Have you heard the one about the drummer turned singer-songwriter? No, seriously: It’s not a joke. Some fine records this year have come courtesy of musicians originally associated with keeping time: Tim O’Reagan (ex-Jayhawks), Mark Pickerel (Screaming Trees) — and the self-released, eponymous debut from Sera Cahoone.
“I know a lot of drummers who also write songs,” says Cahoone. Sitting at the back of the band is an asset, she opines, particularly when learning how to compose and arrange. “Being a drummer, you listen to how everything comes together.”
But anchoring the rhythm section does have limitations, especially between engagements. “Just playing drums by yourself? Pretty boring,” she admits. “That’s why I learned to play guitar. I wanted something else creative to do.”
Cahoone’s album is spare, arranged with meticulous but not fussy precision. While acoustic guitar serves as the primary accompaniment, judicious integration of banjo, dobro, and pedal and lap steel enrich hushed cuts such as the bluesy “Couch Song” and “I’ve Been Wrong”, a dusty number in three-quarter time. Even at its peppiest — “Last Time” chugs along like a toy locomotive the morning after Christmas — Cahoone’s music carefully spotlights her singing voice, a no-nonsense instrument that flits casually, back and forth, between wise and world-weary.
Cahoone relocated to Seattle from Denver in 1998, and soon made a name for herself drumming for experimental ensemble Carissa’s Wierd (a collective that subsequently spawned Band Of Horses, who she supported on tour earlier this year). “I learned so much from being in that band,” she says, “especially the importance of the subtle, quiet details of a song.”
The ten originals featured on her solo album sprang forth well after that group’s 2003 dissolution. She had just completed a tour playing drums for Los Angeles troubadour Patrick Park. “I had been driving all over the U.S., and listening to lots of old country,” she remembers. “When I got back, I had a lot of time to myself, and all these songs just spewed out of me. I wrote them on the living room couch, while my dog stared at me.”
The speed with which the material flowed out came as a modest shock to Cahoone. “Normally, it take me forever to finish just one song,” she says. “I guess these just came straight from the way I was feeling at that time.”
Making the transition to standing at the front of the stage has been a gradual, and not always comfortable, process. “I wrote my first song when I was around 16,” she recalls. “I never thought I’d let anyone hear it.” But after a few drinks at a high school party, the artificial courage kicked in and she played for friends. Soon, she was doing coffeehouse gigs, albeit still with reservations. “Singing in front of a crowd for the first time was the scariest thing I have ever done,” she reveals.
As a child, Cahoone was exposed to a broad spectrum of popular music. The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, and Fairport Convention ranked high among family favorites, but so did Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. As she matured, her tastes continued to diversify. “I have gone through many phases,” she says. “I love rap. And the very first group I played drums for was a heavy metal band. I’ve gone through every type of music, but country is definitely what I feel the most affinity with.”
Although she says she aims to diversify her sound and lyrical content a bit further in the future, for now Cahoone is content following the course she has continued to chart with her newer, as-yet-unrecorded songs. “I can’t see myself going in too much of a different direction,” she says. “Maybe a little more upbeat sometimes, or a little more rock. But I’m not going to be putting out a heavy metal record or anything like that.”