Sera Cahoone – Full of dreams to last the years in Seattle
They played together for a year before Cahoone started adding players, including multi-instrumentalist Jeff Fielder and bassist Eric Himes. Also taking part were two other Carissa’s Wierd alums: Brooke on backing vocals and Sarah Standard on fiddle. This lineup would record Cahoone’s self-titled, self-released debut from 2006. “Finally, I just said, ‘let’s do this,'” she said. “I didn’t expect much.”
It was an auspicious first effort, spooky and unvarnished. She sings quietly, her voice touched slightly with reverb, as if coming through the ceiling from one floor above. Despite the ensemble setting, the music languidly unfolds, Cahoone promising fidelity at one point, sounding on the brink of unraveling at another. “Drinking, yeah, you know all the time/It’s so dark out I just want to stay inside/It’s half-past four and it’s black as night/Fix me up because I’ve become undone,” she sings on “What A Shame”, which sounds especially tailored for a Seattle winter.
“Her style of country is a sadder version, which goes over great here in Seattle because it matches the weather perfectly,” Brooke said.
To this day Cahoone feels a kinship with noirish country songwriter Kathleen Edwards, who she saw perform before deciding to record her own music. “I was just blown away,” Cahoone said. “She really motivated me to get off my ass and record my songs.”
It took time before Cahoone felt comfortable performing live, mostly because she became self-conscious. Even though she describes herself as a “pretty happy-ish person,” she struggled with the possibility of her songs being misinterpreted, which made her sing at the level of a mumble. “You never know what they’re thinking. It was really hard at first,” she said. “I would think, ‘What am I doing? Should I even be doing this?'”
“I know she gets uncomfortable with the recognition she’s getting,” Kardong said. “In the studio she has a vision and she’s not afraid to tell us if we’re playing like shit or playing well. She has the song in her head and knows what she wants it to sound like. Her shyness came about because she wasn’t expecting what has happened, and I think that translates onstage. She definitely comes across as a genuine person onstage with no phoniness at all to it.”
When Sub Pop said they wanted to put out a second album, Cahoone was ready. By then, she had a seasoned band that knew each other and understood the nuances of her songs. Instead of using the opportunity to expand the sound palate in unexpected ways, Cahoone decided she wanted to keep the sparse sound of her debut at the core.
Yet the performances on Only As The Day Is Long sound more confident, the songs more tuneful. Even though the album will never make a sound system bleed, at its own quiet level the playing is intensely focused, accenting the slow burn underneath. Despite their pretty melodies, the songs ache with big yearnings.
“The way you look at me/I thought I’d die alone,” she sings on “Shitty Hotel”, a song thick with atmosphere borrowed from all the dives she stayed in while on the road with Carissa’s Wierd. The worst was in El Paso, Texas, when she woke up to find a mouse nibbling at the remains of her noodle cup. “I had a complete freakout,” she admits.
The title track, stomping to a waltz beat while a banjo clucks underneath, bristles with tension. “All my insecurities are breaking me up inside/You light another cigarette/My eyes are on fire,” she sings. On “Baker Lake”, a song dating back to before her first album and based on her summer experiences in rural Wisconsin, the music bends slightly to reveal uncomfortable truths: “I hold you in bed/But you shrug away instead/Oh, I don’t know why.”
The personal destruction in these songs is never colored in broad strokes; instead, it simmers consistently until you realize flames are shooting everywhere. The distinction — refusing to declare intentions before it’s too late — is what makes her music slip betweens the margins of country and indie rock, a beguiling area where not many songwriters can comfortably stake their ground.
“It took me a really long time to get there,” she says. “When I recorded that first record, the thought of writing another record was that it would never happen. It’s a pretty long process. Different songs come out different ways. Some come out really fast depending if I’m in a certain mood or if something’s bothering me. I definitely go into a sad place. I just like writing darker stuff.”
Kardong figures the nuances inside Cahoone’s songwriting stem from her beginnings as a drummer. “When I first started playing with her,” he says, “she had such a great and detailed idea of what she wanted, I didn’t know if that was her way or if she was really studied. I think it translated from when she was a drummer and her knowing when to bring the volume up and where to put the beat in.”
With two albums behind them, her band is now well versed in those intimate gestures, so much so that the songs translate seamlessly when they perform them live. Despite keeping her steady work at the coffee shop and tending her to roommate, a toy poodle, Cahoone hopes a new booking agent will keep her touring for quite some time. For starters, Brooke has invited Cahoone and her band to open for Grand Archives in June.
In Seattle, she sometimes finds herself thinking about Littleton and her former life bouncing down mountains on a snowboard.
“I miss the weather a lot. I miss the sun. The hardest thing here is it gets really hard in the winter,” she says. “Dark all the time.”
Mark Guarino submitted the last feature story ever received for No Depression magazine. He lives and writes in Chicago.