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Roof Top Profile Shot_CMYK_30cm_300dpiMelbourne-based musician Cat Canteri steps away from her drumming duties with alt/country act The Stillsons to release her debut solo album, ‘When We Were Young’. Cat discusses the album with Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips

Upon deciding to bite the bullet and finally produce her debut solo album, Cat Canteri began a voyage of discovery, not only of herself but also of the intricacies and wonder of the creative process.  It confirmed for her some long-held notions about the joys of making music and revealed other new and exciting aspects she hadn’t anticipated. As drummer with alternate country/folk act The Stillsons, Cat is one third of the voice of that band. With her soon to be released album, ‘When We Were Young’, it was her vision, her story to tell in the way she wanted to portray it. The time was now right too.
“I always wanted to make a record of my songs,” Cat explains. “A lot of things have stopped me doing it. Just anxiety was one of them. In my late teens I had really severe anxiety. Plus I didn’t have the skills back then. You have to find the musicians to perform on your stuff. You have to be able to communicate well and work well in a group environment. You also have to make the musicians playing with you feel comfortable. When I was younger I definitely didn’t have the skills and confidence  to do that.”

The solo album which Cat Canteri has built is sonically warm and inviting, lyrically intimate and nostalgic. She lays bare her heart and soul on a bed of sweet, rootsy and at times rockin’ tunes, where  thoughtful, incidental musical ideas contribute to the colours of the overall picture. Despite utilising the instrumental talent of her two Stillsons compadres on the album, Cat sees some obvious differences between her recording and any which would result from a band project.
“To state the most obvious differences, I’m singing  all the tunes,'” she says. “There’s no pedal steel which, is a big part of The Stillsons sound. I mean, I didn’t think about it too much. I just had songs I wanted to put on a record of my own. With The Stillsons, you bring your songs in and you make them work as a group and everyone’s voice is coming together as one. I think there are a few songs on my album, I probably wouldn’t have taken to the band, they’re a bit too personal.”

When We Were Young features two beautifully constructed instrumentals (‘Giovanna’ and ‘Hoard Away’) which give the album a delightful balance in the listening experience. It was not always the case that the track ‘Giovanna’ was going to be wordless, but once the track had been laid down, Canteri was so pleased with the result, she was reluctant to tamper with it.
“If you listen to it, there’s a groove section where there is heaps of space,” Cat explains. “There’s this spot where there’s no melody but an atmospheric groove happening and I was going to throw lyrics in there and actually wrote some. I really loved the space so much though I wanted to leave it. The lyrics were about my younger sister using her middle name but in the end I just called the song Giovanna.”

Gules Room Portrait_300dpi_CMYK_30cm wideWhile Cat is a fan of instrumental music, it wasn’t a conscious decision from the beginning to include the two instrumentals, nor was it referencing any other album. It happened organically. “I didn’t put them in there to pay homage to other records that have instrumentals on them but I did really enjoy Mia Dyson’s first record,” she remembers. “I think it was her first one which had a couple of instrumentals on it, one at about track seven and one at the end. I used to listen to that a lot when I was in my teens.  There was also an Incubus album that I loved when I was growing up that has a last track as an instrumental. It’s really long and mediative and peaceful. I used to listen to albums when I would go to sleep at night so if there’s a nice long instrumental at the end it’s perfect to send you off to sleep. I love album’s like Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. There is so much stuff which happens before the vocals come in.”

As you’d expect of a drummer, Cat paid particular attention to the percussion sounds on the album and it’s refreshing to hear cymbals clearly within the mix. It bucks against a trend which seems to want to hide the sound of the metallic plates of shrill. Cat too, is at a loss to know why that aspect of percussion is not as prominent in recordings as it used to be. “I am not sure why that is,” she says while trying to think of a reason. “Maybe it’s because the electric guitar and cymbals seem to take up the same frequencies and same space in the mix sometimes. Maybe it’s because a lot of music is guitar-dominated and you don’t get to hear the character of the cymbals. The ride cymbal I used on that, I’ve used on almost every recording I have done. I just love it. You play it really delicately and it has a fantastic clear but slightly sizzling attack when you play it softly but if you really lay into it and it can easy wash out or you can use it as a crash as well. I’m glad you like the sound of the cymbals, that’s really cool.”

