Caitlin Cary

by S. Renee Dechert

While You Weren’t Looking
(Yep Roc)
US release date: 26 March 2002

Pony Girl

“I’ll let you know that I may have to answer another line every now and again, but that will be the only other possible distraction.”

So begins my conversation with Caitlin Cary.

It seems odd to be talking to her at work on her day-job lunch hour given the positive attention her debut album, While You Weren’t Looking, is receiving in everything from Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone—in No Depression, David Menconi called it “the best recording yet to surface from the remnants of Whiskeytown”. But the reality is that good reviews don’t pay the bills.

“There’s a lot of poor people that have been in the New Yorker, I think,” Cary laughs. “I’ve gotten fan letters that say, ‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll never read this; I’m sure there’s someone with a cell phone chasing you around all the time, telling you where you have to be and la, la, la’. It’s absolutely not like that at all—at least not yet.”

“I’m scrounging to pay my bills just like everyone else,” she says.

You couldn’t tell it from While You Weren’t Looking, a folk-pop-country hybrid where Cary’s soprano positively soars in smart, character-driven songs, and the compelling melodies are drawing comparisons to Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny.

Of the publicity, Cary, who’s 33, says, “It’s quite a thrill. In some ways, I’ve seen it all before, so I’m a tiny bit jaded—in terms of thinking that I’m going to get rich and famous. But, gosh, it’s so high above my expectations from what this record would garner. I knew it was a good record, but that doesn’t mean much in this day and age. You have to have a lot of momentum behind you to get noticed, no matter how good your record is, and I’m thrilled that people are throwing themselves behind this record.”

The “jaded” remark refers to her years with the band Whiskeytown, her entry into the big time.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Caitlin Cary’s from a musical family in Seville, Ohio, the youngest of seven children. She began playing the violin at age five, putting it aside when she was a teen. As Cary began working on a degree in English at the College of Wooster, she began playing again. Eventually, she entered North Carolina State’s graduate program in creative writing—and then in 1993, she met Ryan Adams and joined Whiskeytown. (Although Cary finished coursework, her thesis remains uncompleted.)

In Whiskeytown, she played fiddle and sang harmony. Her lone lead on “Matrimony” from 1995’s Faithless Street showed that she had what it took to step to the front of the stage, but in the end, Whiskeytown was Adams’ project, so she settled outside the spotlight while laying the foundation for her own music. When Whiskeytown finally called it quits in September 2000, she was ready.

“Being a sideman in a band as volatile as Whiskeytown was sometimes really frustrating,” Cary says. “I felt like I was sort of the clean-up crew a lot of the time. And a lot of the time, it didn’t match my aesthetics for how a show should be. Also I had a lot of writing that I wanted to do that oftentimes was hard to get through the ranks.”

She’s finding that being a solo act suits her: “It feels good to be in control of my own destiny, so to speak. It’s definitely a different feeling, and it’s a lot of extra work, but it seems to be totally worth it.”

While You Weren’t Looking, begun in 2000, was awhile in the making.

“It came together, really, in amazing fits and starts having to do, partly, with me just having to get my feet wet and figure out whether I could do this,” Cary explains. “I went to producer Chris Stamey [formerly of The dBs and a slew of other bands] with five or six songs finished and said, ‘I want to make a record. Can you help me?’ And he was so good to take it on. It was a lot of work over a long time and also a lot of hassles over record contracts and getting sorted out with the Whiskeytown stuff and blah, blah, blah. So a lot of the work, the real work, was done in fits and starts when Chris had free time, and I had free time.”

“Then there came a point”, Cary continues, “where I was so frustrated because I didn’t have a record deal, and some touring opportunities came up, and I said, ‘Well, dammit, I’m going to put out a record. I’m just going to put out what I have now.’ And that’s what Waltzie was [a five-song EP released by Yep Roc in 2000]. It was an act of impatience on my part that I really wanted to have something out there to show for all this work I was doing”. Waltzie received solid reviews with its folk melodies and solid songs. For example, David Greenberger said in his Metroland review, “Waltzie is an EP containing only five songs—but, oh, what a gentle wallop it delivers.”

