Interview with Laura Hemenway of The Santa Barbara Literary Journal
Cate Graves' quirky, vulnerable songwriting style is exemplified by "Clubhouse," her contribution to Santa Barbara Literary Journal’s Volume 1.
As a person, she is warm, funny, and constantly soul-searching to create slices of life in her songs. In this exuberant and thoughtful summer evening conversation, Cate reveals a bit about her Santa Barbara childhood, her musical influences, and the inspiration and renewal she receives from attending the annual Song School in Colorado, sponsored by Planet Bluegrass.
She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee where she's working on her upcoming album "Postcards From New Mexico" slated for release in early 2020.
LAURA: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person?
CATE: My dad is a visual artist, and he’s also a really big music lover. He doesn’t play an instrument, but he listens to a lot of different music, all the time. I think he exposed us to a lot of good music and just creating in general. I remember we would sit on a Saturday, and he would ask us to draw a still life; an apple, a bowl, etc… So I think I was exposed to the arts through him.
And then further encouragement came when I attended The Santa Barbara Middle School. I got into Theater, and singing. The music classes were taught around the piano by Maureen Hazard. And we would sing like, David Byrne songs. And none of us knew how to sing but it was so fun. I think that it really sparked the joy that I think was necessary to get me more interested in continuing to sing and practice.
LAURA: When did you start to create songs? Was that a natural extension from theater and what you were getting at school?
CATE: I wrote my first song in Middle School. It was a little song called “Gonna Get Away.” It was definitely full of angst; I was probably 14 or 15. But my teacher Marco Andrade helped me write the music and we recorded it. It was a really lucky experience for a kid. And after we recorded it, they gathered the school one day, and they played it in front of the entire school. It was my rock star moment at age 15. I was so proud of that song. And then, I didn’t write again for a long time. I had my one big hit! (laughing)
LAURA: What songwriters are touchstones for you?
CATE: Well, Joni Mitchell. Her poetry and her musical prowess. I first heard “Blue” when I was 17, it was just very monumental. Like when I heard Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. Those two albums; It was the first time I remember playing a record on repeat. And I just played it, and played it, and played it.
There’s also a songwriter I love named Christine Kane. If I need a cathartic experience I just go to one of her shows. I remember going to the bathroom at one point during one of her shows, and I had been crying so much, I remember wondering, Can I go back out there? Because she’s somebody who definitely hits something sonically emotional for me.
And of course, Mary Gauthier, is one of the best writers around. She and Christine are both mission-driven at this point in their lives and careers. They are trying to give back, not just do the selfish artist dance that I’ve done for a lot of my life. There’s a lot of selfishness to being an artist.
LAURA: You kind of have to be selfish. It’s a double-edged sword, for sure.
CATE: Yet there’s a kind of gorgeousness about it.
LAURA: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: creating a song, performing a song, or recording a song?
CATE: My favorite part is once I get into it, once I get into that river. And I start the song. The hardest part, starting. Like doing anything right? But my favorite part is, once you kind of get rolling with it, and you’re not yet editing, you’re in the flow with ideas coming and forming.
LAURA: You enjoy that even more than performing it, when it’s finally realized? Or recording?
CATE: Well, I do love performing. I’m actually not that great in the recording studio. I get antsy. Sitting all day long, and going over each note, I’m like, Let’s move it along! Which is why I always need a good producer and engineer! (laughing) I need someone that cares about it. But I love when I’m writing, and it’s coming, and it feels like time is in a different place.
LAURA: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?
CATE: My ego. (laughing) No, it’s not true! Well, it’s true and it’s not true. I feel connection, on a higher level, when I’m able to perform my songs. I feel connection between me and the audience and that is a big gift to me.
Someone listening to you is a really big gift in this world, where there are a lot of people talking. So that communication is really powerful for me. That keeps me wanting to write.
But also, as a practice, writing is a healthy way for me to stay connected with myself. It’s a really good way for me to uncover how I feel about something , or to process something. I’m interested in working more with people, with writing, because I think that writing is a really cool way to get in touch with ourselves, in a cathartic way. Just to access ourselves. Life is so busy in the modern world. It’s really easy to lose touch with ourselves and others.
