FEATURES Kalia Vandever Says Yes to Going Solo (and Effects Pedals) By Vanessa Ague · April 10, 2023

“There’s a certain register on [the trombone] that resembles the human voice,” says Kalia Vandever over a latte at Brooklyn’s Yafa Cafe. “I generally like playing in that register because it feels like I’m singing.” On We Fell In Turn, the Brooklyn-based trombonist and composer’s debut solo album, she puts this idea to the test, crafting 10 vulnerable tracks that come right from her heart, as if she’s singing through her instrument.

It’s no surprise that the trombone feels so natural to Vandever: She picked it up at age eight, studied it throughout her childhood in Los Angeles, and eventually moved to New York to train in jazz at Juilliard. She proved her prowess as a bandleader on her first two ensemble records, 2019’s In Bloom and 2022’s Regrowth, which featured compositions written for her jazz quartet, but she appears in a variety of contexts, including as a side musician for pop artists like Lizzo, Japanese Breakfast, and Moses Sumney. Her motto is to take on any challenge as it comes her way—to say yes and think about it later.

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We Fell In Turn marks another new endeavor for Vandever. Her past albums were composed for and performed by her quartet, but now, it’s her voice and life that take center stage. Though Vandever grew up in Los Angeles, her grandfather was from the Philippines and later immigrated to Hawaii, where her grandmother was raised. From the very first time Vandever met her Hawaiian family around age nine, they welcomed her with open arms; their warmth continues to inspire her and her music. “The way that they embrace new people is something that I have tried to take with me in life,” she says.

Much of We Fell In Turn branches out from the memories and dreams she has of her grandfather, who passed away in 2019. She says she often finds herself dreaming of the feeling of his hug, remembering it so vividly that it feels real. Making We Fell in Turn allowed her to access him again. Like an aumākua, which is a Hawaiian ancestral spirit guide that manifests in different forms throughout life, memories of her grandfather guided her during the process, helping her improvisations through their delicate motions.

Vandever spent the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns streaming solo concerts from her apartment. Curious about what it’d be like to play trombone with pedals, she talked with a few of her gearhead friends, one of whom purchased her a modest four-pedal setup that she uses to this day (she’s added one more to her roster since then, but she’s committed to keeping it simple), and started making solo music for the first time. Tinkering with the pedals gave her the ability to play with looping and delay, layer her melodies, and find new textures and timbres, and imparted her trombone with a gauzy, gossamer quality.

She hadn’t intended to make an LP of this music, but in 2022, AKP Recordings reached out after hearing it on a livestream, asking if she wanted to record it. Following her instinct, she decided to go for it, and enlisted longtime friend Lee Meadvin to produce and record (he also produced and mastered her previous records). Most of the music was developed in the studio, with Vandever improvising on different prompts.

One such prompt—to think about childhood memories—encouraged her to go deep into memories of loss and grief. At the end of middle school, her parents separated, which was something she had to sit with for a while to process. She’s not sure how she processed the grief as a child, and though it was a difficult time, it also allowed her to grow closer to her sister and father. “Temper the Wound” looks back at this time, letting gently sliding trombone melodies collide into each other over a wispy bed of sound, moving from dissonance into resolution. “It’s how you decide to move through that pain,” Vandever says, and her music reflects that gradual discovery.

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On the album, Vandever layers her sweet trombone melodies and fills them with a healthy dose of feather-edged fuzz. Here, her music is dreamy and free, her trombone lines float untethered like pink clouds drifting through the sky at sunrise. Vandever’s music accesses the feeling of being half-awake, fluttering your eyes open to see the sun streaming onto your bed, hearing the quiet of morning before everyone else has gotten up. Tracks like “Imagine Being Told” feature her trombone, bare, humming out a horn call that feels almost like a human voice; others, like “Center,” take on a dronier approach, made of slow-moving tones and hazy plumes.

“I think of the solo set as accessing different zones, whether it be a harmonic zone, or a sonic landscape,” she says. “If that space feels really good, then I can live there for a little while and feel settled.”

Vandever is taking We Fell in Turn on the road this spring. She’s currently planning out how she might go about these performances, leaving room for the spontaneous while staying connected to her songs and ideas—and true to her voice. She likes to stick to her intuition and her experiences, letting them show her the way. “In those moments where you are able to access those most honest parts of yourself,” Vandever says, “that’s where you’ll feel most happy.”

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