ITASCA: LITTLE SONGS TRYING TO BE MASTERPIECES
photography by jeff fribourg
There are certain records that feel good in certain seasons and certain times of the day. Every morning this past spring I’d wake up and put on Townes Van Zandt’s The Nashville Sessions, then sit in my favorite chair in my yard, sip my coffee, and let those songs color my day. Itasca’s impressive second full-length release Open To Chance has that same ability to color a moment. It’s an album that connects with you more on each listen. Reminiscent of folk artists such as Bridget St John and Tia Blake, singer/songwriter Kayla Cohen writes gentle yet complex country-folk songs that are easy to bask in and keep you engaged. I was excited to talk with Cohen about her influences, songwriting process, moving to L.A. and her stellar guitar playing. Itasca peforms on Thurs., Oct. 13, at Resident, and on Fri., Oct. 14, at Rappcats. This interview by Tiffany Anders.
What brought you to playing this kind of music?
Kayla Cohen: I’ve always been a fan of folk music in general, but not what might be considered as mainstream folk? I mean—I think it’s cool that anyone plays music ever. I liked weird rock music. Lo-fi stuff. Peter Laughner—Rocket From The Tombs—was a big influence on this record. I’ve listened to them for a long time but that’s more rough sounding than how my music came out. But the sentiment is still there.
I never see anyone talking about Peter Laughner.
Kayla Cohen: Peter Laughner is part of a scene of music I really like, including Jim Shepard, Rocket from the Tombs, Pere Ubu, Tommy Jay, Ego Summit … I think I first learned about this music when I was living in New York City and going to shows a lot. The forum Terminal Boredom was a big ‘scene’ at that time and it was fun—there were a lot of good shows then—but that was definitely sorta a group of specific references that everyone was into. Now that time has passed, [but] I am always happy when I meet someone here in L.A. who is into that stuff. It is a specific sound, and it can say something about the person too—good or bad! What is important to me about his music is how personal, intimate, straightforward and humble it is. It exists apart from the ocean of music that has associations with it—it’s quite obviously not about marketing or image or anything like that. If I am going through a hard time, it’s good to listen to because it gets me back in line with what I should care about in life. It’s real and humbling. It also feels particularly ‘me’ and comfortable, even though I am sure it feels like that to hundreds of people. But it’s never going to be popular stuff—though I guess maybe it was in the mid-2000s for a certain group?
I’m excited to ask about your guitar playing—I was really impressed. When did you start playing and how did you develop your style?
Kayla Cohen: I started playing when I was 12—electric guitar when I was a teenager. I played in bands and stuff in my town. My style? I dunno … I have friends who play Appalachian-style guitar. I don’t really place myself in that group of people—I’m not as good as they are technically.
I do some fingerpicking and I thought your playing was pretty phenomenal.
Kayla Cohen: I guess there’s different layers of technicality. I think the most important thing is having your own style and developing that—not to say that I’m necessarily completely there yet. But when I was making this record I was listening a lot to Michael Chapman and Mike Cooper. You see Michael Chapman play now and he still blows your mind on guitar, but the way that those records are recorded—his and Mike Cooper’s—it almost feels like they don’t care about their guitar sound. There’s something messy about their tone, which I really like. It’s not like they’re going over it a million times to make sure it’s really crisp and clean. There’s buzzes and stuff. The way they write is really cool, but I can’t describe what it is really technically.
The changes on your album are really interesting—like ‘Layman’s Banquet.’
Kayla Cohen: One of the things I wanted to do on this record … The chord changes are intuitive— things that sounded right to me. I wasn’t coming at it from a weird technical angle like, ‘OK, this is the weirdest chord to go to now.’ But I was also getting really into the circle of fifths, so there are a couple of songs that have really traditional chord changes on them, and then there are some that are a little bit more unusual. That song reminds me of a traditional folk song.
It reminds me of stuff that I love, mostly in style, even though it’s not similar to John Fahey or Bert Jansch. You hit some lower tones that are interesting.
