When you squeeze a bunch of like-minded musician friends into a room with a loose plan to play through some country tunes, they may just walk out deciding to form a band.
This, in a nutshell, is the origin story behind Loose Cattle, whose new album Heavy Lifting is an emotional mix of humorous originals and sensitive covers of some of their peers.
Fronted by ex-romantics Kimberly Kaye and two-time Tony winner Michael Cerveris, their years of Broadway and touring experience, backed by an assortment of Grammy-recognized musicians, make for a concentrated mixture of alt-country talent. The roster originated with Lorenzo Wolff on bass, Eddy Zweiback on drums, and with special appearances from fiddler Justin Smith and pedal steel player Jon Graboff. These days, they are joined by René Coman, Doug Garrison, and Rurik Nunan on fiddle.
Heavy Lifting was recorded in early 2020, and with an eerily timely intent: “We chose and wrote songs that spoke to us of the struggles we and our friends were going through trying to maintain hope and a sense of humor in the increasingly dark American landscape,” Cerveris says. “We had no idea what was coming.”
Kicking off with a cover of Vic Chesnutt’s “Aunt Avis,” a reflective and somber tone is set, introducing the listener to the satisfying blend of Cerveris’ magnetic vocals with Kaye’s own, spun sweet and fluffy like cotton candy. The tribute to Kaye’s late friend was chosen because, as she explained, “It’s hard to imagine anyone going through 2020 without laying awake in the dead of night asking ‘how do I possibly keep going’ at least once. Vic wrote a song about trying to keep stable when you feel untethered, and now every human we know has had that experience.”
Similar mellow undertones are felt on the solemn “West Virginia,” a song named after Cerveris’ home state, and the slow and waltzing “Filling Space,” which was released alongside a music video with faceless paper-people characters animated by Jason Shevchuk.
The energy flips in songs like “Redneck Blue Collar,” “Gasoline and Matches,” and “Sidewalk Chicken,” which are more playful and upbeat additions to the album. “Fuck You Jolene” is a mashup between Dolly Parton’s catchy chart-topper and the 2010 viral hit by CeeLo Green, creating a lavishly sassy and shamelessly bold combination—and a decisive final word to end the album.
They’ve wielded this sort of humorous edge before. Their sort of anti-Christmas album Seasonal Affective Disorder played for laughs with titles such as “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas)” to “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” whose music provide as much entertainment value as the names alone do.
We corralled Cerveris and Kaye long enough for them to talk more about Heavy Lifting, Broadway, and everything in between.
So how did the idea for Loose Cattle come to fruition, and how did the band all get together?
Michael Cerveris & Kimberly Kaye: Kim and I had both been in various bands over the years, and were frankly tired of that dynamic that happens a lot where you’ve had to put so much time and energy into the million things that come before you get to stand on stage to play that when you’re finally there, you’re almost too worn out to enjoy the thing you wanted to do most: play music for people. SO we thought we’d start a band playing country covers with a pick-up band of friends, never rehearse, always have lyrics and chord charts onstage, and mostly just play in our friends’ living rooms (hopefully, but not necessarily, invited).
Also, Michael and I were dating at the time and, clearly never having read a Fleetwood Mac bio, thought starting a band would be a great way to improve our relationship and keep us from disagreeing. Yeah. We learned a lot. Mostly we learned that we were infinitely better being best friends and bandmates than we were being a couple. That first incarnation of Loose Cattle started in New York and grew to include our friend Lorenzo Wolff (Restoration Sound Studio) on bass, Justin Smith (Defibrulators) on fiddle, Eddie Zweiback (Losers Lounge) on drums, and Gabriel Caplan on guitar, with Alex Harvey sometimes joining on mandolin and Jon Graboff (Laura Cantrell, Shooter Jennings) on pedal steel.
Over time, I started spending more and more time in New Orleans, a place I’d gone to for a job and just fell in love with. Eventually, Kim moved to New Orleans and after she got married, her life settled in there permanently. The more we were playing in New Orleans, the harder it was for the rest of the band to make it down all the time. Eventually, we realized we needed to base the band out of New Orleans. We’d met René Coman and Doug Garrison through their Iguanas bandmate Rod Hodges, who’d played on our Christmas album. Being fans of theirs from that band and then learning they’d also spent time as Alex Chilton’s rhythm section, we asked if they’d be interested in playing with us in their free time and, against their better instincts, they said yes. We’ve held them to it ever since. We met Rurik Nunan (Whiskey Gentry, Cracker) after asking around town for the best singing fiddle player with low standards. Rurik was top of everyone’s list.
