A haze descended on her brain, gasping for oxygen and swelling with unnerving pain. Kat Leon was shredded into compartmentalized pieces after her parents died. She underwent the darkest hours of her life, left emotionally sucked dry, but she emerged earlier this year as Holy Wars, along with musician Nick Perez, an inevitable incarnation of her personal trauma, which manifests itself in robust form on her forthcoming Mother Father EP (out Nov. 3). Leon picks her teeth on gnarly songwriting ⎯⎯ “It’s over for you / They will eat you alive,” she exposes on “Cruel World,” accompanied with a grisly and honest music video, premiering today ⎯⎯ with matching production tapping into the most primal and destructive of instincts. “After experiencing the loss of my parents in such a short time it was apparent I needed to step away from music for myself mentally, and honestly, at that point in my life, nothing mattered anymore, and the music industry seemed really small and insignificant,” she tells B-Sides & Badlands.
She then took “a painful time off,” and when she tip-toed back into writing music again, Holy Wars rose from the ashes. “I had no more desire left, not to mention a ton of responsibility that weighed heavily on me to take care of everything that belonged to my parents,” she says. “Going backwards into a past project of mine didn’t seem to fit me anymore. I was different; my thoughts about life were different, as well as what I wanted to write about.”
It was during her hiatus and struggle to pick up the pieces that her “observation of the world around me” shifted and later resurrected on “Cruel World,” in which “the truth I would see in some ways would be ugly and cut-throat,” she reflects, as she began to unravel the mystery of where she now fell in the world. “Everyone around me would smile, but it was like I had these magical glasses that would make me see the truth that lurked underneath their beautiful physique. I simply had felt like I was torn apart into millions of pieces and then sewn back together a little different with a different point of view.”
The visual for “Cruel World” is grainy, primordial and illustrates the most basic of human fears. “[It] highlights the cruel nature of people and those who would kill for their own achievements. The two children fighting are a little girl who in the end beats up the little boy tyrant played by Eli Potruch (who has reoccurred in several of our videos this past year),” she describes. “The idea behind this was to [show] how we are all adults but really scared children with insecurities that bury deep inside us. The lines of reality are blurred, and I wanted to show this cruel imagery as a commentary of the world we are currently living in.”
The sequence also contains “old footage displaying drugs, unattainable ideas of beauty and the imagery of me washing my skin in the bathtub filled with the filth as opposed to washing it off,” Leon notes. “This video is a raw display of the lyrics written.”
Below, Leon gets candid about her journey from dark into light, lessons her parents imparted, becoming numb and other key topics.
“Cruel World” is such a biting composition. How did it come together?
I can’t remember if that one started with the lyrics or music first, but I remember I would go out to the local music scene in LA, and it was like I had these radar glasses on that would open my eyes to everyone around me. The business, friends, me…everyone. I saw so many ugly truths that we all want to hide, and I had to write about it. The music is dark and kind of grooves, but the lyrics are very punchy, and I talk about our society and unrealistic expectations. One thing I felt was how easily you are forgotten and how quickly people are to move on when you leave. It all seemed very fake to me, and I wasn’t going to play nice anymore.
On “Back to Life,” you sing “I lost my world.” How did you climb out of that haze?
I can’t say that I ever climbed out of that feeling. Every time I see a photograph of my mom and dad, I always have this feeling that I will wake up and all of this was just a bad dream. Especially when I look at their hands in these photos, there is so much life and history in a person’s hand, and I often feel they can’t possibly be gone because I’m looking at their very real hands. And when I close my eyes, I can feel them. Perhaps one day, it will become very real but I still often struggle with this feeling.
Do you see your world as pre-tragedy and post-tragedy?
Most definitely. I compare it to a hurricane that I survived where it’s very much like a B.C./A.D. for me. I’m not the same, and life has changed so much that who I was before seems like a different person in many ways and a lot of my memories have become hazy.
How did the death of your parents impact your craft exactly?
