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Cheyenne Mize: Shades of Blue & Grey

Cheyenne Mize: Shades of Blue & Grey
By James Calemine

"If I could think of a way to do it right now, I'd head back to Louisville, sit on the porch drinking beer, drive around Cherokee Park for a few nights, and try to sink back far as I could into the world that did its best to make me. It's not hard to get tired of the interminable palms and Poinciana, and I could do it at the moment with a single elm tree on a midnight street in the Highlands."
                                                   --Hunter S. Thompson

Her voice unlocks something in the soul. Singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Cheyenne Marie Mize hails from Louisville, Kentucky, along with Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson, Johnny Depp, Will Oldham, Joan Osbourne and My Morning Jacket to name a few. The daughter of radio DJs, Mize caught the music bug early in life. Not many musicians can play seven or eight different instruments...or play all the instruments on their albums. 

The Louisville music community proves a fertile one, and Mize plays an instrumental role in that scene. She’s a relatively new artist. At 30, she begins her musical ascent. Her moody songs, versatility and resonating soulful voice indicate she retains a staying power. Her latest release, Among The Grey, culminates all of her musical magic.

Mize's previous groups include Arnett Hollow and Maiden Radio. In 2009, she recorded an album of parlor songs (from 1860-1915) with songwriter, actor and photographer Will Oldham (aka Billy 'Prince' Bonnie) titled Among The Gold. She's also collaborated with Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore. Her voice evokes the ability to fuse the past, present and future into one streamline of the moment. She takes the listener on their own personal journey through her music. That's art.

Her previous solo releases include Whereas Before Lately (2010), an EP We Don't Need (2012) and her latest collection Among The Grey, which was recorded in a Louisville Church. Mize is quite pretty, but even if that was not the case the listener would still be mesmerized by her hypnotic voice. I looked forward to interviewing her because I knew she possessed cognizance. She stands as an artist steeped in earthy American folk music, but her latest release finds her exploring more progressive sounds...from the soil to the stratosphere...

She's an accomplished instrumentalist. During our Q & A, I asked her about when she obtained her first instrument. "I started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old. My aunt played piano. So, I really wanted to play piano. My uncle and grandma played guitar, so around ten or eleven I started learning guitar. For my twelfth birthday I got a Martin guitar. I started violin in the fifth grade. From there, I played anything with strings I could get my hands on.

"I can play dulcimer and autoharp, but those things don't take a lot of skill--once you can play the violin all the other string instruments are pretty easy. I play cello on one of my records, and I've played upright bass, but I'm not great at those things. I play banjo quite a bit. On my song "Wishing Well" I played drums and all the percussion. I play electric bass sometimes."

I wanted Mize to take me back to her rural childhood days, so I asked her to discuss early musical influences: "Where I lived in southern Kentucky until I was 10, there was nothing but country music, so I definitely grew up on 80s and 90s country mixed in with old country music. My grandma used to listen to The Carter Family a lot.

"Then my parents were also radio DJs back in the 70s so they were huge into 60s and 70s album rock so it was a kind of mix of Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley. I still turn on classic radio stations and know most of the words to all of the songs. Then in middle school and high school I got more into modern music like Radiohead. I have some of my Dad's record collection, but he hasn't given it all up yet."

Perhaps her close-to-the-soil musical diet led her to more experimental genres. When I requested Mize to nail down her seminal influences, she responded, “Definitely Radiohead as far as immersion of my musical mind. I’ve spent more hours of my musical life listening to Radiohead more than any other band. That was my high school soundtrack. I think Pink Floyd is a big one too. To me on a lot of that stuff there were sounds that were never made. I try to take on that spirit of creating new sounds.

“I’ve had a heavy dose of Fiona Apple, Tori Amos and Tracy Bonham as a teenager. Recently, I’ve gotten into a woman named Shannon Wright out of Chicago whose got an incredible mouth and voice."

I asked Mize to elucidate on the Louisville music scene, which she plays integral role. "There are so many different kinds of music here in Louisville. I went to college for music therapy. I went to the University of Louisville, and in college I played with several local bands including Arnett Hollow, but some rock bands and super heavy--almost heavy metal bands. I was playing violin and singing every chance I could get. Then I started playing with Arnett Hollow regularly.

"But the Louisville music community...one person might play in three different instruments in three totally different bands and genres. Everybody kind of helps everyone else out. It’s not a competitive environment around here. It’s really nice. It pushed me in the direction of performing more because there were so many friends and bands I loved--and the more I got to play with them, the more I was playing with other people.”

Mize’s participation with the group Arnett Hollow opened up a new avenue for her own music and she provided insight on what that group did for her own music: “Arnett Hollow was the first time I realized the thing I get out of music is playing with other people, not for people. It’s always been that way--that’s why I went to school for music therapy.