It’s hard not to be intrigued with certain band names sometimes, and this one is pretty great. Is there any significant meaning or backstory to it?
KK: There’s a wonderful music and BBQ venue in NYC called Hill Country. Around the time we were forming the band, and deciding the band would be this loosely roaming assembly of amazing musicians, Michael and I were at Hill Country to see our friend Laura Cantrell play a beautiful Americana set. On the wall was a huge photograph of a Texas road sign that read: “Loose Livestock.” Apparently drivers in Texas need to be warned of some large, capable animals wandering the area freely and confidently…which seemed an apt description of the band we’d decided we wanted to form. It was the perfect name for our new musical herd.
But because alcohol and life, Michael immediately forgot the name and edited it in his head to “Loose Cattle,” and started calling the band such in emails and press listings. We’ve never been big on correcting small errors, and said “fuck it.” Michael’s brain fart became out permanent band name, and now we pay homage to that sign in Hill Country every time we’re in NYC.
In your origin story, it discusses how playing music together started out as a replacement for therapy in your relationship. Do you still find music to be therapeutic, maybe in different ways?
MC: So just to clarify, since Kim is hilariously militant about “nothing is a replacement for therapy, only therapy with a capable and certified practitioner is therapy:” We DID actually do the couples’ therapy, we just failed to graduate that process as a romantic couple, LOL. But absolutely and enthusiastically, YES, music is deeply therapeutic. There’s clinical research on it and everything. Hearing music you love releases dopamine and serotonin in the brain, both necessary chemicals for lasting happiness and calm. And singing together releases oxytocin, the same stuff that helps mothers and children, or sexual partners, form close bonds….whether you’re duetting or singing with the church choir you’re getting all doped up on oxytocin, and it feels wonderful. Plus there’s all the parts of it beyond the neurochem aspect. One of the reasons Michael and Kim still are family to each other even after breaking up IS the healing that making music together can facilitate. Hell, look at how many romantic couples in music history broke up but kept playing together: White Stripes, Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, X—the last is one of our personal band heroes, BTW, Exene and John Doe are heavy influences on Loose Cattle.
Music is so therapeutic that people who would never be able to make it work otherwise find themselves in these decades-long creative relationships, partnerships that longer than most marriages ever do. That’s part of the reason the pandemic was so traumatic for so many musicians, and music fans too. COVID cut us all off from our weekly or monthly group therapy sessions without warning, and we all suffered as a result. It’s not a replacement for true therapy with a certified professional, but it’s an essential “adjuvant therapy” for pretty much all of us.
What is it like being a part of the New Orleans and New York music scene? How do they differ, and which do you feel suits your band better?
KK & MC: One of the best descriptions of the difference between New York and New Orleans I ever heard goes something like this: In New York, everyone wants to know what’s the newest restaurant, the newest band, the newest club. In New Orleans, everyone wants to know what restaurant has been around the longest, what band has been doing their thing for years, what venue has the deepest roots. I think there’s some truth in that oversimplification.
We love both towns and have roots in both places (as well as Kim’s Freehold, NJ and Michael’s Huntington. WV childhood homes), but making music for the love of playing instead of the love of a career is a lot easier in New Orleans. I think mixing styles and genres and traditions is much more common in New Orleans and, because it’s a fairly small town at heart, the different scenes are more fluid and permeable. Everyone knows everyone and there’s a lot of musical cross pollination. And audiences seem more open, embracing, and less tribal than up north. That’s changed some as more people have migrated down and the vibe isn’t always quite as inclusive maybe as it was when I first got to town in 2007. But I think the band and our style has been growing and expanding because of the wealth of musical influences and friends we have here.
It feels like we’ve found a real musical home here in New Orleans, even though we don’t fit the traditional New Orleans music label. But most musicians I know figured out long ago that labels are about as meaningful as the ones on your beer that get stuck on your hand when it’s humid like it always is down here. It’s what’s in the bottle that matters.
