The R&B crooner Kitty Crimes is not to be missed. One moment, she’s getting low to the ground, throwing one hand in the air as she cups the mike with the other; the next, she’s serenading every face in the crowd as she makes her way across the stage with a slow and slinky swagger. Of the many musical incarnations of Maria Kohler, this persona is the most magnetizing. She invented Kitty Crimes in 2011, primarily as an outlet for the hip-hop she was writing, but late last year, she began to switch up her style, adding more R&B elements and a full band to the mix.
As Kohler took Crimes to a silky-smooth new level, she debated changing the name of the act altogether.
“A lot of people were recommending that I just go by my name — Maria Kohler — but the presentation of an identity that isn’t necessarily me twenty-four-seven is key,” says Kohler. “I can funnel it into a performance; that can be the identity. Kitty Crimes can get as loud and as big as it wants; I like the idea of it being its own being.”
Kitty Crimes is just one of the human containers Kohler has created in order to present her music over the last several years; before rapping, she was known for her vocal and instrumental abilities. Kohler has been the lead vocalist and guitarist in M and the Gems, a singing member of Science Partner and a singer/rapper/drummer in Harpoontang, and has contributed her voice to recordings by Houses and Mike Marchant.
But Kitty Crimes the rapper was different from anything Kohler had ever done before. In all of her other past and ongoing projects, the focus has been on her singing voice; it’s what Kohler’s known for. Her vocals have the ability both to worm their way around minimal folk accompaniment and to barrel through a wall of psychedelic sound. Even Kohler’s voice alone as an instrument is powerful, a strong combination of past and present styles. She could be a featured hook singer on a bass-heavy club anthem just as easily as she could be the kind of throwback songstress heard between the crackling of a shellac disc swirling on a gramophone.
So it makes sense that she would add more actual singing to Kitty Crimes. Now, she’s slamming her own musical worlds together by writing music with a full band and giving a nod to the soulful, radio-friendly R&B that was so prominent in the ’90s MTV world Kohler grew up in.
“I was raised on TRL, where you could see, I don’t know, Kid Rock and Britney Spears on the same show,” says Kohler. “Generationally, we’re revisiting R&B together because we all loved it and now it’s a new frontier, based on that almost nostalgic love for it; shit keeps changing. Those things that really kind of stuck with you back in the day stick harder — that’s my theory.”
Citing Drake as one of her current favorites and most obvious stylistic inspirations, Kohler sees plenty of room for Kitty Crimes in the modern musical landscape. “I started taking songwriting more seriously, and I needed a way for that to take shape — which isn’t to say that the rap element wasn’t something that I [took] seriously,” says Kohler of Crimes’s new angle. “The project is a lot of fun, and it is even more fulfilling now that I have this other side of it.”
Even when Kitty Crimes was a straight-up electro-rap act, her deep connections in the rock and folk worlds were still where she was finding her support. She’s tight with local acts that couldn’t be farther from hip-hop, stylistically: Laura Goldhamer and the members of Paper Bird are close friends, and she’s shared the stage with acts like Land Lines and DeVotchKa. Now that she’s created a new sonic world with a backing band and her gorgeous voice in tow, Kohler sees doors opening even wider.
“Having a band is making it more accessible to open for these other genres of bands,” says Kohler. “I was really grateful when I opened for DeVotchKa and people were actually into it — but I feel like if we came back and did the same set with the band it would have made a little bit more sense.”
On the booking end too, Kohler sees opportunities knocking. “A lot of the people booking the shows overlooked the fact that Kitty Crimes was this really big, queer, intense rap thing and would put me on a bill,” says Kohler. “But now I think we are coming to the table with something that makes more sense; I like when the acts on a bill can flow a little bit more seamlessly together.”
The “really big, queer, intense rap thing” Kohler creates as Kitty Crimes is still very much there. That part of the show hasn’t changed. Just as Kitty Crimes has stayed aligned with her folk friends, she has also been working hard in the beat-oriented realms of the queer community. But the label of “queer rapper” seems confining. The magic of Kitty Crimes is her fluidity — she fit among the psych rockers at Idaho’s Treefort Music Festival as easily as she found a home with LGBTQ-activist club heads at Portland’s Blow Pony.
When she mentions a recent show at the Larimer Lounge that included her full band, Kohler talks about this adaptability and how she simultaneously avoids and embraces gender and sexuality with her style. “That show was the first time I had ever played as Kitty Crimes in a skirt and heels,” says Kohler. “It doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal, but I always had in my head this, like, masculinized version of the project; it was really good to break the seal on kinda dressing slutty” — though even in that performance, she maintained some ambiguity. “To clarify,” she says with a laugh, “the beanie I was wearing said ‘BOY’ on the back of it.”
Kohler is able to be whoever or whatever she wants on stage — and then walk away from Kitty Crimes at the end of the night if she chooses. “I naturally will never be that performance persona all the time; it gives me permission personally to let it come out the most there.”
While making music and honoring R&B as a stylistic approach are not new concepts for the artist, she is still working out exactly how to present Kitty Crimes’s sound to audiences in this fresh form. At the moment, she’s organizing live sets by first performing a handful of her straight-up rap tracks — older songs like “Yogue Out” and “Find a Penny” — alone on stage over homemade Ableton beats. Once she’s built up the energy, she brings her band out in the second half to add to an already mighty live show.
The Kitty Crimes band is no joke — all of its members are seasoned pros themselves. Luke Mossman is a classically trained guitar player and member of acts like Science Partner and Achille Lauro; Jeremy Averitt is a hardworking bass player who has made the rounds in Dovekins, Paper Bird, Princess Music and more; and drummer Brandon Anamier has worked with Chain Gang of 1974 and Sunboy. As far as writing and arranging goes, these guys are her friends, and it works well. The earlier incarnation of Kitty Crimes was just Kohler and her music. Now she writes and brings work to be arranged to her bandmates.
Kohler is releasing a video for the Kitty Crimes song “Grades” in a few weeks; the track showcases this newfound meshing of hip-hop and R&B with the band. After that, they have some full-on R&B singles in the works.
As with all of the music Kohler has made with all of the projects she’s been a part of over the last few years, this won’t be the final version of Kitty Crimes. “It is always going to be constantly evolving,” says Kohler of Crimes. “In my opinion, that’s how I should measure it as an artist. I just want to make new things, and that means they have to sound new.”
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