Kalyn Fay’s debut album explores life in the Bible Belt
“Michael Jackson and MC Hammer were my dad’s music, and my mom listened to Whitesnake. Now I play folk music,” Kalyn Fay said, chuckling.
She’s a witty, passionate, artful dork who loves her dog, her family, her print work and her newly discovered gift for writing songs. In March, she defended her thesis, a manifesto on the conflict between Native spiritualism and what Fay calls “her white family.” The daughter of a French-Irish mother and a Cherokee father, Fay lives in a space of contradictions. Her arms and legs are littered with tattooed remembrances of these disparate worlds: Old testament prophets and “Awi Usdi,” a deer spirit from ancient Cherokee tradition where the elements of the physical world have meanings that transcend nature’s limits.
At age 26, she seems to have finally embraced her contradictions. Kalyn Fay’s new album, Bible Belt, comes from a deeply honest struggle to understand her parents’ lives in the uncertain context of her own.
In writing her songs, Fay has had to rediscover some of her own past. In her memory, she is four years old crooning “Victory in Jesus” on her white grandmother’s piano. Then she is ten and her father is forbidding her to see the medicine man, saying only, “If you know good medicine, then you know bad.” She repeats this phrase by rote like scripture, and even compares “good medicine” to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Bible. It’s a closed room full of secrets too powerful to learn. Over the years, peeking in and out of that room, Fay has gained a profound spirituality and a sense of identity wholly unique to herself.
“A lot of these songs deal with my personal faith and living here in the Bible Belt—dealing with that and trying to find your way around those certain views and certain people,” she said. “My entire family switched over to Christianity when my dad was in high school, but it’s funny because they still carry these Native ideas and superstitions. There was an owl that was sitting outside our house for like a week, and he’d go out everyday with a big yellow plastic broom and try and scare it to try and make it leave.”
In 2008, while studying graphic design and print lithography at TU, Fay wrote her first song, a sappy ukulele love ballad penned for her then-boyfriend and eventual fiancé. When they broke up, she suddenly had to build a new life for herself.
From then on, Fay never stopped writing. She kept her guitar close and began crafting the songs that would capture this difficult and beautiful time in her life.
Don’t remember much about that house on Broadway, that town in the Southeast. Trees are swaying around as if they had a secret. Wish they would’ve told me. ... Can’t explain just how I felt, living in the Bible Belt, she sings on the album's opening track.
She walks us across her history slowly. Long sun-swept stretches of flat grass and red Earth lay vast with echoes of her grandmother Betty's voice telling Cherokee stories in her Native tongue.
“I think I’m just trying to tell my stories and trying to tell other people’s stories,” she said. “My grandmother taught Cherokee to children from home for a number of years. A song like “Spotted bird” only exists because it’s based on ... Cherokee beliefs about owls. My family doesn’t like owls because they are supposed to be able to let you know that someone is about to pass on. Cougars and owls are supposed to be really holy animals. If an owl stays at your house for so long it’s supposed to be a bearer of death.”
Cherokee belief is strewn throughout this album as much as the Bible belt itself. Trees awaken. Owls and cougars are harbingers of death. Even the deepest, most God-centered plan can seem to evaporate before the unflinching strength of nature.
Oklahoma is also a constant character, as Fay's soft alto voice leads us through whiskey-soaked evenings from Tahlequah to Tulsa and fights with know-it-all lovers who “should probably shut their mouths.” The warm jangle of lap steel, country guitar, fiddle and drums underpinning these 10 tracks has a particularly Oklahoman tone, as well.
Co-produced and tracked by Scott Bell and Dylan Layton, the songs are spacious and warm, driven by a country and folk rock sensibility reminiscent of Sun Sessions records from the 1950s, while also containing traces of modern bands like Beach House and Cat Power.
Bible Belt lays a lot for its listeners to unravel. In less than an hour, it sings, pleads, intones birdsong, laughs and wanders through a young woman’s faith and memory with a simple wisdom. God is a ghost in the walls on this record—not just a moral force but an emotional one, like some lost love persisting past reason.
After our interview, Fay sent me a picture of herself at six years old. Imagine a lively kid with chestnut eyes and an auburn half-mullet, wearing a faded blue Disney Pocahontas t-shirt and smiling dubiously at the camera. Twenty years later she’s still that kid—riddled with the questions and uncertainty of life. But, she’s also still smiling.
“I hope people find their own way to talk about their faith and their views on life through this album. I hope it makes them feel less afraid to discuss certain issues,” she said.
As Fay says on the album's final track, “Plans,” I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s a hard lesson when you’re full up of doubt ... We can plan, but life’s still gotta deal us a hand that we’ll never quite understand.