If we told you you've never heard anything like Kirsten Carey, it's not just another throwaway line... but you probably haven't even seen anything like Carey, either.
An explorative guitarist and singer who performs a gnarly, skronky, exhilarating pathwork of punk, no-wave, noise-pop, and weird-metal, Carey performs as "Throwaway," a character of sorts. It's something Carey embodies in spirit, but at live shows you'll also often see an image projected behind her of an entity that appears similar to her, only it's masked by a paper bag with a nondescript expression. This is Throwaway, a punk-rock half-specter, half-alter-ego that accompanies Carey's album art, videos, and other iconography.
The expressive emotions and declarations drilled out by the lyrics aren't nearly as obfuscated as her face may be, as the songs on her new album, WHAT? tend toward the cathartic, id-minded growl-howl exertion. These are exorcising expositions delivered with theatrical emphasis, all while soberly addressing matters of anxiety, uncertainty, and depression in the subtext while empowering others in the audience to lean in to aspects of their own selves that aren't conventionally normal.
"I think it is part theater, but for me, it's mostly very cathartic," Carey says. She likens it to feeling like Dr. Jekyll offstage and Mr. Hyde onstage. "When I play, it's like this demon comes out, or something like that," she says. "It's both conscious and subconscious at the same time." But more than anything, Carey says, "It is sincere."
"The idea of having this masked character, and the name, both came to me in a single eureka moment," she recalls. "I knew I wanted to be in a 'rock band,' but I thought about how I hate promo pictures and all those awkward-looking band photos. I thought, why not embrace the awkwardness and the weird. As someone who grew up very much in the 'church of Gorillaz,' I think the idea of having a character that comes alive in pictures and in videos was appealing — because [Throwaway], as a character, doesn't actually exist. No one who listens to Throwaway is ever going to have the opportunity to meet the character, and I presently have no interest in really explaining who or exactly where this character lies, because to me, she's in 'a reality,' a parallel reality, but it's just not a tangible reality."
Carey says that Throwaway was essentially born from the confusion she encountered after graduating five years ago with a BFA in jazz (focusing on guitar, of course). She was born and raised in Chicago before coming over to Ann Arbor in 2010. And, yes, she studied jazz, even though the tunes you'll hear her shred are more in the rock category, but while she was at U-M she was taken with the avant-garde and "no-wave" stylists, like Sonny Sharrock, Nels Cline, and Bill Frisell. Carey describes Throwaway as "coming from jazz, but bringing it more into the gnarly, experimental rock, aggressive sort of territory," she says. "And I very much started to find my home in that idea: artists coming from jazz, but departing from it and bringing with them the knowledge and technical know-how into completely different stylistic spaces."
That being said, Carey said she grew up just like any guitarist of the '90s might: playing Green Day tunes and Blur songs, and the like. "And I feel like the vocals for Throwaway are very much the outcome of me listening to, and singing-along-with, Talking Heads and Primus and the Melvins," she says. And when Carey emphasized the sincerity earlier, it ties into something like her love for Talking Heads: "For me, the David Byrne-ian oblique-ness and strange statements that get at deeper questions and issues, that might sound ironic or silly, but pose actual profound questions? That's what I really adore. I feel, in that way, that Talking Heads were a kind of key to unlocking [vocals and lyrics] for me."
Carey studied composition, as well as jazz and contemplative music studies at U-M. When she graduated, she left and relocated to Los Angeles for a couple of years, where she made fast friends with musicians like Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson (of the experimental noise-hip-hop band Clipping) and producers like Lizzy Erickson (who engineered WHAT?). Notably, that friendship with Snipes would lead to him calling up Carey for an interesting gig: providing a key guitar solo for the Clipping song "Stab Him in the Throat," which was commissioned for the Adult Swim cartoon Rick & Morty.
As Throwaway, Carey released a couple of particularly frenetic, minimalist spaz-rock singles back in 2016 and followed those up with two more singles in 2018 that demonstrated her depth for dynamics and math-rock time signature switch-ups — particularly with a version of "Exotic Bird," which reappears on this week's new album. The songs you'll hear on the new one were all recorded during her time in L.A., a place she describes as "a fascinating beast." While the first batch of songs she released before this album found her sonically coming into her own, WHAT? has a next-level kind of elegant ferocity and a fully crystallized aesthetic.
The album title might mimic the typical one-word reaction to Throwaway for anyone experiencing her live shows for the first time. "These are a collection of songs I've had for a while, and I was trying to figure out the arc of the album," she says. "I knew I wanted the title to come from a lyric, specifically. It was [producer] Lizzy [Erickson] who actually just suggested, 'What about "What?"' In fact, you can hear Carey say this word, rather volubly on the mic, three seconds before the final track comes to a close.
"I feel like the common theme for the album is just about trying to navigate very existential questions," she says. "Basic questions, really ... 'What am I doing? What's my purpose? How can I make myself matter?' Does [it] matter if I matter? And dealing with depression and anxiety, both of which are issues that I've dealt with a lot and feel that it's important to talk about."
Carey says she remembers writing songs as a teenager that, by comparison, were "syrupy." But what attracts her most of all to the gnarly, distorted, and designedly atonal bends and scrapes of her guitar, as well as the throaty, growly singing style she's perfected, is that, above all else, it's sincere — it's her being as sincere to her own drive and inclinations as she possibly could. And sincere beats syrupy anyday.
As Throwaway, Carey presents this enticing dichotomy: a raw, unwieldy rock sound that's technically backed up by jazz degree bonafides. She's also been a resident artist at the Co-Incidence Festival in Boston, attended the 2018 Banff Jazz & Creative Music Workshop, and will be in Japan for a tour later this year and has plans for a three-month stint of study (also in Japan) in 2020. So expect an even wider perspective and further nuance to be channeled into this inspiringly weird, guitar-centric rock project known as Throwaway. You can experience it live tomorrow night at El Club.
Throwaway album release Show with SLOB, Noveliss, and Siamese is at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 11 at El Club, 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; 313-279-7382; therealthrowaway.com. Tickets are $10.
Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.