Waiting For It To Feel Good: The Songwriting of Sera Cahoone
For many years Sera Cahoone has purveyed a mode of songwriting vulnerably subdued, her vocals a scope of tender suppleness. Her distinguishing contribution is in the understated, hushed temperament of her art. Her path to music, however, has much rowdier origins, the fancies of a pre-teen whose first “obsession” was whacking drums.
“I knew at age 12 I wanted to be a drummer,” said Cahoone. “That’s all I cared about then. I would watch drummers, I studied them. It’s in my blood. I convinced my mom to buy me a drum set. They’re so loud and annoying, right? Immediately, I could play, and it felt super natural.”
Songwriting Influences: Time, Space, and Distance of Colorado.
Born and raised in the Littleton, Colorado area, Sera is the daughter of a Korean War veteran and dynamite salesman named Bill Cahoone (1944-2021); his occupation now fodder for a bouquet of quirky memories.
“He was a great dynamite salesman,” said Cahoone. “We would go to a bunch of conventions all the time in the mountains or sometimes we’d have it stored in our basement. As a kid, we’d go to all these cool mountain towns and there’d be these conventions where we’d hang out with all of these dynamite people.”
At age 12, she played drums in a jazz band in high school and around that time, she also began to play the drums in blues ensembles at open mic jams, nearby. Judy Cahoone, a hobby guitarist, was a patron of the Denver blues scene, and she would take Sera along to both popular clubs and below-the-radar joints and then elbow her to get up on the stage to go romp with the blues players.
“There was a place called Ziggi’s downtown,” said Cahoone. “Ziggi’s opened my eyes as a young kid, and got me thinking, this is what I want to do. Taking me there formed me and formed who I am in a really positive way.”
Besides serving as a conduit to let go of pre-teen (and later) teenage angst and awkwardness, music provided Sera a healthy measure of self-love. Though she has called Seattle home for many years, her music is still informed by her upbringing in Colorado, bestowing it with an unyielding respect of time, space, and distance.
“I don’t like too much stuff going on in my songs,” said Cahoone. “I like to keep things simple. I like space a lot. Being a drummer, I write a lot of the drum parts as well. I’m very much a rhythmic guitar player. So the drums and the guitar usually go together pretty well. They work together on the rhythm part of it, and I think I genuinely hear space and I’m very aware of that. I do think growing up in Colorado, in a lot of ways that definitely plays a part.”
Sometime while she was in high school, Serra started to consider that being a drummer alone would be too limiting, so she taught herself a basic set of chords on her mother’s acoustic guitar.
Before long, she started to write simple phrases, melodies, and rhymes, though she wasn’t immediately comfortable with the concept of singing them.
Unsure of herself, she needed a heavy dose of convincing to share an original composition.
“I remember playing one of my songs for my best friend in Colorado,” said Cahoone. “I was terrified. Her mom had a coffee shop in Littleton and they finally got me to play a show there. Singing and playing guitar – it was terrifying. It’s still terrifying. But I love it. I kept writing songs, and people liked them.”
Indeed, since the release of her first record – the self-released, self-titled Sera Cahoone, in 2006 – people have been liking the thoughtful, reflective beauty of her indie-folk recordings.
Cahoone moved to Seattle in 1998 to open a snowboard and skateboard shop. Upon arrival, she had no friends to lean on. She didn’t even bring her drums along. She figured that the anonymity of such a densely populated place would enable her to overcome those fears of singing and strumming in front of others.
“I thought that I’d get into my guitar stuff and I fell into the music scene and just started to meet some really great friends and play with some really great people.”
At her best, Cahoone can be intimate and yet universal, and even at her brightest it seems like there is something unsettled lingering in the sky, something ill at ease, the proverbial second shoe about to crash.
“Performing them (my original songs) took me a long time because my songs are sad, and I love to write sad songs. It took me a long time to feel comfortable singing them and I’ve slowly gotten over that.”
Songs Need to Come Without Force
As a songwriter, Cahoone says that she has no strict regimen, no obvious routine, and no discernible patterns. There is nothing effortless about it, she said. Finding the right words or phrases has always been challenging.
“Usually I will write some stuff and then I will get so annoyed and I’ll put it away,” said Cahoone. “I wait for it to feel good. I can’t force it. Forcing it feels very strange. A lot of times I mumble the words. The words come out really good on paper, but I’m not saying all the words the way that I would like to.”
For a song to achieve completion, it has to resonate with Sera on an intuitive level, a ripple effect of choices sensed and internalized.
“I have to make sense of the song,” said Cahoone. “Sometimes that takes me quite a while to figure out which direction I’m going or what I’m singing about. But it’s super rewarding once I can get what I’m trying to make sense in brain about and learn what the song is about.”
Cahoone said that her most treasured music influences will always be ones straight out of the 1970s country scene.
“Merle Haggard. Hank Williams Jr. Loretta Lynn. Dolly Parton. Buck Owens. Willie Nelson. It’s so simple. A lot of Hank Williams’ songs only have three chords, and a lot of my songs are just three chords. That era taught me to keep the instrumentation simple, where it is never overpowering the song and it’s nice to the ears.”
One of Cahoone’s most enduringly charming songs, “Up to Me,” a track from From Where I Started (2017), is an illustration of what can happen when everything is aligned rightly in her invention. Touching, raw, sweet, and resilient, with the just right dashes of missing and restored dignity.
Over the years, Cahoone has accrued a fan base that has found appeal and charm in songs such as “Up to Me” as well as the seemingly ordinary and humble disposition of the artist singing them.
“I’ve been myself,” said Cahoone. “I think people really gravitate towards that and appreciate that. I’m kind of pretty awkward on stage and charmingly awkward is what I hear. And I think there’s a vulnerability to me on stage that people appreciate…to be someone that someone can approach and talk to.”
These days, Cahoone is grateful to be able to continue living a life in music, mixing solo engagements with the drummer role, sometimes doing both the very same night, as the opener and then supporting the main act.
“As a young kid I felt that music was what I wanted to do. I don’t have a ton of skills. I feel fortunate to be where I am now, especially nights when you can genuinely feel it when you have the crowd. You can tell when it’s an exceptional night. Your body feels it.”
Reminded of Message of Music
At 48, Cahoone said that she frequently questions whether or not people still wish to hear her music.
“I’m getting older and I get in my head about that,” said Cahoone.
When her internal debate is at its most long-winded and earsplitting, somehow, just then, a fan or new follower usually emerges, expressing to Sera what her music signifies to their own experience.
“There are these incredibly heartbreaking stories and it’s really intense,” said Cahoone. “You just kind of forget how much you affect people and what you do for them, emotionally, physically.”
Indeed, the singer-songwriter fully appreciates that, in music, truth and beauty do not just flourish in the telling but also in the listening and needing.
“Sometimes it’s really great to be reminded of how much music means to people and reminded of how incredible it is to be able to help someone through music.”
Find more information on Sera here: https://www.seracahoone.com
Brian D’Ambrosio is a Montana and New Mexico based writer and author and lover of the singer-songwriter. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org