Caitlin Sherman is a Seattle-based singer-songwriter who combines numerous influences and distills them into a devilish cocktail of dark yet intensely alluring songs. Sherman is a veteran musician, having collaborated with numerous artists over the years such as Evening Bell and Slow Skate. In addition to her tightly honed musical chops, Sherman has also held other important life roles such as girlfriend and wife — but has stepped away from both to focus on her musical career.
Sherman’s latest release, Death to the Damsel, features a series of songs that transport the listener to the land of smoky bars and sizable straight shots of whiskey. The lyrics are tinged with pain and regret for years gone past in a haze of numbness, as Sherman sings, “Those days of endless charm and hidden heat / Are all long gone”. Each song ties back into this theme, truly driving home the point of Sherman’s newfound independence and choice of direction in her career and life.
There is an intense, yet tightly-restrained aspect to Sherman’s voice. Much of her vocal delivery is very delicate and intimate, but then Sherman will pivot and show her ability to belt out a high vocal line. Additionally, Sherman enjoys playing with expectations and experimenting with lyrical and vocal stylistic delivery combinations that result in very cool effects for the listener.
Sherman has also enlisted the help of some musical cohorts, one being longtime friend Colin J Nelson, who produced, mixed, and engineered the album in his Fremont studio Her Car. Jason Merculief (J Tillman, Jesse Sykes, & The Sweet Hereafter) provides the drums, Bill Patton (Fleet Foxes, J. Tillman) the guitar, and Jesse Harmonson (Jamie Wyatt, The Crying Shame) the bass for this endeavor.
Death to the Damsel is out now on all major streaming platforms, and is available for purchase via Caitlin Sherman’s Bandwear Shop.
Music Mecca: How important has the Seattle music scene been to you, and what makes it special?
Caitlin Sherman: Oh my city. She’s a lovely beast. Of course being born in Seattle, and on and off again growing up in the Northwest, when grunge hit it was huge. And when I first moved to the city as a teenager, the Teen Dance Ordinance was in effect. There was hardly anywhere to go and see shows let alone play them as an under-ager. It was a bleak time. Vera and Soundoff! thankfully came along but wouldn’t ya know my luck, that was after I had already turned 21. So before that it was crazy coffee shop open mics. One in particular was at a spot called Coffe Messiah in Capitol Hill. It was called “Midnight Mass” and was hosted by a drag queen named Sylvia. She would open the show with a performance of “Is That All Their Is” and then refer to the sign-up sheet. There wasn’t a piano, I didn’t own a keyboard and I wasn’t comfortable playing guitar so I would just sing.
Next up was studying at Cornish College of The Arts. I was very fortunate in that I got to create my own music major. I studied Jazz and classical, Brazilian music, Gamelan, experimental electronic music and arranging. I wanted to absorb as much as I could and got in and out of there in 2 1/2 years. And then came the journey to figure out just what I wanted to do with all of that. I made ambient and electronic music, sang back-ups for folk and country artists, got into the underground honky tonk dance scene. Stylistically I experimented a lot, but always aimed to keep the song as the centerpiece.
The musical variation in Seattle was key to me being able to explore and I’m happy to see the scenes intermingle more than I ever thought they did before. That’s how you really have a strong music community in a city, when performers and players don’t feel exclusive to one set neighborhood or genre. Not to say everyone needs to play every style, but sharing bills or getting out to shows or collaborating outside the box is something I’ve always adored. Something I saw a lot of when I was fortune to make a couple of very early on album in Minneapolis.
MM: What’s the significance of your album title, Death to the Damsel?
CS: Music has and always will be my ultimate coping mechanism for early life trauma and depression. Early on, I also leaned on great attempts to create a “normal” “stable” life to overcompensate and it just ultimately wasn’t my path. Young marriage etc. I allowed myself to be the damsel tied to the train tracks holding me down to a path I felt helplessly attached to. Waiting for someone or something to free me. But the more I lost, the passing of loved ones, my sense of self had slipped away, absorbed by these partnerships. As they disintegrated, I was still stuck on this track I didn’t lay down. There will be no White Knight to save you. Death to that damsel role. Untie yourself.
