Itasca by Andrew Aylward

Splash Mountain, LA, and the definition of “psychedelic.”


Kayla Cohen of Itasca. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kayla Cohen is a Los Angeles-based singer and guitarist whose mesmerizing work is released under the name Itasca. Her latest release, Unmoored By The Wind, comes via the New Images Ltd. label and follows her 2012 debut full-length album Grace Riders on The Road. Cohen’s songs have the uncanny ability to create an atmosphere all their own, transporting the listener directly to the Californian landscapes that inspired the current collection. Cohen’s voice is at once haunting and enchanting, and it rests at least in part in the lineage of Sibylle Baier and Linda Perhacs. Psychedelic drones linger in the sound field on Unmoored By The Wind, lending an air of acid folk that might be induced by a mind-altering substance or merely by the West Coast sunlight filtering through the evening. Or maybe it comes from the rough-hewn, home-made quality of the recordings.

Cohen offers more than just a heavy vibe on Unmoored however, with songwriting on standout tracks like “Nature’s Gift” that shows a mature writer with a firm grip on form as well as atmosphere. I spoke with Cohen—who lives in LA but was visiting her parents in upstate New York—about musical development, her “fanbase,” and, you know, the artistic process.

Andrew Aylward Can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of listening to or playing music?

Kayla Cohen I can’t think of any childhood stories, but during high school I was into going to New York City for shows. I liked independent rock music from the ’90s, like Codeine and My Bloody Valentine. This is all relatively embarrassing stuff for an interview, but—

AA Perfect!

KC (laughter) When I was in high school I went to see Slint when they did their first reunion tour, and that was a big deal for me as a teenager.

AA That’s awesome.

KC At the time, I was into the early 2000s New York scene. I wouldn’t obviously be able to find out about the more hidden shows, but I would order CDs online from bands and just wait for the packages to arrive and all that.

AA How did you start playing music, and then start writing music?

KC I’ve been writing songs since I was a little kid, just playing around. But I picked up the guitar when I was about twelve or thirteen.

AA Was music part of your family or social life growing up?

KC I was in bands in high school. I went to a lot of shows with other teenagers and I put on some shows too. Seems that was part of me trying to assert myself as a young human and maybe try to do more than just hang out.

AA To go beyond just being an audience member.

KC Yeah. But also as a young person, I quickly became aware of the way that people’s perception of you can change just based on you performing in front of them. It’s a tricky thing to play live in front of your peers at that age; it was a formative experience, though.

My first guitar teacher was this guy named Chuck, who was originally from Portland. I don’t even know where he is anymore; I haven’t kept up with him. But he was the first person who taught me guitar and he was always giving me CDs. He gave me a CD by Team Dresch. You know that band? I guess you might say it’s a lesbian punk band.

AA I don’t. Sounds great though.

KC I realize now he might have thought I was a closeted teenager and it seemed like this was some secret way of trying to help me out, so that’s something … (laughter)

AA Do you feel like LA is a good place for artists to live nowadays?

KC Yeah, I do, especially over the past day or two that I’ve been back in New York. I think that people can still live cheaply in LA, and have houses, and music rooms and that sort of thing. In my time living in New York, I couldn’t afford to have any of that, and I think that can be important and fruitful. It’s cheaper than New York so you don’t have to work as much. But it does in a way still lack the inspiration that a place like New York can bring.

AA That sounds great. New York is—that’s not the New York vibe. What role, if any, does a sense of place or geography play in the records you’ve made?

KC Well, in a way, being in Los Angeles has given me a little bit more free space to work out my songs. It’s important to have quiet areas and just let it unfold.

AA So for you to be creative, it’s important to have a quiet room to work in.

KC Yeah, though sometimes I don’t and I will still, of course, work on things. Lately I haven’t had time but last year I was going on a lot of hikes, and there’s a point that your mind gets to when you’ve been walking for a long time where everything is so clear that any song idea can just come in, and you can write a song in seconds just standing there. It takes a while to get my mind to that place. I would say that having natural space and time to walk and be alone is important for my music.

