published Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Q&A with Cahalen Morrison and Eli West

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Seattle-based folk/old-time duo Cahalen Morrison and Eli West about how they met, their creative touchstones and making the modern sound timeless.

CP: When did you start playing music?

EW: I started playing bluegrass in my late teens in the Seattle area of Washington. I studied with a bunch of different folks and mostly listened to a lot of music. I came about it that way. I started as a Suzuki violin kid, which is the standard violin process for most kids, and then I played big bands and jazz music through high school. I got into bluegrass in late high school and college and have been working my way to old time.

CM: I started when I was really young, around 9. My dad is a fingerstyle guitar player and an old-time fiddler, so I grew up backing him up on fiddle and playing guitar. I started picking up instruments on the way and going to bluegrass festivals with my folks growing up. I ended up playing drums throughout college and taking that whole “music school drum” route. I never left playing strings, but I came back to doing that full time when I graduated college and started touring as a folk singer playing my own stuff.

CP: How did you start playing together?

EW: We have a mutual friend, who has a geographic interest in a place called Ghost Ranch, N.M. He's my college mentor, who actually is a DJ in Washington. He knew Cahalen growing up, so Cahalen was in Seattle visiting his sister, and he said, “You guys should get to together to play some music.” That's what started.

CM: That was about a year and a half ago. That was the first time we met, and now, we're pretty much full-time buddies.

CP: Are you still based in two cities?

CM: I've been in Seattle for the last eight months.

CP: So you moved to a new city just eight months after meeting Eli? Was the performing chemistry that immediate?

EW: Yeah, I would say it was. Both Cahalen and I have a healthy dose of skepticism about us, but despite that, it was rather instantaneous. Cahalen is a good songwriter, and I was really drawn to his writing. That was instant, and we've since built the dialog of the musicality to it.

CM: In the same way that he was drawn to my writing style, he has a really unique and really musically interesting playing style, which accompanied my writing style very nicely. It was an immediate draw for me, too, in the other direction. We both brought this puzzle piece to it that fit really well.

CP: How has that partnership developed over the last year and a half?

CM: I would say that definitely we've started doing more collaboration, or deeper collaboration. It was pretty much me bringing my songs and we would play it together with him bringing his sound. Now, I don't know that it's changed dramatically, but it has deepened a lot in that we both know each other's sound well enough that we know what's going to fit well and what's not. We have a really easy time putting stuff together.

We've started writing a little bit together and tossing ideas around. When I'm writing a song, I'll go to Eli and ask him what he thinks about the A part or the B part or whatever. There's more communication about the music.

EW: For me, the big benefit of there just being two of us is that we're really lightweight, in that we can change direction really easily. It's not a big deal to change things up and surprise each other by playing something differently.

Even though we've built a foundation, I don't think either of us are interested in abandoning the improvisational creativity that happens really easily with the two of us. Cahalen is the major writer, and so far, we have one co-write together, which involved talking more about the subject and arrangement. I'd like to move more in that direction. It's somewhere I need to go personally, since I'm nowhere near as prolific a writer as him.

I would say our growth since meeting has been getting a shared language around delivery. Even though our record is pretty solid and representational, I think we're still both really interested in growing into it.

CP: Have you ever played in Chattanooga before?

CM: I've been through it, but I've never played there. I don't think Eli has either.

CP: Do you have any expectations about playing here?

EW: I hear it's a really fantastic town with a really distinguished downtown. I'm from the Northwest, which is pretty detached from any geographic identity with bluegrass, so it's exciting to have my first experience of playing old-time/bluegrass in its homeland.

CM: I always enjoy playing in the South, in general, for the same reason. It's where a lot of music we cite as our reference points of music came from. It's exciting to be around the places and the names and all that. People are generally more knowledge about it than they are in Seattle or wherever.

CP: Folk music is a genre full of timeless melodies that carry over from generation to generation. Timeless is sometimes used as a descriptor of Cahalen's music. Does it ever add any pressure to the process that you may be adding to a generation-spanning repertoire?

CM: I don't ever feel a weight. I have a lot of material that I really like that I'm maybe the most proud of that other people isn't timeless at all. It's a very personal thing, where no one will understand the lyrics because they're so internal for me and no one will get the references. The music is a little more inaccessible. That's the stuff I like the best.

I definitely, I guess, have found a knack for writing stuff that sounds old. I have had a lot of exposure to the lifestyles and everything that makes writing sound timeless. I grew up in the country, and you write your material from that, and people think it sounds old. But I never feel a weight.

EW: From the perspective of being a propagator instead of a writer of the music, I've felt a lot of comfort and freedom with this huge vernacular and a language to build on. A common complaint about folk singer/songwriters is a lack of reference to anything that is really immediate, like that “It sounds like Dave Matthews.”

Given this kind of expectations, if you look at our record and say, “Oh, it's old-time or bluegrass,” having that preconception and coming with an imprint of what it will sound like versus someone not having any idea what it's going to sound like and just trying to generate that for them, I think there's a lot more to be had with the history.

CP: Where do you draw inspiration from, Cahalen? You mentioned growing up in the country in New Mexico. Does that experience serve as a creative touchstone for you?

CM: A lot of it - most of it - is from the things I've done and places I've been, but I find that it's a fun and interesting challenge to implement modern things that are still relevant to people into something that sounds timeless or traditional.