“So, playing with Arnett Hollow was the first time that I realized I could get that much enjoyment playing with people while playing for people and playing on a higher level than I ever expected to. The Louisville music scene has a lot to do with that and I still play with a lot of people randomly with whatever they need. There were two Arnett Hollow records. The first one I really wasn’t part of the band--I just played some violin stuff and that worked really well. Then I started kind of playing with the band. This is around 2006-2007. Then we recorded another record in 2009, and that one was more of a band effort. I played fiddle and sang. It was more of an Americana-rootsy band. We pulled from a lot of things.

Being interested in the work of Will Oldham, I urged Mize to elaborate on her musical relationship with prodigious actor/songwriter (aka Billy Prince Bonnie), which led to an EP they recorded together titled Among the Gold. “Well, I was playing a lot with Arnett Hollow, and then in 2008 I was acquainted with Oscar Parsons who was putting together a show to back Will up. He was going to be doing all of Will’s songs in a hillbilly vein and that was when Lie Down in the Light was coming out. Since that had so much fiddle and female vocals they didn't have a female or fiddler in the band so Will basically told Oscar to find a woman who could sing and play fiddle and then everything was set.

“The first couple of months I was not even sure it was going to happen because Will was on tour overseas and we practiced without him for the first couple of months, and I was like ‘I wonder if Oscar even knows this guy’(laughs). It was hard to tell. But then we had our first couple of rehearsals with Will and it all went really well. We had just one full rehearsal and we clicked. Then Will asked me to think about the idea of touring with him starting in 2009, which was 7 months away at that point, but that got the gears turning.”

Mize kept busy until it was time for her record the amazing record Among The Gold with Oldham. “So, yeah that winter I was playing with Picket Line. We did one show in the summer then we played a winter show. And in the middle of that I talked to Will about some old songs I came across in my music studies from older generations. And you don’t hear older songs like that anymore with these complex chord progressions and super sweet songs.

“We basically needed a room and a microphone and someone to help me record it and Will happen to have a room and a mic and he helped me out with those songs and he helped me pick a couple out. We recorded one of them as a duet, and it worked so well and sounded so good we decided they all needed to be duets so then it became a duet record. Most of the songs were from around the turn of the century--from the 1860s to the 1920s." Oldham's musical influence on Mize emerged in subtle ways.

I inquired about her collaboration with Ben Sollee and Daniel Martin Moore, and she explained the seeds of that project. “Ben and I went to college together and I knew him for a long time. I played a little bit with him here and there, but it wasn’t until 2010 in February-March that I went on tour with his band.

Mize’s next musical step was her involvement with a group called Maiden Radio. Maiden Radio comprised Mize, Julia Purcell and Joan Shelley. It was recorded at the Funeral Home in Louisville. All the songs had unknown authors except "Dear Someone" (David Rawlings & Gillian Welch) and "Go To Sleep Little Baby" that was composed by T-Bone Burnett, Alan Lomax and Gillian Welch.

She revealed how that group operated. “Maiden Radio kind of started in 2009 and I had known Julia for a few years because she moved to Louisville for a music therapy job. We bonded over traditional music that we loved to sing. In the summer of 2009, I met Joan through some other friends and we shared that same connection of singing old traditional tunes. We decided it would be amazing if we could get all three of us in a room together. It was an immediate connection. We weren’t trying to make a band, we just wanted to play. Then we put some songs together, did some shows and we decided to make a record.

“We recorded a short self-titled record first. It was 6 songs. It was traditional. One was a Carter Family song, and we also did “Weary Blues” by Hank Williams Sr. Then two years ago we did the Lullabies album. We’re slowly but surely working on another batch of songs. Hopefully, we’ll get it out by next spring.

“The lullabies were all traditional, but nobody knows who wrote “Bye Bye Lulu”. Julia was pregnant during that time and we recorded it as a gift to her and her baby. We wanted it to be used particularly as lullabies for babies. They were super sparse arrangements--really quiet dynamics. Once we recorded that we had friends who really wanted us to put that out so we did on Daniel Martin Morris’s label.

Up until this point, Mize focused on traditional music. Knowing songwriting is the fulcrum for any musician, Mize elucidated on the impetus for writing her own music. “Historically, I’ve not really been a songwriter. I’m sure I wrote a few when I was a teenager, but I didn’t really write a lot. I would just put on an album and play along to it to figure out a song. I was more interested in that than the songwriting aspect--if I did write I was just a teenager, and don’t have any record of them.

"I guess in 2007 slowly I’d write a song every four to six months. I’d do some demo stuff on ‘garageband’. Then the touring I did with Will in 2009--that was a huge tour--we did 75 shows in 90 days...it was crazy. When I came off that tour it allowed me a little time to concentrate on my songs and make sure they sounded well. Those songs are what became Before Lately.”