“If you read the notes on Waltzie, you know a lot of them were really just glorified demos, things we had recorded in Chris’s living room, and I think it kind of a representation of where I was at that moment,” Cary says. “Had the full-length record come out a lot sooner, it probably might have been a lot more like Waltzie, more of this sort of stripped-down, folkie stuff. But I’m really glad in retrospect that fate stepped in and made the whole thing take a lot longer because it gave us all more time to figure out what the songs needed and how to make them more interesting and special.”

When Yep Roc committed to the larger project, things got serious.

“There did come a moment, a glorious moment, when we said, ‘Oh, we have a budget! We can go to a real studio and act like we’re really making a record instead of this on-the-weekends, weekend-warrior approach,” Cary laughs. “We got to go to a studio, Mitch Easter’s studio, for a number of days, and so, consequently, the basic tracks of the record are all live, which I think is really important to the way the record sounds. It’s got a core that it wouldn’t have had it been made piecemeal like we had been working.”

Immediately apparent is the highly collaborative nature of While You Weren’t Looking.

For the bulk of the songs, Cary worked with former Whiskeytown members: Mike Daly (guitar, who’s also her primary songwriting partner), Mike Santoro (bass), and Skillet Gilmore (drums, and also Cary’s husband of just under two years) as well as Jen Gunderman (keyboards, formerly of the Jayhawks). Adding to the mix are vocalists Thad Cockrell, Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine), and Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain). (It’s worth noting that Lamm and Blakey work with Cary in Tres Chicas, a side-project that has yet to record.)

“North Carolina is such a fertile land for musicians, and it’s just a thrill that so many great people have shown an interest in what I’m doing,” Cary says.

“Years and years ago, Thad handed me a tape,” Cary remembers, “and I listened to it, and I said, ‘Well, he’s got a nice voice’, but whatever. And eventually we met and became friends and started writing together. We’ve actually written quite a few songs together now and have a really solid friendship, and I’m a great fan of his music.”

In fact, While You Weren’t Looking‘s title comes from the track with Cockrell, “Thick Walls Down”, as the singer attempts to, well, get the listener to pay attention, the dominant theme of the album.

Of Mike Daly, Cary says, “He was in Whiskeytown for years, and we were sort of the ‘sane posse’. We’d get up early and have breakfast, and then we’d go in the back of the bus and work on songs together, so he’s been just a fast friend and collaborator for a number of years”. (She co-wrote eight of the album’s eleven tracks with Daly.)

How Cary creates these songs is worth examining.

“I think a song needs to be just as simple as possible. You want to crystallize it down to the very essence and not make it erudite”, Cary says of her aesthetic. “I tend to try to write as much as I can like a kid although that’s very difficult.” According to Cary, the process is “very different with each song—the very best songs come out kind of whole with the melody and the lyrics. That doesn’t always happen, you know. They tend to come out in chunks, though, with a whole concept. Usually, I’ll mess around with that chunk in my head for awhile and then finally get the gumption up to actually sit down, and oftentimes, the rest of the song sort of writes itself.”

“But I tend to write in a fairly structured way,” Cary continues, “which is, I feel, important to songs in general. There are certainly really free-form songs that I love, but I tend to try to be disciplined about the form just because I think they come across better that way.”

Then, for Cary, the real collaboration begins.

“I have to be [collaborative] because I don’t play the guitar or the piano,” she says. “So no matter how finished the song is in terms of the words and the melody, I still have to find someone who will sit and listen to me sing it over and over again and figure out what the chords are.”

Cary explains, “I am a novice guitar player, but I sort of strive not to write on the guitar because I’m almost afraid to change the process because it seems to work. I love getting someone else’s input, both on words but especially on the music because as soon as someone else puts their fingers into the melody or even just the chords—even if I have the whole melody, the chords make such a difference in the feel. There are a hundred different ways to play the same song, you know. At some point, I think it’s really good to give it over to somebody else and start having arguments about what sounds good and what doesn’t. I think that the songs are almost always better for that.”