Kayla Cohen: There was something I was reading about Robbie Basho playing … like he would tune a guitar down until he liked the way that particular guitar sounded in whatever notes they were—like microtuning. So sometimes when I play I’ll micro tune the whole guitar down a little bit—like a quarter step,
Do you use different tunings often?
Kayla Cohen: Yeah, there are a lot of different tunings, but nothing super crazy. There’s a couple of strings that are always in standard, but yeah—there’s different tunings. That’s something I need to figure out for the next tour. I have to bring two or three guitars because everyone in my band is like, ‘You take too much time tuning between songs!’
I used to play in different tunings and I got fast at it because I have such terrible stage fright and wanted to get to the song as quickly as possible.
Kayla Cohen: Yeah—I think I’m pretty quick at it now! And at changing strings because I have one song where I tune up a half step and it breaks the string every time!
What kind of guitar do you play?
Kayla Cohen: I play a Guild from ’73—it’s my most prized possession. They sound so good, and you can still get them kinda cheap. I always thought Martins sounded a little bit sterile, but it depends which one you have. Meg Baird has a really nice Martin that she plays all the time.
With the things that people notice with this kinda music, it’s very male and female. For female they seem to notice songwriter point of view and voice, whereas for male they delve more into technicalities and champion them for that.
Kayla Cohen: That’s good as a writer that you’re aware of that cuz a lot of people just write and don’t think too hard about men or women—they just write what their first instinct is to say, which is sometimes sorta stereotypical. I guess people have said stuff about my guitar playing, I dunno. The press stuff I read, I just kinda go, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ But I’m not ever really picking apart what they are saying. Playing guitar live is hard. The stagefright thing, seeing people play live … you think maybe they’re a step down from how good they could possibly be on stage. I used to have stagefright real bad, but I’ve been playing this project for five years now. Some really crazy shows at the beginning, but you have to do that. There’s something about my personality where I don’t think too hard about being onstage and sounding crappy, you know? I feel like you just have to do it, even if the audience is like, ‘This person really sucks.’ They’ll forget about it in a week or two—you can’t get better if you don’t play.
When did you start working on this record and who produced it?
Kayla Cohen: I started writing early last year. I had a lot of different bursts of writing because I work and have a lot of other stuff going on. I was writing a ton of songs until I finally felt like I had enough. I booked studio time with this guy Jason—he’s in GospelbeacH. We did a week of studio time. I didn’t do any of the vocals then but we recorded it all there. I guess I produced it. Nobody was there telling us what to do. I asked Jason for advice a couple of times, but he mostly engineered it. The idea of having a producer is kinda weird.
I always like having producers because I feel like I get so wrapped up in it, I need outside ears. But I totally understand not wanting that.
Kayla Cohen: That’s a good point. We only recorded for like five days, without the vocals, so I did all that at home myself, and then I mixed it myself. But I did a really bad job so I sent it to this guy Brian who plays in Ryley Walker’s band and he fixed it, and he did a really good job.
It sounds really solid and beautiful. What’s your songwriting process like?
Kayla Cohen: Every song is kinda different. Sometimes I’ll write lyrics first and then you’ll get a tune that works, or some stuff is guitar first—there’s some stuff that’s really guitar- or riff-driven, and on those the guitar part came first. I like driving around. You think of a lot of stuff when you’re driving around. I just drove to Utah to write for a little bit, so I was there by myself. It was kinda trippy.
How many songs do you chuck?
Kayla Cohen: A lot. I dunno, man—I’m happy I got 11 songs
I’m so hard on myself. I’ll start something and then if I decide two days later I don’t like something, I’ll stop.
Kayla Cohen: I do that too. I think it’s important to be pretty hard on yourself about this stuff cuz everyone can always do better than they are. That’s how I feel about myself, especially if I have a day where I’ll do music stuff for a couple of hours and then be like, ‘Oh I have to go on the computer now.’ It’s like, ‘You don’t need to go on the computer now.’
The computer! Killer of creativity—I hate it!
Kayla Cohen: It’s hard with the music stuff. I have to answer emails—booking shows and stuff—and it can take a lot of time and really step on the artistic process.
