05 Dec AN INTRODUCTION TO INDIE SINGER-SONGWRITER CASSI NICHOLLS
If you’re anything like us and LOVE finding lesser-known indie artists at the start of their ascent, this post is for you. Over the summer, my path luckily led me to see indie singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Cassi Nicholls perform, and I was blown away (so much so that I’ve seen her perform THREE times since). If you’ve been following the blog, you already know we have covered a variety of shining, rising indie artists in various genres all across the US. (If you haven’t been following the blog, you have a LOT of catching up to do, but we promise your playlists will thank you for the new additions.)
This particular post is especially unique, since it’s the very first time we’ll be spotlighting a local artist. And former Michigander-turned-Californian Cassi Nicholls doesn’t just live in my state, or even just in my town—she lives RIGHT down the street. It’s been a glistening reminder to us that exceptional talent (including your new favorite indie artist) may very well be someone you’ve already seen hiking the same trail, running the same errands, or sipping coffee beside you.
While Cassi’s music hooked us for a number of reasons, perhaps the greatest of them all is that when you hear it, you know she’s written directly from her heart, because you feel it directly in your soul. She’s not afraid to tackle those difficult emotions or speak candidly about herself to her fans. (You’ll see what we mean in the Q&A.) I wish I could link some of her songs for you here, but they’re not out yet. You can, however, hear snippets of all her songs on her Instagram (@thegirlmusic) and Facebook (@CassiNmusic) pages. AND, we do intend to cover every detail of her upcoming debut EP, Handsome Devil, as soon as it’s released. In the meantime, I’d like to be the first to introduce you to the very real and effervescent Cassi Nicholls.
The conversation from our interview is chronicled below in a pure Q & A format.
Q & A:
How would you describe the music you create?
Cassi: I think the hardest thing for me as a musician is to describe my sound or the music I create. The best way for me is to call it girly singer-songwriter. These particular songs came from a very vulnerable place when I was feeling a lot of hurt. I CAN say that I’ve been heavily influenced by the female songwriters of the 90’s. They were honest and open. Whether that comes through in the sound, I’m not sure, but it’s where I find a lot of inspiration.
So you’re not afraid to go deep?
Cassi: I’ve always felt deeply about things in general, and the older I get the more comfortable I become with that. Instead of keeping it all inside or being afraid of it, it’s OK to just feel it and work through that and I feel like it’s especially important in music.
What instruments do you play?
Cassi: I don’t play all of these perfectly, but: piano, violin, guitar, and sometimes bass (with a little bit of coaching). Bass is actually really fun to play. I don’t own a bass—I wish I did. I do have a banjo at my house, but I rarely pick it up. It’s really intimidating. Like a whole new realm, it just kind of stares at me and waits for me to figure it out.
When did you first realize you were an artist?
Cassi: Growing up, we always had music in the house. My brother and I would sneak into the room with our tape recorder when my dad was playing guitar and pretend we were at a rock concert. I actually found some of those old tapes, and they’re HILARIOUS. You can hear us in the background whispering things like, “Yeahhhh, Keith Nicholls!!!” I definitely looked up to my dad when he was playing.
I started singing in church when I was super young and continued to sing in public school choir and musical productions. The public school system tested us for instruments. I tried several woodwind and brass instruments, but I didn’t have the lung capacity—so violin it was. At that time, An American Tale had just come out with its soundtrack that included “Somewhere Out There,” and I remember learning that song by ear and then squeaking it out for my 4th-grade graduation. That’s when I knew deep inside, I really love this.
But, I didn’t realize music could be a career. While my parents encouraged me to play and sing, the education for my adult life revolved around me getting a “grown-up job,” working 9-to-5, and using music both as a hobby and as an outlet to unwind. This was because they feared I might find myself living in poverty, otherwise.
The realization of wanting to be an artist was always there, but the idea of actually doing it seemed off-limits. It wasn’t until I was older that I felt comfortable knowing I wanted to be an artist. I thought, No wonder things have felt so WEIRD for so LONG…I haven’t been doing what I want! It always felt weird to get up and do the whole 9-to-5 thing, so I was always doing karaoke contests with my coworkers and friends. I’d pick the most challenging songs and yell at the top of my lungs, because (back then) I had no control over what I was doing. All I knew was that it felt really right. When I moved from Michigan to California I realized, I CAN really do this.
What sparks your desire to create?
Cassi: Oh man! It’s out of necessity. When I really started getting down to it and writing songs, the music came from a place that needed escape. I always wrote poems. Sometimes I look back my early poems and think, Oh, girl, what were you thinking?! You were SO dramatic… I actually have all those old notebooks. It’s a trip to read them and see how far I’ve come as an artist.
