NATASHA KMETO Bringing R&B—and a whole lot of other stuff—to Portland.
Carly Birkey

NATASHA KMETO was ready to quit music. In 2008, the Los Angeles-via-Sacramento musician found herself in Portland following a stint at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. After being submerged in the commerce-before-art reality of musician session work, Kmeto contemplated walking away for good.

"I was just really burned out and I felt like I needed to find the love again," she explains. "That's part of why I love Portland so much. I was really able to become a fan of music again instead of analyzing everything. I just set up in my basement and started making music that I wanted to hear, and from that came this project. I'd always been into electronic and hiphop music, but I never really made it for some reason."

If you think you've heard this story before—bitter musician relocates from California to Portland, becomes smitten with the city, rekindles their love for music in their basement—it's because you have. Countless times. Probably in this very paper. Yet amid this city's seemingly never-ending crop of ambitious musicians—these bearded indie immigrants with songbooks full of repurposed Malkmus lyrics and a newfound love for their adopted home—Kmeto stands alone.

After a series of limited-run releases, Expressor is the first complete offering from Kmeto. It's a recording that obnubilates the traditional structure of what we all know as R&B, and instead reinterprets the genre as a foundation for pulsating beats and a blurry haze of electronics that coat every inch of the album. It's the pristine groove of Aaliyah buried beneath the clattering static of Dntel, an inventive method of warmly tarnishing a genre of music that the FM airwaves have turned into a glistening, soulless exercise in studio precession and vacant-eyed pop starlets.

"I grew up on Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the Supremes. Sacramento's a really ethnically diverse city, so I grew up in a neighborhood that really had a high precedence on R&B and hiphop," says Kmeto. As for transferring that diverse range to her new home of Portland, "I get a lot of people who say, 'Wow, no one sings R&B here,' and that's kind of sad."

Kmeto conceived every moment of Expressor, from the words to the beats, and the results are less a musical intersection and more a head-on collision of the pomp and pageantry of dimmed-lights R&B crooning and the cacophonous hiss of well-structured IDM. The seemingly straightforward "Mrs. Knowitall" is pushed and pulled by a warped beat that falls in and out of tempo, yet the song remains tied to Kmeto's dominating voice ("I can't help but sing this way," says Kmeto, apologizing for a voice most singers and American Idol contestants would likely kill for). There's an unconventional theme to Expressor. A seemingly predictable R&B number, such as the love struck "Want You Too" or the slinking "Cynical Integrity," veers sharply in any which direction. The latter is buoyed by a melodic backdrop of looped "la la la" vocals—possibly the most traditional moment on an album that takes pleasure in sounding anything but—and the former is stripped barren: a wondrous moment of sparse beats, cooing vocals, chirping electronics, and eventually, a swelling chorus that forces all the elements together.

"I knew that I wanted to make music that was representative of everything that I like. I love IDM, I love hiphop, I love R&B, I love pop," says Kmeto about her goal to fuse these influences together. "Not that I don't like straight-up genre music, because I do, but I just knew that I wanted to make something really unique."