I used to be so cautious and scared to offend, to be disliked and was very unsure of who I was and what I wanted. After losing two people I feared very much losing…everything else seemed smaller. I didn’t care as much anymore, and my words became very real and raw, and it gave somewhat of a like it or hate it attitude. I depended on the comfort of family my whole life and perhaps, took it for granted but once I saw my life preserver taken suddenly, I had no choice but to grow up, reinvent myself and use my experience and what I’ve learned from it for the good. So, in my music, it’s important to me to be as authentic as possible and relate to those who feel pain and feel like they are at a loss or feel like an outcast. It somehow inspired me to creatively help others.
When did you know it was time to return to music?
Sometimes, I still ping pong with this idea of music as it is a very emotional thing, but it would be my first rehearsal back with a band and singing my words that made me want to come back. It was then that I felt this spark of life I didn’t feel for quite a while, and there was a freedom in it. Every emotion I had in me would come out when I sang, and it was very cathartic. I’m very thankful every day that I can express myself in this sort of way that is healing for me and inspires me.
What song has been the most cathartic/healing for you to write and record?
“Mother Father.” Even though every song on the EP is very honest, that one is, especially, as half of it is like a letter to them about my life now without them and how I view the world. I had an “A-ha” moment when writing that song. Shortly after my parents passed, no one asked me how I was and avoided the topic altogether. I would be so angry at this time and yet not know how to tell people how I felt. So, I wrote “Mother Father, they’re afraid to ask me for fear of the uncomfortable truth.” That was my “A-ha” moment. Not that they didn’t care, but it was more awkward for them to ask, and at that time, I felt it was more about them not wanting to bring it up or knowing what to say than just being there for me. It was healing for me writing that part in this song. Once I realized this, I was able to accept it.
Also, halfway through the song when I sing “Saturday Rain,” it was completely improv’d when recording it. Nick was on the piano, and I had no lyrics, and he just kept playing the same part until I sang what I see on a loop in my head always, the day my dad died on a Saturday, and it rained, and I fell to my knees. That song will always make me feel so much, and I die a little bit every time.
Did you have trouble writing any of these songs?
Definitely. The first song we wrote was “Back to Life,” and I really wasn’t ready for it. I was mentally blocked and very bitter. I didn’t like that song at first. Everything was wrong about it to me which is crazy because it’s now one of my favorites of ours, but I wasn’t ready to accept it just yet. “Orphan,” too. When I recorded the demo for it, I remember sitting at my kitchen table plugged into a laptop with a SURE 58 mic and was so deflated that the performance would show that ⎯⎯ it was lethargic and hopeless. At this time, all the songs seemed difficult to write because I had this blank slate, and I was filled with so many thoughts and emotions I needed to scream to everyone. So nothing seemed to do any of it justice.
What is the journey you want the listener to experience on this debut project?
I suppose we all just want to be heard and related to. I hope to connect to the listener in a way that they are open to feeling something real. I want to shake people up whether it’s through the songs or even live. I get into the audience to remove the wall between us and get right in their face to make this connection. I want the journey to not just be sadness but also empowering and fun with a fuck-it attitude.
What I admire so much about this record is the range of emotions you are willing to explore and share. Was that important to illustrate the many emotions someone goes through after losing someone?
Thank you, and it was very important to me. I didn’t want to sugarcoat anything. I was angry; hopeless in moments, while very hopeful in others, numb, in denial, I felt sadness and empowered. Everything was so complex, and I didn’t want to hide any of it. Many people numb themselves with happier music and other substances to avoid feeling painful feelings, but I hope the listener feels this sense of home: that it’s okay to feel and accept.
In “Orphan,” you come to terms with the death of your parents, as presented by the ideology of being an “orphan.” One of your best lyrics reads: “Everyone that you know / They all will go away in time / And you are left alone.” What is behind that lyric? Do you feel you have to carry that burden around with you?
