“I guess I’m lucky my life is a mess. I’d run out of inspiration quickly if everything always went the way I wanted,” reflects singer-songwriter Katrina Kerns, known as Halo Kitsch onstage. LA born and raised, the 24-year-old chronicles a former relationship, one so toxic that only in the present has she realized that both parties were at fault. With her guitar-tethered new track, “Do You Feel Like a Sinner Yet?,” as provocative as the title suggests, she unwinds the story with as much bluntness as she can muster.
As visceral as the song comes across, it “wasn’t scary to write,” she tells American Songwriter. “I was exhausted when I picked up the guitar that day, mentally and physically. So, I kept it simple and real. I just listed the facts as they’d happened to me: it’s one of those odd scenarios in which my ‘creativity’ was hardly creative, more so just biographical and narrative.”
“Mommy sent me to rehab / My daddy thinks I’m depressed,” she mourns with the splintered opening line. An acoustic guitar renders a somber glow around her, and all she can do is writhe in the emotion of it all. “I guess, but just enough to jump the fence / Play fake friends at recess / I’ve got a new therapist / And I did what she said but goddamn I still called my ex.”
Fear only arrived when Kerns set about sharing the song. “I have written so many songs that a lot of the tracks we are working on now were finished long ago. With this one, that wasn’t the case. Not only was it brutally blatant, but I knew I couldn’t shrug it off as having happened years ago,” she explains. “That was what frightened me: putting out content so raw. My hope is that the song and the reaction, rather than poking an open wound, will instead speed up the healing process by feeling heard and related to. I often get the chance to chat in my DMs with people going through similar situations. For me, that’s the whole point of all this.”
Typically, Kerns’ songwriting runs hot with rich metaphors, but “Sinner” needed to be incisive and unapologetically brash. “I made very few edits, which is pretty out of character. My goal was to process my experience and specifically, not to over analyze. I think too much. This time I just wrote and hawked it out like a loogie and called it a day,” she says.
“I love you like a chokehold / And sometimes I cry to cope / ‘Cause God knows I got no control, and I smell like smoke,” she sings.
Even given the song’s uncomplicated approach, that last lyric still hits a bit funny. “I still find it to be kinda boring… but I did smell like smoke constantly ─ I was going through way too many cigarettes a day. So, it’s true. Also, it sorta brought another sensory element to the song ─ doesn’t it remind you of someone in a flannel with a lighter and a grey mood? And again, I didn’t want to critique myself. For once, I just wanted to say what came out, without any doubt.”
Elevating her sharp-toothed lyrics is a rootsy structure, underlining the words with a ghoulish, trembling quality. Kerns sent a memo to producer Ben Zelico, known for work with Dylan Dunlap, All the Rest, and Brightside, and its rough-hewn form, of acoustic guitar in “a room with high ceilings,” emitted an “echo-ey and spooky, haunting and soft” quality. “When I went over to his house a few weeks later, there was a bit of pressure to have a new release,” says Kerns. “So, I thought, ‘This will be stripped, quick, and dirty.’”
Zelico then suggested a Black Keys approach to flesh out the instrumentation, peppering in electric whistles and snaps. “I think a big question mark popped up over my head but I have absolute faith that anything that guy does will be and is dope. And it was. He speaks Halo Kitsch fluently; he’s totally unleashed my sound and confidence.”
Ironically, neither could whistle nor snap very well, so they turned to Dillon Jordan to lend his talents. “He whistled beautifully for us. Credit where it’s due,” she says with a smirk.
“Do You Feel Like a Sinner Yet?” swiftly and severely crescendos in its second half, and directly correlates to Kerns’ own emotional mayhem. “I was so angry. I was lashing out. I went from somebody seeking to blame and, in a sort of way, to hurt; to use my art as a form of revenge. But I emerged from this song taking responsibility, feeling remorse, and resonating with the desperation for forgiveness.”
“The second verse was huge in lessons. I didn’t expect to finish the sentence ‘I love you’ with ‘like a chokehold,’ but I did. Oops. That’s when I came to realize my own role in our relationship’s disease. And it’s also where I began to feel accountable,” she continues. “The more I began to comprehend PTSD, I found myself having this lightbulb realization: What if my fairytale ‘butterflies’ were anxiety? What if my memories were flashbacks? What if I’d been calling trauma, love? I think my brain exploded at that point. And I haven’t quite figured out the answer to that yet.”
Even more importantly, Kerns had to learn to forgive herself. “I’m not the type who can throw a white flag up once and move on or achieve something once and keep it. Things like that are harder for me ─ mental health, peace, acceptance, forgiveness. I have to practice consciously and maintain daily. Sometimes I succeed, some days I spend kicking myself. And there’s so fucking much to bear. What am I forgiving? Myself for staying? Me for what I did to him? Him for what he did to me? I don’t even feel totally proper having written about it this way, no less released it. I feel guilty about that, so there’s another pending apology.”
“Not the right way to get somebody back. That’s the wrecked part, too. I can say all this shit and really mean it, but I still miss this one. I still love this one. Actually, I guess that’s no surprise. That’s kinda the premise of the whole song isn’t it? I can’t help myself.”
Halo Kitsch’s way of songwriting might feel a bit familiar. While carving out her own singular voice, she is greatly influenced by singer/songwriters like Sheryl Crow, Julia Michaels, and Geographer ─ and such a vast array fuses right into her blooming storytelling. Kitsch marries pointed poeticism with stripped plainness, and a dash of pop theatrics (courtesy of Madonna), and seems to be right on track for pop grandeur in her own right.
Her musical journey unsurprisingly also began with playing Taylor Swift songs on piano. In exploring the pop juggernauts expansive catalog, she learned foundational chords and uncovered “patterns I liked and structures I could build from,’ she says. She also took a music theory class and later turned to YouTube tutorials for guidance.
“I still do trial and error when I’m writing. I suppose I could point out similarities between my songs and call them patterns or go-to’s. But that’s like giving out my cookie recipe,” she quips, “and I’m constantly evolving my cookie recipe with new ingredients and substitutions. That’s one reason why co-writing is so cool. Someone says, ‘what if you try this?’ And all of the sudden you’ve got chocolate chips.”
Relatively new to co-writing, Kerns describes the early collaboration stage as downright “terrifying,” she says. “It requires so much trust! I was worried I wouldn’t be able to speak up for myself, or I’d have nothing to contribute, or I’d feel like I was there on accident, like I didn’t deserve the opportunity. The trick is… to make a pot of coffee and pat yourself on the back a bit.”
“I’ve been wildly lucky with the chemistry of my collaborators. I’m so grateful to be working with such kind people. The bonding has been effortless like you’d never imagine it could be before it happens. I make sure to pause and pinch myself and count my blessings. Fingers crossed everyone is always this cool. I like to think the energy you give is the energy you receive.”
Photo by Dillon Jordan