Photo by Tasya Menaker
It’s 2006, and Rachel Thomas is staring down the edge of a long blade.
A decision had to be made. Die right now or live, because pointing a knife at yourself daily is no kind of life.
A choice was made, the knife lowered. The next day, Thomas re-discovered sound.
Thomas, better known in Chicago as KSRA, has had a life journey that embodies itself whole-heartedly in the music she makes.
On the cover of her debut album, Petra, Thomas lays amongst a field of paper, pages detailing a long period of self-reflection; one that spanned five years, two countries, two states and hundreds of pages of notes on the events therein.
In 2005, as a junior music student at the University of Michigan, Thomas took the opportunity to travel to Chile for a study abroad trip. Disenchanted with the classical route she chose to pursue in school, it was to be a trip of discovery; a chance to experience new things and grow.
Soon after landing in Santiago, Thomas hopped a cab south to a small fishing village. While riding through dense forest and steep inclines, the steering column broke and sent the cab, with Thomas inside, barreling into a home. Having survived, she began looking for a way back to town, eventually flagging down another driver.
“I need a mother for my kids, you can take care of my kids.”
The man had been glancing over his shoulder at the 20-year-old Thomas riding in the backseat for some time before stopping on the side of the road miles from the nearest town to propose his romantic ransom.
After taking pictures with her on his cell phone he drove her to the top of a mountain. She sat there, shoeless with her backpack on as he clutched her arm.
“Why did you let me take those pictures Rachel,” he asked. “I’m going to drive this car off this cliff.”
That was enough. Shoes be damned, Thomas took the split second of freedom she had from the man’s grasp to leap out the window, immediately calling the only Chilean number in her phone.
The six-hour kidnapping ended innocently, the man dropped her off near town and set his sights elsewhere; she was free.
A week later, shaken and a bit out of sorts from her kidnapping debut, Thomas needed smiles, needed friends, needed a drink. Several hours and a cocktail or two later she found herself dizzy, disoriented and being led up a flight of stairs. She came to later, a victim of date rape.
On her song “The Queen” Thomas sings, “Was it the way that I dressed, the way that I touched his chest, when we were standing there and then we went up the stairs. I know what they were thinkin’, I know what they were thinkin’. I must have wanted it before it went black.”
Referred to the school’s clinic, Thomas was met with skepticism. The culture in Chile isn’t as contemporary in treating rape cases, placing the blame on her.
“What do you mean date raped,” the doctor asked. “Were you drinking?”
Divorce had been legalized in Chile only months before Thomas’ arrival, a development that she points to for the proliferation of a culture that has a steady supply of over-aggressive men and under-appreciated women. Both incidents happened within the first month of a six-month trip. Thomas told no one.
“I was determined not to let this get me,” said Thomas. “I was living in this culture and saw everyone else really enjoying themselves and I didn’t know what happened to me, I didn’t understand it.”
The Glenview, Il native spent the next five months on a steady diet of wine and marijuana, hardly seeing her fellow classmates. She traveled again on her own. She worked her way through what had happened. She drank. And she smoked. Keeping notes the whole while.
The trends didn’t stop when she got back to school in Ann Arbor. Booze and weed gave way to drug experimentation as she burrowed deeper into her own hole, increasingly self-medicating to escape what had happened and deal with the present.
“I was seeking the dark side and I found it,” said Thomas. “It was going great until I just lost it. I wasn’t making music anymore, I can’t be alive anymore.”
That dark side led to a suicide attempt that preluded her dropping out of school and heading home to her parents house just north of Chicago where she began working at her father’s law practice. It was during this time, with her parents at work and her brother at school, that she would walk to the kitchen, reach for the largest knife, and hold it to her chest.
“I eventually decided I’m not going to die and bought myself a voice recorder and all I would do from 2007-2009 was literally walk around the city with this recorder with me,” said Thomas. “I have so many sounds: what the night sounds like, what my hair sounds like, what my feet sound like, the car starting, people arguing, people crying, people laughing; everything.”
Since leaving for Chile in 2005 the former Vocal Performance Music major at The University of Michigan played and performed music rarely, if at all. Hearing and recording the audacity of life around her was the imperative final step that allowed her to begin to emerge from a half decade of re-organization and self-realization.
Music reflects life for KSRA. Petra is less an album than it is a novel of self-reckoning and an appropriate stepping out for an artist that has had a long route to musical fruition.
It was while recording the world around her that she also rediscovered performing music, playing in an experimental psychedelic soul band named Automata, singing lead vocals, slowly teaching herself to play the keys at the urging of her band mates.
“They kept telling me I could play keys and eventually I just said ok,” said Thomas. “I had a friend with a Wurlitzer and would practice with my drummer in his loft and it was a fucking education.”
The moment came as she caught herself writing lyrics while on the phone with a client, her mind engrossed in the words flowing from her hand. That was it-music was again the pursuit.
Playing with Automata, Thomas was introduced to loop pedals and began looping vocals, ambient sounds, instruments. Reminiscent of similar female vocalists like Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards or Kimbra, Thomas possesses a depth to both tone and vocals that threatens to go a step further.
It was in fact Garbus that inspired much of her delivery and aesthetic when she performed in Austin at South by Southwest in 2011 with Thomas watching from the crowd.
Following her trip south to Texas with the band in flux and nearing the end of their two-year run, Thomas was at an impasse as to where to go next.
“I came home in March. April and May I thought about it, had the moment in the forest of exploration meditating and asked myself if KSRA is what I needed to do. Then one day this car cut me off with the license plate: KSERA.”
She had asked for a sign and now she had it, KSRA, a play on the Spanish term meaning “what will be”, was born.
With no solo content she booked a show for June 22, 2011-on the first of June.
“I had 22 days, I had just bought the loop station and I had to learn how to use it for the show and I had to write songs for the show,” said KSRA.
To do so, she re-opened old boxes and discovered weathered notebooks filled with the notes she had gathered over the past five years, the words creating a mosaic of the path to that point.
In those pages she found the Chile story, she found a story of a lost love, she found anxiety and depression and feeling trapped, she found thinking too much to the point of insanity, she found confronting death. She found the themes she needed. Each song on Petra is years in the making, personal experiences that materialized themselves in tracks like “The Queen”, “Radio Waves” and “Revival”, songs rife with context.
“For me, this was a fucking life or death situation,” said KSRA. “I needed to be playing, so I booked the show and developed my sound over the next two years.”
The development capped by a chance meeting with Zak Fox and Robbie Mueller of Fox & The Mule studios in December 2012 in Chicago, who helped to hone her full, poignant voice and array of ideas by recording a cohesive project that fully encapsulates her writing and music with life experiences.
The past eight years have held plenty for KSRA. With Petra, she hopes to finally put the past behind her and move forward refreshed. She is no longer holding the knife, again comfortable in the world around her.
“With this album I am laying that person to rest for good,” said KSRA. “Music is my sound. If I were a river I would babble, if I were a bird I would chirp. It’s just what I do-I’m alive and the thing I do is make sound.”