Life holds less for the timid. Rather than accept the short end, Seattle folk singer/songwriter Sera Cahoone made a change. "First years I ever played my songs for anyone, my back was toward them and I sang down to the ground / Got so tired of being nervous that I finally turned around," she sings on "Turned Around" the moving first track of her fourth album, From Where I Started (Lady Muleskinner Records, March 2017).
It's an album rich in change and self-possession. Not only did Cahoone play all the drums herself—she had previously entered the studio with a band in tow—but self-released the record. Unlike Deer Creek Canyon (Sub Pop, 2012), it's not so much an album about going home as it is finding a place or a way to begin—perhaps again. That's sort of why it's been five years since her last release.
"I wasn't even sure if I was going to put out another record. It's these sorts of ups and downs and figuring out what I was doing in life," she said. "I have grown up a lot and I think matured, and that comes through on this record, too. I just wanted to do it how I wanted to do it and I think that there's a sense of maturity in that and a sense of just figuring out myself and life, you know?"
Cahoone grew up in Littleton, Colo., snowboarding, selling boards at a local shop and playing drums in bands.
"I knew from a very early age that I was pretty obsessed with music. I would constantly watch music videos and, you know, want to be on stage and playing in front of people," she said. "I was extremely shy as a kid, so it's pretty funny. Though I was a drummer, so I was in the background. But coming up to the front took a while for me to do."
"A lot of my guitar playing is very rhythmic. It's pretty simple, and a lot of my guitar goes right with the drums," she said. "Right when I write something I will want to get behind the drums and put some stuff to it and see where it goes."
If it was difficult for Cahoone to muster the courage to step out front, she went about it in a determined manner. At 21, she packed up and moved to Seattle where she began frequenting open mics.
"It's one of those things where I had played drums forever. I didn't even bring my drums. I just really wanted to force myself to play in front of people in a different way and get over my shyness," she said. "So going to open mics and not knowing anybody was completely scary but it definitely helped me a lot."
While Cahoone continued to hone her songcraft under the radar, she wound up playing drums in chamber rock outfit Carissa's Wierd, whose principal songwriters went on to form Band of Horses.
Cahoone played drums on Band of Horses' first album in 2005 before releasing her self-titled debut Deer Creek Canyon, which became a surprise sensation. NPR picked the album as one of the 10 best of the year and Seattle public radio station KEXP was a big supporter.
"I always knew I wanted to release a record of my own and play all the drums, but I really didn't know what to expect; I didn't really expect much. Before I even had the record ready I sent KEXP a demo of a few songs, maybe thinking they might play it," she said.
The station did play it, of course, and "suddenly everyone was, 'Where's the record?' 'I don't know!' So, it was kind of a crazy thing to happen, and, yeah, they played a huge part in my success," she added.
Now 41 and two decades removed from her Seattle move, Cahoone is stepping comfortably into adulthood with her boldest, warmest release. In a departure from the delicacy of prior releases, From Where I Started exchanges mystery for assurance.
On "Up To Me," Cahoone announces her intent to be a "lover like no other" but also recognizes that's just one direction on a two-way street: "It's really not up to me," she sings. The searching hip-swinging mountain shuffle "Time to Give" is looking for a similar exchange of time. The loping pedal steel peals of "Better Woman" find Cahoone promising to "step up," while acknowledging with heavy regret on "Tables Turned" that she has "a lot to give, but I have a lot to learn."
"I tried different stuff and self-released this album, so it feels kind of free," she said. "I did know I wanted to play all the drums on the album and maybe keep it more together. Bring in some different instruments. I recorded it differently, I did a lot of things different, and it is a much more personal album in a lot of ways, too."
Part of growing up is leaving things behind and shedding old skin. Cahoone is still a prophet of sweet tender ache, but she's bringing more spice to the stew.
"I think that's more of it, I just needed to change up something," she said. "You don't want to do the same thing."