Though still not regarded as a music mecca, Indianapolis is spawning more and more acts that combine artistic boldness with commercial viability. Take Mab Lab, the well-regarded trip-hop-jazz-funk combo that ended its five-year, five-album run last fall. Or Blueprintmusic, an acoustic quintet now working on its third collection of progressive folk. Or the Undefeatable Beats, a sprawling music and dance collective that constructs hip-hop and soul jams on a bed of traditional African drum patterns. Though quite different in sound, the three bands generally are marked by their diverse membership, broad range of influences, socially conscious lyrics and often danceable, or at least head-bobbable, grooves. Another thing they have in common is 28-year-old Katherine Lamont Newbold, better known in these circles as Kate Lamont.
UPCOMING SHOWS: Blueprintmusic, March 19, 9 p.m. at United States of Mind, 40th and Boulevard streets; Undefeatable Beats with national hip-hop act Heiruspecs, March 22, 9 p.m. at United States of Mind
When you're a versatile vocalist, musician, composer and lyricist with a distinctive fashion sense and a riveting stage presence, you get opportunities to join bands. Lamont wrote, sang and played keyboard for Mab Lab, writes and sings for Blueprintmusic and also sings, writes and plays keyboard and drum for the Undefeatable Beats. She was all over last year's Midwest Music Summit, performing with those three groups and more.
The resumé attests to her technical skills, but Lamont says her greatest gift is bumping into talented partners and learning to work with them until the whole exceeds the sum of the parts.
Collaboration, she says, "is the cornerstone of my career."
"I feel extremely blessed to have had the encounters I've had," Lamont says. "It's served me well to remember that it's bigger than me, always. When you feel magic with other people musically, it's bigger than you. You can't take credit for it. You can get really excited about it and have a great conversation about how cool that was, or 'We were slamming' or whatever, but you can't really take credit for it. It's higher than that."
Now Lamont has embarked on her boldest creative collaboration yet. Last year she married Joshua Strodtman, a bandmate in the Beats and Blueprintmusic and co-proprietor of United States of Mind, a community arts center on 40th Street. In a few months they will greet the birth of a child.
She admits having concerns when she first learned about the little human-in-progress. Though enthused about starting a family, she obviously will have to lay low for a few months.
And suddenly the notion of touring, and all that other music stuff, looks a bit more complicated.
"My first thought was, 'Everybody I work with is going to hate me,'" she says. "I waited a while to tell everybody, but nobody was mad at me. If people were freaking out, they did it silently."
Among Lamont's talents, her extraordinary vocal ability gets the most attention. In song, she seems ecstatic, possessed by a spirit. Few people around here can so transform the energy of a room simply by exhaling. The sound that emerges is rich and warm, both angelic and sensual, and somehow effortlessly adaptable to rock, country, folk, blues, soul, gospel, rap, whatever.
To her chagrin, the vocal ability often has overshadowed her writing and musicianship.
"A comment I would often get was, 'Love the voice. Why don't you do your own thing?' never giving the music enough credit," she says. "For a long time, no one ever commented on my keyboard playing, but that drove me to work harder on that, and eventually I got a lot of nice comments about it. Those are always my favorite compliments - compliments on my keyboard parts."
And more times than she'd care to count, Lamont has received awkward praise that goes something like this: You sing pretty good for a white girl.
"I've taken it as a compliment, as an insult and everything in between," she says.
In fact, she addressed the topic in a Mab Lab song, "God's Breath":
I am also from Africa
Just a little farther removed
We breathe the same air, love the same God
Respect your sister for who she is
Despite having skills to match the excessive vocal gymnastics of today's urban pop queens, Lamont sings with subtlety and carries herself with an unaffected grace. Though she's ambitious and intense about her work, bandmates say she's far from the stereotype of the high-maintenance diva.
"I think a lot of people are intimidated by Kate because she has a beautiful voice and she's a very attractive woman," says Doug Sauter, Lamont's partner in Blueprintmusic. "A lot of people don't know the real Kate."
