Caithlin De Marrais' gorgeous, engrossing second album, Red Coats, appears November 8th on End Up Records, distributed by Polyvinyl Records.
Many know Caithlin De Marrais as the front woman and bassist for the critically acclaimed indie rock band Rainer Maria. Named after the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, they formed in 1995 in Madison, WI and later relocated to Brooklyn. The first song Caithlin ever wrote as a solo artist, "Terrified," was recorded by Rainer Maria and became an NPR "Song of the Day."
Now Caithlin has entered a new phase of fervent creativity. For her new album Red Coats Caithlin spent more than a year recording a full album of demos in her basement, then returned to the studio with the support of her fans via Kickstarter.com. The Poison Tree's Steve Salett and Rocketship Park frontman Josh Kaufman produced the album at Saltlands studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
Analog fuzz-scapes carry the listener over playfully idiosyncratic drum loops. The softly sung vocals that beckon you into the record turn later into the primal belts Caithlin was known for in Rainer Maria. Using the sonic map Caithlin had sketched out with the demos, they immediately navigated towards an intimate, unembellished vocal treatment.
"We realized right away that we needed to record Caithlin's vocal just right, and then make sure the rest of the instruments stayed out of her way," Steve says. "In most of the songs, Caithlin is singing to herself or to only one other person. There are intense joyous parts but some real intensity there. She's saying goodbye to a previous life. It's clearly a life in transition."
The songs on Red Coats were conceived during the wee hours of the nightthe only time Caithlin had to herselfand then reared on the insomniac energy of motherhood.
"I had to demo the songs around (the baby's) sleeping schedule, which created a lot of constraints. But I discovered I was able to be very focused and productive," says Caithlin. "Because I had no freedom in one sense, I created a new freedom by teaching myself how to use recording gear I had never used before. On one hand I was living in the visceral world of being a new mother, and at the same time I was immersing myself in Garage Band, Logic and Reason.
"I was buoyed on the exhaustion and excitement of first time motherhood. It was surreal. Once or twice I even let chance decide the arrangement of the song. It was one of the most challenging and most creative experiences of my life."
Caithlin wrote many of the songs for Red Coats on piano, but the listener will find all manner of electric and analog keyboards on the record. Steve and Josh were keen on mining the vast array of vintage and unusual instruments housed at Saltlands. Josh was seen more often that not darting through the live rooms with a new idea and a new instrument to play it on. He struck a little hammer dulcimer with a ballpoint pen on "Sorry." On title track, a piano with an open lid became a makeshift harpsichord as Steve, Josh and Caithlin took turns at pressing keys and dampening strings. That song also features drummer Konrad Meissner playing on a drum kit made only out of empty drum cases. On "Birds" they ran handclaps through a Sears Silvertone amp, then a drum loop through a Hammond x66 organ. There's even a funny story about that organ. Josh apparently bought it for $5 and a sandwich.
The team was up for anything that kept with spirit of the demos. A string trio track from the Poison Tree recording sessions nestled perfectly (albeit backwards) into "Birds." "I remember Steve saying on one of the first days, 'We want to record sounds that people will wonder how we got them,'" says Caithlin. "That's exactly what I was experimenting with back in the basement."
When it came time to mix Red Coats De Marrais sat in on most of the sessions, including the handful of songs they farmed out to the fresh and talented ears of Saltlands engineer Jim Smith and neighboring producer Devin Greenwood of Honey Jar studios (who also produced the recently released Denison Witmer/ Caithlin De Marrais/ Devin Greenwood cover of Sufjan Stevens' "Abraham" for the benefit album, "Seven Swans Reimagined").
Over the three years after Rainer Maria disbanded in 2007, Caithlin had a son, co-founded an artist-run record label, End Up Records, and released her first solo record, My Magic City. The Boston Globe called MMC, "her magic moment." Pitchfork said her vocals were delivered, "like a soft slap to the face."
MMC was recorded in free recording sessions that channeled Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, at a Brooklyn church, a cottage in upstate New York, and several Brooklyn apartments including Caithlin's own. Her Rainer Maria bandmate Kyle Fischer engineered and produced the record on a portable recording rig.
After more than a decade of near constant touring with Rainer Maria, Caithlin kept MMC close to her heart, touring a mere 10 days to support it, which prompted one reviewer to call it, "The best record of the year that no one has heard of" (Heartache with Hard Work, "Best of 2008"). She was 8 months pregnant at the time.
"Hands down one of my favorite tours, although I did wonder at times what the perception was," says Caithlin. Fans approached her after shows with comments ranging from, "That was kind of weird when you dedicated that song to your unborn baby," to, "You are the most adorable pregnant lady I've ever seen."
In 2009 Caithlin released a recording of one of those few concerts as a split live record, Seb & Cait Live at Joe's, with fellow End Up Records label mate, Seb Leon. That night they made Joe's Pub into a place "where everything sounds real and present and unaltered, and oh-so-true"(Ear to Ear Project). With Kaufman on guitar and Jason Lawrence on drums, Caithlin smolders her way through three songs from MMC including an aching, bare bones rendition of "Sparrow." Seb and Caithlin arranged and recorded three additional songs for the record.
Caithlin is closing in on two decades of writing and recording music. Her music heroes growing up were Suzanne Vega, Kate Bush, Sinead O'Connor, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Yazmost of them resilient musicians who have also navigated motherhood at some point in their long and illustrious careers. And what does Caithlin think of her present day lifestyle of file-sharing and Kickstarter campaigns compared to the Rainer Maria days? "It's tough at times. But mostly I love it. There will always be kids looking to find new music that defines their adolescence. And I was lucky to be listening to some brilliant woman when I was at an impressionable age. I remember skating around the roller rink as an 8 year old to 'Call Me' by Blondie and feeling pretty fierce." As for the future, "I always leave some things to chance. It'd be useless to think I can control anything."