Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West West On "Our Lady Of The Tall Trees"

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West recently released their second album Our Lady Of The Tall Trees. As a big fan of their first album, The Holy Coming Of The Storm, I jumped at the opportunity to interview the duo about their musical history together, including the making of their two albums and the inner-workings of their collaboration.

I'd like to start by asking you about your early musical experiences. When/ how did  each of you begin learning, playing, and writing your own music? 

Cahalen: My father was a big music fan, and a player. So I grew up listening to a lot of Hot Rize, Norman Blake, Rory Block, Kevin Burke and a whole swath of traditional music. My father also plays a mean fiddle and guitar, so I was encouraged at a fairly early age to play, mostly with him, playing guitar backing him up. Not the prodigy-kid style, but just playing tunes for fun. He had a handful of friends who also played, so I was around music a lot. I was about 9 when I started on the guitar, but didn't play more than the average 9 year old I'd say.

Soon after I started playing the drums, and I played in a traditional New Mexican band for 5 years, playing Mexican, New Mexican and country music at dances and bars. I started writing in late high school, in response to friends I have who are great songwriters, just realizing that it was possible to create new, interesting music. And that has been the creative force behind my life since then. 

Eli: I started playing music at 5 years old through Suzuki Violin, then classical guitar at age 10. I kept growing into a bigger musical identity in high school and then college, and I played in many different settings... 

Which artists, albums, live performances, personal experiences, etc influenced you most early on? 

Cahalen: There wasn't a lot of live, acoustic music where I grew up, in rural northern New Mexico. So, my folks and I would drive across the border into Colorado and attend the Four Corners Folk Festival, which had a big influence on which direction I took as a musician. And, my folks were incredibly supportive, so they'd drive me quite a ways to see shows, which didn't happen very often, but when they did they stuck with me.

I started touring when I was in college, during the summers, and those tours had quite an effect on me as well, just realizing that people want to hear live music, even if it is not the big and the famous. 

Eli: Tim O'Brien was a large influence on my younger ears. There was also Bruce Cockburn and Pat Metheny's One Quiet Night was very monumental to me. Bill Frisell's work and a Phillips, Grier, Flinner house concert was a turning point for me as well. 

When and how did you meet and how did that lead to you joining together as a duo? 

Cahalen: Kevin Brown, the songwriter, musician, bluegrass DJ on KPBX in Spokane, and head honcho at the Blue Waters Bluegrass Festival introduced us. He'd known me as a kid, and Eli in college, and he heard I was moving to Seattle, and recommended that we hang and pick. I was on the road solo a lot those days, and Eli started joining me on some of my tours, and now here we are! 

Eli: It all stemmed from our mutual friend who encouraged us to play together. I joined Cahalen on his solo tour and then it was apparent that we should make a record. 

What kind(s) of artistic sensibilities and songwriting styles, as well as shared influences connected you most as you began playing together? Were their any differences that you turned each other on to?

Cahalen: We first talked about playing together seriously, and recording something like the Real Time album, from Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott. That was a big blueprint for the sound we thought would be good, but I'd say it has morphed a good bit since then, as we've come into our own. I was bringing songs and a more old-time perspective, and Eli was bringing more of a bluegrass, and contemporary sound, and they just clicked. 

Eli: A mutual love for bluegrass, brother duo stuff (Stanley Brothers, etc.), but also a will to be unconventional (we both have jazz backgrounds and we subconsciously wanted to include that). We are also very different musicians. Cahalen is a songwriter, and I am a collaborator. He has let me twist and change his ideas, with harmony and chordal arrangements that weren't there from the start. 

Can you talk about your songwriting processes (musically and lyrically) and recording processes for the first album (The Holy Coming Of The Storm)? 

Cahalen: My writing process is constantly changing, as are most folks', so I can't nail anything down too solid on that one. But, they were mostly songs that I'd written over the prior year or two. The material was a combination of music that I'd written on the road, and music that I'd written at home, which I think have fairly distinct sounds from one another, but also work well in comprising an album.