When I lived in New York, I had a roommate, a job, it was noisy in my apartment, all the obstacles you can think of … but I had more discipline with a routine of writing and four-tracking everyday than now. This was all pre-internet. The internet is the biggest obstacle.
Kayla Cohen: I think it’s a problem. I’m hesitant to say that people should be doing more or being more productive cuz I’m sorta pushing against that idea always, but they probably would be more productive [without the Internet]. There’s a lot of people here who seem like they try to facilitate community. I put on shows and I have friends who put on shows, and I think that’s good—just to get people out of the house and talking to each other. When did you live in New York?
I left in 2003, but it was a fun time to be playing music there. There was a lot of championing of this kind of music and I saw a lot of stuff that inspired me. I saw Jim O’ Rourke at Tonic and he was doing an acoustic thing and I thought it was pretty incredible, and then somebody told me that he was really just doing a John Fahey thing. So then I went and bought all these John Fahey records.
Kayla Cohen: I’ve definitely learned a lot about good music from somebody saying, ‘Oh, this person is just ripping off this person.’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh, hmm—who’s that other person? I should check that out!’ Or it’s funny when somebody reviews my stuff and they compare me to someone and I’m like, ‘I’ve never even heard that—I’m gonna check that out!’
How often does that happen?
Kayla Cohen: Not that often cuz usually I know who they’re talking about.
Who have they compared you to?
Kayla Cohen: Linda Perhacs, Sibylle Baier …
That’s so funny cuz I actually don’t think you sound like them so much.
Kayla Cohen: Yeah … but they’re women, you know. Sometimes people will compare my music to men’s music, though. I think that’s cool.
There were a lot of male artists I thought of when listening to you—mostly the guitar playing and song structure style.
Kayla Cohen: I listen to a lot of male music, I guess—well, that’s like a huge generalization. I don’t know if that’s true. I realize when I’m listening to stuff, like ‘Oh, my radio is all women right now—that’s cool!’ Last year I was listening to a lot of women. I went through a big Joni phase last year.
I’m obsessed with her again right now—Court And Spark. I’ll go through different phases of what stuff I like of hers
Kayla Cohen: I’m sorta not in that phase anymore. I guess it ended. I did this tour last year and we were driving through Texas in the spring and all the flowers were blooming and it was foggy, and I thought, ‘Now’s the time where I’m gonna put on Joni Mitchell and everyone else in the car is just going to have to deal with it!’
She’s incredible. She gets a lot of credit, but there’s some things she doesn’t get enough credit for. This was something I thought of when listening to your record and being so wowed by the guitar playing. I think when people think of folk music they think of it as very uncomplicated or something, but there’s like the Michael Chapman’s, John Fahey’s, Bert Jansch’s and Sandy Bull’s—all those guys kinda get accolades for being virtuoso guitarists and stuff.
Kayla Cohen: Yeah—but Joni was also really good!
Exactly. Nobody ever mentions that Joni was a great guitarist that was pretty experimental with all her tunings. Or Bridget St. John who is an awesome guitar player.
Kayla Cohen: Oh yea—Bridget St John! Great guitar player!
What kind of shows did you play in New York? Did you play solo acoustic stuff?
Kayla Cohen: I played instrumental guitar shows, electric instrumental guitar shows—
That’s a little easier to hide behind. The acoustic guitar thing is rough. If you have a little bit of noise I think it’s a little easier.
Kayla Cohen: For sure. I’m probably a little bit different than your standard concertgoer but I think there’s a lot of beauty in starkness and silence. Like when you’re seeing a guitar player play and they’re leaving a lot of space—maybe they’re not technically amazing but like they’re trying to do something.
I’m definitely of that mindset. I don’t need a lot of overpowering sound. I like connecting with artistic point of view, whether it’s loud and fun or quiet. Quiet can be really powerful.
Kayla Cohen: That’s the idea that’s supposed to happen, and sometimes it happens and it works, and sometimes you have off nights. Twenty years ago people would play every night and there were places where people would have residencies and you’d go jam with people and you just were always playing out. Nowadays you can’t really do that. There’s something about the scholarly-ness of playing and trying to get there that used to happen a lot more than it does now. I wish that would come back.
