Kate Earl has found herself.
Not long ago, this remarkable young singer was living in tiny Chugiak, Alaska, nursing the dream to lead a musician's life in between shifts at her parent’s small-town gas station. That dream became a reality when Kate moved to Los Angeles, where her talent was promptly recognized and led to a record deal; soon she would make a couple of albums that earned warm words from her peers, admiring critical plaudits and even a few placements on network TV.
Yet, the music was not quite doing for Kate what she needed it to -- too much outside direction perhaps, or an undue pressure to fulfill a prescribed role. The girl from Chugiak, it turned out, had gotten lost in someone else's vision.
Kate re-emerges with a flourish on Stronger, Earl's debut for Downtown Records and an album sure to end up one of the year's most assured. Written and recorded with an expansive crew of well-respected Californians -- including Brett Dennen, Blake Mills and some of her generation's finest L.A.-based musicians --Stronger shows off the careful development of a singular voice. Stronger also introduces a deeply thoughtful songwriter coming into her own.
"Maybe I'm a late bloomer," Kate admits with an infectious chuckle, "but I think I've reached such a place of honesty with this album. It's me coming out and telling my stories. This is where I came from."
The album's sound -- a rootsy brand of all-American pop-rock -- recalls classic works by some of the West coast singers Kate's older brothers listened to during those long hours at the gas station. Legendary woman including Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell -- who Kate now says "embody sensuality and strength at the same time." Tom Petty looms large, too. "I used to ride around on my bike with a fanny pack and a Walkman listening to 'American Girl,'" she says of Petty's indelible rock-radio staple. "That was huge for me."
Stronger’s lived-in Laurel Canyon vibe came together quickly, with Kate and Dennen (her principal collaborator on Stronger) recording 17 songs in a whirlwind six-day session at Los Angeles’ famed Village Recorders -- the same place, Kate points out with amazement, where Fleetwood Mac and the Rolling Stones once worked. "To walk the same corridors as Stevie Nicks, that was such a delight," she says. So, too, was writing with Dennen. "As a musician I'm led by my ear," Kate says. "But Brett speaks that formal language, so he was able to help me take my songs somewhere new."
Among the standouts on Stronger are "One Woman Army," in which she promises, "Here I am, baby, I'm your one-woman army / I'd fight for you, I'll die, I'll be your protector," over a shimmering Rumours-style groove. Kate says she is especially proud of the tune for the way it achieves one of her biggest goals as a songwriter: "It's one of those songs that you can take to mean whatever it means to you. It can be a love song; it can be about friendship; it can be a song from a parent to a child. I want people to identify with my music like that."
There is also "Wicked Love," a gorgeous, slow-burning soul gem, and the irresistible "I Don't Want to Be Alone." Here, revealing all the vulnerability in her voice, Kate expresses the most relatable of desires while Mills etches a heartfelt slide-guitar line behind her: "Why I gotta tell you once? Why I gotta tell you twice? / I'm not asking for much, so let's turn off the lights / I don't want be alone tonight."
Life and love, hardship and hope -- they are all part of the unforgettable story Kate Earl tells on Stronger. "I've been so humbled by the process of becoming who I am," she says, and now that she has found herself, you will be glad to find her too.