Kaelen OhmPhoto by Shawn Hanna, courtesy of The Initiative Group
There’s a song of particular brilliance in Kaelen Ohm’s life, one she claims “completely turns the energy up in my body to like 100, you know? It’s like every cell and bone and tissue in my body is just going crazy with this song.”
Ohm is a busy actress, filmmaker and musician so her life demands that sort of song in its soundtrack, one that keeps things moving. We recently discussed her own music, the places which inspire it and her starring role in the new Netflix series Hit & Run, which debuts Friday, August 6.
“Hit & Run is a Netflix original series that is an Israeli-American co-production and it’s really an action thriller series but very different I think from most thriller films or TV shows that people have seen before. It’s really centered around love and grief and loss, which I think is different than what we’re used to seeing,” Ohm said. “Our story really follows a man on his journey through grief and losing his wife and asking questions that he has after her tragic death and sort of unraveling parts of both of their pasts that he didn’t know about.”
The new series also stars Lior Raz and Sanaa Lathan and comes from the creators of The Killing, Fauda and The Handmaid’s Tale. The action-packed mystery is set between Tel Aviv and New York City.
“So, it was just this incredible team of people coming together to create this show that I think also shows the cultural relationship between the Unites States and Israel and the differences there and how people need to work together sometimes and how they clash sometimes,” Ohm said. “I think the show is exciting and it’s visually really beautiful, but it’s got these really human elements, this very interpersonal narrative that kind of drives the whole story.”
Ohm hails from Southern British Columbia, Canada. Her lifelong interest in acting developed into professional acting credits in the long-running Canadian series Murdoch Mysteries, NBC’s Taken, AMC’s Hell on Wheels and more. She got her start in music as a drummer in a garage rock group but since 2013 has produced her music as AMAARA. She’s a guitarist, keyboardist and vocalist who also produces, directs and edits AMAARA’s visually arresting videos. She’s performed her indie rock/dream pop songs for audiences at SXSW, ACL Festival and NPR’s “All Songs Considered” and has opened for Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco and St. Vincent.
While working on Hit & Run, Ohm listened for the music around her, particularly in Israel, where she spent four months filming between two years. Filming there wrapped earlier this year, but began in January 2020, and was halted eight weeks into production by the pandemic.
“On the morning that we woke up anticipating this new schedule, we got an email saying we had to leave the country in 48 hours because of COVID and we hadn’t finished the first season yet,” she said. “All of us from all over the world - there was crew from all over Europe, from New Zealand, Canada, the United States - we all just kind of went, okay, before the airport closes we need to leave. And that was it, we kind of just got sent home. And of course, everybody thought it was just going to be a weeks-long thing or a month-long thing and we sort of stood by.”
She didn’t fly back to Israel until January 5, 2021, a year to the exact date she’d made the first trek. Whether she was in the city near its famed Carmel Market or on the waterfront at the beach, she noticed a certain pulse to Tel Aviv.
“I could go on and on and on about Israel, it’s an incredible country with incredible people and incredible artists and incredible energy. For me, I think what really pulled me into that culture is the sort of musical rhythm to everything that they do. It’s so lively and rich and sort of energetic in this really beautiful way,” she said.
“One thing that brought me into that musical aspect was the daily call to prayer that happens five times in the old city in Jaffa,” Ohm explained. “It’s an Arabic call to prayer but it’s this really beautiful, ethereal, vocal musical piece that sounds out over the Mediterranean Sea from the old city and you can hear it almost all the way up the coast of the rest of the city.
“Every time I heard it, it just kind of stopped me in my tracks and then I wanted to go running for it to see if I could record it on my phone or just be closer to it,” she continued. “It kind of became this funny game for me, like would I be somewhere in the city where I could hear it? Would I be able to maybe record it on my phone and get a really good documentation of it or something?”
“This time around what really called me in was all of the Shabbat small masses that were occurring, that were happening sort of on the sidewalks of the little synagogues, and you would have these groups of Jewish folk reciting and singing the Holy Book in song out in the street, then you could sort of hear it from afar. I would hear it from my apartment window,” she said.
“One day I just went right down to the street and crossed the street and stood behind this wall listening to them and a man saw me and he came out and looked at me and I was obviously a foreigner,” she noted. “He invited me into the synagogue to listen and the sort of rhythm and the pulse to their prayer as song is so captivating and so beautiful to me, especially being a Canadian where we don’t have that type of cultural practice. We don’t have song and dance in our blood the way that a lot of other cultures do and that’s something that really pulled me in.”
