27 Jul CASSI NICHOLLS MESMERIZES WITH HAUNTINGLY BEAUTIFUL DEBUT SINGLE, “GRAVE DIGGER”
Indie singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Cassi Nicholls just dropped “Grave Digger”—a debut single that’s so hauntingly beautiful, we feel it in our bones. From the waves of poetic acoustic guitar to the first drum beat that left us breathless, this track is wholly transporting. Cassi’s ethereal, velvety vocals, mesmerizing with equal parts hope and heartache, swirl with the anchoring sounds of the cello and bass to conjure up what we imagine as a bittersweet, freeing-yet-life-altering slow dance with the grim reaper. Like the aesthetic of the marine layer that often nestles into California’s rugged, pinetree-lined Central Coast where this song was penned, “Grave Digger” flawlessly blurs the lines between this world and what lies beyond. (Yeah, it gives us chills in the best way.)
Our favorite lyric? (We can’t choose one!) “Could I stay here, just below the surface?” and “I awake at a house in the pines, Alive I understand the favor.” Add “Grave Digger” to all your brooding, introspective, indie chill, and travel playlists. We also think this single will be warmly embraced by the spooky camp that keeps Halloween alive all year long. (Listen while you read, but keep your feet aboveground.)
In this interview, you’ll learn: why “Grave Digger” made for an ideal first release; how Cassi crafted this spine-tingling track; who helped her bring this single to life; all about the song’s custom-made ritual boxes (+ where to get one); what Cassi misses most about her home state (Michigan); the truth OR fiction behind the rumor that she stole her dad’s guitar; which artists inspired Cassi’s music + which artists she’s vibin’ on now; what advice she has for other indies waiting to release music; and where you can see Cassi perform this summer.
Q + A:
We’ve been longing for your first official release! Considering all of your MANY soul-stirring tracks, what made “Grave Digger” stand out as an ideal first single to share with the world?
Cassi: First, THANK YOU, seriously. I’m so excited that this song is out there for everyone to hear now! This song stood out because it was one of my newest and felt the most relevant to me personally. I have more to release, but when Graham and I listened to the finished song, it just stood out as something we could be proud of.
When and where did you find yourself writing the lyrics to “Grave Digger”?
Cassi: I wrote Grave Digger in late 2018. I had been messing with a riff and this line “Throw away your amulets…”—and while I was cleaning the rental I currently manage, more of the song and melody came to me. I stopped cleaning and finished the song in about an hour. I spent a few weeks tweaking it and now we have what you hear. I also finished cleaning. 😉
How did you manage to craft a spine-tingling song that also offers an air of mystery and possibly even a hint of romance? What can you reveal about its story?
Cassi: Listen, I can’t give away ALL my secrets, but I can tell you that I wrote it with a specific moment I experienced in mind. I played it live a lot, and when someone connected with the song, I was always more intrigued by their experience and what feelings it brought forward for them. I’ve heard other musicians say this, but sometimes you write a song that, on the surface, is about one thing, but YEARS later you realize you’d written something from your subconscious to your future self, or you may even interpret it differently as the song and yourself age. But you wanted a little bit about the story and, right now, I believe it’s about committing to continually grow by taking the chance on the thing that’s outside of the norm or a risk.
Do you have a favorite “Grave Digger” lyric or one that we should pay special attention to when listening?
Cassi: Ya know, when I was designing merch, I was actually having a REALLY hard time picking out one line to use! I went with one that was important in the story telling—“I awake at a house in the pines”—for all my merch. If I REALLY think about it, we spent a lot of time making sure the last line of the bridge had space in the song to breathe amongst all the music happening, and it is sort of a punchline to the whole thing. So, “That in this moment I have died and happiness…it finally stays…” would be the winner.
We’ve heard and LOVED the live acoustic version of “Grave Digger” but this release delivers an even more intense ethereal nature via a captivating array of gorgeous new sounds. How did you envision this spellbinding single version? + Who helped you bring that vision to life?
