Kate Stables relishes in duality. It’s the scaffolding around which the Paris-based, U.K.-born banjoist builds much of her new album, Off Off On, her sixth with her band This Is The Kit. It’s all building up and falling apart; digging down and piling up; breathing in and breathing out.
“I wonder, is it because I’m a Gemini? Is it because I’m a twin? Is it because it’s just my character? I don’t know, but it’s true,” Stables says over Skype from the couch in her living room. “I feel like I quite often find myself thinking about the phrase ‘both things are true,’ even though often there’s more than two things, you know — there’s multiple existences at the same time. I really like thinking about and acknowledging reality. Jesse (Vernon), my partner, has got an album called The Opposite Is True, and I feel like I quite often get drawn to that idea as well, ’cause it’s like a snake eating its own tail, isn’t it?”
The ouroboros, an ancient symbol for the cycle of life — another representation of the duality of existence.
Stables penned parts of Off Off On while on the road with The National — a continuation of her contributions to their 2019 album I Am Easy To Find. She says being “a minion in someone else’s band” was freeing, giving her the bandwidth to work through some thoughts and feelings. The result was the existential reckoning of Off Off On.
“What do you expect when you keep it so secret?” she asks — herself, the listener — in the opening track “Found Out.” “You carry it ’round alone in your bloodstream / It eats at your bones / The keeping it secret / You carry it ’round / It burns you with blisters.”
“So speak the words,” she gently insists. “Let yourself breathe.”
But the track’s buoyant nature, driven by a lilting raga-esque melody, leaves little room to catch your breath. Like life, the song bounds forward, whether you’re winded or not. It’s Stables’ gossamer vocals that ground and soothe enough to convince you that perhaps you can pull through; perhaps you can catch your breath.
The philosophical questions keep coming throughout Off Off On as Stables examines how she moves through the world, how she engages with herself and others. But there’s a clear realization that while life exists because of endless complementary contrasts — night and day, life and death, building and destroying — the human experience is a bit more uneven, like walking on a rocky trail, a lifetime of constantly recalculating your center of gravity, correcting, then taking another step.
The title track explores this uncertainty through the imagery of a friend dying in a hospital, lights blinking on the machines keeping him alive.
“Off, off, on,” Stables sings. “Breath out / Breath in / But breathe out / Both ways, you’re living / Both ways / Wide awake / Eyes that move / In this room / Sleeping soon / Sun up, sun down / And lights on, lights out / I’m blinking off, off, on.”
“A lot of the pictures that I have in my head when I sing that song are related to that situation, but it’s not meant to just be a sad song,” Stables says. “It’s this idea of off, off, on, the patterns that happen in life and the progress we make and then the opposite of progress and then a bit more progress. Like we’re constantly sort of shifting forward a bit, then backwards, then a bit sideways, you know?”
While there’s anxiety coded into the DNA of Off Off On, the album is uplifting in its search for nuance and clarity and peace in the chaos that is human existence. By album’s end, Stables has found at least some modicum of peace in the track “Keep Going:”
“This love is ours / This love is still ours / This love has been ours / This love was ours / This love is still ours,” she sings, a reminder to herself, to the listener. A mantra for bad days and good.
“No one can take our love away from us, be it between people or simply one person’s love,” Stables says. “The thing that makes humans hope against hope and keep going in adversity is optimism. Otherwise what else is there and what are we doing here? Having faith in each other as people and as life forms living on this planet is all we can do. But the hope is real and the reasons for hope are real. People are strong and resilient and loving and we all need to set the example.”