Sauter, as well as anyone, knows Lamont's ability to get along with disparate groups of people and bring out the best in them while making her own contributions. When the two met nearly nine years ago at Ball State University, they wrote a song together that very day.
"She's one of those people you meet and instantly connect with," says Sauter, a nimble guitar and banjo player who holds a master's degree in composition. "I'm always in awe of how she is able to write. I can come up with anything, and she's on it."
Working one-on-one can be taxing enough, but when it comes to organizational challenges, few local ensembles outside jazz and classical music can top the Undefeatable Beats. Their evolving roster of musicians and dancers often tops a dozen, large enough that they sometimes rehearse in smaller subcommittees.
That atmosphere would be overwhelming to some, but Lamont eats it up.
"It's thrilling to think of problem-solving and getting a group to work together, to make progress when you've got all these elements going on," she says. "I'm not sure if it's something you just learn, working with people, or from watching somebody else not accept other people's ideas, but either way you learn."
In that context, a little humility goes a long way.
"If you're going to be a collaborator, if you're not just going to have your own band and hire people, then you have to allow other people to shape what you're doing," Lamont says.
Most of Lamont's shaping has come from her family, with whom, contrary to the stereotype of the angst-ridden artist, she remains quite close.
"She is a very family-oriented person," says her mother, Janet Newbold, an assistant professor of French at Anderson University. "I don't think she's ever passed up a family vacation, and she's 28 years old. She tends to make other people her family, too."
Though she grew up in Anderson from age 3 on, Lamont spent her earliest years in England, where her father was earning a doctorate at the University of Birmingham. W. Webster "Web" Newbold is now an associate professor of English at Ball State.
Those tenuous British roots have often drawn ribbing from bandmates.
"Every time I would ever mention it to anybody who didn't know me, they'd be like, 'There she goes again,'" Lamont says. "They always say I try to make it sound like I'm not a Hoosier, because I was born abroad."
Music was always important to the family. Janet Newbold recalls groups of friends gathered around tiny Kate's crib, strumming guitars and singing. With younger sister Jeanne added to the mix, the family would sing four-part harmonies in church, and they even did some recording for fun.
Most importantly, Lamont says, the Newbolds gathered nightly to sing together, sometimes in French.
"We'd sing silly songs about barges and pirates," she says. "That was our ritual, a family ritual, every night. We'd just sit around the bed and sing rounds. I was surprised other families didn't sing before bedtime."
By age 4, Lamont could sing solid harmony lines, and she began 12 years of classical piano study. Around age 10 or 11, she composed a piano fanfare to play at her grandfather's funeral. She later played saxophone in junior high band.
The Suzuki ear training method gave the precocious child a head start, though it left her with little interest in formal approaches to music.
"People ask me why I don't teach, and it could be because I never felt that I was that great in [music] theory," Lamont says. "There were very few days when my parents didn't have to remind me to practice, because I didn't want to deal with the theory part of it. I think I'm good at writing because of that desire to find something that isn't written down already."
The parents' academic work gave the home an international flavor. Foreign students and colleagues often visited and even lived with the family.
"My parents were very excited about other cultures," Lamont says. "We had a girl from Lebanon stay with us for quite some time. We had people from Mexico. We had African friends from Burundi who were older students that my dad was really close friends with, and they came over all the time."
Another gift from the family was a strong sense of spirituality. Lamont had a liberal but fairly conventional religious upbringing that included regular church attendance. That foundation still informs her daily life, she says, though she has since edged away from organized Christianity.
"I have tremendous respect for my parents and their beliefs, but I'm always appalled by the use of it by politicians, by people who are using it to be self-righteous," she says. "If there is one thing that's the only way, I don't see it. A lot of religions make sense to me, and it makes sense to me to let people follow their own spiritual path ... There's people who do it for the right reasons, and people who do it for the wrong reasons, in every religion."
School days instilled a rigorous work ethic in Lamont. Though bright enough to skip a grade as a youngster, she sometimes struggled later to keep up with older classmates.
