By Andy Downing
RedEye special contributor
8:57 PM CST, January 30, 2014
As a child, Rachel Thomas was fascinated with breaking things because she likes to, in her own words, “test boundaries.”
Recording and performing under the name KSRA, the 29-year-old Logan Square resident does the same with her genre-defying music, which incorporates elements of pop, electronica and hip-hop (rapper Talib Kweli even turns up to drop a few bars on the song “Bad Habit”).
Where are you now?
I’ve been wandering around Santa Monica and Venice Beach for the past five hours.
How is your love?
Say that again? I heard, “How is my love?”
I wanted to see how many lines from your “Radio Waves” I could get through before you caught on.
[Laughs] Oh my goodness! I should have caught on! I do that to people. I’ll go, [speaking in a conversational tone], “Tell me what you think about me. I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings. I worked hard and sacrificed to get what I get. Ladies, it’s not easy being independent, you know?” Most of the time people don’t get it. Dude, that’s pretty funny. I did not realize that’s what you were doing.
That song opens with a series of questions. Are you generally an inquisitive person?
To a fault, yeah. I’d ask questions and also just do physical investigation. My favorite thing was to see how far I could twist something until it broke. I really liked to test boundaries and see why something was fragile or what it meant to be fragile.
What’s the most expensive thing you broke?
My most vivid memory of something I broke was this colored-sugar Easter egg sculpture of bunnies, and I was like, “Wow, I have to break this apart piece by piece.” I did that with car windows, too. I would peel back the rubber to see what was underneath.
“Radio Waves” also touches on the way a song can take you back to a particular moment in time. Are you someone who has a running soundtrack tied to different life events?
Yes, I would say certain songs are absolutely associated with certain things in my life. “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics is associated with my mother’s 1987 Volvo. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is being in front of my cousin Robert and Ronnie’s house playing basketball. The first time I ever tried fake making out with someone when I was learning how to kiss, it was Mariah Carey [laughs]. Music has been a huge part of my life.
You really flash your range on “The Worrying Kind.” How did you first discover you could hit those high notes?
It first developed because of a desire I had because of Mariah Carey. I remember going to my sister and being like, “What is that?!” And I’ve just been pushing and pushing and pushing myself to get up there because I’ve always wanted to, and I think it’s beautiful.
You actually teach music in elementary schools, right?
I’m a songwriting instructor, and I team up with choreographers and drama teachers and we basically go into schools where arts programs have been cut and we teach supplemental programming. My main goal is to get [students] to connect to some form of music, and usually I’ll use something modern. In the school I’m in now we started by studying Kanye, and I’ve got them stomping and clapping the kick and snare patterns. It’s letting them know they can create themselves because music seems unattainable to a lot of kids.
Was there that one teacher who really motivated you to pursue a career in music?
No, there wasn’t. I didn’t have anybody. And I think that’s why I like teaching; I can do that for them. Growing up, I was in music classes and not a single person talked to me about what you can actually do with music, like, “Oh, you’re a writer? You can use that skill” or “You have a really good voice for demos.” I never had that, and I like giving that to kids now.
KSRA, 3 p.m. Feb. 15 at Green Mill. Free.
KSRA Personality Test
Last album you bought? Killer Mike and El-P “Run the Jewels”
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? “I’ve been listening to ‘Matangi’ off MIA’s new album and I’ve been listening to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Do Right Woman.’”
Song you never want to hear again? “[Sings] Tonight’s gonna be a good night! That one by the Black Eyed Peas. I never, ever want to hear it again.”
Best concert you've seen in the last year? “It was a songwriter’s night at Café Mustache. I really like small, intimate shows. Ginormous shows don’t excite me much.”
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? Swimsuit Addition “They're super-talented girls and they have a really great energy onstage. They just kick ass.”
Favorite movie ever? [Tie] “Poltergeist” and “Re-Animator”
Chicago's best music venue? Schubas
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