How does your experience on Broadway affect your approach to music, such as recording or performing it?
MC: I guess I have a work ethic that comes from the rigors of Broadway, but what we do musically feels light years away from that world. I’m sure it’s confusing to fans how different my singing can be, and I think sometimes I’ve shied away from talking about it, because it gives some people an easy way to dismiss the band as a vanity project from yet another actor-with-a-band. Though I’ve somehow managed to pay my rent as an actor, I’ve mostly lost money playing music. That last fact alone seems like it should give me some cred as a musician. But I’m trying more to just embrace it all and worry less about being judged ‘authentic’ by people who don’t know me.
For the longest time, I found it so much easier to stand up and sing in front of people when I could hide in a character like I did on Broadway. Even though I’d played in bands as long as I’d ever acted, something about that anonymity and that mask made it easier to show my heart as a character onstage. Maybe David Bowie understood. Even in our band, I would find it so much easier to really let go in a cover than in a song I’d written.
Eventually, I started pretending that my songs were actually covers of some obscure singer songwriter, and then I could kind of trick myself into not wanting to hide my face when I sang. It’s still there some, though it’s so much better having Kim there to sing with. I’d rather sing harmonies with her than ever have to front a band on my own again. And in fact, my favorite songs are the ones where she sings and I can just play guitar and do harmonies. Don’t tell her, but I’m planning to sneak more of those into the next record. And writing together makes it feel better and easier, too.
You just released your new album, Heavy Lifting. What are you hoping listeners will take away from this collection of songs?
KK & MC: I think we’ve always gravitated to stories and songs of the people at the margins, the ones who have the least but somehow make the most of it. That’s often guided our choice in covers as well as our songwriting. When we started recording the album, it was pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, but it’s not like society was taking care of people at the margins magically better in The Before Times.
Our Christmas record from 2017, Seasonal Affective Disorder, was as much If We Make It Through December as it was Got To Get You Under My Tree. If anything, events of the last year and a half have been a real wake up call to all of us in the band that we want to and need to do more to call out inequality and injustice and support especially anyone having a rough time. And now that the entire planet has had a rough fucking time (though some decidedly more than others), I guess our biggest hope is that people would listen to the record and, besides being entertained, feel a little like the weight they’re carrying is something we’re sharing with them. We’re not telling anyone to cheer up. We’re saying, we know, it is as absolutely dark and hard as you think it is. But also we can waltz together and cry a little, or stomp the floor and shout together and sing our way to something better. It’s heavy lifting, but maybe we can start seeing the heavy, lifting.
If Heavy Lifting was inspired by “the increasingly dark American landscape,” when it comes to meaningful change, what sort of “heavy lifting” are you hoping to see?
KK: Loose Cattle has been fairly privileged overall—hard working, never handed a thing, never rich, but still privileged. Michael worked his way through Yale washing dishes in the dining hall for four years, but he still went to YALE and his parents to Juilliard. Rene and Doug are exceptional musicians, but plenty of exceptional musicians never get to tour with Alex Chilton or be a member of a band as respected as The Iguanas, like they have. And America LOVES stories like theirs! “Poor boys rich in talent bootstrap their way to success” narratives are the ones we binge on in this country, to the point of pretending millions of people struggling due to systemic failures don’t exist. But in the last year I’ve watched these incredibly talented men I make music with accept their privilege and go, “Oh wow. I thought things were hard for me, but they’ve been even harder for POCs, women, the disabled. Bootstrapping worked for me, but that doesn’t actually mean it works for everyone. How I can use my privilege to help, or at least not harm anyone?”
I’m a queer gal with serious physical disability, plus I’m on the spectrum. I’ve been sexually assaulted, and felt crushed under the weight of all that stuff at times. So I can barely articulate how healing it’s been to watch my band mates examine their biases, stay present during very uncomfortable conversations, make efforts to empathize with marginalized people, then outright advocate for marginalized folks. The American Reckoning has made them want to help, to share stories that too often go untold, and help their neighbors rather than blame “the other” for their problems. They speak truth to power, and support me fully when I’m working to advocate for MY communities. That right there—refusing to get sucked in to American Exceptionalism, deciding to help people who have not had it as easy —IS heavy lifting.