Cat also played guitar on the album and will do so on the extensive tour which follows the album’s September release. Producer Craig Pilkington did a magnificent job in capturing the guitar tones, particularly the acoustics via the use of a small diaphragm condenser microphone. But as Cat explains, it wasn’t so much any studio trickery but the quality of the guitars used, which made all the difference.
“We didn’t play around so much with the micing,” she says.  “My main guitar is a Martin cutaway which sounds beautiful and the plug-in sound is one of the best I’ve ever heard. But Justin who plays in The Stillsons and played on my record, recently acquired a Martin D18. This guitar … the E string has so much guts. It’s like a cannon. I was the first one to record with it. So we used that and I have a Gibson Hummingbird that we used. We had a lot of acoustic guitars as options, some beautiful hand made guitars by a guy named Dan Robinson, who lives in Anglesea. But, yeah Craig did a really great job capturing the acoustic sounds. We also used a cheap Gretsch baritone guitar that Craig had in the studio. It wasn’t an expensive one but it was set up well. We used it to fatten up the track. There were quite a few of those little tricks we did with having extra guitar overdubs just to make the sound a bit thicker, make it a bit wider. The electric guitar sound on ‘When We Were Young’ is probably my favourite guitar sound on the album though. That was Justin playing his Les Paul through a 1940s Fender Deluxe amp, a small tweed amp, probably only 10 watts. It’s only got a volume and a tone and you wind it up and it sounds fantastic. It breaks up before it gets loud.”

With the album done and waiting an official release on the 5th of September, Cat is now using her time to prepare for her upcoming east coast tour. The touring band will consist of Canteri on acoustic and electric guitars, Justin Bernasconi from The Stillsons (who is also releasing a solo album) on acoustic, plus a drummer and bassist. The weird thing for Cat now is that she has to relearn the album tunes on guitar, a task which she is really enjoying.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “I have to learn these pieces that I wrote on piano, now on guitar. I am no lead guitarist by any stretch, I’m starting to get into it but it’s been really great to do it. There’s a reason why the guitar is the most popular instrument in the world. You can play something so many different ways on the guitar. The one note appears three different places on the neck and there are so many ways of voicing the same notes. Just using the same register, there are so many ways you can phrase a melody. You’ve got bends, pull-offs, pull-ons, vibrato, near the neck or near the bridge and that’s before you even begin to talk about effects and tones. So it’s been really great fun rediscovering these melodies on guitar. I know those pieces so well because I wrote them but I didn’t write them on guitar, I wrote them on piano and when I recorded them, I didn’t play the piano, I played the drums. I am really appreciating the guitar in a whole new way.”

Cat Canteri_When We Were Young_300dpi_12x12cm_Cover_imageThe pre-release excitement in Cat is tangible but so too is a little trepidation. Some of these songs are deeply personal and were written in the comfort and solitude of her own home. Now it’s time to hand them over to the world and she’s having different feelings to what she normally would with a Stillsons’ band release. “When you are in a band, even if you are one of the main songwriters in the band … when a record comes out, you stand under the banner of one name,” she says in explanation of her nervous anticipation. “Your words are on there, your voice is on there, which is the same as this record but it feels different. With a Stillsons album, it’s not just my songs on there. It does feel like you are more open to being kicked in the balls, for lack of a better phrase. In a band there’s a lot of camaraderie, you share so much together. If you get a bad review or someone something negative, it’s easier to take if you’re in a band. It’s less personal. A lot of people these days use pseudonyms or character name project persona name. When someone rips into you under your own name, it’s probably going to sting a bit more. I’m not worried about it. You have to take the rough with the smooth but yes it does feel different. But it’s one of those things that I had to do. It takes a lot to put out an album, whether with a band or under your own name. Not just putting it out, but to send it to journalists, send it out into the world to be open to criticism and I think it is harder if you are a solo artist. Songwriters are sensitive people. It’s ironic, there’s that weird duality of being a songwriter in a really personal, quiet, solitary place compared to when you go out and perform. You then have to be an extrovert and deliver music to people. It’s weird for a musician to have to inhabit those two places. It’s actually quite insane in some ways.”

When We Were Young is released by MGM and Mountain King Music on September 5th. Check out the website for tour dates.

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