Washington, DC-based singer-songwriter Kathy Cashel has been building an impressive catalog of songs that range from prickly indie rock to acoustic tunes full of sweet harmonies. Through it all, her sharp vocals create satisfying tension between the sincere and the sardonic. Before going solo, Cashel played in two Dischord bands, Cry Baby Cry and Norman Mayer Group. She was gracious enough to take some time to talk to us about music, books and vegan ethical dilemmas.
You used to be in the band the Norman Mayer Group. Who was Norman Mayer?
He threatened to blow up the Washington Monument; he was a peace activist who just kind of lost it. He came to Washington because he needed to fix things - it was the Reagan era, and it felt like it needed a lot of fixing. He went to all the mainstream peace groups like SANE/FREEZE, and they dismissed him. The next thing you know he’s standing in front of the Washington Monument with a motorcycle helmet on and a TV remote in his hands, telling the park police that he’s gonna blow up his truck, that it’s full of explosives. The Park Police shot him in the head, and riddled his truck with bullets. He was our martyr.
How did you go from being in bands to playing as a solo artist?
I was in a loud rock band called Cry Baby Cry and I was writing this really quiet, utterly depressing, sad stuff that was kind of embarrassing my bandmates, but I had to play it at the time, so I was doing in on the side. So the band kind of lived through its natural band lifecycle, and that’s what you have left, so you just keep doing it. I’ve never really pursued a solo career per se. It’s funny – DC is a horrible place to do music in any careerist sense, except that artistically people that I’ve known in the music scene have always taken themselves very seriously, taken doing music seriously.
Your albums are out on Exotic Fever Records; how did you get involved with them?
It’s a cool thing – it’s basically Katy Otto, who’s one of the main Exotic Fever ladies, was big Norman Mayer Group fan, she came to almost every show of ours, she was the mega-fan, the superfan. She has always been behind me, I’ve gone out on tour a few times solo, and she’s always been happy, “you should go, you should tour!” and she even booked one of them for me. Exotic Fever is music that [co-label head] Sara [Klemm] and Katy like. It may even be just people that Sara and Katy like, it’s hard to tell, but either way it’s a good thing. And those ladies work hard for their bands.
I read you’re contributing a track to a benefit compilation for Compassion Over Killing?
Exotic Fever’s putting it together and it will probably be sold at the counter at Sticky Fingers [DC vegan bakery]. They’ve done a couple of compilations in the past; the last one was for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, which counsels sex workers, and it’s a great compilation. Comps tend to be kinda throwaway, bands will give them their throwaway songs, but that one is really good, almost every track on it is really good, I’m proud to be on it.
Are the songs on the COK comp thematic?
Well, they’re specifically asking bands to give tracks that aren’t on anything else. As for the theme, some bands are, some bands aren’t. Gina Young is doing a track that I’ve heard her play at a show, which she wrote specifically for it, which is great. I tried to write something about it, I started to try to write to order, a song about being vegan, and it ended up being…not so much. The working title right now is, “If You Eat Someone Who’s In a Coma, Are You Still A Vegan?” And I think yes. The answer’s yes.
What’s up with your new band The Succulents?
It’s more of a project than a band. Tristana and Rebecca are also in a band called The Caution Curves, and their drummer Amanda ended up moving to New York, she found her dream job there. I had been playing with Amanda. She’s great, she plays guitar too, and has that real cool, edgy feel of someone who’s learning and approaching it from a new angle. I sleazed my way into highjacking her bandmades after she left, and that was what the Succulents is. They’re very much coming at it from a fine-art perspective, which I really wanted. It’s scratching an itch for me. Since then, they've started another band, called Whelp, with a different drummer.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’ve just got into modern classical, which I’d never listened to before ever. Schoenberg, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch. I've gone on some weird musical tangents. I read a novel called The Rotter’s Club [by Jonathan Coe]; it references a lot of obscure Northern England prog rock bands from the 1970s, and in one of the climactic scenes in the book, they talk about Vaughn Williams, they reference this piece by him and said it was amazing. So I went and dug it all up on the internet. And somehow I ended up listening to Schoenberg; I always dismissed his stuff as pretentious bullshit - that doesn’t move me emotionally, I don’t even want to look at it. There’s an early piece that he wrote, "Verklarte Nacht." that’s just incredibly beautiful, and it all sounds very modern. He was way ahead of his time. If you heard this in a movie soundtrack, you would think it was contemporary, and you’d think, oh my God, this is amazing, who wrote this?
They had an interview with Schoenberg on the internet, and he's just this old guy from Vienna, and he’s such a sweetheart. He apparently painted as well. The interviewer was asking him, why don’t you make your paintings public, and he basically says, they would be attacked the way my music has been attacked, so I haven’t put them out there. You’re thinking, mea culpa! I attacked you! I never listened, I didn’t know! It’s clearly someone who cares about what he’s doing. So, pretentious bullshit? Not really.
You can watch movies, hear songs, and buy albums at kathycashel.com.
She plays tonight, February 6th, with Len Bias, at DC's Black Cat, in a benefit for the Visions In Feminism conference at the University of Maryland (9 PM, $5).
MP3: Kathy Cashel - King of the Geeks
MP3: Kathy Cashel - Antibiotics