Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Kayla Cohen wants you to remember to take time for yourself. Playing under the musical identity of Itasca, she’s worked to further herself as an artist over the course of her career, and has managed to keep perspective when it counts. Her gorgeous new full-length album, Open to Chance, is being released in September. Today we’re premiering the enchanting, mind-expanding track “Carousel”:
I talked with Kayla a few days ago about preserving mystery in the world, finding witchcraft in New York City, and de-stressing when life seems to moving a mile a minute.
VICTORIA CHIU: Hi, Kayla! How’s your day been so far?
KAYLA COHEN: It’s been good. I’ve mostly been writing a lot of emails—I try not to go on the computer every day, but every once in a while I’ll have a day when I’ll have to sit down and respond to all my messages. How about you?
I’m a little tired—I was traveling a lot yesterday. But I’m all right!
Where were you going?
I was coming back home from New York. First time I ever visited!
Oh, cool! I used to live there before I moved to Los Angeles.
What was your favorite part of living there?
When I was living in New York, it was really fun. There were so many shows and lots of different show spaces, so it was a great place to be when I was in my early twenties. I haven’t lived there in about five or six years, so I imagine now it’s pretty different, but it still seems that there’s a lot going on out there.
So your band name is pronounced “ee-TAS-ka”?
Yeah—a lot of people ask me that, but I think it’s largely open to individual interpretation. There’s no strict way of saying the band name. It’s more of an idea—something I’m trying to get other people to take in and make their own. And it’s also the name of a lake and a small town near the beginning of the Mississippi River. I’m not from the Midwest, so it’s not like I’m trying to co-opt that particular part of the world, but it seems to be a word that has a certain amount of mystery in the way it sounds, which I really love. There are a lot of different stories that are related to the band name, but there’s one in particular that I can tell you about. Recently, some of my friends were on tour in Texas. They were driving through this interstate south of Austin in the middle of the night and saw an exit for a town called Itasca. It’s a name for a collection of towns throughout the United States—very small towns—and the people there will pronounce [the word] differently depending on their regional accents. So my friends stopped in this really small town in the middle of the night, and they found out it was actually a complete ghost town, and they just walked around feeling this cosmic energy. They saw a herd of stray kittens there, too, and some of them adopted a few of the kittens. When they told me the story later, they said my band name was related to some really fantastical cosmic events, which speaks to the overall feeling and perception of the band name.
“Carousel,” the song we’re premiering today, is so dreamy, ethereal, and spiritual. But its lyrics talk about stress, being overwhelmed, and escaping from the trappings from the daily grind and the nine-to-five work week.
That’s definitely part of what the song is about, but it’s also about stepping back—taking breaks, I guess. When I need to take a break, I go for a walk, read, get out of my normal headspace. Curling up somewhere with a book, and not with a computer or something, can really ground you and help remove you from the cycle of daily thought that can consume you. It’s good to get perspective.
Open to Chance is the first album to feature the band you’re touring with. Have you always played with a backing band?
Nope! When I started out maybe five or six years ago it was just me playing guitar and writing songs. The next few years after that I was recording myself and playing solo shows, but in the past year or two I’ve started to play with other people and experiment with new live show situations. I have one very close friend, Dave McPeters, who plays pedal steel, and the last tour we did involved both of us playing together, which was really cool. I get to play with different people throughout the year—it’s a constantly shifting thing, but it’s fun for me. This year, there have been some solo shows, and some with Dave, and some with the [full] band.
How do you feel performing solo compares and contrasts to playing with other people?
Oh, man, it’s so different—the most different that it could be. Playing solo is really introspective and can be really intense because of that. Sometimes that gets you into a really great place when you’re performing because it’s incredibly intimate, but playing with other people definitely helps guide the music along a more straightforward path. There’s less improvisation when I’m playing with other people, and it takes a little bit of the pressure and weight off of me to share the stage with someone else when I play live. But it’s a completely different experience.
It must be fun to have someone there who you can have that kind of playful banter in between songs!
Yeah! And Dave [in particular] is a great person to perform with because he’s got such a good sense of humor—I’ll just look at him while we’re playing, and [Laughs] it’s just so funny. Aside from that, he’s a great pedal steel player. It’s awesome all around.
Especially since you guys are really good friends!
Definitely! It’s really hard to be on the road if you’re not friends with the people you’re with. But I’ve made sure to only go on tour with people I like and get along with, so it’s cool.
The cover art for the record is also super cool—it was shot at the Santa Anita racetrack in Pasadena, California, and I read that you chose that place because it relates to the unpredictability and mystery of things like the occult, tarot, and luck. How long have you been into tarot, and how’d you come across it?
It’s all a part of the bigger picture of this record—the track is so picturesque, and it’s been there for a very long time, so it’s a nostalgic link to the past. Having the cover be a racetrack is also a reference to the idea of the unknown, chance, and gambling, and trying to preserve some sense of mystery and the arcane in the modern world. I feel like the world is trying to erase all mystery from everything and reduce people to aesthetic impressions and images rather than allowing people to be real, complete people with good and bad facets. It’s easy to think that people in all their complexity are too difficult to see or comprehend, because we don’t want to deal with complexity anymore. But to answer your question, I’ve been reading tarot for a long time—since I was in my teens, and came of age. It’s always been an interesting experience studying tarot and subjects like it; it’s a way to step back and get perspective on the world.
