Sunday, March 29, 2015

Interview with Kayla Cohen of Itasca

Itasca's Unmoored by the Wind  begins with an ambling, finger-picked guitar instrumental hovering above chirping birds. The album's creator, Kayla Cohen, having moved to Los Angeles, mirrors the expansive, at times empty, landscape, a populated strip impossibly situated between an ocean and a desert. As much as finger-picking gets its strength by exploding the component parts of a chord, it also makes the journey between changes and words more apparent. There's a distance between the notes, sort of how like when you boil down the science of touch, there's always a fraction of space, comprised of a mere molecule or two, between our skin and the touched object. But in music there's also overlap, like a hand with interlocking fingers. It's not so much a touch as an enfolding.

Kayla goes a little further, creating something organic out of her musings, similar to the lyric from her song "Dream of the Water Bearer," where the protagonist is "walking into my dreamworld." It evokes a distinct time, place, and mood, one that the listener may have previously encountered in a trance or on a journey. It combines the allure of the unknown and natural with a thirst for knowledge. Itasca is curious, prying, wondering, and wandering.

For a better example of her music, you can check out this link to a live recording on WFMU and check out the Itasca Soundcloud page.

Jordan Reyes: Tell me a little bit about your experience in Los Angeles. You always hear that LA is sort of materialistic and I don’t know if it is more than any other place.

Kayla Cohen: I think people from Hollywood or on the West Side are like that and maybe people over here where I live that I don’t know. I always tell people that I think LA is kind of post-apocalyptic because sometimes it doesn’t really seem like there’s anybody here and you can stay in your house or drive and barely see another person. I was talking to my friend about this, who’s also a musician. He plays bigger shows than I do. He was saying that he goes to New York and plays in front of five hundred people or so who are “into music” and it’s unfathomable to think that there’s that here. It’s cool because it’s kind like you’re operating in a vacuum.

KC: I was driving around this morning around 8 AM. There was all this fog and I drove over a hill where you had a good view of Eagle Rock neighborhood near where I live. It was cool that you could see that. I was just in New York for a while a couple weeks ago and you never see any nature. You see people.

JR: Do you prefer the openness?

KC: I think it’s conducive to thinking. Any place that’s more dense has you going from person to person without thinking about what you’re saying - you’re always talking.

JR: Has that changed your mindset in regards to music and having a personal life?

KC: I think it has. Having more solitary time changed me, for better or worse, though, you know? I have a job that’s solitary too. In a way it’s cool, but I wonder if it’s erased a lot of my social skills. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.

JR: What’s your job?

KC: I work freelance for a company that gets artist visas for musicians. I do a lot of graphic design, layouts, and also proofreading and copy-editing.

JR: Did you go to school for that?

KC: No, I just went to school for English - reading and writing.

JR: I was an English major too.

KC: I think it’s fun. Reading and writing (laughs). It definitely helped me with copy-editing, knowing grammar. My job is fine. It allows me to make music, travel when I want to, and pays my bills.

JR: Obviously, you’d prefer to only do music though, right?

KC: Yeah. I was just talking to someone in the licensing world, who licenses their music. That’s an interesting thing to get into. I would do that. It would be great if I could just think about music all the time, of course.

JR: So you’d license your own music or other peoples’ music?

KC: I’d license my own music. I’m not actively against that.

JR: It’s a good way to get it out. I have a friend who does a lot of Jazz standards and she had a song on a Jersey Shore spin-off. It was a very surreal moment. She’s coming down this line of like Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith and there’s like the total end-of-the-road ruin of capitalism being the backdrop of the whole thing.

KC: Yeah, that’s weird.

JR: Do you watch much TV?

KC: No, but I’m kind of obsessed with one TV series. I don’t think it’s embarrassing, but maybe it is, to be obsessed with a TV show. I’m really into Nashville. It’s immediate gratification. It would be cool if it were a little deeper and you had to think about it, but I’m not really into violent TV shows.

JR: Does country music at all inspire you?

KC: Yeah, definitely. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of random country records, the ones that skate the line between rock and country that some guy made in the 60s and 70s. Let me see if I can find this one I was just listening to (looks in collection). Oh! This album called North Mountain Velvet by Jamie Brockett. I don’t really know anything about it, but it’s pretty good. I’ve also been listening to Dwight Yoakam a bit.

JR: How’d you find the Jamie Brockett record?

KC: There’s a store by my house called Permanent Records that had it.

JR: My friend Lance owns that store!

KC: Oh yeah, I know Lance. That record store is great. They always have things that are unexpected. Last time I was in there, I bought this four dollar record that was pretty bad, but it was recorded in a town right by where I grew up and no one there makes music. Today I’m listening to this album by Jeff Cowell. Have you heard that? The one Numero just reissued?

JR: No, I actually haven’t even heard of him! What kind of music is it?

KC: It’s on the border of country music. He’s a bit of a psych-folkie from the 70s, but it also leans towards country.

JR: I love that label, but it’s hard to keep up with. They put out so many records.

