You might have to listen to Sera Cahoone’s album From Where I Started (released March 24th) a couple times before you take note of anything other than her voice. Cahoone’s voice is alternately airy and earthy, and is always approachable. It’s got an almost crystal clarity, then turns just a little throaty for the briefest of moments, a sliver of time just long enough to make you think you’re being let in on a secret.
But after a few more listens, and after you run out of adjectives to describe her voice, other elements rise to the surface, particularly the drums, which occupy an unusually prominent space for an album of mellow country/folk songs. The drums, which Cahoone plays on the album, propel the songs forward with a gentle but persistent rolling motion. Cahoone’s first musical instrument was drums, and she was the drummer for Band of Horses during part of 2005, as well as for Carissa’s Wierd, before striking out on her own as a singer/songwriter. Her experience as a drummer influences her songwriting on a fundamental level.
“The way I play guitar is very rhythmic. I don’t do anything too fancy,” says Cahoone to Glide. “When I strum it’s very rhythmic to me and a lot of times I’ll hear what the drums should be, right away. I want to actually sit down and play some drums at the same time. I do that a lot.”
Her regular band mates Jeff Fielder, who contributed guitar, banjo, mandolin, Dobro and vocals, and Jason Kardong, on pedal steel, add tasteful touches throughout. Co-producer John Morgan Askew brought in Rob Burger to play a variety of keys, Annalisa Tornfelt to play fiddle, and Dave Depper to play bass.
The new musicians she was working with sometimes took songs in directions that surprised her.
“I started with the song ‘Time to Give’ more like total country. Pedal steel, this country vein. Rob (Burger) came in and did this weird Dusty Springfield kind of piano thing to it. It’s still obviously country-ish but it has more jam to it or something.”
Instrumentally the album has a spare, uncluttered sound, leaving plenty of open space around her vocals.
“I’m like that in general,” she says. “Most of my records are pretty sparse in that way. I don’t like too much going on. It gets too much for me. It’s easy to be like, just add this, just add that. I just want it to be simple.”
The transition from being a drummer to being the person in front was not an easy one for Cahoone. In the opening track, “Always Turn Around,” she sings “The first years I ever played my/ My songs for anyone / my back was turned toward them and I sang down to the ground. I’m so tired of being nervous, so tired of being nervous / That I finally turned around.”
“I’m a really shy person,” Cahoone says, “but not as shy as I was back when I was first starting to move from drums. When I first started I was trying to do open mics and I just forced myself to get comfortable, but sometimes it’s still uncomfortable. In drums I loved being kind of behind and not having to worry about anything, but now you’re just right up in front of everybody. Everyone’s hearing every word you’re saying. And there are pretty vulnerable lyrics.”
Most of the songs on the album focus on relationships. In “Up To Me,” against a backdrop of banjo and finger-picked guitar, she hopes for love: “I wanna be your garden, let’s plant some flowers / We’ll scatter seeds out in the morning time / I wanna be your honey bee and make you honey / But it’s not really up to me.”
In “Better Woman” she strives to be a better partner, and in “Taken its Toll,” she faces the end of a relationship.
But “Ladybug,” which is not about a romantic relationship, stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album, and is the most vulnerable of all the songs. It was written about her 21-year-old cousin, Tawnee Baird, who lost her life to domestic violence. It’s easy to obscure personal details in songs about romance, but not in a song about a specific event, especially one that received news coverage. So “Ladybug” created different challenges, including making sure that her family wouldn’t be hurt by the song.
“That song was definitely not an easy song to write. I didn’t know if it was going to make sense on the record. I really loved the way it turned out. I put this drum beat to it and it was kind of unexpected. It almost has this peppiness to it. Then I was like, is this too happy? The lyrics are depressing. It was kind of a weird song that I didn’t really know what to do with, but I knew that I needed to put it on there.”
The chorus speaks of the guilt that can be left with relatives:
“All the signs were right there / We just couldn’t see / All the signs were right there / we just couldn’t believe.”
“I talked to her mom and her grandma,” Cahoone says. “I wanted to make sure that they felt ok about this because obviously it’s going to get brought to light again and they’re going to have to talk about it again. They were actually really honored and thought it was a very sweet gesture compared to everything else that happened, because this was so awful. It’s a very sensitive subject. I wanted to make sure this was something I should do. But it just felt like something I had to do too.”
The reason she felt she had to write and record the song wasn’t just to process her own feelings, but also the hope that she could make a difference for someone else who might see the signs of domestic violence.
“Especially in the queer community,” Cahoone says, “because my cousin was dating a woman. That’s not talked about as much. You don’t always expect a woman to do that to another woman. You kind of brush it off more than if it was a man. I think that people have to make sure that they listen to anyone that’s telling them that things are wrong.”