One of the most compelling elements of Cary’s songs is their use of rhetorical perspective (See “What Will You Do” and “The Fair”). Rather than rely only on first-person narratives of “This is how I feel”, her songs explore the complexity of discourse, reflecting the difficulty of relationships.

“I appreciate that it’s a trap that’s all-too-easily fallen into that you think that music is an expression of feeling”, Cary says, “and so you get all, self-indulgent and end up writing bad seventh-grade poetry, which all of us have inside of us. Whether we’ve become more sophisticated in expressing it or not, it’s so easy to get to feeling sorry for yourself.”

She continues, “And I do tend to write for someone that I’m thinking about or about a character, and it’s interesting that every song has a real, live person that I know in it, but it seems to be almost impossible to actually stick to the truth so that songs like ‘Rosemary Moore’ [from Waltzie]—that’s my actual Aunt Rosie’s name, which has kind of been a thorn in my side forever, that I wrote this song with her real name before I really even thought about putting out a record or anything, and now,” Cary laughs, “I’ve got to try and prevent her from ever hearing it.”

“It’s so written out of love for her,” she adds, “but it’s not ‘the truth’. It’s just my perception of her story, and then it just takes even more liberty than that. I find that somehow writing and allowing yourself to fictionalize your experience makes the song almost something that I don’t even know that I could tell you what they’re about. You know, they express something about me that I don’t even know is there sometimes.”

Although “Rosemary Moore” didn’t make it from Waltzie to While You Weren’t Looking, “Sorry” did—the only song to do so. To the novice listener, it may sound unchanged, but Cary says, “Both Chris and I thought that this is something that, with the harmonies and with the band approach to it, was sounding different and was representative of the ‘new phase of Caitlin’ or whatever—‘Caitlin and Band’. Because it was just such a good song, I really felt like it deserved a broader audience. No EP ever gets as far as the full-length record, so it’s just one of my babies that I didn’t want to bury yet,” she laughs.

Another album highlight is the Spector-esque “Pony”, a song that brings together many of the record’s themes in terms of lyrics, music, and graphics.

“The record, for a long time, the working title was ‘Pony Ball’,” Cary explains. “On the [album’s] cover, you see those little plastic balls with ponies inside them, an object I got obsessed with when I found them inside a truck stop on tour one time, and I bought all that they had and just sort of tried to draw them, tried to photograph them, tried to incorporate them into all the art that I was making. But then there was the whole problem of ‘pony balls’. So at the last minute, I changed the title, which I’m glad I did. I can’t imagine all the jokes that would flying around had it been called ‘Pony Ball’!”

But for Cary, horses are more than truck-stop kitsch.

“I definitely was a ‘horsey girl’. I had a horse, and I think horses for girls are—oh gosh, Freud probably said a lot about it,” Cary laughs. “But it’s something that is iconic for me. I think horses for girls for a while take the place of, are an outlet for some sexual energy. The little girl and the pony is just such an icon. It’s such a representative thing, and a dream that almost every girl has at least at one point or another. There’s actually a song that Tres Chicas does called ‘In Awhile’, and one of the lines is ‘The pony that you wanted when you were a child is dead in the ground by now’. It’s sort of the death of the childhood. As soon as you stop wanting a pony, you know you’re not a kid anymore.”

She adds, “That was one that’s totally a love song to my husband although I’m not sure he would take it that way. I don’t know if he likes to be called a pony, but certainly it’s a love song. It was the cheesiest song in many ways, the silliest song, and it was really hard to figure out how to do it and not have it come out sounding like a show tune or a kid’s song or, you know, something bad. So I’m really glad that we finally got it. I love it now, too, but I was very afraid of that song.”

And perhaps that’s the metaphor that best describes Cary’s voice on While You Weren’t Looking: On this album, her voice and artistic vision move with the freedom of that little girl on her pony, fearlessly exploring the world.

Cary was also very involved in the album’s artwork, adding to the record’s cohesiveness. “I make a hobby at least of making art, so I wanted to make sure that it had some of my artwork on it,” she says.

