Tift Merritt with sera cahoone
As 2015 began, I had somehow been on the road for the fastest, longest two years of my life. I had kicked the tires hard touring in support of my album Traveling Alone. I had recorded and toured with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. My friend Andrew Bird asked me to be in his old time band the Hands of Glory, so I pretended I was a member of the Carter family on guitar, and I watched him like a hawk to make sure he felt fully free; singing harmony with Andrew is not unlike flying. Suddenly, I was turning 40, getting divorced, and scared out of my mind. So I decided to take a year off the road to see what would happen to me if I just stopped touring… On a friend’s ranch in Marfa, Texas, in the middle of the high plains without a car headlight in sight, I did just that, and when I did, I started to do what I always do: the humble work of marking life by writing.
On the ranch, I wrote about the long straight roads in west Texas: the ones that make sense, that make you feel like what is behind you is indeed behind you and that good things are up ahead. ‘Wait For Me’ is a wish that life would run like that. Watching the ranch hands keep their daily routine, I wrote about keeping my own head down, pressing on, and the way that love persists and pushes forward no matter what happens, ‘Love Soldiers On.’ I watched birds learning to fly and bathe in the driveway dust at dusk in the front yard and wrote ‘Icarus’ about what they taught me. In my California cabin, I wrote every morning and hiked every afternoon, up the mountains to the East and along the rocky coast, farther than I had ever hiked, one exhausted foot after the other. ‘Heartache is an Uphill Climb’ began in the red mud on one particularly impossible incline. Once, having hiked farther than I realized, dark fell on me. The white lilies in a meadow began to glow like evening dresses as the moon rose in the changing light. ‘Proclamation Bones’ is a tribute to that unexpected beauty, to nature’s secret nightlife. On return to NYC with Raymond Carver’s All of Us: The Collected Poems in hand, his poem ‘My Boat’ leapt up like lightning; it wanted to be sung. In a hungover moment of joy coming out of a subway, ‘Something Came Over Me’ seeded itself. And the heavy sadness of memory washing over me as I looked out at the East River became ‘Eastern Light’.
Look, everyone knows that album bios are usually full of crap. How about this: This album weathered no doubt, Marlon Brando’s ghost played bass and a fire-breathing dragon co-wrote the songs! Let’s be clear about something – What made my time off special was that I had a regular writing routine. I was private. I followed my heart and my craft. The story of being a writer is the story of being devoted over a long time. What I hate most about bios is that they trade the small virtue of the writing life for pretending that artists and albums spring forth fully formed, trimming the tale to fit the spotlight. I’m more comfortable being real about things. I took my life and synthesized it through my writing with an intensity that no one but the birds saw but that hopefully you can feel. And life continued. Let the real story here be that there is love and beauty in the mess of dedication.
And life did continue. In Fall, my friend MC Taylor asked me to be a part of his new Hiss Golden Messenger album. About the same time, to my delight and surprise, I realized my boyfriend and I were expecting a child. I performed with HGM just as I began to show; MC and his band talked on and on about how North Carolina was a place you could actually raise a child AND be a musician. My roots and my friends pulled. In an airport, I bumped into my friend Sam Beam. He said I could send him my songs, and when I did and he said, “I can tell you’ve been working hard on your writing,” I was filled with the gratefulness which comes from being heard. I couldn’t believe he wanted in on the record making party, along with my favorite musicians, for four days because that was what I could afford. One long night before leaving for the studio, I stared at the ceiling of my NYC apartment. The leaves, the streetlights, and the sirens drew a shadow vine. I cried for dreams that were gone, and I gathered myself for those to come. I recorded in Los Angeles six months pregnant and then set off for home to figure out what a onesie was. I showed up back in my hometown knocked about a little by the world thinking maybe my life was a country song, but maybe it was a really good country song.
What strikes me most when I am writing these days is the changing nature of things. Sometimes sex matters deeply, sometimes family eclipses all; sometimes aloneness is hell, sometimes it is a refuge. Sometimes hometowns are constricting; sometimes they are a sight for sore eyes. We do our damnedest. For all the times we are watered down and compromise, we can become rigid and impossible just as easily. We right ourselves as best we can and carry on. It is a loose thread that holds us best together in this life. Not too tight, not too planned, enough give to stand what tangles us but ties us nonetheless. Ties us to each other in some unseen pattern, to our actions, to the songs that come out of us, to the seasons that pass through us. We press on, love persists, and we must trust the unknowable pattern we are making. My little daughter is sleeping beside me now, and what I hope for her is what I will tell you now. May these threads be joyful; not heavy chains, but light like wings, like starlight, like laughter. Empty your pockets of stones, that light-hearted you may go (for you must go), with the stitch of the world, into the stitch of the world.
The world of American roots music is no stranger to Seattle songwriter Sera Cahoone. Even though her last three albums were on Sub Pop Records and she spent years at the top of the indie charts, she’s always had a streak of Americana that ran through her music, a love of the humble folk song that bolstered her art. She’s returning now to these earliest influences with her new album, From Where I Started (to be released March 24, 2017). Growing up, Cahoone first found her voice in Colorado dive bars, backing up old blues musicians at age 12 on the drums. Her father, a Rocky Mountain dynamite salesman, took the family along to mining conferences and old honky-tonks in the state. The sounds she heard there—the twang of country crooners, cowboy boots on peanut shells—have stayed with her all the way to Seattle, where she lives now, and the seminal indie rock bands she’s been a part of in the city (Carissa’s Weird, Band of Horses).
To make From Where I Started, her first new album since 2012’s Dear Creek Canyon, Cahoone traveled south to Portland to work with producer John Askew (Neko Case, Laura Gibson, Alela Diane). Askew brought together key Portland musicians like Rob Berger (Iron and Wine, Lucinda Williams), Dave Depper (Death Cab For Cutie) and Annalisa Tornfelt (Black Prairie) with Cahoone’s Seattle bandmates - Jeff Fielder (Mark Lanegan, Amy Ray) and Jason Kardong (Son Volt, Jay Farrar). The band lays a deep bedrock beneath Cahoone’s songs, supporting her arcing vocals and innovative guitar and banjo playing. The album is driven by a strong rhythmic sensibility, owed to Cahoone’s background as a drummer for indie rock bands. “A lot of my songs start as a beat, I add guitar, then lyrics at the end,” she says. “When I write songs I usually sit at my drum kit playing both drums and guitar at the same time.”
From Where I Started plays on the rougher, darker edges of the traditional love song. Like any good country album, the songs here deal with love and loss, but Cahoone also knows how to surround loss with hope, to temper a sad song with a turn in the major key. The optimism of the love song “Up To Me,” buoyed by fingerpicked guitar and banjo, gives way to the weary resignation of “Taken Its Toll,” with its plaintive pedal steel and echoing vocal harmonies. “Ladybug,” is a poignant song that followed the tragic death of Cahoone’s cousin Tawnee.
From Where I Started represents a refocusing for Sera Cahoone. It positions her as a songwriter beholden to the old country sounds she grew up with, a songwriter who’s always been able to deftly translate a personal perspective into a universal view. It’s an album about falling in and out of love, finding new hope, and learning that the best way to move forward is to remember where you began.