didn’t know you could sing like that.” It’s weird – I may dismiss praise because it doesn’t feel like external, tangible work to me; it’s all so abstract and internal. I still can’t quite root my music in reality.
What was your process in creating your most recent album ‘dead skin cells’ – was it different?
So different, because I was very different. Last summer, I moved to New York for an internship and all I had was my ukulele. I constantly struggled to adjust to the city, and the best strategy I found was writing songs on my rooftop in Harlem. I wrote heavy black curtain on the piano in my home in Missoula, Montana. That album processes a lot of dark experiences, which I felt like I’d escaped by the time I was writing dead skin cells in New York. So, dead skin cells is a lot lighter than heavy black curtain; it’s still about dark things, but physically removed from their dark context. All I could see from across the country were the people I loved continuing to deal with that gloom, and I really craved comfort and familiarity, so I wrote about them. I hadn’t even planned on making dead skin cells, but my friend Becca wrote me this poem that made me stop and think about how New York was changing me and my relationships with my Montana people. Posting this EP was sort of my attempt to detach and move on.
….and now that’s being released on tape too, via Fox Food Records – are you excited?
Completely. I wouldn’t have given much afterthought to this EP if not for James. I always wonder if it was just a fortunate universal alignment that made him (and you) discover my music–maybe similar to the one that made me check my old email account to find James’s first message saying he’d “fallen in love” with dead skin cells. I was so impressed with Fox Food; it’s such a beautiful and thoughtful label. James is an incredible human and it feels especially cool to be coming from the UK, for a change. I was like two months late getting back to him, but we’ve been steadily working on this release since then. I’m at a really rare point where there’s slightly more pride than fear in sharing my work. I even made some little universe zines that are being sent out with each tape!
Who’s that on the cover?
It’s my little sibling Ry, me, and our mom on our old porch in Montana. Ugh, I miss all of it so much. This happened to be a photo I grabbed from Ry’s room before moving to New York. I actually stitched the phrase from Becca’s poem into it before I realized how fitting it’d be for the cover.
You recently filmed ‘Wishing Well’ for the Haiti Hope Alive! programme, where your Mom is a medical volunteer. She’s a very inspiring person, has this had an impact on you?
Definitely. Just going on those trips with her has totally broadened my scope of humanity and the love that people deserve. Her compassion is such an anomaly; it’s completely shaped the way I view and treat others. I think that if it wouldn’t have rubbed off on me, I wouldn’t be writing so many songs about other people’s pain.
How did you get into music?
My dad played guitar, my grandma played piano, and they had me take something like seven years of piano lessons. I’ve taught myself lots of other instruments, but there’s a beautiful freedom and feeling I can draw from the piano that I can’t from strings. I was really into writing poems as a kid, and they started singing to me when I was like fifteen. Then, I’d figure out how to play them on an instrument. Music and poetry kind of became my thermometer when I didn’t know what was wrong but there was all this unsettled energy. Things that are too stressful never feel quite real to me, but I found that music makes them real.
When you create now, which comes first – music or words?
I used to just work around poetry in the past, but in New York, melodic phrases tend to hit me at random times. I’ll sing a song as I walk somewhere and record it on my phone one line at a time, or just type out verses on the train and give them music later. I often get so absorbed in writing that I miss my stop. This on-the-go, scattered kind of writing has really become a mechanism to stay in my thoughts and not drown in the city. So, each song has their own upbringing, and that’s really dependent upon how and where I’ve made them.
Where do you like to record?
Anywhere, everywhere, wherever the idea grows. My phone is jam-packed with recordings of super rough song conceptions that I worry I’ll forget. They all have different ambient sounds–sometimes train conductors, sometimes museum chatter, sometimes wind on my roof. The files I end up using aren’t really any more sophisticated than their earlier sketches. I literally just prop my phone on my knee or piano and click record. I wrote most dead skin cells songs on my rooftop in Harlem this summer, but recorded their final versions in my kitchen one night when I had the apartment to myself.
Is there a relationship between your art and the music you create?
I really haven’t considered that. Each medium seems to serve as a different outlet for different thoughts. When drawing, I explore a lot of abstract universal theories–so that’s like an analytical science, almost. With film ideas, I tend to explore loose connections between imagery and derailed thoughts that strike my mind. Music is the most personal form to me because I think it’s fueled by feelings and memories. I guess the connection is generally just darkness–that’s where I draw inspiration.