Have you heard of this store called Enchantments in New York City? I think you might like it!
Oh, yeah! I’ve got some good stories about that place. When I was about 18, I would hang out in the city a lot—I grew up about an hour north of there. My friends and I would always try to find all of the “witch” stores. Enchantments is on East 9th Street now, but it used to be in a location that was a lot larger before then that had more going on, and I would go in as a teen and think, “What’s going on in here? This is so scary!” And then [the proprietors] would sit us down and talk to us for hours about what witchcraft was. It was the coolest thing! I had this book that was maybe from the ’80s, too, that was all about witchcraft in New York City, and it had a bunch of addresses of witchy places listed in the back. My friends and I went out to visit the actual addresses one day, and a lot of them were just apartments—nobody was using them for witchcraft anymore—but I do remember one apartment we went to had this bumper sticker on the fence that said “WATCH OUT! A WITCH LIVES HERE!” To us, that was just the best.
I think that’s so neat. Where I’m from, there’s not much like that at all.
Nah, don’t say that! There might be stuff hidden—you just got to seek it out.
Maybe! But definitely since places like New York and Los Angeles are so big, it’s probably more likely that you’ll find a unique little treasure nearby.
For sure. There’s, like, an Elvis-themed diner down the street from my house—that’s not going to be in every town, you know?
When you said we tend to want to reduce everyone down to aesthetics, it reminded me of social media. Instagram feeds are highlight reels of people’s lives and Twitter compresses thoughts down to snippets without necessarily allowing for the easiest exploration of the undercurrents of those thoughts.
Yeah—it’s an interesting thing to think and talk about, especially with relation to Rookie, which is a site ostensibly for younger people who are coming of age. I can’t even imagine how it would be to be that age now—it seems much harder—because there are so many new things to navigate. I had the internet when I was in high school, but we didn’t have Facebook or anything like that. It would be ideal for younger people to be able to keep a grasp on themselves without getting bogged down with the thought of trying to emulate a set of curated images. But it’s not really the same with music—I think we can find complexity in any type of music if we look for it.
One of the main inspirations for your upcoming album was the poem “Kore” by Robert Creeley. How did that poem spark something in you? How did you find it?
Robert Creeley is one of my favorite poets—I also like Wallace Stevens; he’s a good poet. I like James Merrill, and I’m into British poetry, too—Swinburne’s written some interesting stuff. But the thing about that poem in particular was the idea of chance and the unknown, which was something I wanted to try and unpack on [Open to Chance]. I just didn’t know how to put it into words. So one day I was reading a Creeley book, came across “Kore,” and thought, “Wow, this makes so much sense! This is laid out so perfectly here.” I thought we should use the poem to open up a conversation [about chance and the unknown] because he says stuff so much better than I can. Last year in May, when I was just starting to write this album, I was in North Carolina and visited Black Mountain College. It’s a hub for a lot of poets, and we went to this museum there that had a Creeley book. I started flipping through it, and it was so good. It became something I really wanted to explore and convey on the record.
Do you have any places that inspire and bring the creativity out of you?
There are so many places in the United States I love playing in. I toured in the South last year, and I had a great time playing in Alabama. We played outside of Birmingham, in this small town, and the group that played before me was this really talented improv group with a lap steel player. I love going to Texas and playing there; last time I toured there the wildflowers were blooming and it was really foggy, so all the drives between shows were really amazing. I love performing in Austin, where I’ve got a bunch of friends, and in Marfa. The Midwest is special to me, around Chicago and Wisconsin—I’ve got a lot of family and friends up there. I like playing in Arizona and New Mexico, too—the drives are very beautiful, and the people are really far out, too.
Sounds like a great crowd! Do you still get pre-performance jitters when you’re playing in your favorite spaces?
Of course! Sometimes. Depends on where you’re playing. And sometimes it’s completely unknown—it might be a really small show that you’re super nervous about, or a really big show that you’ve got no worries about whatsoever. If I’m feeling that way I try to have some alone time, try to chill out on my own—it’s hard to go from talking and interacting with people immediately to playing without having some time in between to collect yourself, so whenever I can I try to get that time, especially when I’m feeling weird. I’m also really into herbalism. There’s a really vibrant herbalism community in Los Angeles—I have friends who are into it, so that’s where I started learning about it.
It’s great to learn about different anxiety-decreasing techniques!
Yeah. I think the most important thing for that is making sure you have some time to be alone—maybe read a book and make sure you have some time to step away from the things that are making you stressed. But I have a younger sister, too, and I know her advice would be completely different, because she deals with stress in a totally different way than I do. It’s different for everyone, so you’ve got to listen to your body and be aware of what you need. You’ve got to be aware of what works for you. ♦