KC: Oh my god, I know. So many.

JR: One time I was in Permanent Records in LA and I saw a test pressing for Joy Division’s Substance and I was close to pouncing on it. It was pretty expensive, but that band has meant a lot in my life.

KC: Did you buy it?

JR: No, no, I did not.

KC: They had this record that was $400. It was another album that Numero reissued called Sixth Station. Have you heard of that one?

JR: I have not.

KC: Like the stations of the cross. He was a Christian musician.

JR: Is that the station where Jesus is about to go up on the cross?

KC: I don’t know off the top of my head, but I could see that happening in that part of the sequence. There’s a place here up in the mountains that’s a monastery, though I don’t know if there are still monks. They have the stations of the cross there and I like to walk around and look at them.

JR: Do you see yourself drawn to religion and mythology?

KC: Yeah, I like having that come out in music and I like reading about it. It’s alien in a way. Man has created this thing that’s deep and complex that ultimately doesn’t really mean much. Well, to some people it really means a lot. It’s strange having something that means a lot in some peoples’ lives and not others.

JR: Yeah, and the reality of it only comes through how much the beholder believes in it. It’s always sort of self-fulfilling. My mom does Bible study - that’s her job. I grew up in a very devout family so that’s always been part of my life. Do you think religion, spirituality, metaphysics come out in your music?

KC: I think it’s interesting to use the vocabulary from those subjects. When people from the 60s and 70s were making records from that point of view, they were making records to describe their religious experience, but now those records hold up as reflections of the human experience. It’s thought-provoking how that stuff can change and be applied to different things.

KC: If you’re using a human language to write lyrics, you only have so many words, so you need to branch out. I think the amount of ink that’s been spilled about religion is a good well to dig from because it is often very lyrical in itself.

KC: I also read a lot of non-religious poetry. Well, a lot of poetry can’t help being religious or reverential.

JR: What do you revere?

KC: Well, by default, I guess my music gives reverence to the act of being emotional or having emotions because that’s what I write about. Or mundane things that I try to turn into others metaphorically.

JR: Do you think the mundane things we go through do mean more than just being mundane?

KC: It depends on how the artist looks at it. Some of my favorite records are about the most average things. Sometimes those are the best songs. It’s all about how you spin it.

JR: There’s this great movie called Cache and it’s a bunch of events that seem ominous but that may not have any connection. So the connections that is made through them is only…well, obviously the director has made these events occur so that the viewer thinks they’re related, but there may or may not be a connection in this stuff. I do that a lot. I look for signs and symbols and messages and I never know if they exist.

KC: I feel like that’s a natural thing to do. I think some people resist it more than others. It makes life more interesting, looking for ways to make our lives more meaningful.

JR: Do you think it’s like a Sisyphus myth, though?

KC: (laughs) Yeah…but I have a lot of answers. You can get caught up in that and not go anywhere. I feel like being religious implants that in you - that everything is a representation of something bigger. Sometimes that can be a bad thing if you take everything to be too meaningful. You have to approach it with a grain of salt.

JR: How do you think it could be bad?

KC: Oh, I’m talking about people who are obsessive-compulsive. People wired that way see symbols and take it to a deep level. A while ago, I used to do Tarot readings for people. I stopped because there were events that were too much and I didn’t want to get that deeply involved in other peoples’ lives.

KC: I was doing a reading for a person I didn’t know and it became apparent through the reading that he was mentally unstable and may have been taking everything I was saying a little bit too seriously. That was a red flag. It was clear that that person was obsessive-compulsive.

JR: Did you stop using the Tarot entirely or just doing other peoples’ readings?

KC: I read about it, but I don’t do readings. I haven’t done one in a long time. I’ve moved on to other things, not that I left it behind - it’s just in the background right now.

JR: I’ve never gotten a reading because I’m too scared of it.

KC: I respect that.

JR: I’ve gone into stores with the intention of having one, and totally chickened out. I’m really terrified of changing or warping the unknown.

KC: I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You definitely have the power to change any reading that you have. In a way, it’s most compelling to see what reactions you get out of a reading and learn about yourself through that, like the ways any of the positive or negative symbols affect you.

JR: I read a lot about runes, divination, and all sorts of things, but I’ve never had the guts to go through with any of it.

KC: It’s fun to read about. I think it’s more engaging to read about it because there are a lot of books that use that sort of thing as a starting point for other stuff. I have this book called Meditations on the Tarot that’s really long, but it has a lot of good philosophy in it.

JR: So it’s worth reading…?

KC: It’s worth reading even if you don’t do any divination.

JR: There’s a lot of learning for learning’s sake. I think a lot of academics is learning for learning’s sake. The idea of a professor who has to do research, sometimes beating a dead horse by working into more and more of the minutiae.

KC: (laughs) Yeah, and you can learn a lot about the modern world too through studying that stuff. Maybe not even directly, but indirectly. For a while, I really wanted to be a professor of Hermetic studies. I’m still into that, but it doesn’t seem as much like a viable career path.

