We had the good fortune of connecting with Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kaeley, let’s talk legacy – what do you want yours to be?
When I go, I would be honored if people remembered that Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm was like a “musical Erin Brockovich.” My band is called KPH & The Canary Collective because whether I am performing my indie folk music solo or with a full string quartet and band, I sing with the chronically ill canaries of the world in my heart, with a strong mission. I believe I am living, breathing, and singing my song here on Earth as a canary lives, breathes, and sings her song of warning in a coal mine. When people hear my story through my songs, I hope that they don’t just think, “Oh, wow, a girl with a rare disease becomes a climate crisis-fleeing nomad and has to wear a mask for years to avoid perfume and smoke and mold and viruses because she’s so sensitive. What a fluke. What a rare, unique story.” I hope they will hear my canary song in the context of the chorus of millions of other canaries whose bodies are so deeply feeling the effects of toxins and ecosystem disruption of our planet and the microbiomes within. I hope they will hear the warning signs within that chorus and that those warnings will precipitate a change of course. I hope that in 100 years, because of our canary songs, people will talk about how stupid it was that we dumped carcinogenic chemical pesticides on our food and then shrugged our shoulders when we saw exponential rises in chronic illnesses and cancers just like people today talk about how idiotic it was to put mercury on top hats and wondering why the hatters went mad.
And I hope that my legacy will not only involve my embodying some warning signs but that my story – our canary stories – will inspire solutions and alternative, more sustainable ways of living on this earth. There are ways to honor Indigenous land-based, community-based healing practices plus integrate it with the exciting progress of Western medicine and science. There are ways to have a diversity of foods and products and globalized connection in a way that doesn’t poison people. There are ways to use energy to get things done without using fossil fuels at such a high rate. And there are ways of interacting with the decision makers, like senators and CEOs, and each other, in creative, heart-centered ways. I want to leave a legacy of normalizing “musical lobbying” and creative story-telling through the arts as a mode of democracy coming alive. I want to breach the dams of North America so rivers run free, treaty rights with First Nations communities are honored, and orca whale and salmon populations are restored. And when that story is told in the history books, I want people to talk about how the revolution was musical.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My band, or musical story-telling and community “orca-nizing” group – KPH & The Canary Collective – is a people power indie folk project and consists of a roving cast of accompanists and collaborators. We blend creative and powerful music and story telling, community organizing and art, and captivating solo performance with full band and audience participation. KPH & The Canary Collective’s mission is to inspire dialogue and action around issues ranging from environmental to healthcare to gender justice. For me. there is no separation between art and activism or the personal and the political. In 2015, suddenly bedridden from a perplexing and debilitating disease after working five years in the non-profit world as a Seattle and DC-based community organizer, I turned to music as a way to heal and connect with others in a similar boat. I went from walking around Senator’s offices in a business suit then marching in the streets playing protest songs to not being able to walk a half a block, sit upright at the piano or keep my eyes open more than a few minutes a day. I developed extreme chemical sensitivity so if my sister walked in the room and had showered with perfumed shampoo, my tongue would swell and I wouldn’t be able to open my eyes.
I quickly found I was not at all alone and that my story was not rare. When insurance did not cover all of my life-saving medical treatment, my friends and family supported me through crowdfunding and I am sustained as a disabled artist with monthly donations via Patreon.
I released an EP “Hi From Pillows” in 2017 with Local Woman Records and dreamed up and co-organized “#BedFest 2017,” a virtual music and arts festival MEAction put on in which hundreds of other bedridden artists from around the world submitted songs and visual art expressing the pain of struggling to afford medical treatment and performed via international video conference. I also co-founded and helped organize a series called “Sick Womxn and Queers Shows” in the Pacific Northwest in which music, poetry, and interactive educational skits were used to demonstrate the importance of humans doing something to make healthcare, housing, and clean air and water more affordable and accessible to all.
With my grant-funded full-length album “The Canary Collective: Vol 1,” I collaborated with more “womxn and queers” such as Luz Elena Mendoza of Mexican-American band Y La Bamba and Nataly Dawn of Pomplamoose to make a Cat Power and Sufjan Stevens-inspired collage of poetry, songs, and TED Talk quotes.
KPH & The Canary Collective has shared the stage with some of our biggest influences and heroes such as Y La Bamba, Lucy Dacus, Kyle Morton (Typhoon), MIrah, and Julianna Barwick. With improvement in my health in 2019, I toured the west coast and raised funds for environmental and racial justice organizations Sunrise Movement and Earth Pearl Collective. Our video entry to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2020 was featured on the “All Songs Considered” blog.
For the past few years, I have been a climate crisis nomad, living in a minivan and trailer and fleeing wildfire smoke, moldy housing, and even pesticide sprays on farmland often so that I can breathe and sleep. My latest album “The 5 & 3” was recorded while quarantining in 100 days of solitude in a trailer in the Joshua Tree desert. Because of my immune system and lung issues, if I want to keep singing, isolation during this pandemic has been key. It has not been easy and I owe the fact that I’m able to walk and talk and sit upright more again to the amazingly powerful healers who welcomed me as I stepped through the cracks of the broken Western medical system and started reconnecting with Eastern and Indigenous-based healing practices.
I hope to continue to use my music and unique performance style as a tool of encouraging dialogue around the ties between our healing bodies and our healing ecosystems on this planet. I currently am involved with the struggle to un-dam rivers in order to help orca whales heal from health problems they’ve been experiencing, and my style of advocacy now may not be the traditional business-suit-in-DC style, but I’m organizing a virtual choir and helping coach people on how they can use their art as a way of contacting and swaying decision makers on issues they want to see policy change around. I am a “musical lobbyist” and I want more people to join me!
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
My best friend Avery who has been my bestie since we were 3-4 years old in preschool did visit last year for our joint 30th birthday and we lived it up in the most tourist way! We played some music in Echo Park with my band and saw “The Lion King” remake at El Capitan Theater, bowing down to the place where Beyonce’s shoes had walked on the red carpet for the premiere that week.
I was living in Silver Lake when the pandemic hit, and I love the stairs that lead to little fairy gardens along the way. We’d have to go to Venice Beach and chip in some change for the artists who are busking on the street. Finally, I always cannot get enough of Cafe Gratitude’s mint chocolate smoothie.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I have to give a shoutout to my Patreon community. I am alive because people decided to pitch in a few dollars every month and become a “patron” of my work online, when I suddenly lost my DC non-profit job because of my illness and couldn’t afford my medical bills. My friends and family supported me when I fell through the cracks. There are so many inspiring disabled artists who helped me understand just how not alone I was.
Porochista Khakpour, Jen Brea, Tara Hardy, and Sarah Marie Ramey, who just published a great book called “The Lady’s Handbook to Her Mysterious Illness,” are some of the many other “canaries” with whom I work.