When Rachel Kate packed up her things and headed back to her hometown of Nashville in 2014, it felt as if Charleston's music scene was losing one of its shining lights. A powerful singer with a bohemian sensibility and an infectious stage presence, Kate and her 2013 LP Rachel Kate with Love and Hate had all the tell-tale signs of a musician poised to reach the next level. Ostensibly an indie-folk record that recalled everything from the gloomy alt-country of 16 Horsepower to the idiosyncratic chamber ballads of Kate Bush, the singer-songwriter also benefited from inaccurate but not unsurprising comparisons to the rapidly rising Shovels & Rope's Cary Ann Hearst. Both had knock-you-down voices and beguiling phrasing that felt entirely their own, and the fact that Kate occasionally approximated Hearst's twang was enough to see resemblance if you cocked your head just so.
In truth, Kate was always a little harder to pin down, and she's still very much on her own path.
"The reaction that I get a lot of times in Nashville is funny — it's like 'we love your music but what you are?'," she says bemusedly. "It's because of the presence of Americana and country and pop country here, and I'm just a little different. In Charleston it's, 'Whatever, cool, let's do this!'"
It's clear that Kate still has a serious fondness for the Holy City. "I miss Charleston all the time and always will," she asserts with evident sincerity — but she's also taken some energy and inspiration from the Nashville scene, particularly over the last year after slowing down her touring pace.
"I basically moved all my shit back here and then hit the road for two years," she says of the move. "My stuff lived here but I was on this cycle. People were asking me, 'How's Nashville,' and I honestly didn't have any idea. I hadn't really been there."
Lately, though, she's been taking in the classic country vibes that are still quite prevalent in the city.
"There's such a strong presence of classic country, and especially a huge resurgence among young people, in classic '50s country," she explains. "It's been cool seeing that come in, seeing young people two-stepping and such. That's been interesting to see as it influences the newer stuff I've been writing."
Ever following her own muse, though, Kate hasn't really gone down the same route. Instead, she's followed a more electric, electronic route with her new songs, despite performing them in her more familiar acoustic guise in recent shows.
"I feel like I've been challenging it and attempting to write [something different]," she explains haltingly. "I'm not really sure what it is. I've been experimenting a little more with the electronic side of things, which I really wasn't before. I would go straight for my guitar because that's what I know, but kind of taking that into new experimental levels is fun."
Kate returns for this show at the Royal American to celebrate her 30th birthday, something she casually mentions at the end of our conversation, but she seems remarkably at peace with the current state of things. She is still working on making music her full-time career. "I'm not trying to get rich — I'm trying to make a living. I think Patsy Cline said that," she says with a laugh. But she's also found a niche in Nashville doing funky alterations and selling patched-up, arty denim jackets.
"I've always loved to sew and alter my own clothing. I love getting dressed — it's so fun. It's like a walking sculpture, another way to express yourself," she explains of her recent fashion efforts. "I'll get jean jackets and sew fringe on to them, gold chains, stuff like that. Occasionally I'll pop up selling them around Nashville. That's been fun. I've been calling it 'avant-garde alterations.' That just kind of comes as it comes, but it's a nice extra side-hustle."
While Kate's next, somewhat mysterious full-length is still a work-in-process, it should surprise no one who has loved her for years in Charleston that she's still very much finding her own way.
You can also find Rachel Kate selling her sartorial creations in Charleston this weekend alongside Nashville chain-stitcher Ranger Stitch during the Holy City Vintage Market at Park Cafe on Sun. June 4 from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Folks are encouraged to stop by with garments, like denim, that could use a little flair.