JR: Hermetics is kind of like the strain through every religion, right?

KC: Yeah. A lot of Ancient Greek stuff, but it’s also Masonic studies.

JR: Women aren’t allowed to be masons, right?

KC: No, but women are allowed to be Rosicrucians, which I’m not at all. There’s so many people who are really into the secret society stuff in LA. There’s a temple in my neighborhood for one of those groups left over from the 70s and I’m not really down with it. I just like reading about it. I actually think my music has moved away from that aspect of things in the last year.

JR: Where does it go to?

KC: I guess more into the idea of singing about daily life and those kind of experiences rather than mystic stuff.

JR: Yeah. How was it releasing the LP on vinyl?

KC: That was great! I want to put out like fifteen or twenty LPs in my life. Just keep going. I just think about people who in their recording career have put out like twenty or twenty-five albums and I think that’s so cool. I want to do that.

JR: Have you started working on another one?

KC: Yeah, I’ve been writing since I finished the last album and just started putting it together in the last two weeks and recording demos.

JR: Do you often get to play with other people?

KC: Not that often. I played with a flute player named Lizzie a few times, with whom I’ve really enjoyed playing. I’ve also played with this guy Dave who records as David Kenneth Nance who’s playing drums for me, and I’ve been playing with his band. He’s recording an LP too.

JR: You just record yourself right now?

KC: Yeah. I have a couple four-tracks, which are what I’ve used in the past. I also use Logic, which is not my favorite, but is the most effective for what I need. I have a reel-to-reel that I’ve been meaning to use, but it’s sort of broken. I don’t think the fidelity on it will be much better than the four-tracks now.

JR: I think there’s a lot of power from recording on a four-track sometimes.

KC: Yeah, I just don’t want it to have that tapey sound. I think you can use a four-track and not have it sound like that though. I wanted to get a Tascam eight-track, but they’ve become a lot more en vogue lately. I saw one on Craigslist for $1500 recently. Are you serious? They used to be like $600 or $700.

JR: So you have the songs for this record done but they’re just not demoed out and recorded?

KC: Yeah, I’m just fine-tuning the lyrics. It does take me a long time to record because I’m a little bit of a perfectionist about it. I’d like the next record to be a bit different.

JR: What do you mean different?

KC: I want the record to have more instrumentation and be more straightforward. I want the guitar songs to be just guitar and vocals - maybe dual vocals if I want to do harmonies.

JR: I hadn’t heard you until I saw you at Haley [Fohr] and Ben [Baker Billington]’s house, but Ryley [Walker] had told me about you the night before. I had told him that I was excited to see Daniel Bachman and he said “You should see Itasca! She’s really gonna blow your mind!”

KC: That show was great. That was a high point of that tour.

JR: Were they all house shows?

KC: No. I played at some venues. In New York I played at someone’s house too. I feel like I booked that tour a little too last minute or something because they asked me to do the Chicago show and I just figured out the other shows on the go. I could have done a better job. Also, it was the middle of the winter so it was still snowing. That kind of affected attendance a bit. I’m doing another trip in May. I just met up with my friend and we’re working on booking that - it might be out to the South on the East Coast.

JR: Would you make it to Florida?

KC: Probably not (laughs). I really want to go to Disney World, but probably the furthest South we’ll go is New Orleans or Atlanta, but how far is Miami from Atlanta, like 10 hours?

JR: Yeah, about that.

KC: I would love to go to Florida some time.

JR: It’s a commitment. You have to make the trip back out. You can’t go forward. You can only reverse out of it.

KC: (laughs).

JR: Anything else in the future for you?

KC: I’m playing at a festival in Topanga canyon in LA in the first week of May. It’s something I’m curious about because a lot of cult members used to live there and it’s a bit mysterious to me. It’s up this long, winding road. I’m also putting out this cassette tape I just finished with instrumental guitar and I don’t know when that is going to come out yet. And then I have that LP that I’m not finished with yet. I’m trying to play a lot of shows. Eventually I want to go to Europe, but it sounds so intimidating. It probably happens to some people where they just get an e-mail: “Hey, so you’re coming to Europe and we got you a driver and a hotel room and you’re going to play all these great shows and we’re going to buy your plane ticket!” I should probably just wait for that magic e-mail.

JR: I have no idea.

KC: I don’t know how that works, but it seems to happen to people.

JR: A lot of my friends tour Europe and I just think “Man, I can’t even take a trip there. How are you doing this?”

KC: The people who book the tour buy the plane tickets. It all gets figured out and then you go. One of these days. Maybe after this next LP comes out. I’m also trying to get started on the Festival circuit. I want to break into the country festivals where I play in between bands that have banjos and all the women are wearing frilly skirts and yelling and stomping while singing. It’ll be fun.

JR: I think you’re right.

KC: That’s one of my goals.

JR: That and 20 LPs, right?

KC: Yeah, over the course of the next three decades.

JR: I think it’s doable.

KC: Me too.

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