Whereas Before Lately was also recorded in Louisville with musical cohorts Ben Sollee, Duane Lundy, John King and Kevin Rotterman lending musical contributions. Before Lately stands as a sparse testament to Mize’s ability to craft songs, and also where her true soul began to shine through. It retains a subterranean, quiet quality with sparse instrumentation. “On that record I played all the instruments.” The only cover song was a version of a Stephen Stills tune called “The Doctor Will See You Now”. Mize told me about that one cover tune:

“Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were always in heavy rotation for me. I got my hands on a demo album called Just Roll Tape with only Stephen Stills laying down songs at the end of someone else’s session, and he asked if he could just throw the songs on tape. It had “Wooden Ships” and “Judy Blue Eyes” as well as “The Doctor Will See You Now”. I’d never heard that one before and I don’t think it’s recorded anywhere else so it made sense to make an arrangement of it it that spoke to me.”

The music business--what's left of it--is ugly. Money is tight--non existent, even.  I was curious how Mize fused the the phase between Before Lately and the variegated EP she released titled We Don’t Need. “Before Lately, I decided I wanted to pursue something in the solo realm and play some shows. I had a theme. I had been working with Sonablast out of Louisville, but we kind of started to pursue things with other labels and I knew a full album wasn’t going to happen for a while, and I had a group of songs I didn’t think would go on my next full length record so I just wanted to get them out there. There is a lot of variation within those six songs on We Don’t Need. It’s meant to be a collection of six singles instead of one whole album.

“There is more instrumentation on it. My co-producer helped with the soundscape. He played drums. My current drummer played drums on “It Lingers”. Part of it was a natural progression and getting more comfortable with writing. I started pulling on more modern influences than I had in the past. Around Halloween of 2010 I played in a trio where we played all of PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me so that started to influence my musical thinking in the way I approached singing and guitar. I haven’t listened to too many of her albums because I thought it might be too much of an influence. So, I’m really only familiar with three of her records.”

Mize records all of her music in Louisville and I asked if We Don’t Need was recorded in the same studio as the rest of her recordings. "We Don’t Need was recorded in Kevin Ratterman’s Funeral Home Studio. At that time his studio was located on the second floor of a studio home. There is a chain of funeral homes here in the area. His studio was located on the second floor of one of those. It’s a totally beautiful home that had been converted--so most of that EP was recorded there. He’s since moved to a brand new studio where he’s building his brand new studio and in the meantime he was at The Church, which is where I recorded Among The Grey and also where My Morning Jacket recorded Circuitual.”

We Don’t Need stands as a brilliant EP. The Stax-sounding “Going Under” and the gritty “It Lingers” stand out as the true gems on the collection, and testimony to Mize’s musical vision. I wore the disc out. Then I asked Mize, “By the time you released We Don’t Need did you have the songs together for Among The Grey?”

“Some of the songs on We Don’t Need were written after the songs on Among The Grey. I was hoping to release We Don’t Need early in the year of 2011 and Among The Grey would come out right after that, but Yep Rock decided when they came on board to help and we pushed We Don’t Need to January of 2012 and at that time I already recorded the bulk of Among The Grey. In the following months we finished the overdubs and the mixing.

“So we pushed Among The Grey to 2013. We added a new song--the title track. We used the extra studio time to wrap the whole record up. For several reasons we kept pushing it back and it came out in June of 2013. The wait was worth it. It was a huge undertaking as far as the time put into the record--especially the emotional energy. I wanted to be able to get it right and get it out to as many people as possible. So, it was worth the wait.”

Among The Grey contains more instrumentation, a murkier vibe with more musicians involved. Mize agreed. “Yeah, that was a conscious decision because before then I mainly had the experience of playing most of the instruments myself. On this record I had in mind what I wanted. I started playing with this woman Emily Hagihara who is just one of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever met. She can play everything. She’s a percussionist by trade, but she’s a killer bass player, singer and she can play everything else as well.”

I mentioned two of my favorite tracks from Among the Grey were “Through The Window Pane” and “Raymaker”, and Mize responded, “Well, those are the two in major keys of the whole record. I think all of the other songs are in minor keys." The lyrics "Through The Window Pane" retain a universal quality: "As the light shines through the window pane/I can see it in your eyes/It's been building for sometime now/It should be no big surprise."

Recently, Mize toured the midwest. I asked her if she has a new batch of songs ready to record. “Some, but you know, I’m not a super prolific writer. I’m not the kind of person that writes songs all the time. Usually when I get in that mode, I write a lot in a short period of time.

Among The Grey was such a big undertaking and took up so much of my brain space that honestly I’ve had a hard time moving forward as a writer until the record came out. Also, we’ve been playing some of those songs live for three years so we’re starting to have new material. This past week I wrote a couple of new songs that we can play on this new tour.

“It’s funny because I haven’t felt the need to write new songs yet since performing those because so many people are coming to my music for the first time so when I play a live show it’s probable a good portion of those people have never heard my music. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s new or old music to them. I hope to record some new stuff this winter. I have a couple of other projects going on as well.

“I hope to make it down south by early spring.”

Rest assured, Cheyenne Mize will be welcomed with open arms in the wild blue yonder...


Cheyenne Mize Official Site

Will Oldham & Cheyenne Mize: Among The Gold

Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Lie Down In The Light

Cheyenne Mize: We Don't Need

My Morning Jacket: Circuital


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