Cassi: First, let’s give a BIG shout out to Graham Ginsberg! He not only co-produced the song, but he also engineered, mixed, and mastered all the sounds you hear on the single. I am endlessly thankful to work with him and for the many hours it took to bring this song full circle.
There are always elements I hear in my head during the writing process, and each song is different. For this one, I always heard the three-part harmonies with cello, I knew I wanted to use Cory and Bob because we have played live together, and I had some references for a sound but was unsure how to get there. Graham helped round out those elements. For this song I played guitar and synth. Bob Liepman played Cello (AKA Cello Bob), Cory Parmenter was on drums, and Graham brought in Mike Jay on bass.
Your vocals! How did you mentally and physically prepare yourself to deliver that performance in studio?
Cassi: I always try to drink as much water as possible for a day of vocals. Gotta stay hydrated! I do vocal warm-ups as well.
Mentally, it’s a whole other thing. Recording vocals in a studio is so different than a live performance, which seems crazy. You’d think because you have the opportunity to do a bunch of takes to get that perfect performance it would be easy, but all it does is make me overthink, lol. So, I do a lot of meditating before I arrive in the studio and I try to focus on the task. I don’t really settle in on the first couple of takes because there is a lot to think about! We’re adjusting levels, mic placement, and other technical stuff. Making sure I know the song well and all the choices I have in that performance helps to prepare. You would think, oh, I wrote this, I know it like no one else—but even if you’ve written something, practice makes perfect…or at least it makes you comfortable enough in the performance.
What was/were the most memorable moment(s) of recording “Grave Digger”?
Cassi: Man, the recording process took the entire year, so it’s hard to say! We started recording just before the pandemic, so that in itself was a challenge. In fact, the day before official lockdown, we headed into Sauce Pot Studios to record cello parts. Then it was this dance of waiting weeks between recordings to make sure we weren’t passing germs. Graham would get a new mic, so we would re-record lead vocals and harmonies. I had a new guitar I had purchased just after the original recording so we re-recorded with the new guitar, but we had already recorded cello, vocals AND synth over the old guitar track. Graham had the task of making sure everything was syncing up in the recording properly after re-recording such major parts.
I’m sure there was a more straightforward and planned approach; but, when we started, I think Graham was expecting a quick singer/songwriter demo and we both ended up hearing the direction we could take the song if we did it proper. Then we just kind of went with the flow and didn’t force a deadline. We weren’t interested in rushing the process—and for me, it was nice to have a creative partner in the same frame of mind.
Those ritual boxes! Please tell us more about them + where we can get them 😊 (along with all your other fantastic merch!)
Cassi: I’m SOOOO glad you asked! I thought of all the times I bought a single or album and how I couldn’t wait to get home to my headphones and really just vibe. I wanted to create something that would bring my listeners into the world of “Grave Digger” and allow for an immersive listen. The ritual boxes are mini coffins stuffed with goodies. Each item is reminiscent of the Central Coast where the song was born. They are all velvet lined on the bottom with song lyrics on the lid, then inside there is a purple tea light, incense that smells like a foggy day on the coast, a few stones I handpicked from Moonstone Beach in Cambria, and a small jar of matches. I commissioned my friend Zack from Zack Maxx Studios to create some artwork I could turn into a branding iron, and that is the stamp you see on the top of the ritual box. They (and other “Grave Digger” merch) are available in my store, and the purchase comes with a download of “Grave Digger”!
Name 3 things fans should know about you.
Cassi: 1. I love them 2. I’m grateful to be here 3. Beadle Borp.
Which artists have been most influential to your songwriting and performance style? Which artists have been in heavy rotation for you lately? What’s the last song you listened to on loop?
