13 August 2007

She's sharp as a razor and soft as a prayer

Acacia Sears

Recently I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Acacia Sears, whose 2006 album Dialtones had picked up some pretty aweome press from the likes of IndieFixx and Curve Magazine. Here I chat with Cacie about inspiration, tattoos and why Death Cab for Cutie shouldn't be given the shove-off just for some well-earned publicity:

I gave Dialtones a good listen last night (OK, three) and something really struck me: the female singer-songwriter genre seems so well covered these days, yet you still manage to have such a distinctive sound. [What came to mind for me was the soul of Lucy Kapalansky singing lyrics by Brenda Kahn, channeled through Dar Williams.] How do you balance creating personal music in such a well-worn genre?

When I first learned to play guitar, I was 14 years old, and the female singer-songwriter was a pretty major commodity. There was no lack of mainstream influence from which to draw, and I latched on to the obvious ones: Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and Lisa Loeb, primarily. I was young, and they were extremely popular and accessible. It wasn't until I heard Ani DiFranco for the first time that I realized that there was more to songwriting than catchy hooks, a pretty voice, and a marketable look. Ani DiFranco was the first female artist I heard that really made me examine the poetry I was writing, or trying to write.

Most of my songs are written in one sitting, with no later editing, and it usually takes me about 45 minutes from the time I sit down to the time it's complete. My favorite song on the album is "Tiny Me," and I remember feeling so intensely about this one person and being so unable to do anything about it that I had to write the song in order to keep myself from going mad. I couldn't do anything to stop that song from happening, mostly because I was trying so hard to stay away from the incredibly unavailable person in question.

Probably the main reason my style veers away from the more generic or mundane is because I'm drawn to artists that do the same. Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie & The Postal Service), Ani DiFranco, and Aimee Mann, for example, all take very simple concepts and show them to you in extraordinary ways. For me, showing you something completely new and unexpected is not nearly as interesting as showing you something you've seen hundreds of times and making you see it again for the first time. That's what I try to do lyrically. Musically, I am limited by my guitar skills, and sometimes that means a song I really like poetically doesn't work out musically. If I can't make it sound like I hear it in my head, I will very often either let go of it completely or take the whole thing apart and use the words for spare parts.

Photo by S. Theune

Do you consider yourself a confirmed solo act, or do you think you might partner with other musicians someday--especially if it might bring some of those more difficult songs to life? What do you see in your musical future?

I am currently working with a full band. We got together in February of this year (2007) and have recently starting playing shows in the Baltimore, MD area. Some of the songs are largely the same, with the exception of having a fuller sound with the extra instrumentation. Some of the songs, however, have a completely different edge to them - for example, we took "Enough" up in tempo and made it a solid rock song. "Reason to Breathe" has been sped up as well, to the point that I'm now playing at the faster tempo at my solo shows as well. The band (tentatively called Acacia Sears and The Expendables) and I are hoping to release an album sometime in the next year.

What's the inspiration behind a song like "If I was Austin?" (I'm assuming you mean the city in Texas and not, say, Austin Powers.)

"If I Was Austin," "Reason to Breathe," and "Passion Play" are all about the same person. We get along famously now, but there was a time when neither of us were very mentally sound and we had a very tumultuous friendship; unfortunately, friendship wasn't what I wanted with him. Half of the album was written over the course of one very difficult year for me, and "Austin" was a huge part of that. At the very end of "Austin," I reference the Chief Joseph speech by saying "I will sing no more forever," which was my desperate attempt at closure. I broke that promise when I wrote "Passion Play" almost a year later.

What are you listening to these days?

Death Cab for Cutie never gets old to me. I know they're getting to be mainstream now, and good for them - they worked hard for a long time, and they deserve the kind of reception they've gotten over the last couple of years. Still, it's almost a little sad to see your best kept secret end up being touted by an vapid character on a popular teen drama. I also really like Sia - her album "Colour the Small One" is just beautiful. She's coming out with a new one soon, and I can't wait to see what she comes up with.

Locally, I have heros as well. Avec in Baltimore and ilyAIMY in (vaguely) Baltimore both just slay me. Avec is a serious rock band with a slightly progressive edge that makes them really different from anything you've ever heard. I met ilyAIMY at an open mic we both frequent, and they take folk and rock and Ani DiFranco's percussive guitar styles and turn it into something that makes you keep their CD playing endlessly in your car. Both bands have a female singer and a male singer, and both bands share songwriting duties. I love when bands do that; the blending of styles along with the natural differences in songwriting makes things so much more interesting and complex.

Who is your favorite overlooked artist?

I recently bought a copy of Patrick Watson's album "Close to Paradise" and I don't have enough good things to say about it. I went to 5 different record stores near me looking for it, and no one carried it, so I eventually had to buy it from iTunes. He's a burgeoning Canadian artist, and I really hope he is received well in the US; I heard the song "The Great Escape" on the Canadian XM station (XM 52, The Verge) and had to pull my car over, it hit me that hard.

Far as I know, Acacia is some sort of plant, and you recently got this tattooed large-scale on your back. Any plans for a guitar on your arm (or perhaps an old-school battleship across your chest? I hear the USS Missouri is a popular choice).

Ahhh tattoos. I love them and I hate them. I currently only have two tattoos, one being the lotus flower I got done on my lower back when I was 19 (because that's what you do!) and the full backpiece of the Acacia plant. I don't currently have anything planned, since this last one took 7 painful sittings, a couple thousand dollars, and almost a year to finish. I have thought of a couple things, though; I was thinking f-holes (like the ones you see on cellos and the like) under my collarbone, but I don't actually play cello, and I'm thinking that would be more pain than I could bear. I think tattoos on the top of the foot are incredible cool, but again, not sure I could handle it. Ultimately I will probably get something either organic or mechanical/blueprint-y if I get anything else. The movie "The Illusionist" had a blueprint of a mechanical orange tree, and that fits all my criteria, but it might be hard to pull off.

Ani DiFranco seems to be a huge influence in your music, and it really comes though in both your sound and words. What sort of music do you hope to inspire in others?

Musicians are my friends, peers, and colleagues, and I find that we all take cues and inspiration from each other. My friend Rob in ilyAIMY was sitting around one afternoon, playing the chords from one of my songs, and ended up writing a song because that's where the chords took him. I've done exactly the same thing on many occasions - all songs start some place, and often you'll find something you weren't expecting while you were looking for something else entirely.

Some people have interpreted my music as being full of "angst," whereas others have found it "honest," or "human." I hope that if I was going to inspire someone lyrically, that they'd take it in a very truthful and personal direction. Just because one person thinks of something as being angsty doesn't mean it's worth less than a happy or hopeful song. No matter the tone of the song, my aim is to convey honesty and humanity. Those are the things I find most inspiring.

Thanks, Cacie!

Acacia Sears - Tiny Me.mp3
Acacia Sears - If I Was Austin.mp3
Buy Dialtones

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