Whether it was writing music or even making jewelry, I always needed to put something out there. It’s therapeutic. I always feel better after writing a song or finishing a cross-stitch. When it comes to other aspects in my life, I’m definitely a procrastinator and find it hard to follow-through; but, when it comes to music, I’m able to go that extra step and push myself to finish something.
From time to time, we all have bad days. What do you do mentally and/or physically when a bad day strikes without mercy?
Cassi: I’ve always struggled with depression. (Surprise, surprise, all my songs are super sad. Well, not all of them. Some of them have hope.)
Depression happens to a LOT people, but everyone has a DIFFERENT experience with it. I’ll share my experience with you, but I want to stress that my personal approach to depression isn’t necessarily going to work for someone else who may be experiencing these feelings in a completely different way than I do. I can only attest to what works for me.
My parents acknowledged my depression, but I think it was hard for them to process why a 12-year-old would have any reason to feel sad on a regular basis. That’s the CRAZY part of mental illness on any level…it really doesn’t make sense. You almost feel trapped in your own brain between two thought processes. One is, you’re fine, use logic, and know that your chemical makeup might be off today; the other is that you are having a legit feeling of hopelessness, sadness, or whatever emotion it might be, and that is your reality in the moment. Acknowledging your feelings and processing them in a healthy manner is imperative. Those feelings are real, but they are NOT PERMANENT.
Embracing both those thoughts helped me work through finding solutions for myself. THAT being said, I have bad days where I will lay in bed for an entire day, surrounded with reminders of things I should be doing, but I cannot muster up the energy, confidence, or emotional availability needed to just do basic things. Though it seems counterintuitive to do nothing, I find when I’m able to give in and work on processing a big feeling instead of powering through it, I can wake up the next day ready to take on whatever comes at me. On days I don’t have that luxury, when things are just dark but I have energy, OR when I can see myself being overdramatic (something about myself I’ve learned to laugh at most of the time), I find all my major healing and breakthroughs happen on a trail in the woods. Nature is a hell of a therapist for me. It really only takes giving myself a pep talk to get on the trail, because I know things will be better outside of whatever negative space I might be wallowing in. Get the F outside kids.
We’ve seen you play a few times, and know you always dial in several shows a month. How do you prepare yourself for live performance and also manage to keep things fresh?
Cassi: It’s always a struggle because you don’t always want to play the same songs. I might have played these songs in LA, but I haven’t played them on the Central Coast. Because these songs have yet to be released, people are hearing them for the first time—even though I’ve had them in my pocket for a long time.
My ultimate goal is for someone in the audience to request one of my songs by name. When Ynana Rose and Steve Key perform, the audience always requests “Lillian,” because they’ve played it so much it’s become a fan favorite—and that doesn’t make it old. It helps your audience get familiar with your music. Especially when it’s not on the radio.
Preparing myself for live performance is a discipline. Thinking of it as a job is really hard, so I actually make a list of what I have to do in the day and block out time for my music. During that block, I turn the phone off and tell myself, Okay, this is what we’re doing for the next hour or so.
I constantly remind myself that I can improve. I’m not the greatest guitar player, but (now that I’m older) I know the more you practice, the better you get at something. I just have to keep practicing until it becomes muscle memory. You owe that to the people seeing you play. You don’t always want to be looking at your guitar or reading off a page, because it takes away from the performance. Really buckling down and giving myself some discipline to rehearse my craft is BIG.
What’s your favorite local venue to perform at?
Cassi: I like all the places I play locally on the Central Coast, but my favorite is DEFINITELY Seed & Soul. I love the owner, Teleri. If it wasn’t for Brandon Follett from Bridge Street Inn, Pints On The Porch never would have happened. Brandon was very adamant about bringing music to Seed & Soul. I’m grateful he made that dream a reality, and I’m happy to be curating all the artists for those shows. Playing at Seed & Soul is like playing for your friends on their porch. I’m rarely nervous to do a show there. If it’s raining, we move the music inside. It just feels comfy and cozy.
I’d also like to shout-out Jill Knight. Between her and Seed & Soul, I was renewed in my enthusiasm to perform again. Without them, I might not be playing on the Central Coast at all right now. For me, it always takes a push. Especially if I haven’t played out in a long time. Seed & Soul was the first place I played at in over a year; and, when it happened, I was like, This is it.
I remember seeing your first show, and thinking, Why don’t I *already* know who this girl is?
Cassi: Seed & Soul has become my second home. Sometimes I just want to take my guitar in and play. I love when I’m playing there and call someone out in the audience by name, because we all know each other. The audience is really interactive. And I think it’s a great place for any artist to play. I mean, we’ve had a lot of artists who have played before, but not in a while, and Pints On The Porch at Seed & Soul offered a safe space to get their feet wet again.
Can you name some of the other artists, so we can introduce our readers to them?