Take, for example, the album’s linernotes, fascinating yet personal collections of words, images, and colors. “They’re all collages where I did two layers of paper, like a thin velum, and then underneath, I wrote the lyrics on that thin paper and did kind of collagey stuff underneath,” Cary explains. “And it was kind of a miracle that they all fit together because I was doing them piece by piece when I’d have time in the studio or time anywhere else—did some of it at the restaurant [another day job] when it was slow.”

She adds, “I love when you see records, and you can see the writer’s handwriting; that’s always fascinating to me—in some ways is more important than whether they’re legible, which I worried about a lot. I think they did come out fairly readable, but I love to see handwriting.”

All of this is in keeping with Cary’s artistic philosophy. As she puts it, “I do a lot of really crafty-oriented art. I made a pact with myself a long time ago when I started making visual art that I was going to like whatever I did. If I made it, it was going on the wall, and that would be the one thing in my life that I wasn’t picky about, and it was just for me, and I was gonna damn well like it! So I’m messing around with a lot of stuff.”

Another special feature of While You Weren’t Looking‘s first 8,000 pressings is the inclusion of a free, limited-edition, four-song mini-disc that includes a duet of “The Battle” with Adams, an echo of their Whiskeytown days, as well as “Trickle of Whiskey”, and two versions of “The Fair”: the “Band Version”, and the Backsliders’ Chip Robinson’s cover.

“It’s created a bit of an uproar among the avid fans,” Cary explains, “because some of them couldn’t get this bonus disc, and some of them were like, ‘What am I supposed to do with this disc? I can’t play it in my car. I can’t play it in my CD changer’. And I had never meant to cause any controversy.”

Of the disc’s songs, Cary says, “The duet with Ryan, I did before Waltzie came out. I called him and asked him if he would come and do that song because it was one that we almost always closed the shows with but had never been recorded. We tried to record it, and it just wouldn’t come out right, and I really just wanted that to exist for posterity. For awhile I thought it would be on the main record, and then I decided that that wasn’t a good idea, that I needed to separate my dealings with Ryan, so to speak, from my new career and endeavors. So that was part of the reason for the bonus disc, but also just not to have to let go my little ‘Trickle of Whiskey’ and the things that I felt were almost good enough to put on the main record but not quite—just a fun little thing.”

Speaking of Ryan Adams, what does she think about her former bandmate and current “It-boy” who’s now a Grammy nominee, Rolling Stone regular, and even part of Entertainment Weekly‘s Oscar coverage at a post-awards party with Sir Elton John and Bob Dylan?

“Well, I know somebody famous now”, Cary says. “I try not to really dwell on it much. I still am very fond of him, and we trade answering machine messages now and again and check in with each other. I dearly hope that someday he and I will get back together when he’s 40 and I’m 50, and we’ll make great duet records. I’m happy for him. I wouldn’t want that life by any means, but I think he’s made for it, totally. He’s a darling to the media, and he’s totally capable of functioning in that world, hopefully happily.”

So it follows that Whiskeytown fans hoping for a reunion ought not hold their breaths.

“I’m sure that we’ll all get broke some day, and we’ll have to do it,” Cary laughs. “We’ll piss away our money and have to do a Whiskeytown reunion. We’ll all be 100 years old and roll out in our wheelchairs.”

And Cary’s optimistic about the future.

“Of course, I really hope that I can quit my day job and do music fulltime and do all of the other things that I love fulltime,” she says. “I’m not looking to get rich and famous, but I would love to be able to never have to work another day in my life—and to be able to have more time to work on music would be great for me. At this point in my life, it’s kind of hard to balance everything. Sometimes it makes me feel sort of funny. Like you said, ‘How does it feel when you’re looking at your face in Rolling Stone’? And I’m like, ‘Well, it makes me feel like I should be spending eight hours a day working on music instead of answering the telephone’.”

Here’s hoping that While You Weren’t Looking allows Caitlin Cary to quit her day job soon, though she’s unselfish about it.

“May we all!” she laughs.

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