What’s the word for someone who is an actor, singer, writer, and performer? Is it multi-hyphenate? Is it an artist? It’s unclear, really. One who sings is a singer. One who writes is a writer. But what do you call someone who has as many lanes as a roadmap? Whatever the word is, it’s what describes the Georgia-born Katelyn Tarver.
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To some, it may sound appealing to have as many options at your fingertips as ideas in your head. But like Sylvia Plath’s fig tree, it can be paralyzing too. What if, on top of this hefty wealth, your past is a fractured bouquet? Rich with history, stories, opportunities, accomplishments, but also somehow competing against itself as oil and water might. It’s a lot to wrap your mind around, I know. So does Tarver, who is set to release her latest album, Subject to Change, on November 12.
“Sometimes it can feel like you have to make everyone comfortable,” Tarver says. “Like, find your lane, don’t be too big.” She continues, “Then, I don’t know, I think I just stopped. I try to just push past that feeling a lot more and see what comes up.”
Tarver grew up in a musical home. Her mom sang in their Baptist church and at holiday pageants, often soloing. As such, Tarver was given the image of a successful performer early on. It became something she thought she could also do (she was right). Tarver remembers finding Whitney Houston and her rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” She remembers the first time she hit that same high note as she sang along. She ran to her mother to tell of her achievement. Tarver also remembers being a shy kid. Yet, on stage, she was capable, even ebullient. She grew up in small Glenville, Georgia where every kid took dance classes. But the big turn came when she found American Idol and, more specifically, American Juniors.
“I was obsessed with it,” she says. “I loved Kelly Clarkson. I’d sing her songs all the time.”
One day, Tarver jotted down the information on the screen when it flashes a telephone number for American Juniors tryouts. Later, she auditioned in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Tarver made it on the show, made it to the Top 10. She was in L.A. that whole summer and she was discovered. As a young person, she found a role on the still popular Nickelodeon series, Big Time Rush. There, she learned the ropes of show business. More recently, she’s appeared on shows like HBO’s Ballers, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. She’s also worked with major labels and she’s experienced the highs and lows that come with that. Oh, and she wrote a No. 1 song on the U.K. Singles Chart for the British singer, Cheryl.
“I don’t want to stop any of it,” Tarver says. “I want to keep taking it as it comes and try to balance it as best as I can. Sometimes it’s stressful and overwhelming and I’m like, why did I do this? And sometimes I’m really glad that I get to experience such different creative lanes.”
Tarver says she finds inspiration in people like Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, who works in television, music, movies, and more. And while Tarver has stood out on screen, it’s her musical work that may make her stand out most spectacularly. Especially her forthcoming release, which both confounds and subverts traditional songwriting tropes and provides an example for listeners to turn to when needing a bit of bright, thoughtful reassurance when the world seems like it’s falling apart.
Take, for example, the track “Nicer” or “Downhill From Here” from the new LP.
“’Nicer,’” Tarver says, “is about feeling like I needed to be agreeable and feel like I needed to be small and not really feeling like I could. And I’m still this way. This is just a part of my personality. I realize I can get a lot more concerned with how I am making someone feel, what they think of me if I do this or say this.”
To be a people pleaser is a nuanced, difficult fate. On one end, you’re worn out by fulfilling other people’s needs. On the other, it’s something of an unsustainable superhero complex to think you can handle such burdens constantly.
“I always get so envious of people,” Tarver says, “who seem to be able to do their thing and not worry so much how it will come across. So, that song was inspired by something my mom said to me when I honked at a car when they pulled out in front of me. She said, jokingly, ‘You used to be nicer!’”
And the song, “Downhill From Here,” is similarly themed. The track, which begins with the idea that Tarver is through taking advice from anyone under 50 years old, was written when she was feeling low. In a world where opinions fly faster than killer bees, especially on social media (Tarver has 1.4 million Facebook followers), it takes great effort sometimes to block it all out, especially if you’re a famous pop star.
“I blurted out the first line,” Tarver says of the song. “’I’m done taking advice from anyone under 50.’ I was one margarita in and I’ve found that’s when I start to tell the truth.” She continues, “You can’t will yourself into being happy all the time, it doesn’t work. That’s where a lot of these songs are coming from.”
These days, Tarver says, she’s coming around to the idea that life, for her, is more about appreciating the smaller moments. Success and career stability are important, of course. But keeping eyes open to other delights is equally essential. In that sense, there is a requirement to self-evaluate, which Tarver embraces.
“Now,” she says, “I have to figure out how to change my instincts a little bit—it’s really probably a life’s work.” She adds, “It’s really fucking hard when it hits you, like, what do I do with all these pieces all over the place?”
As they say, the goal of life is to “know thyself,” and from every indication, Tarver has always been on that path, even if it’s seemed like an infinite set of boulevards at any given time. For now, though, there is an album to release, shows to undertake, fans to meet, and more to experience. More songs to write, more cities to investigate along an upcoming tour. But what weaves these together is a sense of self-awareness. A knowledge that you’re there for yourself, even if you have to blurt out, “I’m done taking advice from anyone under 50!” to your best friends in a recording studio when everything seems so damn flabbergasting.
“Nothing brings people together like music,” Tarver says. “Nothing punctuates the moment in time like a song.”
Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media