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Music

Super Saturated Sugar Strings singer takes a vow of silence

  • Author:
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published January 8, 2015

A loud presence in Alaska's musical community has been keeping very quiet lately. And around Anchorage it's become just a little harder to catch a really good show.

Kathryn Moore, 33, has been sitting in a room outside Philadelphia wondering where words begin.

"Do they start when your mouth creates their shape, even if you say nothing?" she writes by email. "Or do they begin with the thought of the word?"

Moore recently ended a five-and-a-half-week stretch of complete silence.

It's the result of a conversation last spring, when Moore's Super Saturated Sugar Strings bandmates sat down in a Fairbanks hotel room to have a serious talk. The time had come for Moore to deal with her voice.

Even though she was sleeping longer to let her body heal after performances and hiding backstage during set breaks to avoid conversations, she was losing her voice. The nodules that had developed on Moore's vocal cords were an issue that couldn't be ignored any longer.

"It was essentially a vocal intervention, in my mind. But thank goodness they did," Moore writes.

Moore, who grew up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, remembers being teased in seventh grade when her voice changed and she moved from soprano to tenor in her school's choir, where she had to stand among the boys.

She began studying voice and piano at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2009, teaching private lessons on the side. Even then, she struggled with frequently losing her voice -- one semester she had to take an incomplete in singing lessons because her laryngitis had gotten so bad.

Her instructor recommended she "get scoped" by an ear, nose and throat specialist. The doctor found nodules on her vocal folds, which form when the tissue thickens and becomes callused due to irritation, usually through overuse.

The condition can radically impact a person's voice and, in rare cases, requires surgery. It's a problem that can affect not only professional singers, but people who work as teachers, preachers or telemarketers and in other professions.

Moore's singing, teaching and effusive personality had pushed her to the tipping point. But rather than slow down, she says, she took on more and more, playing solo sets up to four hours long, hosting open mics, constantly jamming with other musicians, on top of holding her own with the gypsy/folk band Super Saturated Sugar Strings.

"I think I'm a person motivated so much by passion and stubbornness that I'd become a fool. I sang until I couldn't," she writes.

A bedroom back east

With her short-cropped brown hair and an almost constant smile, Moore is a familiar sight at local shows, sitting behind her Roland keyboard with a bell in one hand and her foot on a tambourine, jumping up to throw on a guitar or grab a drink, all at a frenetic pace.

For the Sugar Strings, the lives of its four founding members have been dramatically altered by the band's steady rise and appetite for live performances -- with a three-month Lower 48 tour, shows across distant parts of Alaska and two records under their belt.

When the band packed Anchorage's Tap Root Public House late last June for a raucous "Heart-Shaped Leaves" CD release party, few probably would have guessed a hiatus was imminent.

The plan had materialized months earlier, shortly after the Fairbanks intervention, for Moore to take an actual rest. But it would need to be far away from Anchorage.

"I worried about my finances, my ability and willpower to stay silent in the community of people with whom I love to communicate so, so much," she writes.

Her last show was a "Let the Kat Sing" benefit concert thrown by the Sugar Strings to help her through being out of a job and a voice. She ended up playing in four bands at the Tap Root that night. "It felt like the best birthday party ever," says Moore.

She flew to her sister's home in Philadelphia last September, where doctors prescribed three weeks of silence -- no talking and no singing (whistling, however, was permitted). After finding recurring symptoms later on, they ordered an additional five to six weeks of silence.

Since her period of isolation began, Moore has spent a lot of time sitting at her computer late into the night on weekends, glued to Tap Root's live webcam. Fellow musicians would give her shout-outs when they knew she was watching the stage from a bedroom back east.

Moore says she has learned to be more comfortable with silence than ever before.

"It's been interesting to note how beautiful and fluid language is, whether in the small, inferred words that create flowing sentences in spoken language or in hands signing shapes into ideas in American Sign Language," she writes.

She's observed the way people assume that if you can't talk, you can't hear either, and how even when people know you can hear, they can still be patronizing.

"I think it's a testament to the fact that, whatever disability someone suffers, it doesn't always affect their intellect and that should not be assumed," she writes.

Public silence has been tricky, like when Moore would bump into an old man and blurt out "sorry" involuntarily or when strangers talked to her in passing and she could only gesture in return.

"Everyone keeps saying, 'Ah, I bet you'll think about what's important to say now, eh?'" she writes. "No, not really. Every word I spoke before to those I loved, every story I've ever told was as articulate as it needed to be, for me.

"You can take the gal outta the conversation, but you can't take the conversation outta the gal," she quips.

At a cost

Moore said she would take a "metaphorical bullet" for music, and she wonders if this might be that bullet.

Moore was steeling herself for a three-week Pacific Northwest tour with the Sugar Strings starting this week. On Dec. 28, she came out of her silence with some minor vocal warmups.

Then, on New Year's Eve, another ENT specialist found a pre-nodule on her vocal cords.

There was much more than just vocal strain working against her, he said. Moore's vocal cords were rigid from dehydration and scarred by acid reflux.

The doctor prescribed permanent lifestyle changes -- no alcohol whatsoever; four hours between eating and sleep; vocal exercises; and adopting a new method of breathing -- or she wouldn't be able to perform and teach professionally like she used to. He advised against singing on the tour.

The future is uncertain, but Moore says she is ready for the sacrifices ahead. She has already made compromises, including calling off a solo recording session in Portland, and on the upcoming tour, she's prepared to hold back from singing with the band, for now.

"I am not healed, but I'm not hopeless," Moore wrote on Facebook. "I am so thankful to eventually be able to share the gift that makes me feel the most alive."

She hopes that shows won't have to be canceled as the Sugar Strings come out of dormancy, and make their way north. If Moore has her way, just before Alaskans forget what they're missing, the whole band will make their triumphant return.

"It was here I learned to sing and here that I have come to love my newfound bandmates as deep as family; a bond that is incredibly special," she writes. "Alaska is my musical family."

Evan Erickson can be reached at eerickson@alaskadispatch.com.

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