I normally use this space before my interview transcripts to tell you something I learned from my conversation with the featured songwriter. But I'm going to forego that for a minute and drop all objectivity to tell you that Sera Cahoone has one of my favorite voices in music. It's a voice that gives me goosebumps. I'm a relative newcomer to her music; the first song I heard was "The Colder the Air" a couple of years ago off her second album Only as the Day is Long (Sub Pop Records). Cahoone's voice had me after the first few notes. Her 2012 album Deer Creek Canyon, also on Sub Pop, is one of my favorite albums in the past year.
My conversation with Cahoone about her songwriting process revealed more than just how she writes her songs. Cahoone started out as a drummer, not a songwriter, and for a long time she saw herself solely as a drummer. Only recently has she begun to see herself as a songwriter. And by her own admission, she's an introvert, so she finds writing to be the best way to express herself. She told me, "I think that's why it took me so long to be comfortable with people hearing what I'm saying, because my songs are pretty personal."
But for years, Cahoone has struggled with the act of writing; it's painfully slow, and the words on the page sometimes aren't the thoughts she has in her head. This struggle always frustrated her. She's recently discovered the reason behind that struggle, as you'll read below.
Read my interview with Sera Cahoone after the video for "Naked," off her new album.
Do you have any other creative outlets?
I do play the drums, which is quite different from songwriting. That's actually the instrument I'm most comfortable with, because I can just zone out and play someone else's music. But I don't paint, and I don't write a ton either. Laughs. I walk a lot. I try to draw, and I'd love to be able to it better, but it's horrible.
About your walking, there's a strong link between exercise and creativity.
It definitely does work for me. A couple of friends have dogs, so I walk them. They live by the water here in Seattle, and that's my time when I get a lot of ideas. Just walking the dogs along the water.
Do you use that as a way to gather ideas?
Sometimes it happens, but I don't push myself. If it comes, it comes. But I don't set out with the idea of creating, though that's when ideas usually come to me.
I read somewhere that your songwriting process usually starts with the music. Is that still true?
Definitely. I always come up with a guitar riff, then mumble and sing over that for a long time to get the feel of the song. I get the guitar and drum parts right away; I focus on the music the most. Then I figure it's time to get some lyrics going. They take quite a long time to get the right feel. There's usually a certain part of the song with lyrics that I really like, then I go from that and build on the feel they give me. They slowly make sense. Laughs. But I definitely do not sit down to write lyrics.
Do you ever sit down with a specific idea for a song, or is the music always your guide?
Once the song makes sense I'll come up with an idea based on how it feels. It takes me a while to figure out what I'm going for and for it to make sense. Sometimes I'll have a specific idea for a song, but it doesn't happen very often. I wish it would, though. A lot of times I go by feelings. The songs make me feel a certain way and I go from there. But I usually can't just sit down to write a song about something.
Why do you wish it would happen more? Do you think it would lead to better songs?
I've always struggled with writing in general. This is an interesting thing I just discovered recently: I'm dyslexic. I've barely talked about this before, actually. I've struggled my whole life with writing and reading, and I've always beaten myself up over it. It never really made sense in my brain that I'm a songwriter and I never gave myself enough credit. But now that I've figured it out, it's really a relief. I've figured out why I am who I am and that different things make sense to me in different ways. I can't just write, write, write like other people. There's a lot in me; it just comes out differently.
This is all very recent, so I'm still discovering this about myself. You're actually the first person I've talked to about it in a journalistic sense. It's strange, but it's also a big part of me that I haven't been able to figure out. It all makes a lot of sense now, given who I am and the kind of person I've always been.
When I first began teaching, I was a special education teacher and worked a lot with students with dyslexia. It's not about learning in an inferior way; it's just about learning differently. It's not something that defines you.
