“To think that someone who listens to music only wants to hear one thing is definitely selling your audience short. I don’t think its necessary to pigeonhole your creativity.”
“Half of the instruments were recorded in my living room with pots and pans. So that’s always really fun – to not worry so much about making things too perfect.”
This month, Performer spoke with one of NPR’s Top 10 New Discoveries, Cheyenne Marie Mize, about her creative process and her recent transition to Yep Roc Records. With the release of her new EP We Don’t Need scheduled for January 2012, this singer/songwriter divulged everything from her training as a music therapist to working with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to venturing out as a solo act. Mize self-produced this genre-defying EP, which features a wide range of musical tastes, including her breakout track “Wishing Well,” and the entirely instrumental piece “Back Around.”
You obviously have an amazing voice. Were you professionally trained? What other instruments do you play?
I started singing at an early age but not with any professional intentions. My mom and my dad were both radio DJs in the ’70s, so I grew up with tons of music around the house. I always grew up hearing my mom sing, and my grandmother used to sing on the radio with her family. I was always really interested in being able to do that. As far as other instruments, I started playing piano first when I was about eight years old and a couple years later I started playing guitar and violin as well – mostly classical. Guitar and piano kind of were secondary things at the time. I only took lessons on piano for a couple of years until I could read music and then I just taught myself the rest of the way.
I heard that you had training in music therapy. How would you say working as a music therapist has affected your creative process?
More than anything, my training as a music therapist taught me to really be in the moment. You have to be very present and if you’re not, then most of what you are going to be doing is not very effective. And you have to be willing to be flexible and change what you are doing. And as far as performing or writing, that definitely has influenced me a lot. I think that kind of informs my songwriting in that I don’t always take the expected progression or direction that a song might go.
I know that you have collaborated with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on Among the Gold. What can you tell us about that experience?
It’s always a pleasure to work with Will and we had a really fun time making that record. It was a really beautiful project to work on. Being able to…make something beautiful from songs that are so very old and most people are not familiar with, while being able to protect and also make new some old things – that’s definitely a passion of mine.
How is performing as a solo artist different from playing with your other bands Arnett Hollow and Maiden Radio?
I have a little bit more freedom as a solo artist, but along with that comes a little bit more responsibility. In a band setting, I am able to completely lean on the rest of the band and make the decisions together and share the financial responsibilities. As a solo artist, even when I have a band with me, I am responsible of taking care of them and making sure everyone is fed [laughs]. I am certainly blessed these days to be working with a couple people who are such talented musicians. I have a drummer named JC Denison, and a multi-instrumentalist whose name is Emily Hagihara. Having two people who are so competent and bring such musicality to the project, as well, is really great.
I read that you have recently been touring Europe and the U.S. with Vandaveer. What have those experiences been like for you?
It’s so funny when you are put into a situation where everything is unfamiliar; I mean, we had a car but we didn’t have a tour manager or anything – it was just the three of us sitting in this van with all of our stuff [laughs], which we barely fit in, traveling around the French countryside for a month. We met some really wonderful people. They have a great network of fans and people who have helped them put shows together over in France and also in the U.S., so just to get to meet some of those people was really great.
I heard that you recently signed with Yep Roc Records and the release date for the EP has been pushed back. What has that transition been like for you and how will that affect this new EP?
We had already been working with Roaring Colonel Records in Indianapolis to help us put this out, which is great. And then to find out that the folks at Yep Roc were interested in helping out…we decided that with the larger team of Yep Roc, it was definitely going to be worth it to wait a few months and have their team join and help get the record a little farther out there. I’m really looking forward to working with them in the future, starting with this record. I think the main thing is that it is just a larger team in getting people interested in listening to the record. Every one person that has ten other people they can tell makes a huge difference.
We Don’t Need features such a great array of sounds and feelings. Could you walk me through your songwriting process a little bit?
I think my process is also all over the place. Sometimes the words and melody come to me first and I’ll have that completely done before any part of it. “Call Me Beautiful” had just one or two lines of those lyrics running around my head for a really long time. Once I started to just sit down with it and try to create the musical part behind it, it came out pretty easily. Then songs like “Back Around” don’t even have words. I started with a little bitty piece of a melody and built on that and a lot of that was finished in the studio. [Songs] are all like little worlds that when you are recording them, you have to live in and figure out what the world is about. Writing is kind of the same thing – sometimes it makes sense to do things one way and sometimes that would be completely inappropriate.
“Wishing Well” is definitely the strongest track on the EP. What was your process like on that song?
I was actually driving home after a show late at night from Frankfurt, KY to Louisville…and I was starting to get really sleepy so I was like, banging on my steering wheel keeping myself awake and this little melody came to mind. So I was just singing in my car [laughs] and had some different parts that started to come up, and then it actually became a whole song by the time I got home. “Wishing Well” just created itself in a way, and once I started to think about how I wanted to record it, it only made sense to just have percussion instruments, and half of those instruments were recorded in my living room with literally pots and pans [laughs]. So that’s always really fun – to just not worry so much about making things too perfect.
Could you expand a little more on your recording process? Is it mostly just you laying down the tracks?
Yes. My recording engineer Kevin Ratterman is an amazing drummer and he’s also really good at doing all the digital drums sampling. There was one song that I had another drummer [JC Denison] play on. Those are the only two folks I had help me with this one. These songs tended to be a little simpler and didn’t really need a full band treatment, so I was able to do all of the stuff. I really like figuring out new parts; I never even thought about putting a lot of the layers like the organ in “Keep It,” but once we started recording it, it felt like it needed something else. I was playing around with an organ part and immediately that became one of my favorite parts of that song.
Would you say that experimentation plays a big role in your music?
Yeah, definitely. I’m certainly a fan of doing things differently every time. There are times that I will play a song a certain way for a while and then it will mutate a little. Just allowing something to be a little bit different every time was important to me. “Going Under” was recorded differently because we used the piano that was in our house and we couldn’t set up drums at the same time, so piano was recorded first. I’m not the most steady piano player [laughs] and we weren’t doing anything to any kind of metronome or click track or anything; once we were trying to put the drums and stuff on there it was kind of funny because it was so out of time. But once we got all of those parts together, you couldn’t really tell that much. It was a little more compelling that way than if it was super perfectly in time.
You seem to draw from many different genres. How would you describe the overall sound of We Don’t Need?
It’s not…a completely cohesive record; it’s more that it’s a little piece of a lot of things that I like to do. I have influences from so many different places and still continue to play music of so many different genres with different bands. “Wishing Well” is almost like marching band drum line stuff but then the vocals are a little bit of a tribute to some of the earlier Motown and R&B stuff. The last track on the album, “Back Around,” is just more of the musical side of things that I like to do, that’s not so much songwriting but just creating a musical environment or atmosphere. I think that sometimes instrumental music can be just as effective in bringing out an emotion in a person – just using instruments, sounds and different textures.
So you don’t associate with a specific genre?
I think while putting a genre title on an artist is very helpful and it’s necessary in a lot of situations, to think that someone who listens to music only wants to hear one thing is definitely selling your audience short. I don’t think it’s necessary to pigeonhole your creativity.
Photos by Meagan Jordan