MM: What’s the primary vision and inspiration behind this album?
CS: Musically I wanted a set instrumentation. Nothing too big since it was done on a budget and there’s no sense in trying to make something into something it’s not. So I stuck to piano and guitar, had drums (Jason Merculief), bass (Jesse Harmonson) and electric guitar (Bill Patton). And then told Colin J Nelson (Her Car) that I wanted it to sound like Mind Games. Heartbreak and shedding old skin were the big themes. How to process the loss of two back to back romantic/creative partnerships (Slow Skate with my ex husband, Evening Bell with my ex boyfriend). This is the first album under my own name and the first time I fully embraced myself as a “real” musician. And then the first steps into being single for really the first time in my life. It’s the dark comedy of my life.
MM: What was the songwriting process like behind Death to the Damsel?
CS: It began as an EP. Hart Kingsbery (Evening Bell partner) and I had just split. I moved into a weird old studio apartment where the walls were so thin I couldn’t play my treasured upright grand piano. So I had just recently acquired this student model 60s nylon string (I have unfortunately small hands and fingers) and wrote like crazy. Wrote quietly like crazy. At the time Evening Bell was still a band but I knew I needed something to channel the life shift through. So I called my friend Colin J Nelson, who I’ve known since I was a teen when we were both classical voice majors. Asked if he would make a Caitlin Sherman EP. His reply: “I’ve only been waiting forever to do that”. We recorded six songs. Some months later Evening Bell officially disbanded and I left for a trip to Nashville. And had that “I’m a lifer” moment. So I wrote 4 more songs and got to work. Death To The Damsel became this sort of mantra for this new solo path.
MM: What’s the central value or message you want to communicate to your audience with this particular album?
CS: I adore that both women and men have been coming up to me and telling me how much my story relates to them. Abuse. Divorce. Loss. I always called it a “similar scar” – a love of humanity when all is said and done. And the humor in it all. A sort of burn it all down and try again ethos.
MM: Do you typically write about your life, or write more fiction in your songs?
CS: Well yes my life, even if it is somewhat cloaked in metaphor. Death To The Damsel is specifically a very personal album, but I’ve always drawn from either my own life or an experience I was tied to some how. Going back to music being a coping mechanism has something to do with that I suppose. But I have time to time written about historical figures. Two Slow Skate songs are about historic figures. “From The Cradle To The Purse” about Ann Boleyn, “Ella & Jim” about Ella Watson, the first known cowgirl. And looking back, how fitting! Ha! Two women taken down by men afraid of their power.
MM: Who are some primary musical influences that inspire your current sound?
CS: Holley Golightly, Townes van Zandt, Patti Smith, Mind Games era John Lennon, Satie, Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield, Leonard Cohen, PJ Harvey, Gene Clark, Silver Jews, Julee Cruise
MM: What have been the highlights of your musical career so far?
CS: Opening for Wanda Jackson. Opening for Orville Peck. Getting asked to jump on stage and sing for an encore with Kyle Craft. Having Jesse Sykes recommend my album and be a mentor of sorts. Singing vocals for a couple of songs with electronic producer Lusine. Having my debut solo album come out on vinyl.
MM: Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
CS: To be working on my third (or fourth!) album with a big room sound. Strings, orchestral stuff, all the bigger budget things I can’t do yet. With purpose of course. Scott Walker dreams…
MM: What’s one thing you want to accomplish this year, musically or otherwise?
CS: At the moment – GET A VAN. Be on the road as much as possible. Get over to Europe and instantly cry about it since I’ve never been and play shows but also nerd out on history so hardcore that folks will have that “this poor lady and her crazy need for facts but she looks so happy about it don’t tell her no one cares” look in their eye.