THERE IS AN air of great certainty about Kairos. It is, without question, the finest achievement from the artistic entity known as White Hinterland—Casey Dienel at the helm, with Shawn Creeden assisting along the way. Few predictions come easier than acknowledging that Kairos is the sort of recording destined to nestle atop countless yearend critical listicles, par for the course considering Dienel's upward career arch. Even that, though, is ultimately not enough to do such a fine recording justice.
In the narcissistic haze of promoting one's recording, it's commonplace to draw firm lines in the sand, make bold declarations that differentiate your current album from previous endeavors; it's always newer, better, and ultimately very different. No one truly intends to make the same recording twice, although the finished product rarely varies as much on tape as it does in a musician's mind. A startling exception to this longstanding pattern is White Hinterland.
Dienel may as well entirely scrap monikers with each new album. When you consider the immense range demonstrated by her most recent pair of recordings—the Gallophile flair of her Luniculaire EP, and the otherworldly ambition of Kairos—Dienel's musical immersion is as intense as it is fleeting. Scorching the earth along the way, you will never find a pair of White Hinterland recordings that overlap or find a commonality anywhere but in Dienel's voice—the one constant fixture—but even the language varies, as in the lingering torch songs of Luniculaire sung entirely in French.
"I never think it's going to be different, I'm as surprised as anyone else," Dienel explains betweens bites of breakfast on the morning she departs for yet another tour. "It would pain me to leave good ideas just because they don't sound like what I sound like. I don't think style is a genre. Your style has nothing to do with what genre you play in. I have a consistent style and an inconsistent genre. I think it works.
"I need to be engaged and I need to be having fun," she continues. "Honestly, I know it's not the most professional explanation, but fun is so important. Considering the state of the music business in 2010, you have to do it for fun because there's not much else that [you'll] be compensated for. You can't do it because you want to be rich."
Harnessing a level of creativity that resonates with massive tectonic shifts, Dienel might have her feet rooted in indie rock, but her heart thumps with the bounce of hiphop and R&B. Just as much a foodie as a musician, her fittingly titled Fresh from the Garden tour CD found Dienel's swooning voice dismantling Top 40 jam "My Love" to a point that would make Justin Timberlake weak in the knees. "I would first clarify that I am not an R&B singer. I am my own kind of singer; I don't know what it is that I do," explains Dienel. "There's a virtuosity to R&B singing, but in indie rock, virtuosity of the voice is not necessary."
It's an odd combination, the French-speaking musician nursed by indie culture, labelmate to psych-popists Nurses, delving into the Billboard pop charts without a single trace of irony or pandering. Yet if anything, this home (albeit a temporary one) might be the closest you'll get to accurately pinning down White Hinterland, who fall into that uncharted pop music middle ground alongside previous visionaries like Kate Bush and Dienel's peers Dirty Projectors (Kairos' "Cataract" is a natural extension to Bitte Orca's unlikely hit, and the unanimous summer jam of 2009, "Stillness Is the Move").
Submerged in synths, Kairos' opening track "Icarus" ushers in Dienel's latest musical shift, a pristine pop song whose looped vocals pine for the bounce of '90s R&B, yet never attempt to be something they are not. The album is filled with similar musical risks, a fact Dienel is well aware of:
"Being afraid doesn't mean you can't make a fearless choice," she explains. "For me, I was really afraid to sing the way that I'm singing on the record. I'm not hiding behind anything. Everything's just kind of hanging out there, and that's pretty scary. But if it is the best idea, there's no question in my mind what has to happen."
A New England native, Dienel first came to Portland five years back, staying just a few weeks. Later she split her time between the two locales synonymous with modern-day creative culture—Brooklyn and Portland. Our city eventually won out in the end. When not restlessly changing musical direction with an enviable level of creative flair, Dienel more or less lived in her van—sometimes as touring musician White Hinterland, and sometimes as Casey Dienel, unemployed musician. Currently in a better place (one without wheels), Dienel is still no stranger to balancing art and commerce:
"I've always thought of myself as at least wanting to be a working musician. I don't know when work became such a dirty word for musicians... like it's considered ambitious to want to pay your rent from it." One gets the feeling that once Kairos is available to the masses, that won't be a problem for Dienel.