Natasha Kmeto: Portlandian R&B Singer-Producer Grooves at Max Efficiency

"The older I get, the more I don't see a reason to be hiding out. I'm not interested in leaving [my songs] open to interpretation."

Natasha Kmeto
Natasha Kmeto Photo by Patti Miller
WRITTEN BY
Jessica Hopper

Who: Natasha Kmeto's sensuous, pre-dawn R&B is not what comes to mind when one hears the term "indie act from Portland." But the 30-year-old groove rider insists that the Oregon metropolis' "moody, mystical, and dark feeling" suits her work just fine. Both lush and luscious, her second album Crisis balances Imma-Do-Me confidence with Imma-Do-You lust. And she plays every part, as well, down to the handclaps and vocal samples. Working free of collaborators, the Best New Artist alumna distilled her twin loves of '90s R&B (Missy, SWV) and dystopian '80s synthscapes (Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack) into one of the best headphone albums of the year.

Groove Is in the Heart: For Crisis, Kmeto gave herself an assignment, which helped focus the recording. "I wanted to write the entire album inside of two months," she explains. But as these things tend to go, something came along and upended that plan entirely. "I fell in love, and it was my first relationship with a woman — so there was a lot going on," Kmeto says with a laugh. The singer channeled all her "raw, complex" feelings into the songs. And, in the throes of new love, there were also epic evenings of dancing, which, Kmeto adds, played into wanting to produce something that felt a lot like "the before, during, and after" of all those "late night scenes." The album's centerpiece, "Last Time," is stark and carnal, Kmeto moving from breathy to belting over arpeggiating synth lines and stuttering sub-bass. "There is a lot of desire and longing [on Crisis] and I decided not to be ambiguous about it," she says. "I'm a straight shooter who wears her heart on her sleeve, so in my music, I aim to be really honest. The older I get, the more I don't see a reason to be hiding out. I'm not interested in leaving [my songs] open to interpretation."

J Dilla Is My Co-Pilot: Kmeto's soulful vocals bare the influence of the Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald records she grew up on, as well as the Aaliyah albums she obsessed over later, but Kmeto says her production is guided by the memory of J Dilla. "He is the guiding light of my musical decisions," she says. "He could make something synthetic feel organic and human. He took the best parts of things and made them better." Dilla's influence, Kmeto says, is most audible in her style of sampling and how, on Crisis, she generated her own source material. (The all-snaps beat on "Morning Sex" is a prime example). "With electronic music, you can literally make music from any sound you want," she says. "But I really like just using 808s, 909s, snaps, and handclaps."

Artist vs. Artisan: After studying digital production at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, Kmeto says she fell in with a bunch of studio musicians, quickly realizing that she "didn't like being plugged into a system where music was more like a trade than an art form. It was kind of depressing," she says. "Everyone was really cynical and I wanted to make art." And when Kmeto decamped for Portland six years ago, she had no career aspirations in mind. "But within six months," she counters, "I had management and booking, and I was making music I didn't have to compromise on."

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