AA Do you consider songwriting to be a pretty solitary endeavor, and if so, do you enjoy it?

KC That’s a pretty loaded question depending on what kind of day I’m having. Right now, I have been working on a new record off and on, but I haven’t really been heavy into it because I’ve been focusing on playing shows. I’ve been separated from writing a little bit so that process from afar seems much nicer and more relaxed. But yeah, it can get complex.

It’s important to make time to just sit and practice, make time every day to let ideas come in if they are floating around. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, if you don’t slow down and work on things, a lot of ideas can just fly away unnoticed. I was reading a book Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack. I’ve read a lot of her books, but this is one I go back to often, because it’s well written and reads like a philosophy book rather than a Tarot interpretation book. She writes that the Magician card in particular shows that a human’s role is to translate energy and ideas from the air into being in order to create something out of what seems to be nothing. Is there a better way to describe it than that? A feeling exists, and if you want it to be able to stick in the world then you have to create something out of it, like a song or a piece of art. Then it’s more than just a feeling, it’s something you can go back to.

AA How far do you go with Tarot? Do you know how to read very well?

KC No, I’m definitely not a super New Age-y person. I’m interested in reading about Tarot … well, yeah, I guess I’m more of a New Age-y person than your average Joe.

AA Do you have any opinions on the use of the word “psychedelic” to describe music?

KC Well, this is going to be a stupid story, but recently I went to Disneyland.

AA Ok, nice.

KC And I was in Splash Mountain. Do you know that ride? At the beginning of the ride you’re in a boat going through a briar patch, and there are all these animals, and they’re talking to each other and to you, and it’s pretty crazy. But it’s not too unusual. You think, Okay, this could happen, potentially. But then you go down a chute in your boat into this black-lit area, and that’s really psychedelic. There are all these turning dials and things jumping out at you, a lot of mushrooms made out of cardboard or whatever. It’s all rainbow fluorescent colors. I was like … “Yep.”

My senses were heightened, because I had never been on the ride before and I knew there was a big drop at the end—and of course before going to Disneyland I had read about people getting aneurysms from the rides and accidents and all this terrible Internet rabbit-hole stuff. But I’m experiencing this ride, and having an amplified philosophical experience inside it, thinking about music and how Disney could have accidentally tapped into some strange alternate universe. At that time the idea of “psychedelic” became meaningful to me again, just because the sets in the ride were the textbook definition of it, but it was interesting and unusual at the same time.

AA Your recordings have this really personal quality to them that I really admire. Some of that probably comes from the simple home-recording setup, but is there anything else that goes into creating an atmosphere in the records?

KC I record at home right now and I just use what I have. I’ve used tape machines and Logic. I don’t really like how it sounds when it gets into Logic or into digital stuff, but I also don’t like it being too analog, either. I’d be into recording in a studio, but it’d have to be a studio with the right atmosphere, I guess.What do you mean though? Like, do I light candles?

AA Yeah, are there tapestries? (laughter)

KC Yea, I’ve been getting into tapestries but they can be cost-prohibitive. No I don’t have a very cool or unusual environment, unfortunately. I’ve always hoped to own a church or a Masonic hall or something like that to record in, though, so maybe in the future. I have some friends who live in the Mojave desert and own a bunch of buildings out there, so that can be a cool place to record. It does get very hot there though so it makes it a bit difficult.

I used to live in this house that was in Highland Park in Los Angeles, and it had a pretty view but it was on a busy intersection, so it was loud. There were also all these parrots that lived in the trees around the corner so they would always be making noise. I would put sound-proofing blankets over the windows in my bedroom and I just had this terrible cave to record in. That’s the only way I could get silence. Or I would record only after 3 AM.

Now I live in a better place, on a quieter street, so I just record whenever. Leaf blowers are still a problem though. That’s a thing in LA, too—leaf blowers. Pretty terrible. I think that they should just leave the leaves alone so at least we would get a little bit of a fall atmosphere. I’ve thought about making petitions about, but then I realized that’s probably useless and I should just try to ignore it.

