Interview: Folk Songwriter & Performance Artist Kamara Thomas Talks Upcoming Album ‘Tularosa’

Taking creativity and passion to the next level, multi-faceted artist Kamara Thomas incorporates vivid storytelling and dark history with her debut album, Tularosa: An American Dreamtime, which hits the market this Friday, May 13th.

The 11-song opus is Thomas’ depiction of select voices of indigenous people throughout history; those whose voices haven’t been heard quite as loudly. 

Incorporating her love of music, film, photography, and theater into the project, Thomas carefully crafts a story depicting the region of Tularosa, New Mexico, developed from 20 years worth of research by the artist. The land, which was fought over by Apaches, Comanches, Mexican farmers, Texas ranchers, and railroad capitalists, (and is now a U.S. government missile range), has a rich history, much of which is untold, which is the mission of Thomas’ poignant project.

Thomas – in addition to releasing the album – will lead a residency this summer at the Santa Fe Arts Institute with the Band of Toughs theater company to further expand upon her work.

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We got to learn much more about Thomas, her deeply involved project, and much more. 

So you seem to be steeped in the arts in various forms, not just simply a singer-songwriter. Can you talk about who or what inspires your artistic and creative drive as a whole?

I’m a mythology and storytelling fanatic– and pretty much everything I do artistically connects to that in some way. I was that 3rd grader who was always writing my reports on some Greek mythological figure. I’m obsessed with storytelling– understanding why we create stories and need our stories told. I’m interested in all the different ways and all the different spaces in which a story can be told. 

I also study astrology and Tarot (going on twenty years now) because these are mythological systems that depend on stories– the sky is populated with planets and stars named after mythic figures from around the world. I live a mythological life, which means that I usually correlate a myth to whatever I’m experiencing. I find it deeply satisfying and strengthening, especially during the more difficult stuff of life. Myths help me live life on Life’s terms.  

I think I became a songwriter because songs are one of the first ways humans were able to share wisdom, myth and oral histories–  the African griots, and the Druid bards and troubadours of Europe used songs to carry their communities’ stories across time and space. A song is a brilliantly concise form for imparting every kind of story, from the simple to the immense. And for me it’s “the more stories the better!”  

I studied theater in college, and was most attracted to Greek theater because of its connection to myth-telling and its dependence on civic, community interaction. That interest spurred me into using a lot of masks and symbol-making in my multidisciplinary storytelling work. I find that symbols are a more visceral communication– they speak directly to the right brain and trip up the left brain, which can easily get hung up on words and descend into logic. I’m always seeking a spiritual dimension, and that’s the right brain’s domain.

Perhaps because of my experiences in theater, I also have a drive for collaborating intensely with others outside of music. Songwriting is a solitary pursuit, and I like it that way, but I can sometimes tip too much into self-absorption and navel gazing. I need the creative friction that comes from collaboration and connection and bouncing ideas around with other artists. The top priority is to keep inspiration flowing and to follow wherever it leads, especially outside my comfort zone.

This society programs artists to stay in our lanes and “excel” and “succeed” just like everybody else in the rat race, which kills art and undermines artists. I think it’s important to keep trying out new mediums– it keeps me humbled to the Muses. Good ideas are the most important thing, and I’ve found they usually translate regardless of expertise. I’d rather see a great idea poorly executed than a shitty, empty idea with “expert” production quality. I’ve never felt more creatively vibrant than when I tried to make a film with absolutely no idea of how to do it. Everything feeds into everything else.  

Where did you grow up, and what was your introduction to making music and getting involved in the arts?

I was born and raised in Chicago, mostly in a pretty sheltered Seventh-Day Adventist religious bubble. Music was always in my life, I was singing in the choir, playing in the concert band, etc., but the idea of being an artist was not really an option in that world. I knew I wanted to be an artist, but had no clue how I might move toward that. Then I got into a non-religious college far away from home (College of William and Mary, in Virginia), and once I was on my own, I was able to start deprogramming from the patriarchal suppression of that upbringing, and allowed myself to pursue my creative dreams, starting with theater.

I moved to LA after college to try out acting, but ended up writing songs instead. Then I figured I should move to New York to cut my teeth because at the time I didn’t know how to drive, and couldn’t afford a car and couldn’t get around anywhere in LA. I packed up everything I had in three suitcases and moved to NYC on a train, my favorite way to travel. Going through the Rocky Mountains on the train was insanely beautiful.

So you have your debut album, Tularosa: An American Dreamtime, set for release May 13th, and it doesn’t appear to be your average album. Can you talk about the influences and overarching themes throughout?

I’ve always been obsessed with westerns and the American mythologies associated with Manifest Destiny and the West. Tularosa is a region of land in New Mexico that has been fought over for centuries, first by the indigenous Apaches and Comanches, then by the Mexican farmers, Texas ranchers, and eastern railroad capitalists, and where the U.S. government eventually created a missile range and tests nuclear weapons. I’m interested in why such an inhospitable tract of land has been an epicenter of violence and American greed, and what the Earth has to say about it.

How long did it take you to make from idea to final product?

Ha ha, is there EVER a final product? Not in my world. I’ve been working on this project for over a decade, and this album is just the beginning. The album took me five years start to finish, and many songs didn’t make it onto this one… there will be a Volume 2. There’s still much more to explore and create, and I’m finally working with the collaborators I need to get started on the storywork, which is exciting.  

What has been your favorite/the most rewarding part of making this album?

Honestly, just dragging it across the finish line and getting it out there. It’s been such a long process. I’m thankful to kick it out of the nest.

Is there a song on the album that was the most difficult to write/record for one reason or another?

The ones that actually made it onto the record were the ones that found their way the most naturally in the studio. The ones I struggled with too much tended not to make the cut. That said, it was a long process getting the right tone for Eugene Manlove Rhodes. My husband at the time, Gordon Hartin, who plays most of the pedal steel on the record, suggested I switch it to a more minor feel, and once we did that, the track started to come together.

I see you are leading a residency this summer at the Santa Fe Arts Institute with theater company Band of Toughs. Can you tell us a bit more about what that will entail?

The “goal” of the residency in Santa Fe will be to make a video for Eugene Manlove Rhodes, based on the theater and sound explorations that I conjure up with Band of Toughs and other collaborators like photographer Leilani Himmelstein. Leilani is from the Tularosa region and is actually the person who gave me the book that started me on this whole journey. I was her babysitter when I lived in NYC! This is the first time I will actually get to set foot in Tularosa, and go to the White Sands Desert– so the residency is incredibly exciting for me.  I wonder what, if anything, the land will have to say to me when I sing these songs to it.

What do you hope listeners and fans will take away from this project?

I don’t like to tell people how to experience art, though I’ll be interested to hear what listeners and fans have to say about it. Gentle criticism appreciated, hehe. Compliments even more appreciated.

What else might you have planned for 2022 and beyond?

I received an Arts Fellowship and will be teaching songwriting at Princeton University starting in September, for the next two academic years. I’m also working on a book about songwriting, so I’m thrilled that I’ll get to make my creative process more conscious by teaching.

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