The recording process was really fun, we brought Matt Flinner in to produce, and play a little, and Ryan Drickey played some fiddle, Eric Thorin on bass, and Aaron Youngberg on the controls (though we got him to pull out the five string for a fun tune as well). It was a really low key, low stress situation, as we're all good buddies, and have a good time together. I think we were both pretty blown away with how well it came out. 

Reflecting on those experiences making of The Holy Coming Of The Storm, and the subsequent touring that followed, how do you see your individual personalities culminating? 

Cahalen: I'd say there's a sort of tug of war (friendly, of course) on trying to sound like ourselves, and trying to sound like a unit. Which I think is a really healthy thing for us. I think that has had a big impact on our sound, and creates a lot of musical tension which gives our music an edge. 

Eli: I see us further identifying how we are complementary musicians. Both records were relatively painless, since we basically play our live show (the first record had other musicians).  Because our music is elemental (and honest in delivery), there is a lot of clarity around how to go about it, which helped in the recording process, and out on the road.

How did those experiences prepare you for beginning work on material that would become the new record?

Cahalen: For Our Lady Of The Tall Trees, we decided to just do a straight duo record. Just as a more clear representation of what we do at our shows, if you were going to come see us any given night of the week. It was all material that we'd been doing on the road a bit before making the record, so it was mostly rehearsed. Both songs of mine, and some choice covers.

We brought Matt Flinner in to help produce again, which was a good move. He has an incredible way of keeping things calm, but still with a good vibrant energy.

Eli: Every show was in a way a practice for the new CD, as well as the passing of time helped to establish our collective sound more.

Was there a song(s) that set the direction for the record? Did you have a preconceived direction and/ or vision for the album?

Cahalen: It was a pretty slow, even keeled planning that we did for this one. We knew we were going to do another record, and slowly started compiling songs. It has a little more of a straight edge feel, to me, being a little more on the traditional sounding side of things.

There were tunes that Eli brought such as Norman Blake's "Church Street Blues" and Townes Van Zandt's "Loretta", which are fairly straight ahead, and I'd been writing in a more straight ahead style, so it just kind of boiled down that way.

Eli: I imagine the title track, "Our Lady Of The Tall Trees", set the precedent.  I was also excited to sing more lead on the new record. So those songs ("Loretta", "Church Street Blues", "Poor Cowboy") set a direction for me.

Did you set out to build upon your previous experiences or strike out into a new direction? Please discuss what you believe connects this album most to the last one as well as what sets it most apart. 

Cahalen: I wanted to definitely set it apart from the last, but was also so pleased with 'The Holy Coming of The Storm' that it felt really good to try and keep things in the same sort of pocket. And, truth be told, I'm not sure how to qualify why it does sit apart from the old one, but I really feel like it has a different feel. We are in a different place in our musical relationship now, then we were when we recorded the first, so that changes thing, subtly, but also importantly, I think.

Eli: Mentally I thought of the new record as very different. And now that we have some distance on the recording, I do feel that it isn't trying to be the first. Which is great. They have their own territories. Cahalen's songwriting and my arranging are both present.

The recording process is the same, with the same engineer (Aaron Youngberg) and producer (Matt Flinner).  There are some parallel tracks (I think of "Fleeting Like The Days" from the first record, and "A Lady Does Not Often Falter" from the second).

With these recordings, touring experiences, and the friendship you share to reflect upon, what keeps things fresh for each of you?

Cahalen: I think that is an ongoing struggle for musicians of all sorts. Keeping things fresh is so important, and has such a big bearing on your sound. I think playing music with other people, both performing and just picking with folks is really important, both to keep new ideas and influences coming in, and also to help you realize and appreciate what your bandmates bring to the common sound. I also need stationary time, a lot of time to listen to music, new and old, and to read quite a bit, just to keep my life moving in parallel with my music. 

Eli: Honestly, though musicians always risk getting in a rut, I enjoy how improvisation can change songs in our sets. Also, audiences can effect how we approach a set, like how crude we get with banter (which often amounts to making fun of each other), and how we go about connecting the sounds to a common experience. We also spend enough time on the road together that doing our own thing is welcomed.