Cassi: The moment I had the thought, ‘I want to write songs like that…’ was after hearing the August and Everything After album from Counting Crows. Adam Duritz had a way of painting a picture and telling a story. I could see the songs play out like a movie in my mind. Fiona Apple was another artist who became a benchmark for me in terms of melody and lyrical content. Argh, there are so many folks I listened to over the years that have all contributed to my musical approach! I grew up loving pop punk, punk rock, and electronic music as well, and they all have their place in my songs even if it isn’t obvious. Brandi Carlile was coming around when I started writing again, and I admire her endlessly. There are so many really, but those stick out in my mind always.
As far as my rotation: Phoebe Bridgers, Sleeping At Last, Fences, Lake Street Dive, Lord Huron, John Craigie, and The Weather Station. On repeat: thanks to a friend (😉) Ben Howard’s I Forget Where We Were is on repeat for my morning breakfast routine and randomly throughout the day…oh, and “Grave Digger”…lol.
We heard a (clears throat) rumor you “stole” your dad’s guitar right before you left Michigan for California. Can you confirm or deny this? What’s so special about this particular guitar + (in case he’s reading this interview) do you want to tell your dad anything?
Cassi: To be fair, I ‘borrowed’ the guitar while I was still living in Michigan! I must have accidentally packed it with all my stuff when I left. It was an accident. I swear.
It’s a 1970s Guild Madeira, and I knew NOTHING about guitars when I wanted to start playing—just having access to a guitar was special. He bought a fancy Martin which I plan on stealing the next time I visit him. I have no regrets and I’d do it again!
You’ve lived in Cali for many years now, but we get the sense the Michigan girl is still very much alive inside you. What do you miss most about the area you grew up in? + What’s it like to now embrace California as the place you create and release your art?
Cassi: I miss Michigan summers and all the green! Aside from the weather I really just miss my people the most. I love you all, you know who you are!! I don’t think about the second part of your question that often. Because I’ve been in California for so long, it is my home, so it just feels natural, but I do look forward to the day I get to play one of the Michigan venues that I grew up seeing shows at.
How old were you when you first realized you were an artist? What would that young you think about the adult you who just put out her first official release?
Cassi: I think it was less of a realization and more of an acceptance. For a long time, labeling myself an artist seemed like I was putting myself into a category with incredible people and that I was NOT like one of those people. It’s taken me a while to get to a point where I actually refer to myself as an artist; but in my mind, I felt like I needed to earn it. So, let’s just say I was way older than I thought I would be when I finally accepted that label.
As far as what my younger self would think: she’s pretty stoked but also wonders why we don’t have our house by the river yet, so nothing is good enough for that young lady, I guess.
What advice do you have for other indie artists who might be worried they’re waiting too long to release their music?
Cassi: YOU GET THERE WHEN YOU GET THERE!!! Nobody has the same circumstances coming up and not all of us are child prodigies, sometimes we get stuck and have to dig our way out of some real-life stuff before a creative process can flourish. I still have to remind myself of this daily, and also not to compare myself to other artists. It’s a waste of time. Lastly, don’t be in a hurry to release something you don’t feel strongly about. All it takes is one great song, so take your time and trust your process. Your release doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be you in that moment.
We’ve had the pleasure of seeing you perform around the Central Coast many, many times before the pandemic. Now that things have somewhat opened up, what venues are you hoping to play at? Do you have any already-booked shows we should know about?
Cassi: If I’m being honest, I would like to keep being in hibernation!!! HOWEVER, some venues I was hoping to play BEFORE the pandemic have reached out to me, so I’m grateful for the opportunities. I’ll be playing Bethel Road Distillery on August 14th. Other than that, I’m kinda laying low and plan to get a lot of recording done, but I may get the itch and try to book some other gigs. I’d like to do more house shows if possible. For bookings, people can reach out to me via email, the contact form on my website, OR DMs—whatever they are able to communicate through.
What’s next for you + your music?
Cassi: We just got a sprinter van, so I’m looking forward to putting together little tours, traveling to see family, and of course, continuing to write and record songs!
Connect with Cassi Nicholls:
Listen to “Grave Digger”:
Apple Music + iTunes: https://music.apple.com/us/album/grave-digger-single/1559862053
Photos + Album Art by Sarah Elle