With last year’s ‘Open To Chance’, Itasca’s Kayla Cohen proved herself to be one of the most talented fingerstyle singer songwriters operating today. It was an album of subtlety and finesse, pairing Cohen’s rich voice and winding guitar to a sensitive backing of pedal steel and the occasional violin or flute.
It was a one of the best singer/songwriter folk records of the last couple of years, and an album of material that takes on a whole new life live. GIGsoup caught up with the artist at her show at Bexhill’s Albatross Club recently and got to chat to her about everything from lo-fi recording to the origin of the Itasca name…
This is your second European tour, right? What are European audiences like compared with American ones, are they different?
I think yes, it’s very different. In general European audiences are more attentive than American ones – sometimes you’ll have a show in the US where people are really into hearing the music but most of the time it’s more a party atmosphere [at shows].
Your early work was home recorded, but Open To Chance was recorded in a studio. How was that transition?
I still recorded the vocals at home, because [I was] sort of easing into it, in a way. I did all the guitar tracks in a studio in Los Angeles, it was a friend of mine who ran it and he had some really nice equipment. He had this board from the ’70s, which was pretty cool. But I still did the vocal at home because I wasn’t really ready to do it [in the studio] but maybe next time.
I think Open To Chance was a little more band centric and arranged than your older work. Is that something you might take further in the future?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because on this tour I’ve been really into just playing guitar and going back to folk songs, so I think [in the future] I’ll maybe have a little bit of a band but it’ll more stepped back in a way.
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Have you already started working on new material?
Yes, but it’s not done yet.
Some of your early work was quite lo-fi, was that something you set out for or was it just a byproduct of home recording?
No, I think it was an accident. I didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning.
Around that time you put quite a lot out on CDrs and tape, which is quite DIY. Was that done out of necessity or because you were drawn to the idea?
I just wanted to be in charge of everything [about those releases], so when you put it out yourself you can control it all.
Did you grow up in a musical household? Do your parents play any instruments?
We had a piano, so that was something, for sure. But no, my parents are not musicians.
You recorded some drone music under the name Sultan, was there any particular reason why you moved into folk with Itasca?
I always wanted to write lyrics that I could stand behind for a long time but [I] just wasn’t really very good at it, and so I would try to write lyrics while I was playing stuff as Sultan but those weren’t really meant to be shared with other people. I put them out there but I didn’t really mean anything [to happen with them]. It was really a formative period.
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Are you influenced by forms of media other than music? Film, literature etc.?
Of course. We played in Copenhagen last weekend and I made a video piece to go with our set for that, and that was really fun. I guess that was influenced by Monte Hellman, he’s a western filmmaker, and [the film] was sort of influenced by westerns.
Do you ever write songs about characters or people you’ve read about in books or film?
It’s something that comes into my head but I don’t really write songs specifically about that. Some people do that and it’s, like, their thing but I think that [my songs] come out of life experience and that sort of thing.
Was there are particular reason for you choosing to release music as Itasca rather than under your own name?
I didn’t want to have it be my own name because I guess I wanted the opportunity to stay separate from it. Maybe in the future I could see myself putting out a record that’s under my own name but I wanted [Itasca] to be more of a concept, more of a project that was self contained. I feel like when you use your name everything that you are is that thing. I mean, in a way [when you release music under a moniker] it can be like you’re hiding a little bit and I can totally admit to that.
So, talking about the creative process for you, do lyrics or the music come first? Is there even a general rule?
I’d say there’s no rules about it. Things just come up when they want to – sometimes it will be a riff that you like first and then you’ll get lyrics that make sense.
You brought out a song for Our First 100 Days not long ago. Was that something you’d written specifically for them?
That project was started the week of inauguration in the US, and everyone was so depressed and sad about it. So that song is sort of a protest song… I think it is but it’s also not in the sense that it’s not really outwardly [a protest song].
Lastly, was there any particular inspiration behind choosing the name Itasca, or was it just a word you liked?
It’s a lake in Minnesota that’s at the headwaters of Mississippi, so I thought it was a cool word as something like a fountain or a well that ideas can come out of, to put it basically.