On the opening song of Sera Cahoone’s recently released (and excellent) fourth studio album From Where I Started, she confides, “First years I ever played my, my songs for anyone / My back was turned toward them and I sang down to the ground / Got so tired of being nervous / So tired of being nervous, that I finally turned around." It’s an empowering declaration for the once stage fright riddled singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, who exudes a refreshing mix of candor and confidence across the LP’s eleven songs.
Now four albums deep into her solo recording career, the Seattle-based Cahoone originally cut her musical chops as the drummer for the revered Emerald City groups Carissa’s Weird and Band of Horses. In 2005, she embarked on her solo career with her eponymous debut album, and followed Sera Cahoone up with 2008’s Only as the Day is Long and 2012’s Deer Creek Canyon, both released via Sub Pop. Self-released this past spring on her own Lady Muleskinner label and co-produced by John Askew (Neko Case, Laura Gibson, Alena Diane), From Where I Started is the shining culmination of her musical travels to date and stands as her finest recording among her still-evolving repertoire.
As Cahoone prepares for a string of East Coast performances later this week, she graciously took the time to connect with me to discuss the making of From Where I Started, her career to date, her approach to songwriting, and her musical inspirations, among a handful of other salient topics.
Justin Chadwick: The title of your new album is From Where I Started, and you started your career as a drummer for various bands. Was evolving into a full-fledged singer-songwriter—not to mention a multi-instrumentalist—what you had always envisioned for yourself as an artist, from the beginning?
Sera Cahoone: When I was younger I was obsessed with drums and being a drummer. Never saw myself as a singer let alone a songwriter. I always would mess around with my brother’s guitar, but I never thought I would get really into it. In high school I started playing guitar more though and songs just started coming out. Being only a drummer can be a little limiting sometimes so I wanted to try other things. I was a super shy kid, so having people hear me sing and hear my lyrics was quite a long process. So I guess the answer is no, I didn't envision it from the beginning, it was more of an organic process.
JC: You released your eponymous debut album eleven years ago, followed by 2008’s Only as the Day is Long and 2012’s Deer Creek Canyon. How would you say you’ve grown as an artist since then, and with each successive album?
SC: I've grown a lot especially in terms of performing in front of people. Like I said before I was really shy and when I performed live I tended to mumble my words so people couldn't really hear them. Now I'm much more comfortable. I've matured as a songwriter but also as a person.
JC: The first song on From Where I Started, “Always Turn Around,” is overtly personal and finds you reflecting upon the stage fright that plagued you earlier in your career. But more broadly, the song is an uplifting statement about conquering your fears, whatever they may be. How did you overcome this particular hurdle in your life, and what would your advice be for others that suffer from a similar kind of shyness?
SC: Yeah, that song is very true [laughs]. One of my best friends (Amy Vanderbeck) who just sadly passed away would come over to my house before my first record. She would record me and I would face the wall. Wouldn't let her see me. She would crack up. And if anyone wanted me to play for them I would literally turn around and play with my back to them.
But, I forced myself to get over that stuff, it took time but thankfully I did. I think now I am able to own and appreciate my own awkwardness and quirks that used to make me feel insecure. I guess I would give the advice that the things that you are probably the most insecure about are probably what make you the most unique.
JC: Across all of your albums, it’s obvious that you have a penchant for translating what are presumably very personal emotions to more universal, broadly relatable themes of the human condition. To what extent are your songs intentionally autobiographical, as opposed to informed or inspired by the experiences of—or your perceptions of—others?
SC: My latest record From Where I Started is the most personal record I have made. Every song is true and I've been through a lot since Deer Creek Canyon. Lots of good, yet some hard times too. I think with the last record, I just wanted to own it being more autobiographical, didn't want to try and hide it. I wanted to just put it out there.
JC: Many of your songs veer toward the more melancholic dimensions of life and love. But on the new album, there are a handful of poignant songs (“Up to Me,” “Time to Give,” “House Our Own”) that strike a more upbeat and optimistic chord. Is the balance between the solemn and the sanguine in your songs a conscious, calculated decision or more a factor of happenstance as you develop each song?
SC: It's funny because I tend to write a lot of sad songs, but in life I'm a pretty happy person. I think sad songs just tend to resonate with me more but every now and again a happy one finds its way out into the world.
JC: You recorded From Where I Started with a few previous collaborators, as well as a few folks that were new to the fold. Can you talk about how the band dynamic played out during the recording sessions, and how the process was different than your previous projects?
SC: I went into recording this record a lot like I did my very first self-titled record. I knew I wanted to play all the drums and piece it together more in the studio with a band. With Only as the Day is Long and Deer Creek Canyon, I went in with a band but had all the parts figured out in advance. With From Where I Started I knew I wanted to bring in different instruments and some new people. Piano was the first thing I wanted and it kind of took over my record in a lot of ways, which is what I wanted. Rob (Burger) blew my mind. I also wanted strong fiddle as well so Annalisa (Tornfelt) was a perfect pick.
JC: Talk about the transition from recording your last few albums for Sub Pop and now releasing this album on your own, under the Lady Muleskinner moniker. Did you approach the recording process differently?
SC: In a way, yes. I think I was just much freer with this record. Not that Sub Pop ever made me stressed out, they have been nothing but amazing. I would just stress myself out in general. I was much more relaxed recording this and writing it. I just didn't know what I was going to do with this record. I just knew I wanted to make it different and try some new things. And I am in love with the way it turned out.
JC: So many critics have a tendency to define artists so narrowly, based on cookie cutter-like genre classifications. I’ve seen your music generally described as either Americana, folk, country, country-rock, indie, or some combination thereof. What do you make of these labels, and how would you describe the music you make?
SC: [Laughs] I know. I never really know what to say when people ask that. I usually just say "singer songwriter folk country stuff."
JC: What other musicians and songwriters would you say have had the most profound impact on your music?
SC: This is a really difficult question because so many very different musicians have had a huge impact over many years. As a kid, I loved my mom's music like Fairport Convention, Fleetwood Mac, anything folk. In my teens, it was Tracy Chapman to Slayer to Missy Elliott. Then I got more into old country in my early 20’s—Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, some Randy Travis. I also love the Eagles, Jim Croce. I really could go on and on...I'm all over the place.
JC: In today’s uncertain political and social climate, I find myself listening to music more than ever, as an escape from, or a sedative for, all of the chaos and noise. What role do you think you and other musicians play—or should play—during times as tense and troubling as these?
SC: I think music and the arts are more important now than ever. In part because we are becoming so obsessed with accumulating things, consumerism and living our lives online and social media. Music and the arts just seem to be things that are still human and real that allow us to connect and feel things.
JC: As the name itself suggests, Albumism is all about celebrating the album format. So an obvious question for you is: what are your five favorite albums of all time?
SC: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried, Loretta Lynn’s Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’, Bonnie Raitt’s Streetlights, and Randy Travis’ Storms of Life.