Sera Cahoone – Full of dreams to last the years in Seattle
“The first few times I played I couldn’t open my eyes. I was terrified. I’d mumble. I didn’t want people to know what I was saying.”
Sera Cahoone is the first person to tell you she is shy. First she hid behind her drums. To curb her constantly fidgeting hands, something her teachers always complained to her about, she picked up drumsticks and convinced her mother it was a practical way to work out the persisting rhythms that filled her head. Her mother agreed and took out a loan to purchase a drum kit, and soon her seventh-grade daughter’s anxiety problems were, if not solved, at least temporarily swayed.
Then Sera began to hum. She heard songs but didn’t tell anyone about them. She borrowed her brother’s guitar and messed with it. The humming started quietly. “I didn’t want anyone to hear me. I couldn’t even believe I was singing,” she said.
From those humble beginnings followed a singer-songwriter who writes possibly the saddest country songs of her generation. On Only As The Day Is Long, released in March by Sub Pop Records, Cahoone gives voice to a sweet desolation while languishing in a night sky of twinkling notes off a pedal steel guitar. The music has a hesitating beauty to it, the reflection of a singer who needed almost 20 years to feel it was OK to expose her vulnerabilities in front of strangers.
“The first few times I played I couldn’t open my eyes,” Cahoone confesses. “I was terrified. I’d mumble. I didn’t want people to know what I was saying. I’m a very private person.”
As a teenager growing up in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, she did what most introverts do in a mountain state when they grow tired of skateboarding: She snowboarded. Soon she was obsessed with the sport and took a job working at a local surf and sport shop.
Raised by a single mother, Cahoone needed outlets for her mounting anxiety. Her music and after-school life hanging out with the extreme sports crowd may have painted a picture of typical teenage rebellion, but Cahoone was just developing interests that would soon lead her away from Colorado and into a musical life she never imagined.
From her adopted home of Seattle, she looks back and misses the Rocky Mountains. Yet she is aware Littleton is famous for something much less natural. Cahoone is a graduate of Columbine High School, the site of the worst school massacre in U.S. history, when twelve people were killed in 1999 by the hands of two teenage gunmen.
When it happened, Cahoone, now 32, was just settling into her new life in Seattle. “I remember one day I turned on TV and I saw my principal. It was just a surreal, crazy thing. I felt horrified of course, but also the fact that I was so far away and there’s my whole hometown on TV just made it worse,” she said.
Cahoone made it to Seattle in 1998 because of a job. The board shop in Littleton asked her to manage an expansion store in the Seattle area, and Cahoone saw it as a chance to make a fresh start, after spending a few years following high school playing in bands and trying to figure out the next step. She knew Seattle’s music scene was famous and that there would be more chances for her to play in bands. But after two years of getting the store established by day and playing open-mikes by night, she knew one of the two had to go. She took a job at a coffee shop and gave up snowboarding for good.
The decision was fortuitous. Through a mutual friend she was enlisted to play drums for Carissa’s Wierd, the beloved Seattle art-rock ensemble that, at the time, was one of the shining lights of the Pacific Northwest indie scene. “I was a pretty big fan” even before she joined the band, Cahoone said.
The stint would be brief, as Carissa’s Wierd was winding down. Cahoone “may have been the sixteenth drummer,” says co-founder Mat Brooke, who now fronts fellow Sub Pop act Grand Archives. “But she was the definite standout,” he said. “She never gets herself locked into the typical rock drummer format. She’s really good with playing with brushes and she’s really versatile, especially with loud and soft music.”
Once Carissa’s Wierd expired, Cahoone grabbed her sticks to back up Los Angeles singer-songwriter Patrick Park — a former high school friend — but was lured back to Seattle by Brooke, who enlisted her to play drums on Everything All The Time, the 2006 Sub Pop debut from Band Of Horses, and on the group’s subsequent tour.
During this time, Cahoone began to seriously invest in country music, something she hadn’t heard much growing up. Her mother was strictly into folk and classic rock — Fairport Convention or Fleetwood Mac. “I was a late bloomer,” she says. Her investigations led her to standard-bearers such as Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, but even more than those personalities was a sound she found particularly larger-than-life: “I am completely in love with the pedal steel guitar,” she attests.
Cahoone started to write songs anchored by that sound. At the same time, she started searching for someone who knew how to make it. A random Craigslist posting attracted Jay Kardong, a transplant from tiny Moscow, Idaho, who moved to Seattle one year earlier than Cahoone and who’d already logged years playing in western swing bands and country cover bands both back home and around his adopted town. By the time he connected with Cahoone, Kardong was on a mission to finesse his pedal steel playing and play in a band that featured original songs.
Cahoone’s ad said “‘no assholes,'” remembers Kardong, 37. “I thought, ‘This is the person I want to work with’.”