Vocalist Kalmia Traver has overcome cancer and is ready to support her band’s new album, Survival Sounds
It’s a beautiful Friday afternoon in early May, and Kalmia Traver is savoring some simple pleasures – pancakes, sunny skies and songs – in her Brooklyn apartment.
The lead singer and saxophone player for the New York-based jam outfit Rubblebucket says she’s never been one to take life for granted, existing by mantras that include, “Dancing is like smiling with your whole body,” and, “There is no set it and forget it.” Traver was also not the kind to take her chosen profession as a given, forming the band that seamlessly blends elements of indie rock, psychedelic sounds, reggae, jazz and dance with fellow musician and current partner Alex Toth in 2007 after the pair graduated from the University of Vermont.
With a do-it-yourself outlook towards creating music, Rubblebucket built a loyal following of fans intent on hearing infectious dance grooves and catchy lyrics and watching an impressive, theatrical stage performance. They’ve won praise from the likes of NPR Music and Paste magazine, and their video for the song “Came Out of a Lady” is a visually captivating work of art.
But in the summer of 2013, Traver was hit with news that forced her to take stock of her life, as she was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of ovarian cancer. In the blink of an eye, her life and career was turned upside-down, as she went into surgery and endured several rounds of chemotherapy.
Unwilling to give in to despair, Traver bravely started touring with Rubblebucket shortly after she started chemo and lost all of her hair – a stark reminder of her illness. She says every night of those tours was an emotional experience – with loud screaming and cheering from fans – and she used her own ordeal as a tool to project a sense of hope.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way I can pass this up – the chance to be this bald, chemo, disgusting poisoned body, dancing through it all,’” Traver says.
With her cancer gone today, Traver and the rest of Rubblebucket are back on the road full time, touring for their newest album – last August’s Survival Sounds – which was released on Communion Music (headed by Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett). Recorded with Grammy Award-winning producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand), Survival Sounds is a triumphant soundscape, featuring songs like “Carousel,” “On the Ground” and “My Life” that partially chronicle Traver’s health struggles over the past two years.
Rubblebucket returns to the region for the first time since 2012, playing several shows before gearing up for appearances at Bonnaroo and the Mumford’s Gentlemen of the Road Stopover Festival in Iowa. I spoke with Traver about everything from songwriting to her love of dancing.
Michael Yoder: With the band’s songwriting, do you need something to trigger working on songs?
Kalmia Traver: For Alex and I, it’s a total constant – especially Alex. His brain never stops working on a new song. When he’s not sitting at his keyboard, he’s always making voice memos – working on his craft for so many years. I feel like with Survival Sounds, for him [the songwriting] picked up a bunch of notches, and he really strapped down – just refining the actual process. Whenever we’re home, it’s always setting aside at least a few hours a day to let the music come and say, “Hi.”
MY: When you started working on Survival Sounds, was it easy or difficult moving from the do-it-yourself attitude of recording into a more formal studio and label setting with Communion?
“It was like a shockwave that knocked down all the loose debris of my spirit and allowed the fresh newness to grow. It was like I could either think in despair, or I could rise to the challenge. Rising to the challenge was just an endless road of gratification, joy and love.”
MY: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from John in the studio?
KT: He was saying that every band or artist that he works with, he has to figure out what his shoes are that he’s going to wear as a producer. For us, he was finding he really had to edit us because there were five of us in the band at the time who were working on the music, and we all have a million ideas that are raining down all the time. John really had to pick and choose and be strong about setting us down when we were going down some path that wasn’t going to have any fruit. I really loved watching him do that because, for me, that’s always been so hard.
MY: What was the biggest message you wanted to get across through the music on Survival Sounds?
KT: I think lyrically, it would be a better question for Alex. But it was right in the midst of me getting chemo and going through all of the cancer stuff. So much healing was going on, and it has been throughout the whole year ever since – almost two years now. So there’s a lot of that.
MY: When you were going through treatments, did the music feel like a personal way to heal yourself?
KT: I think more than anything, music is so healing. But also for me, having something to work on was amazing. It really saps your energy, but luckily it was summertime, so I was hanging out a lot on the porch. [laughs] It almost gave my treatments more structure, because it would take me out for a week, and then I had two weeks where I could basically function – like I could play a show. It really set up a structure around the chemo, and it was an easy answer; “I know what I need to do right now. I need to go get in this car and go to that studio.” And it kind of helped me keep being creative throughout it, because if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been very motivated to do anything.
MY: Is it difficult to put yourself out there on stage with that kind of raw emotion in the songs?
KT: If anything, it’s like my dream come true. I never doubted for a second that this was an opportunity – kind of like a reset button for my whole life. I’m full of different metaphors of how it was like a shockwave that knocked down all the loose debris of my spirit and allowed the fresh newness to grow. It was like I could either think in despair, or I could rise to the challenge. Rising to the challenge was just an endless road of gratification, joy and love.
MY: So you were getting support from family, friends and your fans?
KT: So many people were so supportive. That was probably the No. 1 most healing thing of the whole experience – to be able to share it with the fans and have them shoot back a million-fold of support. I was genuinely surprised. I didn’t know that I was that loved, and it’s pretty amazing to have the opportunity to hear that. We should all do it more often. I wish we could all be more open and tell each other we love each other more often. But sometimes it takes such a huge trauma to bring that out, and we’ve been seeing that more and more these days. I just sense our world being ready for healing. And maybe I can only see that because I’ve been through this, but I want to believe it.
Rubblebucket plays the Chameleon Club (223 N. Water St., Lancaster) on June 5. NAH and Ton-Taun open. 8 p.m. $13 adv./$15 at the door. All ages. Click here for tickets.