I write about the sea a lot, the ocean, just because it's great imagery to use and there are so many great things you can draw from - even though I hate the ocean, really. It provides so much material, so much great material, to work with. Through metaphors, I can easily tie that to something I've experienced and I think is a real thing for me and for other people, too.

CP: I definitely noticed that in some references to the East Coast and hornpipes on a couple of songs off “The Holy Coming of the Storm.”

CM: We sing an a capella ballad on the record, and it's all about the sea and talks about the Eastern Shore. That's straight out of my life, just twisted enough to make it sound old, even though everything in it is current and relevant to something that has happened to me. That's the trick, taking relevant things and turning them into something that sounds like it's been around for a long time.

CP: Do you feel like you have knack for that?

CM: Yeah, I'd say so. It's still hit or miss, but generally, I'd say I can do that pretty well.

EW: You're creating truth by holding up your own experience to a history of truth, versus just trying to put forward your own truth and hoping people can relate to it. Our style of music and Cahalen's style of songwriting leans on something bigger, as opposed to propagating on its own.

CP: Your bio online, which I was written by your agent, describes you as having “a gift for communicating the simple truths of folk music.” What are those simple truths? How do you communicate them?

CM: Hmmm …. Umm, thanks, Devon. I kind of think it's just what I was talking about, the ability to weave tradition and current affairs in with one another and make people able to identify with both of them at the same time. I don't know if I'm great at that, but that's what I try to do.

CP: Eli, you come to the old-time style of music from jazz and bluegrass. Your guitar playing has more flair than is typical of old-time guitarists, but still sounds appropriate to the style. You've clearly done some evolving to adapt to Cahalen's approach. Has he shifted at all in your direction?

EW: Good question. My style has moved towards bluegrass and old time from listening to too much Bill Frisell jazz and Bruce Cockburn, who was really influential as far as rhythm. I don't know, I think that's where we're young. We both still have a lot of autonomy.

A little more than a year of playing together has been awesome, and we've really been insanely productive in that year, but when we do more projects, we'll look at this record and it's going to be the most representative of our musicianship up until the point of meeting. Our future projects will sound more integrated, for better or worse.

I wouldn't say I am to bluegrass as Cahalen is to me. We both have our story of how we've developed our own sound, and we're just now working on our collective sound. I don't think that Cahalen has compromised - maybe he has, actually (laughs) - his sound, in light of me. I think his songwriting is starting to do that in that I'm becoming more of a part of the arranging, but even there, I feel like there's so much exciting room for us to grow.

CP: Tell me about your approach to melding your voices for the first time on your collaborative debut, “The Holy Coming of the Storm.”

EW: Cahalen was in Seattle for about three months when we first started playing, and then he went out touring to the East Coast and was in Boston. He called me one day and said,

“Hey, we should do a record.” I was thrilled.

We both had, in our minds, the most stripped-down, live record possible in mind to really expose ourselves. We were both thinking about the Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott record, “Real Time,” which we both listen to a lot. It's totally bare bones. That was a great starting point because it's a strong frame of reference.

From there, in working out material, Cahalen has an arsenal of stuff, and we were just collectively arranging it. We were looking for a producer, and one of my musical heroes, Matt Flinner, was up for it, which was great.

We were already creating a strong Colorado connection, so we thought to employ three other amazing Colorado musicians. We didn't want to take it too far away from that real-time feel, but there were some songs that were begging for fiddle, definitely, and upright bass. On the record, there are four or five tracks that are just Cahalen and myself, maintaining that initial though, and the rest has other musicians.

CM: It was exceptionally fun to have the folks we had play on the record, because they're extremely talented and creative. A lot of musicians for hire will do what's asked of them and nothing more, but all the folks on this record went a lot out of their way to help be really creative in their roles without stepping on our toes and furthering the sound and making the whole thing sound more creative than it was. That was really a pleasure.

EW: As testimony to that, I felt like we were really prepared. We went in for three days of recording with everything packaged and ready to just play through it. In the end, some of my favorite moments were created totally on-the-spot - really improvisational - especially Ryan Drickey playing on fiddle. He kind of worked out parts, but what he put down was so much cooler than what he had been working on. It's really good collective delivery, as far as creating something that wasn't even what we were planning on.

CP: I know it's soon, given that “The Holy Coming of the Storm” just came out, but have you given any consideration to your next project? If so, will it be another collaboration?

CM: I've been compiling a list of songs, which I haven't even shown Eli, to not scare him away. I have a list of songs I'm working on and trying to compile another one, just to be ready for it when it comes. It'll be a while, for sure.

We'll be doing a lot of touring. For the next year, we'll do the East Coast thing, we're going to Europe twice and then we'll have festivals this summer all over. We're plenty busy, but another recording will definitely happen.

EW: I feel like I've really fallen into the best place possible. I've played in a lot of larger four- and five-piece bands, but this is so exciting, because you're responsible for 50 percent of the sound. I don't plan on going anywhere. Cahalen is such an amazing writer.

Both of us were rightfully exhausted after the recording process, and this album is still new to a lot of people, so we want to run with it. I think the next few months will definitely be touring for this, and maybe next year, I'm sure that we'll have tons of material.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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