It’s something we all know is inevitable, losing our loved ones, but you really have no idea until you go through it. We all take it for granted, and we have this immortal “we will live forever” attitude, but I wanted to sing the truth. As simple as it is, sometimes we just need to hear it. It’s almost like I’m telling the listener to wake up and appreciate everyone around you because they or you will be gone. I feel that being an orphan is my story now. It’s who I am. It’s how I look at everything, and though I was very lucky to have them as long as I did, I feel very much an orphan everyday.
Did you become numb at any point in this process?
I have to remind myself I am here many times. No joke. If I don’t talk to myself and say “look at this” or “notice that,” I could feel numb all the time. I hate it, actually. I think it’s something our brain does for survival, but I’m afraid I am missing out on a lot because of it. I tell people it feels like my head is floating high above my body. No drugs, just this in-between feeling. I do have many moments of feeling all emotions but live mostly in a state of numbness. I hope this changes.
What would you want to tell your parents right now in this moment?
I know it’s cliche but it’s honestly true. I would tell them “I love them” because you can’t say it enough. No matter how many times you tell someone that, when you lose them, you feel like you haven’t said it nearly as much as you’d like. I would tell them how thankful I am that they were my parents and tell them I didn’t appreciate them nearly as much as I should’ve and that I miss them every single day.
“Mother Father” is such a gutting performance. From including voicemail audio and home-video footage, it feels incredibly special, a memoriam for them. How did you muster up the courage and strength to write, record and film the video?
Around that time, Bowie died shortly after, and the world mourned, but I was mourning my parents and my world was completely torn apart, and it seemed like no one cared or noticed because they weren’t famous. We idolize these famous people even though we’ve never met them, and yet, our family or friends come and go, and the world doesnt even notice. I wanted to show the world who they were and how special they are to me ⎯⎯ and even though the viewer can’t relate to my parents, per say, but hopefully, it will remind them of someone they are close to in their own lives and will make them hold them tighter knowing they won’t be here forever.
In the video for “Mother Father,” I wanted to simply sing the song with no fx or frills and just do an honest one take performance showing the viewer my truth. Adding in my parents voices was a hard decision to make because these voicemails are the last voicemails I have of my parents and are very personal to me. It’s priceless and can’t be replaced, and I was hesitant to just give this to people and to potential trolls that lurk the internet. But it was more important to me to show their faces and their voices because they existed, and they were very special, and I wanted to tribute them. I edited that video myself, and it was very difficult hearing them over and over, especially when that would be the first time in over a year that I heard it. I couldn’t hear it before. I hope they would be proud of it.
Was it pretty easy to film, especially having to inhabit those feelings onscreen?
It was quite easy, actually. It was just me, Nick and our cinematographer Kevin Schlanser who we always work with. It was a very comfortable setting with no pressure or expectation. I wanted it to be real and simple. That song will always make me cry, and hearing my parents voices was very cutting. I did a couple takes and every one of them was very emotional.
In the song, you sing about a holy war raging inside you. At that point, was the band name already decided or did it come from this song?
It was already decided to be the name, even though it wasn’t public yet, but because that section was sung like an improv, it just came out. I named this new project Holy Wars because everyday it feels like a holy war exists within me. Between believing my parents are still with me in some way and believing the afterlife is bullshit, between light and dark, and being numb and feeling alive. So, when I sang that, though it was unintended, it was perfect. There was nothing better that I could say there. It summed it all up.
What did your parents teach you about life, love and loss?
When they were alive, they taught me to unconditionally love. To accept some things I couldn’t control and to be strong and move forward through every challenge. My mom was very wise and was a tarot card reader, so she was very spiritual but in a matter of fact way. My dad was especially good at reading people and his over protective nature taught me a lot about people and how to read certain people and certain situations.
Through their loss, I learned strength I never knew I had and everything seems so small now. Like I said before, I have somewhat of a “fuck everything” mentality. I don’t fear as much as I use to and my eyes are very open to life and the world now. I have felt love and loss, and I’ve learned that there are different degrees of pain and loss, and sometimes, I feel some people just have no idea what’s coming. Some things that matter so much are meaningless compared to real loss. Hopefully, some of us can wake up before it’s too late.
Photo Credit: Mark Hanson