It would have been so easy for the guys in this band to exclude an atypical woman like me from the spotlight entirely, or ignore that we have issues like police brutality and class warfare which require activism right now. Instead they’re doing the same heavy lifting you see guys like The Drive-By Truckers, or Chris Stapleton doing, even if it makes other white guys (hell, and women) mad. If more people with that privilege would do the hard work and say, “Hey, I don’t care how we used to do it—we’re not gonna pretend bigotry and abuse aren’t a problem just so we can feel good about ourselves,” I think life in America could at least start feeling lighter for a whole lotta people.
Other than the more obvious Covid restrictions, what was the most challenging part of writing/recording this album, and who might’ve helped bring it to life?
MC & KK: The COVID stuff was a challenge, but the biggest challenge of making music in this time has been figuring out what place music had in our lives. The idea of what kind of work is essential really made us all take a hard look at ourselves and what we were running around worrying about. And we all had our moments of asking ourselves what the place of music was in our lives, not just career-wise, but in terms of who we are.
Through the pandemic, we kept connected remotely by continuing to work on this album, but also on one off covers (Bowie’s “Heroes” with friends from Lost Bayou Ramblers, and John Cale’s “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend” with Jay Gonzalez from Drive-By Truckers). We thought about adding those to the record, but they were part of a different universe somehow and we decided to leave the album intact. We’d initially planned to release Heavy Lifting in April 2020, but that came and went and we struggled with whether we should scrap it as a relic of an irrelevant past or embrace it as who we’ve been and work it into pointing in a direction we might want to go.
Rick G. Nelson at Marigny Studios in New Orleans was instrumental in helping us capture most of the record playing live together in the studio. Our old friend Lorenzo Wolff helped us bring it to life in his Restoration Studio in Brooklyn with overdubs from New Orleans’ John ‘Papa’ Gros on keyboards, Bennett Sullivan on banjo and Jon Graboff on pedal steel, and David Barbe gave a depth and coherence to our various flights of fancy with his legendary mixing skills at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, GA. And Greg Calbi did that magic mastering thing he does.
The music video for “Filling Space” seems to be telling a particular story visually. What purpose do the animations fulfill in enhancing the narrative?
KK & MC: With all our videos for this record, we just handed the songs off to animators and told them to go where their instincts take them. The whole fun is seeing your song reinterpreted and given back to you in a visual form. With “Filling Space”, we’d approached Jason Shevchuk after seeing his video for DBT’s “Tough To Let Go.” I think we were expecting something whimsical and melancholy. He came back with this whole computer graphic world that somehow combined a handmade feel with a desolate machine manufactured world.
Early on, he showed us images from a Swedish filmmaker, Roy Andersson, that he wanted to use as inspiration for these environments. It was so different from what we’d initially envisioned, but we could see Jason was getting at something even deeper in the song and we trusted him to run with his vision. The narrative thread is entirely Jason’s interpretation of Derek and Selda’s lyric, with a suggestion here and there from us. I think what we like most about it is the way you feel a strong narrative even if you can’t find all the words to describe it. Jason’s video takes this already emotional song and gives listeners and viewers a bunch of new access points to make the song part of their own narrative. We love it.
Do you plan to tour on behalf of the album or have select regional shows lined up? What else might fans look forward to from Loose Cattle?
MC & KK: Man, that’s the million dollar question. We’d love to tour the record, but we’re kind of in the middle of figuring how and where and when that’s going to be possible for acts at our level. The record was originally planned to coincide with festival dates we had in New Orleans and other places last year, all of which obviously never happened. We’re hoping to find slots in some festivals coming up, but as many of them are having to downsize, the less established acts are feeling the crunch.
So we’re hopeful that we can at least organize a few regional tours for ourselves and return to places like Nashville where we’ve loved playing (most recently at the Bluebird a few years back). And we’re already in writing mode for the next record. We’d like to get in the studio early next year, maybe. We’re feeling so grateful for each other in the band and really eager to have new things to share with people, ideally in the same room, one where the only screens are ones to keep the flies out.