The 'Magical Realism' Of Vetiver
Andy Cabic, the singer/songwriter and main creative force behind Vetiver's psychedelic folk, never meant to be a folksinger. An early fan
of The Replacements, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, he first wrote
for an experimental rock band called the Raymond Brake in the
mid-1990s. Yet when he moved from North Carolina to San Francisco, Cabic unexpectedly found himself forced to unplug and, as a result, ended up in a kind of "new folk" bag.
"When I moved out here, I didn't have an amp and my electric guitar
wasn't working well," he said, in a recent phone interview. "I did have an
acoustic guitar that was given to me by a friend. I continued writing
songs on that, and the range and the way the melody moved along changed because of how I was writing them on the acoustic guitar."
Cabic's songs seemed, to him, intensely different from his earlier work,
eerily familiar even while he was writing them, as if they tapped into some idyllic past that he himself had never experienced. Indeed, the image-laden
cuts on Vetiver's first album, out now on DiCristina Records, feel like
rediscovered traditional songs that are, paradoxically, shot through with
images of modern life. Cabic said that the very differentness of his new
batch of songs made it hard for him to consider playing them live at
first. Then, as he began to connect with more San Francisco-based
musicians including violinist Jim Gaylord, whom he had known in North
Carolina, cellist Alissa Anderson and singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart
the songs began to take on their present shape, dense with strings and
richly instrumented. "We kept broadening the scope of the songs,"
Cabic and Banhart, who now live in the same house, began writing songs
together, collaborating on the Latin-guitared "Los Pajaros del Rio" and the
rollicking, joyous "Amour Fou." "We just get in the same room and start
playing it's pretty natural," said Cabic of the duo's songwriting
style. "'Los Pajaros del Rio' was a song that I already had the melody
for, and Dev helped me write the lyrics. 'Amour Fou' was just sort of
spontaneous combustion that we came up with together."
Banhart, who named "When the Sun Shone on Vetiver" (from his current album,
Rejoicing in the Hands) after Cabic's band, says that Cabic is one of
his favorite songwriters. "He's the only person I can actually write songs
with," Banhart explained. "He's the closest thing to Neil Young that I
know...his songs are that exquisite."
In addition to Gaylord, Anderson and Banhart, who appear on most of the
album's songs, Cabic drew strong contributions from several other
well-known artists. "Amerlie" features San Francisco-based songwriter
Joanna Newsom on harp. Colm O'Ciosoig of My Bloody Valentine plays drums
on two tracks. Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star sings backup on the
country-inflected "Angels Share," the album's only real narrative
Cabic admitted that he has, in the past, been more comfortable
writing imagistic, stream-of-conscious tracks like "Luna Sea," but for
"Angels Share" decided to try to tell more of a story, in this case, a tale
of domestic abuse. "It's more of a challenge to write [a narrative] song,"
he explained. "It was sort of an exercise that I wanted to do that. I tried
to match the lyrics to the song, to get the proper words for the melody, and
that song seemed to want a narrative, so I worked to come up with one."
The album was recorded by Thom Monahan, who does production for the Pernice
Brothers and others, in a series of friends' apartments around the Bay
Area. Monahan recorded the basic tracks on his laptop, then worked with
them while he was on tour with the Pernice Brothers. The final remix was
done in New York City.
Vetiver will tour the U.S. with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome in June
and July, starting in Portland, Oregon on June 4th and finishing in San
Francisco on July 11th at the Great American Music Hall. Once that's
finished, Cabic said, he’ll be working on new songs for Vetiver, as
well as his other band, the Neu-influenced dance-rock quartet
Tussle. Further out, he and Banhart hope to record another album together,
paying tribute to the Brazilian music Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben and
others that both of them love.
Asked to describe what's so compelling about Veloso, Cabic sounds like he
could be describing his own music, saying, "Caetano's...an amazing
lyricist...he uses a lot of imagistic stuff and almost...magical realism."
He added that the Brazilians' fresh take on traditional sounds is also
compelling. "They rework the songs of other composers and songwriters from
their country really well. It's always amazing to hear them reinvent these
songs and take them further." Jennifer Kelly [Monday, May 24, 2004]