The website KiteLife.com once called the Washington State International Kite Festival the “greatest, grandest” such event in North America. The week-long gathering has been held in Long Beach, three hours southwest of Seattle, since 1981. At that first-ever festival a group of kids from Edmunds Community College were among the handful of attendees, and they broke the world record for the longest continuous kite flight (108 hours, 17 minutes). Since then the festival has become an unmissable event for kitefliers and fans, attracting 10,000 guests each year, and Long Beach has become a “kite-flying mecca,” according to the Seattle Times, with strong winds whipping up off of the Pacific and onto the walls of the World Kite Museum and Hall of Fame, a few steps from the coastline.
Audrey Kang, the lead singer and songwriter for the mostly New York-based band Lightning Bug, flew to Long Beach for the WSIKF in 2019, shortly after turning in her band’s long-awaited second album, October Song. She figured that the band was over, with every member of the group exhausted at the end of a five-year writing and recording process. “I felt spent, I felt tired, I felt uninspired, I felt like I was at the end of something and I didn't feel hopeful,” she says now over the phone from Mexico City, where she’s spent the past few months. Kang, who has been interested in kites and kite-making since picking up a dusty book in a used bookstore a few years ago, insists she would never bring her own kite to an event this prestigious. Instead she was there, on the other side of the continent, to camp out and watch other people fly their kites, attempt feats of kite-flying endurance, even engage in organized kite-fighting: “I think I was the only person who was there alone, who was in their 20s. I think I was an anomaly. But it was beautiful.”
Eighteen months on and Lightning Bug are preparing to release their third album, A Color Of The Sky. It’s as graceful, hushed, and considered as either of the band’s first two records, but here there’s a steeliness to Kang’s lyrics that wasn’t present before. On October Song Kang would often quietly undercut the band’s most languid moments with doubt and self-criticism; now she seems utterly at ease with herself, accepting of the past and present and less worried about the future. The way that she describes it, this peace is the inevitable consequence of indulging an interest in kites. “If you go and fly a kite now, I feel like you'll understand what I mean,” she says. “There's just something so magical about it. There's something magical about seeing something flying that you've made or that someone else has made with their hands.”
One of the clearest examples of the change between the two albums is in A Color of the Sky’s “September Song, pt. ii,” the sequel to October Song’s penultimate track. The original, a melancholy folk track built out of quiet electric guitar and a compressed electronic drum beat, had Kang anxious about the passing of time and what she might take with her: “The memory dims in my heart / Call it back / Let it go / I don't know.” On the new song, premiering below, the tenor and key are the same, though the instruments are all warmer this time. And most noticeably Kang’s lyrics answer all the questions that she couldn’t resolve two years ago: “The sunset brings me to fruition / I am raw, I am new in the transition.”
On the phone from Mexico City, Kang spoke about the change in tone from one Lightning Bug album to the next, the writing process behind A Color of the Sky, and the long wait between recording and releasing the album.
What was your relationship like with October Song after it was released?
It was an album that really [got] bogged down in some places. It tired us out. I got tired of it. I was like, these songs are dead ends. It was sort of a challenging one to finally finish in a lot of ways. I didn't want the next record to feel like that, but I didn't know how to do it differently.
I was proud, I was happy with the record, but it also represented a period in my life where I felt lost. Now that I say that, I actually realized October Song was very symbolic of me sort of knowing on some level — subconsciously, unconsciously — that I was going to feel better eventually. That was just going to be a period, and it would pass.
Do you think that's baked into the lyrics of October Song?
If you take these three records, it's actually perfectly symbolic of my frame of mind through the years and how I've changed. Floaters, I was really sad and really leaning into that; in October Song, I was like, "Hmm, I don't really want to be this person anymore." The lyrics in October Song are more speaking to potential energy and the potential for change and knowing that something's on the other side, or starting to learn how to trust yourself. And then by A Color of the Sky, it's like, well what do you do with that newfound trust, and that newfound being comfortable in who you are? Where can you go from there?
That change comes through particularly clearly between the first “September Song” and the sequel on this album.
Taking those two songs as a pair is even more [pronounced]. I think you can really see the difference that I was trying to convey. In “September Song,” I was questioning; there's a lot of questions in that song. I was grappling and struggling with the idea of memories and the passage of time and not knowing. It's a lot of regret and melancholy. And then by “September Song, pt. ii,” it's more of embracing and really luxuriating in a good memory and being okay with that, even if it has passed.
Is that why you specifically chose to write a sequel?
Yes. Because I think those two songs are very much so directly dealing with the idea of memory, which is something that's always fascinated me and something I write about a lot. It was a very obvious progression, because one song was more of a struggle and more of a moment of tension with memory, and then “September Song, pt. ii” is the release of memory. So, yeah, it was intentional.
At what point did you realize that October Song wasn't the last Lightning Bug record?
I think I realized that before I got on the plane there. I was about to get on the plane. I was really sad. And I was crying in the airport for no real good reason. And then all of a sudden I knew that I was going to feel better and that I was going to write more songs. So actually before the trip, I already knew. During the trip I was sort of cementing that realization. Coming back, I was ready. I knew I had songs.
Was the writing process quite solitary when you got back?
I already had all those songs, ready to go before we went upstate [the band recorded together in a rural area near Denver, NY], which actually marks a very different part of the process. For Floaters and for October Song, it was very much so touch and go and I would sort of have the concept and have the basic song written, but there was, I felt, a lot of confusion as to where to take them exactly and what they should sound like. Whereas for A Color of the Sky, I knew exactly what I wanted. I just knew. And so that actually made it possible to record most of the songs in a 10-day period, because I already knew.
How much of your lyrical content do you share with the band in advance? Even just the stuff we’ve talked about briefly here — how much of that do you need to be open about with the rest of your band to try and get the right effect?
Oh, they don't know the lyrics. I think I showed them the lyrics to like a few songs, but that's definitely not the norm. They keep that separate. I just tell them what I want it to feel like. I'm a very visually descriptive person. So, say I want it to feel like when you're driving down the highway and you're excited to go somewhere, and it's kind of monotonous, but you're also excited and it's fun to sort of relax. I'll say something like that. That's sort of abstract, but luckily this group of people just completely understands what I mean by that and what they should be expressing through their playing.
You recorded the bulk of the album in January 2020 and had things pretty much finished by May. It’s already been almost a year since the album was finished. How has your relationship with these songs changed in that time?
I think there's something sort of beautiful about that because if you release it immediately, you're almost too close to it. It's already vulnerable enough to be releasing something that you've created, but as I'm sure you could probably relate to from writing, once you finish something and then you release it, it's almost like you don't have the time to process it and come to terms with it in yourself.
I feel lucky that I've had the time to get to know the record from this perspective of more of an outsider, because when you're making it and you're recording it, you're so deep in it, you can't really see it or hear it. Now almost a year later, I feel like I'm at the point where I can hear the song and enjoy it for what it is, rather than hearing a song as a work in progress. I’m hearing it as just a song.
A Color of the Sky is out June 25 via Fat Possum. Pre-order the album here.