With two albums finished and a wealth of touring together to draw from, can you discuss which aspects you are drawn to most in each other regarding writing, performing, and friendship? How does it all unfold in the music?

Cahalen: Eli's musicianship is incredible. He is an insanely talented player (guitar, mandolin, octave, you name it) and one of the most clever harmony singers there is. Every time we have new material that we bring to the table, he's bound to do something unique and exciting with it, so that is the biggest, for me. Also, we are pretty compatible for touring, which I think holds things together. We both try to stay relatively healthy, and not run ourselves into the ground, which is good to have in a partnership.

Eli: Since we are very different musicians, I am drawn to Cahalen's songwriting and framework for which to exercise my weird musical tendencies. I have learned the most as a musician in playing with Cahalen. My guitar playing has gotten so much better (and weirder) in the last year, but more so my singing and ear for harmonies has had a huge learning curve. I am drawn to the metaphor of harmony singing as pushing against itself. Like a tension of push and pull.

I also appreciate that in a duo, there is tons of room to stretch out and explore. We are also very different personalities, which while sometimes can be a fun challenge, ultimately makes for a strong friendship and business partnership.

Are there any particularly challenging aspects of your collaboration that you seek common ground in in order to come to a mutual understanding (both collaboratively and individually)? 

Cahalen: I think the musical identity thing is a big one. We both have very unique styles of playing and singing, and the music we are drawn to is slightly different, so that is always a challenge. But a good one, not a negative thing at all. Really without that, music would be flat. So, though it is a challenge and a struggle, it's kind of a no pain no gain situation, to put it crudely.

Eli: I would say that as far as bands go, we have a pretty good hand. Issues come up, inevitably, and we both have the desire to deal with 'em straight away. 

Can you talk about the artwork for the new album? I really enjoy the physical qualities of CDs and LPs in hand-printed editions, and it would be great if you could share your insights into how the artwork/ packing came together and what kind of role it plays for you in releasing music).

Cahalen: Early in the planning for the record, Eli and I decided that Our Lady Of The Tall Trees would be a good title track, both because of the song itself, and the imagery that it conjures. Being from New Mexico, I grew up with a lot of religious imagery around, and lots of folk art, including santos, which are wooden carvings of saints, and retablos, which are painted images of saints, and other religious figures.

So with that in mind, I wanted to tie Our Lady Of The Tall Trees in as the "Our Lady of Guadalupe", but with the appropriate art involved. So we got my good friend Mike Costello, of Lewisburg, WV to do a woodcut of the idea. And truthfully, I couldn't have hoped for it to turn out better than it did. Then Eli put it all together on the packages themselves beautifully. He's got a great eye for design, and its pretty lucky to have him around handy. 

What have you been listening to lately that you have been finding significantly inspiring?

Cahalen: I've been delving into older and older stuff, as I can find it. I love singing, and hearing all the different mountain styles, and the people's music. In country, bluegrass, old-time, mountain music, blues and hymns and the rest of it, the singing is where it is.

I've been singing for over ten years now, but it is always a thrill to hear a new voice that knocks you out, or puts chills down your spine. Recently some of my favorite singers have been Kathleen MacInnes from Scotland, and Elizabeth LaPrelle from Virginia.

Eli: I have been enjoying some Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, a great clawhammer player named Adam Hurt, as well as Dick Gaughan, Ron Miles (and Bill Frisell), and some Swedish folk music, among others.

What's next for you? (2012 and beyond)

Cahalen: I've got some solo stuff, and a country band coming down the pipe, so that should be fun, but I think mainly we're still just going to be touring and keep on keeping on.

Eli: The duo will keep going, yet both of us have other projects in site. I recently recorded with the great mandolin player named John Reischman, and have a few other collaborative prospects. I also hope to get a lot of skate skiing in this winter, and indulge some more travel.

We are going back to UK in April and I look forward to some travel from there. I am also half way through a graduate degree and may consider rounding that one off as well at some point.

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