AA That’s one for the city government.

KC: Yeah. It would be cool to record in a really nice house or place somewhere, but I’m the kind of person who always thinks it would be better to do this somewhere else and if I keep thinking that I’ll never going to get anything done. So I just work with what I have.

AA In your view, does Unmoored by the Wind break away from your last record? Do you write albums in such a way that they could be dialed down to one or two overarching ideas?

KC I think the next album I write will be more cohesive, because like most people, I always think the next album will be better. Generally, if you’re not really immersed in them, [the two albums] sound pretty much the same. But there were two years in between releases and I wrote a lot of songs. Most of them are terrible. It’s subjective, but, you know.

AA How many of the songs you write make the albums? Is the ratio 30:1 or 50:1?

KC (laughter) I don’t really know how most songwriters work but that seems pretty normal … I don’t finish most of the songs that I write. I’ll write a verse and a chorus and I’ll record it and then I’ll listen to it the next day and think, Ugh, not good. Or, it will get stuck in my head and bother me for the next three days and I’ll think, Oh, I can’t use that because it’s annoying. I always want to change something after it’s done. I think everybody does. But you have to sort of step away from it and be like, Okay, this is going to be what it is and some people might be into it. But I’m into this record. I got a chance to listen to it recently, even though the few months before that, I couldn’t listen to it at all. I put it on when the test pressing came and I was like, Oh, this sounds fine.

AA Is it correct to say Unmoored by the Wind is your first release on someone else’s label?

KC Yeah.

AA Was there a reason behind that or any kind of story about hooking up with New Images?

KC Well, Matt Mondanile, who runs the label, lives in LA and he’s a good friend of mine. We were hanging out and I was talking about this record I had finished and he was excited about it, so we let the idea sit for a little while and then he ended up wanting to put it out.

I think his label is great because he covers a lot of ground with his releases, it’s not really relegated to just one genre. I thought that this record would fit in well with the group of releases that he’s done. He was really excited about it and I was happy because no one else, including myself, was really excited about it anymore. I was like, Oh, maybe I should just write another record. But it worked out well.

AA I imagine it must be encouraging to have other people be stoked about it.

KC If you’re going to put a record out with somebody, you should be happy about it and excited about it. If no one’s excited about it, either just put it out yourself. Or don’t at all, I guess. I’m looking forward to where Matt’s label goes in the future because he’s certainly excited about putting out more records and helping people book shows and other stuff.

AA How do you perceive your audience?

KC I used to play shows and nobody would know who I was at all. Nowadays I’ll play shows and maybe one or two people will know who I am, or will have listened to songs. So that is something, and it is cool for me. I played a show in Wisconsin recently with a bunch of bands—do you know what the neo-folk scene is? Kind of like Aquarius Records-style, playing unamplified in the woods, etcetera. But there were some people there that were into that style, and were also into my music, and it was interesting to see my sound through that lens rather than the attitude I usually have in LA.

AA So, what’s next for you?

KC I have a tape coming out on Perfect Wave, which is a label run by Camilla Padgitt-Coles and Ka Baird in New York. I also am playing live a lot, and working with some people on live accompaniment. And then working on a new record too.

AA Do you enjoy making the records versus playing shows? Do you have a strong opinion either way on that one?

KC It sort of depends. Each can be very rewarding or difficult in its own way. I had one weekend recently when I played two shows that were opposite in environment, one had a very positive response and then one was just somewhat uncomfortable. I know that’s pretty normal, and you can’t depend on the crowd to boost you up. I’m tempted to say you can’t really control your atmosphere; but then I think about some musicians that do that well, and it’s something that can be learned. In theory, I like recording more than playing shows but lately I’ve been playing a lot so that’s sort of taken over. In November and December I’m going to make it a point to really set aside some time to finish the next record.

Unmoored By the Wind is available now from New Images. For more on Itasca, visit herwebsite.

Andrew Aylward is a musician and journalist living in Washington, DC.

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