Ohm said the rhythms of Israel influenced songs she’s worked on since her return home, so much that she started a new ambient music project inspired by her time there.
“I’m a very impressionable person, so when I’m in a place I’m very absorbent to the energy of the place and of the people. I think that music is very much a creation in partnership or collaboration with nature and with one’s own god, in a way. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a religious way. Even going back to what I was talking about with these Jewish communities at the synagogue sort of singing their prayers, that’s their way to connect to their creator, their source, and I think art is a very spiritual practice, regardless of the modality of expression. To be able to show up to your practice in the environment that you’re in - whether you’re in the middle of the forest or the middle of a city or your apartment or your home in the woods - you sort of open up to become a vessel for these ideas.
“Of course, they’re going to be deeply informed by your own experience and your own belief systems and your own grief and pain and love and all those things, but for me personally it’s absolutely always been a result of where I am and how I’m feeling in those places.”
A good representation of these artistic tenets is forthcoming. Ohm said the next AMAARA release is titled Child of Venus. She’s flying to Ontario this month to mix the full-length’s 11 tracks at The Tragically Hip’s Bathouse Recording Studio and hopes to have it mastered in September. There’s no set date for the album’s release, but “I definitely need to share it as soon as possible and I’m really excited about what it’s turning into,” Ohm said.
“I’m not someone who just sort of sits and writes songs and creates them and throws them in a pile and then grabs the best ones and brings them to the studio,” she admitted. “Everything on the last two albums has just been written, recorded and produced in studio all at once. So, nothing has been actually created ‘til I get in there and go, okay, what has the last year been, what do I need to talk about, what is the sound that I found on the synthesizer this morning, what is that propelling, what song is this gonna become? I guess I let it sort of all reveal itself to me which, in some ways, is what happens when I travel. There’s no plan, everything is just being revealed to you in every moment, that’s kind of similar to my artistic practice with music especially.”
Ohm said she did allow herself more time to create Child of Venus and she’s thrilled by the outcome.
“I left Tel Aviv in the beginning of March of this year and I flew to Calgary, Alberta, which is sort of where I started playing music and started playing in bands, with the intention of creating an album,” she said. “The last album, Heartspeak, was just sort of written and recorded in 10 days, it was very much this splattering of an experience, and so I thought, oh, I’ll give myself a month this time.
“And then I got into the process and March passed and then April passed and I really started seeing the potential to have time to really look at what was being written and how I could dismantle what was not working and be really diligent and pay extra attention to what was being created and sort of give songs breathing room and then come back to them weeks later if they weren’t working and then unravel them and start again.”
She completed recording in June, she said. Who knows, there may be a song of particular brilliance amidst the collection? For Ohm, whose life could get even busier should Hit & Run become Netflix’s next wildly popular series, a particularly brilliant song in her life helps remind her where she started and how come she always ends up where she belongs.
“The first song that popped up into my head, which was kind of a surprise to me in some ways, and in some ways not, was ‘15 Step’ by Radiohead, which is the first track on the In Rainbows album,” she said. “I talk about this album all the time, it’s one of my favorite records of all time, absolutely, and Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. It’s embarrassing to say I’ve never seen them live. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it’s never worked out for me so hopefully in the future that will still happen.
“The song ‘15 Step’ is really interesting because it’s by no means my favorite song on the record and it starts really with just this trashy drum beat that’s mostly programmed drums and Thom Yorke’s vocals but it immediately just kind of sucks you into this really strange but amazing world of sound that’s so simple, it’s literally drums and vocals for almost, I think, the better part of a minute. And then, all of a sudden, this beautiful guitar part comes in with the bass and it starts to have this real flow and I always tend to listen to this album while moving, so I’m either on a plane or in a car or walking.
“And it started with such a journey because it takes you from this simple, almost abrasive sound and eventually just moves into this incredible, ethereal, sort of synth sample-driven world with these kids yelling and the simple and beautiful guitars and his vocal. Thom Yorke to me is kind of the king of simplistic etherealism in a way. Even when he does his solo project, he creates this incredibly beautiful, ethereal world with three or four tracks in a song.”
“You’re kind of left at the end of the song with just the remnants of everything that just happened and then it snaps into the second song, ‘Bodysnatchers’ with this raunchy guitar,” she said. “That song to me is particularly brilliant because it sort of transcends all of what those genres that Radiohead might fit into usually would describe sonically, but it does it completely, perfectly, all the time.”
Netflix’s Hit & Run, starring Kaelen Ohm, debuts Friday, August 6.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.