You’re from New York right? How long have you been in L. A.?
Kayla Cohen: Four-and-a-half years. I’ve played guitar for like 15 years—since I was a teenager—but when I was in New York I didn’t play seriously. I’d record and stuff, but not really put anything out. I put out tapes—like bad tapes, like noise tapes. It was electric and acoustic guitar, more like tape collage—that’s what people would say. I don’t have any of those tapes though. You can’t get them—they’re bad.
You had one other release before this newest right?
Kayla Cohen: Yeah. That has acoustic songs and before that I put out CDRs and tapes, but I don’t think you can find them. I actually just did a tape pressing of the LP from two years ago so people can buy it at shows but I definitely don’t sell the early ones anymore. I don’t know—I think this one is better. More well-produced and thought through.
Well, yeah—I mean, obviously you’ve moved on from something you’ve made, but it might be affecting somebody at a time when they’re going through something. Or they’re hearing it for the first time and it’s affecting them in a way that’s different from how you experienced it. I think personally I had a selfish outlook on it when I was making albums.
Kayla Cohen: Oh yeah—like ‘It’s all about me and how I feel about it.’
I like to self deprecate about it, to the point of being selfish. I guess self deprecation is being selfish!
Kayla Cohen: I like the thing about putting out records—once you do it, it’s out there and you can really distance yourself from something if you want to. Like think of it as a character.
What’s interesting about your stuff … I kinda went through the whole freak folk era, and I’m not trying to put that stuff down, but I feel like your music sounds a little more genuine or from a singular place than what they were doing. I don’t even really know what that movement was trying to do—it was great on one hand because they championed stuff like Vashti Bunyan, but maybe it just got a little too on the nose.
Kayla Cohen: I feel like that kind of music is still around now, but it’s all a reaction to the environment. Is laying in the grass and putting flowers in your hair relevant anymore? It doesn’t seem relevant now… but I liked a lot of that stuff. Now there’s just so much—there’s a lot of lone wolves, which I think is cool! But I do feel like I have a little community I guess.
Who do you end up playing shows with?
Kayla Cohen: A lot of people from Chicago. Circuit De Yeux, Daniel Bachman, he’s a guitar player, Sarah Louise who I’m going on tour with, David Nance. In L.A., Gun Outfit. I like Jessica Pratt.
That sense of musical community in Chicago—what do you think it would take to bring that vibe to L.A.?
Kayla Cohen: I don’t feel like I am a part of the Chicago community—because I don’t live there—but t it seems like a place where people can always be playing out, as opposed to L.A., where there’s not as much collaboration. It’s more independent. It’s weird—I think there’s something in L.A. that makes people want to say ‘I can just do this myself—I don’t need other people.’ Also … as much as we try to say this isn’t true, this city is a lot about image. And that doesn’t always mix well with making good music.
Do you think moving to L.A. has affected your songwriting?
Kayla Cohen: I think my emotional state more so affects my songs, but there’s definitely people that I’ve gotten into listening to here in L.A. that has affected my songwriting. I’ve been listening to Leon Russell a lot, and John Phillips—that’s L.A. style for sure! That Jeff Cowell that got re-issued. I like the idea of someone making little songs that are trying to be masterpieces—that are really lofty ideas—but they’re actually recorded in some small town in somebody’s basement. That’s what I think I’m trying to do.
ITASCA WITH SIMON JOYNER AND DAVID NANCE ON THURS., OCT. 13, AT RESIDENT, 428 S. HEWITT ST., DOWNTOWN. 8 PM / $8-$10 / 21+. GET TICKETS HERE! AND AT THE NUMERO GROUP POP-UP AT RAPPCATS, 5636 YORK BLVD., HIGHLAND PARK. 5 PM / FREE / ALL AGES. MORE INFO HERE. ITASCA’S OPEN TO CHANCE IS OUT NOW ON PARADISE OF BACHELORS. VISIT ITASCA AT ITASCALOSANGELES.COM.