You get the impression that Clara Kent spends a lot of time in the studio. The Pittsburgh-based singer, songwriter, and visual artist came straight from a recording session to meet me at Bantha Tea Bar in Garfield on July 4th, and headed right back 45 minutes later. It was no surprise, then, when Kent told me, “I don’t recall wanting to do anything else,” besides art and music, even from an early age.
Kent, who rose to local prominence around the time she recorded and released her debut mixtape A U R A in early 2018, is warm and enthusiastic in person, slightly self-effacing but possessing a clear sense of assurance and confidence in herself, both as a musician and as a person. Near the beginning of our conversation, she rattled off a head-spinningly extensive list of her various roles and identities: sister, “hood sage,” songwriter, singer, rapper, arranger, painter, graphic designer, event planner, label head of the Tribe Eternal Music Group. She’s even making her own beer as part of a collaboration with Butler Brew Works (it’s going to involve a lot of apple).
Kent calls herself a “multidimensional artistic individual.” She elaborated on this moniker: “People say the ‘jack of all trades.’ I want to be the master of all trades […] I house a lot of creative energy.” She’s got the spirit of previous generations, both personal and universal, guiding her. She views her creative pursuits partially as ways to honor her late mother—an artist herself—who put aside her own endeavors in order to raise Kent and to deal with some personal struggles. A U R A resulted from a swell of artistic and emotional energy that had been building inside Kent for years, and her mother’s death was the event that catalyzed its unleashing. She also mentioned being influenced by a number of legendary artists and singers including Sade, Nina Simone, Mary J Blige, Aaliyah, Michael Jackson, and 70’s soul music in general.
Kent wasn’t always the polymath that she is today; she spent years working in retail, which she likened to having her mind trapped in a box, struggling to escape. More insidiously, Kent was caught up in her own ego. She described this fixation not as an overabundance of confidence, but a lack of it. She explained the “other side” of the concept of the ego, a word that people usually associate with arrogance, as “being a bully to yourself” not allowing yourself to accept your own worth. The feeling is eloquently summed up on the song “Souled,” (included on A U R A): “Ain’t no room for me/But what room would be for me?”
A U R A was Kent’s reckoning with herself, her surroundings, and her own mindset. While recording, she was nearing the end of a toxic, “stormy” relationship; judging from some of the mixtape’s lyrics, these tracks may have dealt the much-needed deathblow. On “Outside,” which Kent describes as an “ass-kicking song,” she threatens to fuck up not only her significant other, but also his “mama, auntie, and cousins.” “Outside” (which features a verse from Bilal Abbey, another prominent member of the Tribe Eternal) was my favorite track from the project; according to Kent, a number of other people share this opinion.
The “stormy” circumstances that surrounded the A U R A’s genesis become apparent in the way Kent describes its creation: “I was trying to walk through a hurricane to get to the eye of the storm and see everything.” Despite the tempestuous metaphor, she believes that the album is a light listen, “dreamy and drifty,” an exploration of meditative states that led her to greater personal clarity. Kent talked about the necessity of embracing both the darkness and the light, which sounds like the mark of someone who has finally gotten through the hurricane and sees things clearly. A U R A is an inspiring work in its own low-key way; consider this passage from “Navy Blue,” which comes in the form of one of several cryptic, spoken poems that Kent sprinkles throughout the mixtape: “I rise above the water/And now I’m basking in the light/And I see myself/Not just in reflection/But in the power that I forgot.”
Kent is in a different place now, both personally and professionally She has a new project coming out at the end of August, another mixtape called The 4 Winds: EAST, one quarter of a four-part series that has already been recorded in its entirety (remember what I said about Kent spending a lot of time in the studio).
Her indigenous Lakota heritage inspired this series of mixtapes, the concept being drawn from a medicine wheel given to her ancestors by the White Buffalo Calf Woman. Each of the four directions on the wheel is assigned a different color and association. The east is yellow and represents springtime and new beginnings, and Kent envisions EAST as a fun, less intense listen than her last release. Two singles have already been unveiled, including the laid-back, blearily resigned track “The Call,” covered here by Bored In Pittsburgh. Kent also has in mind (and has had in mind for 25 years) the concept for a full studio album, but I didn’t ask about it, since I get the idea that Kent would want to keep it under wraps until its big reveal some time down the road.
Looking at Kent’s well-curated and -coordinated social media pages, it seems like she’s got a show or event going on every other day. She’s ravenously active in the Pittsburgh arts scene, not only promoting herself, but also facilitating creative environments for fellow musicians and visual artists. The Tribe Eternal, a loose musical collective in the process of becoming a label proper, brings together artists who strive to be “better than they were yesterday.” The key players are Kent herself, the aforementioned Bilal Abbey, and Pharaoh Lum, but they consider a number of others to be members of the family; cliques are not really their thing. The Tribe has put on several “Writings on the Wall” events in the past, which gave local visual artists a chance to come together and paint a massive canvas; an array of musical talent also performed. Gone are the days of pay-to-play shows; these DIY events are full of “people that want to hear music, not another artist waiting to get on stage because they paid $100 for 20 minutes.” Kent also talked about using this energy to break down the “hierarchy of festivals,” facilitating the spread of musical democracy in Pittsburgh.
Kent recommended so many local artists that I lost track, but I’ll list a few of them here (besides Bilal and Lum, the two other main Tribe members): Yorel Tifsim (who often produces for Kent), Benji, NVSV, Livefromthecity, Sierra Sellers, Sad Girls Aquatic Club. One such Pittsburgh musician, Brittney Chantelle, happened to walk into Bantha during the interview; she and Kent marveled that their music (along with two other songs by Yinzers) had been included on a Spotify playlist curated by Insta-famous astrologer Chani Nicholas. Kent asked the rhetorical, dumbfounded question, “What is in the Pittsburgh water?” Whatever it is, I hope she and the rest of her Tribe Eternal compatriots keep drinking it.