LAURA: So, you’ve never gotten to the point where it’s like, Man, I’ve nothing left to write about.
CATE: Oh, no! No way. There’s always something to write about, it’s just a daunting task to sit down. I’ve been doing writing for The Elephant Journal this summer. I took an online writing course. I’ve been getting into a pretty good flow with just writing, daily, and the ritual of it feels great. It’s amazing how, once you get into that flow, it’s a lot easier. Because you’re generating material, so the next day, you’re combing over something you did last week. All of a sudden it doesn’t seem nearly as hard.
LAURA: Writing begets writing, for you.
CATE: I’m seeing that it does. I used to be of the mind that I’ll just write when I want to write. But I’m finding right now, for me, that’s changing. I’m finding that if I write at the same time of day, in the morning, that sets me off on my day. Then my subconscious thinks all day about the piece. I’m working on it while I’m not working on it.
LAURA: You’re about ready to take off for Colorado. Tell me a little bit about The Rocky Mountain Song School.
CATE: If you say the word pilgrimage, I think that describes the experience for me. It’s where I got into songwriting. After writing that one song at age 15 I didn’t write another song until I was 24. I went with my sister, reluctantly. I did not want to go. I had just broken up with someone; I’d had my heart broken. And she said, You’ve got to stop feeling sorry for yourself, and get out of the house. She was doing a lot of songwriting and she kind of dragged me along. I didn’t play guitar then; I was a fish out of water. I sang, but I didn’t have any songs.
I took a class there that was a beginner’s class. And we were asked to pair up with someone and tell that person a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your partner then told you a story. And then we were to spend a week crafting a song, for them, to share with them. It was such a powerful experience. I got, that spark I’d had when I was 15. I just wanted to tell my partner's story well. I wanted to honor her story. And it was just beautiful. I wrote a song about her mother, who was a poet, but not a great mother. It was called “Wildflower Poet.” It was kind of the story of a mother/daughter who had this connection through art. And wasn’t really your typical idyllic mom/daughter relationship.
So that’s kind of what Planet Bluegrass is for me; Touchstone is also a good word, these places that are kind of central to our being. I found my tribe of people there. That was the biggest thing.
LAURA: Any advice to give to creative people out there?
CATE: Find something that you love. It doesn’t matter…cooking, …you can be creative in sports…you can be creative doing anything! Creativity is a playful, open way of approaching something. You can be creative in conversation. We all use the same language, but if I wanted to invite my imaginatively exuberant, wild child, mystic bird person…I can open that up, in language. I kind of see creativity as playfulness. A lightness in a way.
LAURA: Do you ever look at a songwriter and think to yourself, If only that person would just do such and such, they would have it all together. Any advice that you would give to a songwriter, or songwriters in general?
CATE: In songwriting and performing, the shorter the better. You don’t need 10 verses. Unless you’re Woody Guthrie. (laughing)
LAURA: I’m going to embroider that on something. (laughing)
CATE: That’s one thing. Err on the side of cutting your song down. And when you start writing about something, write about something you can access your feelings to and talk about. Because if you write about something that’s too close at that moment, you haven’t processed it yet, you may lose your perspective. Write about something that you really care about, and write about something that you can talk about logically. Because when you’re writing you can translate what you’re thinking .
Oh! And start off by word association games! This works great if you’re just starting to write songs. Where you just pick a word, and start associating other words with it…that will get you in your poetic side of your mind,. Give yourself 3 minutes, and start with say, Periwinkle. Periwinkle reminds me of that yoga mat, which reminds me of the floor, then a head, then an ear…make a giant list of words. Then go back and circle the words that are coming out for you. That’s a good place to start getting ideas for metaphors you might want to use, to write about. I think the main thing is that it gets you into this creative side of your mind, and not the side that thinks, And now I will write my Magnum Opus. For me, that works. The clustering works.