"I felt like I was always working twice as hard," says the graduate of Anderson's Highland High School. "I never got straight A's in my life. I always got one B."
Various figures from that era, including a demanding choir director and a "hardass" English teacher, taught Lamont to keep striving, to avoid feeling satisfied. She has followed that approach ever since, seeking out mentors, soaking up all she can and moving on to the next level.
"That's kind of how I am about music: We could sit here and talk about how good we are, or we could make ourselves better," she says. "But the older I get, the more wisdom I see in taking pleasure in your accomplishments."
Moving on to college, Lamont initially majored in architecture at Ball State, inspired partly by a grandmother who worked as an architect when the field included few women. The rigorous, hands-on course work, which often involved building models from unlikely materials, was another important lesson in the creative process.
"I always thought I learned more about music in those two years of architecture than I did previously, as far as arrangement, composition, style, structure," she says. "Somehow it made sense to me to apply it directly to music. When you have an idea, what are you going to do? Are you going to keep this idea the same, from the first time you conceive it? Or are you going to allow it to breathe and grow and have its own personality?"
Other lessons were learned outside the classroom. Despite growing up in a stimulating household, Lamont says she was sheltered in terms of contemporary American culture. Her suburban childhood was generally free of drugs and crime. The most rebellious teen misdeed she can recall is pretending to go to choir practice, but instead sneaking over to Waffle House to hang out with older guys who smoked cigarettes.
When she found herself at a public university with a party-school reputation, even run-of-the-mill college debauchery came as a revelation. With no curfew or supervision, she admits getting a little crazy.
"I didn't know how to handle freedom," she says. "People who knew me in high school and then knew me later always thought I'd made this enormous, drastic change. I'd never been drunk before. I'd never smoked any cigarettes or marijuana. All those things change your perspective ... They seem so important when they're defining your independence, but they have nothing to do with independence. They have more to do with dependence."
The biggest discovery, however, was the Muncie music subculture. The summer after freshman year, Lamont joined her first official rock 'n' roll band. After sophomore year, she changed her major to music.
"I'd always loved music and knew I wanted to be a musician, since the first time anybody ever asked me what I wanted to do," she says. "This isn't something that I created. I didn't choose this life. I chose to work on it and to be committed to it, but I always felt branded, like it chose me."
With apologies to Ball State, she says, the music program was a letdown. Her own creative momentum was building, and the formal study of classical theory didn't provide the necessary juice.
"I'd just gone through two years of creative expression,"
Lamont says, "joined a band, started hanging out with free-thinkers, and I was like, 'Man, I'm not going back to classical music now. I'm on a pathway to discovery, and this is pushing me back into a very definitive, straight-line path. My soul and my character just needed to keep exploring. All I wanted to do was be in a band and succeed."
She left school before graduating and took up the time-honored musician lifestyle of supporting herself with food-service jobs while pursuing her creative work. Her parents were understandably concerned about Lamont's direction.
"We were just questioning her putting all her eggs in one basket," her mother says. "We didn't discourage her from studying music, but she didn't want to be a teacher. If you don't want to teach, you better think of some other way to earn a living."
Lamont, who currently supplements her music income with pilates lessons and babysitting, also has second-guessed her decision at various times.
"There were several years when I would look back and think how stupid I was, you know, being satisfied delivering pizza and being in a band," she says. "But I no longer chastise myself for those things, because I realize that every step was a step to now."
The parents eventually forgave her, too, she jokes. In fact, the Newbolds have been impressed by their daughter's commitment to music and her willingness to endure hardship.
"She's always had quite a lot of vision, and I think that's gotten her through the tough times," Janet Newbold says. "We just hope she'll be able to make the contribution that she wants to make and continue to be able to enjoy that. In fleeting moments, you hope your kid will be a big hit, but people who are big hits don't often have the quality of life you want. We hope she can find that balance."
For Lamont, original music started getting serious when she and Sauter formed a band in Muncie called the Stonepickers. What began as an acoustic duo evolved into a progressive rock group inspired by jazz, Frank Zappa and various far-flung influences.