Definitely. I've struggled my whole life with reading and writing, especially in school and as a songwriter. I can never just sit down and write. It's really hard for me, and I get frustrated. Not everything makes sense up there all the time. It gets all jumbled. Laughs. Of course, eventually everything makes sense, but that process of making sense is just harder for me when it comes to getting the right words out. I mean, I thought maybe I had some ADHD or other issues, but knowing what I have now makes much more sense. I just wish I would have figured it out earlier in life.
We all learn differently. It's not about one person learning better. Learning is a sliding scale.
Absolutely. I went to a big public high school with big classes. If I had smaller classes, maybe things would have been different. (Ed note: Cahoone went to Columbine High School)
Getting back to how your songs start, I interviewed Jack Tempchin, the Eagles songwriter who wrote "Peaceful Easy Feeling"--
That's my favorite song!
He's got great stories about writing songs with Glenn Frey. He told me that the first vocals of any song are always nonsense syllables. The two of them just blurted out whatever came to mind, and they named that voice "El Blurto."
That's exactly what I do. Some of my songs have only two or three real words for a long time, and it takes a while to get the right words and not just those placeholders.
Let's talk about inspiration. Do you wait for the muse or do you work to become inspired?
I'm in the middle. I can't push myself too much because then the song sounds funny. But if I don't push myself, I can't get stuff done. I don't actively search for song ideas, but sometimes at the end of the day I'll think about what happened earlier. So the ideas come later when I'm not thinking about them. It takes me longer to realize what I've seen or who I've talked to. Sometimes I go out to look at nature or I go watch people to imagine what they're thinking about, but that doesn't happen too often.
Would you call yourself a disciplined writer? Do you try to write every day?
I am definitely not disciplined enough! Laughs. I tell myself I should be writing, so I'll write for a while then stop. I need to be more proactive about writing when I'm feeling it. I wonder if that comes from being a drummer my whole life. I often feel like I'm more of a drummer, but the older I get the more I accept that I am a songwriter. When I was younger, I never set out to be a singer. I always wanted to be a drummer. I still do that, but this whole songwriting process has been a long process. I'm so happy that I am where I am, but I was the shyest kid ever and never thought of myself as someone who would sing in front of people.
Does being an introvert make it easier to express yourself through writing?
It's definitely easier to express myself through writing, whether I'm writing a song or writing to a friend. It's easier for me to get the words right when I'm writing, because when I speak, things don't always come out the way I want. And I think that's why it took me so long to be comfortable with people hearing what I'm saying, because my songs are pretty personal.
How important is environment to you when you write?
I'm more of a morning person. That's when I have the most energy and when I'm most inspired.
Define morning. Because to some songwriters, that's 2pm.
I get up around 8am and go to bed decently early. I'm definitely not a night owl. I do my best writing when I'm far removed, someplace like a cabin where I'm away from everything: my phone, people, emails. It is strange, though, because I tend to get more inspired and more excited when it's sunny out. I have more energy. But in the winter here in Seattle, it's hard for me to get motivated because it's so dark and dreary.
Do the songs you write when it's sunny mirror the weather? Or are you just more prolific, regardless of the topic?
I can write the most depressing song when the sun is beaming down on me. I don't write the most upbeat and happy songs anyway. Those feel strange to write. So even if it's totally sunny, I can go to a sad place.
Do you write at home?
Yep, and there are two rooms I like to write in. I go back and forth.
How much revision do you do to your lyrics?
I do a lot, but I love it when the lyrics come out right away and I don't need to change them. Most of the time, I write something that sounds OK, then I start singing it again and it sounds stupid. Even if it's just changing one or two words, that process can take a while.
If you're struggling with a song and are having trouble finishing it, are you more likely to push through or set it aside?
I tend to say I'm done with it. But a lot of times I'll say that, then a couple of years later I'll play it again in a different direction and start to like it again. That's happened a few times. It happened with "Naked," off my new record. It's an old song and one night I was at a friend's house and started playing it. She asked me what it was, and I told her it was something I had written a long time ago. Of course, I had never finished the lyrics at the time. But I played it for her, changed a few things in the music, and the lyrics just came.