Cassi: YES! We have Jeanne Haegele; Travis Bland as Fallow Fields; Zach Greenwald as Absolute Value; Damon Lord (my husband); and Brandon Follett, who (sometimes plays with Travis Bland and Jason Borda and) performs under a variety of stage names, including (but not limited to) Allison and the Transmissions and Dik Pak & His Chocolate Mustache.
Brandon has to be one of my favorite performers, because he’s not afraid to say things in a creative way. It’s shocking how poignant he can be with that smile on his face, and still you want to laugh out of discomfort.
What can you tell us about the EP so far?
Cassi: The Handsome Devil EP was born out of a single relationship, and it’s surprising to me that all the songs sprang from that one place.
A great friend of mine, Patrick Joseph, told me you should always do big releases during your birthday month—since people feel more inclined to show up in support (LOL). To align with my birthday, we’re working towards a March release. We’re aiming to celebrate the EP release with two shows: one in Cambria and one in LA. I would IDEALLY like to play on a mountain top amphitheater or at a campground, but making people drive to one is asking a lot.
Actually, Patrick Joseph is more than just a great friend. He’s my producer, and he’s super talented in his own right. Here’s how we connected: My friend Nicole (aka LAKOOKALA) mentioned Patrick to me in passing, and I started listening to him on Spotify. When I first heard him, I thought, Who is this creature? I became a huge fan and went to see one of his shows at Satellite in LA. Turned out, four of my friends happened to be at that same show, and they had actually grown up with him in Pittsburgh. (They were my “cool art” friends, so of course they new other cool people.) That night I was introduced to Patrick, and I still remember the moment I super fan-girled and told him I loved his music.
Months later, Patrick heard what I was playing and wanted to record some of my songs. It was really cool to have him involved. He’s an integral part of having this EP released the way that I want it to be released. I had worked with another producer previously, and the EP that came out of that was well-recorded but *not* a good representation of ME. With Patrick, I was able to sit in a studio, experiment, and bounce ideas off him. The first amalgamation of these songs was not like that at all. It involved someone getting me into the studio and telling me, “Here’s what we are going to do with this.” The new version of the EP—the one I actually want to release—was definitely organic. I played instruments on it, whereas with the first I had to pay other people to play parts I could have played.
Ooo! What instruments did you play on the EP?
Cassi: Violin, Guitar, and Piano. It was fun to pick up the violin again. It was born out of my being broke and being unable to afford a good string player. God knows string players train their whole life for that. I mean, I played for fifteen years, and I know how much work I put into it—they deserve every penny. I had to look at myself, suck it up, and realize that I needed to pick it back up and play it on my EP. It took about a month to get all my skills back. Playing violin is not like riding a bike. It was not easy.
I wrote string parts for this EP, which I never thought I would be able to do. I was able to sit in the first and second chairs while recording, so I got to play the A part and the B part. It sounds like there are four string players, but it’s really just me.
Can you name the 5 songs on the Handsome Devil EP and tell us just a little something about each?
Cassi: A lot of people like “The War.” Sometimes, I go through a cycle where I think, Ugh! Why this song? Why does everybody like this song?! Then, I come to value it again after I play it, because it brings back some kind of emotion. The song is about being vulnerable again after you’ve had a very bad experience with love.
“Slow” is the piano tune. It’s about jumping into something, and then seeing—in hindsight—that you went too fast into it and fell too hard. I feel a lot really quickly with people, and sometimes that can be intense. The track is about going back and thinking, Wait. Can we start over and try this again the *right* way?
“Every Time” is about having no self-control with a certain person. Oh my god, I can be super strong, but when you are around or you say certain things to me, it makes it impossible to say “no” or to be that strong person that I know I am.
“Belong to Love” is the most fun to play. I love the drum part so much. This track is about telling yourself, You shouldn’t settle for anything less than 100% of what you want from love. No half-truths or getting a little bit of what I want from here or there. It’s about being ALL in.
I was listening to a lot of Gregory Alan Isakov when I wrote “Detroit.” I have an affinity for writing in a waltz; I don’t know if it’s because of my string background or my love for Elliott Smith. “Detroit” is about having to leave your home to know that it was because of that place you are who you are and also out of a fierce love for my hometown. You can only talk smack about Detroit if you’re from there.
Where can we hear your music?
Cassi: Right now, you can hear snippets of all my songs on my Facebook and Instagram pages. The whole EP will be available for purchase and streaming as soon as we officially release.
The next Pints On The Porch at Seed & Soul in Cambria, CA is Friday, December 14th from 5-7 PM. I’m especially excited for this one, since it features an all-women lineup! I’ll be playing, along with Jeanne Haegele and Emily Franklin. I hope to see you there!
Photo by Sarah Ellen Johnson