"We would write these elaborate harmonic lines together," she says. "Doug was getting his composition master's, and he was writing all these symphony parts and everything, and we would learn those and play along. It sounded like we knew what we were doing."
Lamont eventually settled on using her middle name (Lamont) as a stage name. Besides having a bit more sonic cachet than her given surname, it reflects Scottish heritage passed down from her maternal grandmother.
"I thought it was cool, and it was already officially my middle name, so it seemed like a stage name without a stage name," she chuckles. "It's not like 'Johnny Rotten,' no offense to Johnny Rotten. But now that I'm going to have a baby, I'm trying to figure out what the name is going to be, trying to decide what name I want to carry on."
Another turning point came as Lamont began meeting musicians from Indianapolis and roaming farther from her hometown comfort zone. By the start of 1999, she was living in Indy, and she soon began playing with another former Ball Stater, drummer Eric Brown. Thus was born Mab Lab, which eventually would include guitarist Ande Shaul and MCs Mike Graves and Johnny Blevins.
Though Lamont already was developing as a composer and lyricist, the drums-keyboard axis she formed with Brown finally made her comfortable in the role of songwriter.
"Eric had the foresight to record everything we did," she says. "That opened a whole new door to me: Oh, I can be a composer. All we have to do is record it while we're improvising, and then we can go back and listen to it."
Though personal tensions drove Lamont's decision to leave Mab Lab, she accepts some of the responsibility and says she will always treasure the experience.
"It was not for lack of respect musically, that's for sure. A big part of my life has been with that band and those guys," she says. "Especially in Mab Lab, I felt like I really developed, as a team player, as a musician. I was really inspired by Talking Heads and groups that layered sounds so well that everybody was playing something a little different, no more with this wall-of-sound thing."
In fact, Lamont, Graves and Shaul have continued to write together, and they plan to release an EP later this year.
Meanwhile, she continues to push herself into new arenas. Like the other U.S.-born members of the Undefeatable Beats, she's been intrigued by the centuries-old West African drum patterns that form the group's rhythmic backbone. Aside from her vocal, lyrical and keyboard contributions, she's been learning to play the drums known as dun dun. The mindset is far from that of Western pop.
"It's a whole different expression for me to play something that's already set, has its own standards, completely traditional," she says. "For 15 minutes they'll go on with a song, and I play the exact same part the whole time, and I don't get bored."
Another project that will be greeted with anticipation is the third Blueprintmusic album, the follow-up to the acclaimed Ghosts and Eskimos ("astoundingly beautiful" raved the folkie mag Sing Out!). Recording began in January and hopefully will be completed before Lamont's child arrives, paving the way for a release later in the year.
The band has solidified into a lineup of Lamont on vocals, Sauter on guitar and banjo, Strodtman on percussion and guitar, Grover Parido on cello and Matt Koher on mandolin and fiddle. Though the other members have played on previous recordings, they increasingly contribute more on the front end to the arranging and general decision-making, Sauter says. The resulting album won't be a sharp departure in style, but it should demonstrate a new level of maturity, he says.
Blueprintmusic toured as far as British Columbia last summer, and they hope to spend some time on the road this year, though any traveling will have to be scheduled around childbirth and related concerns.
"Basically I'm not going to do anything in April, May or June, for sure," Lamont says. "I probably won't take on any new projects."
Otherwise, Lamont doesn't expect parenthood to radically cramp her style, which already was settling into a reasonable equilibrium. She had nearly quit smoking anyway, and giving up alcohol was no big deal, though she does miss the taste of her favorite microbrews.
"The truth is I've never had much of a rock 'n' roll lifestyle," she says. "I was no longer excited about going out to bars, maybe because I spend so much time there as a job sort of thing."
Though she and Strodtman had not made a conscious decision to pursue parenthood, both had expected to reach that point before long. Having the reality presented to them was not as scary as it might have been.
"We both love family," she says. "Josh has wanted to raise kids his whole life. I've always wanted to as well. We just felt like the final piece of the puzzle fell into place."