We spoke with Kayla Cohen about her release, Open To Chance, and the creative inspiration cultivated from her time living in Los Angeles.
Open To Chance was released last year. This is your latest release with Itasca. How was this album different from your previous releases?
It feels like a pretty straight line from the past releases into this one, with songwriting - but this one is the first to have a band backing me up. I played with a bunch of friends from Los Angeles, and recorded it mostly at a studio in northeast LA. But, it came out a good two years after the previous one, though I put out some tapes and small releases in between, so in terms of time and personal growth, it does feel like a different thing.
What was the motivation and inspiration around the songwriting for this album?
This one came out of a year of moving around in L.A. a lot, and playing with different people, putting a band together - traveling and exploring on guitar. I spent some time traveling in southern Utah and Nevada, and eastern California in the desert while I was writing it. You can hear quite a few different characters and stories in the lyrics - characters that reappear throughout the album.
You're based in Los Angeles, correct? How has living in L.A. affected your creative processes?
I live in Los Angeles, yea. It can be a pretty slow city which is nice, and it’s progressive, for the US, which is good. L.A. is kind of a nightmare for live performance, though. It’s difficult to keep show spaces open, and bands rarely tour out here because it’s so far from other major cities. So the music scene is spread out here, but it’s still supportive. We don’t play in L.A. that often, but there are a lot of great musicians here and it’s easy to get a group of people together to play casually. I have an ongoing Sunday evening jam that has been good. The city can feel separate from the rest of the country and the world in a good way. There are a lot of weirdos and holdouts living here.
We love Paradise of Bachelors, the label you released Open To Chance under. Did you spend any time in North Carolina where P.o.B. is located writing, recording, or producing the record?
I also love Paradise of Bachelors, I am a fan of their other releases and bands. We didn’t record in N. Carolina but we have visited the label there. The record was all recorded in Los Angeles. I spent a little bit of time in southern Utah and Nevada while writing it but it was mostly created in Los Angeles.
You released several albums under the name Sultan. Those recordings are experimental and spacey - much different than Itasca stuff. What's your process for stratifying your art? Do you compartmentalize creativity within the two different projects or are there overlaps of any kind?
The tapes that I put out as Sultan weren’t really meant to be shared, it was just a project I was doing then. That project is over, and has been for several years. I won’t perform any of it. That said, I still like some of the tapes and some of the album art. That was a formative time and that’s what that project was about. Right now there’s a lot of Itasca visual art - there’s some posters and flyers I made for our upcoming tour, and there’s a long form video piece I’m working on now that will be played during our set at one or two shows. So all the mediums are overlapping right now, but are coming from the same point of inspiration.
Did you play any Sultan stuff live? If so, how do the live experiences differ and how do you prepare differently for the folk stuff versus the droney experimental sets?
I did, but yea probably about 8 years ago - so that’s not something I’m doing now and would consider it put to rest. There’s room for improvisation in the Itasca live sets nowadays and the direction it goes in depends on how we all feel each night. Some nights will be pretty straightforward, but some nights are more far out. In terms of preparing for a show, I try to keep it incredibly loose - there are no rules. That leads to better folk music explorations. A friend told me once that Keiji Haino only eats olives, mustard, and umeboshi plum before he plays.
Who are some earlier artists that either directly or indirectly influenced Open To Chance and Itasca's songwriting and sound?
When I was working on this record I was listening to a lot of Michael Chapman, Mike Cooper, Leon Russell and Don Nix, lots of country music, and others like George Brigman, Nicodemus, Jeff Cowell, etc. There was something about all these records, a thread running through them, that makes them feel self-contained, there are stories and characters throughout that reappear, they are ambitious but self-aware, of a very specific time. The idea of creating your own separate world or microcosm within a record, with songs that all fit together and play their own parts. Not quite a “concept album,” but maybe, unconsciously, a concept album, open to interpretation by the listener.
You toured the West Coast opening for Cloud Nothings. Is your live show a solo thing or do you bring along a cast to support you? How did the tour come together - the two bands seem fairly dissimilar in ways?
We did six shows with them, from Vancouver, BC to Los Angeles. I brought my band along on the trip, which is Dave McPeters on pedal steel, Sophie Weil on bass and Kevin Donahue on drums. We played in Cleveland last October, where Cloud Nothings are from, and we became friends with them and they asked us to open. For us it’s a good opportunity to play larger spaces we wouldn’t normally play, and to play in front of people who have never heard of us. Their audiences have been open-minded so far. I like when shows have bills with different-sounding bands, rather than the same type of music all the way through, so that is to an extent what’s going on here. So yea it’s been different for us to do this but it’s been a good experience.
What's planned for Itasca for the near future? New tour? New music?
In mid-March we are doing a pretty long tour in Europe, it’s just over a month. That will be Dave on pedal steel and I. We are going to Germany, France,the UK, doing shows in the Netherlands, and then a week of dates in Italy. Highlights will be a lot of time spent in the Netherlands and Belgium. We’re also playing a film festival in Copenhagen, where the video piece I mentioned earlier will be shown. I’m also working on a new record between touring. And we have a new song coming out very soon on the protest compilation "Our First 100 Days".