San Francisco indie-folk act Vetiver has broadened its horizons across six albums. Since the self-titled 2004 debut, Vetiver's auteur Andy Cabic has explored the dreamy, spacey and freakier corners of psych-folk, slowly widened the instrumental palette, and with Complete Strangers (2015), even used samples and recording techniques as seeds to grow the album's arrangements before bringing in live players to record them. It seems fitting that, 15 years later, Cabic returns to his acoustic roots for his seventh album, Up on High.
It's a product of the circumstances—like so much of life—that Cabic just had to roll with. Moving twice in the past year, much of the time was spent with his stuff still in boxes.
"My life was in disarray after living in the same place for 12 years. And so the one sort of thing I had at my ready was an acoustic guitar," said Cabic, who will play the Olympic Venue Wednesday, Nov. 13. "It's a return to the songs being written on acoustic guitar which is like they were in the early days... and [because of] the nature of the songs, I had them all sort of completely formed when I was ready to get going on the recording. I could tell from the work and the direction of these songs. I could just play them; I didn't need layers and other ideas to realize them."
Cabic teamed (again) with longtime producer/friend Thom Monahan to record the songs in a house rather than an expensive studio, returning to a straightforward DIY approach after the more involved process of Complete Strangers.
"That record started with just Thom and I hanging out," Cabic said. There was lots of layering and you know, playing around with studio sort of like creation, whether it's keyboards or in samples. We did all kinds of weird methods to get a song going. Then, once we had the sort of outline of the arrangements sorted out, we booked studio time and I got musicians together."
The result is a bright, airy and surprisingly tidy record that leaves behind the sparse, sometimes-awkward, freaky folk innocence of Vetiver's first couple of releases while retaining that spirit, striking a more measured tone that refracts the early wonder into something grounded without being jaundiced. Take the opening track, "The Living End," in which Cabic reflects on how he's "far from where I began... lost, but I know I'm nearer now," still dedicated to the process of "keeping one step ahead of defeat / drifting like a notion down the street."
The jangly rush of "Swaying" harkens back to Murmur-era R.E.M., while strummy sidling, "Filigree" shimmers like a soft-focus California sunset from the bluffs overlooking the sea. The album's breezy charms suggest a redwood line highway ride drive up the coast, all sunshine and nature, cares like exhaust out the tailpipe.
But if there's a generally upbeat tone that runs from "All We Could Want" and "Lost (In Your Eyes)" through and the title track, there's also a darker side that seems to suggest without risks can come no rewards. "You make it easy to not look down," he sings on the title track. "Our eyes locked face to face, high wire love all risk and grace."
"My hope is that I don't have a song that's one-dimensional. I want to have a song that contains a few different emotions and changes from chorus to the bridge to the verse," said Cabic. "I'd like to have something that is multi-dimensional and not just all-in on one aspect."
Cabic moved to San Francisco 20 years ago after spending his life on the East Coast. He grew up in Virginia and attended school at UNC-Greensboro, playing noisy indie rock guitar while there. He didn't necessarily set out to become a folk artist, but shortly before he moved someone gave him an acoustic guitar, and living in cramped quarters in a San Francisco closet, it's what he had available.
"At the time I worked for Kinko's, and Kinko's was like the civilian military: You could, like, basically transfer to other Kinko's branches in the country," Cabic recalled. "So I transfer [to] working in SF, and at the time I was living in two hall closets. One kept my stuff and the other one was just big enough for a mattress. And I paid $150.
"So it was like the risk level was very low," he added. "And I was moving in with friends like, 'Okay, let's just try this. I have no idea.' I just knew I had a job."
Some of his roommates at the time were attending art school, and that's how he met art school dropout and onetime collaborator/bandmate (now major label artist) Devendra Banhart. The presence of Banhart and other curious musical minds helped the Bay become a nexus for folky explorations in the early aughts.
"I'm a little older than everybody of that era somewhat and I think that gave me some sense of myself as opposed to those still finding themselves a little bit at that point," Cabic said.
Playing acoustic in those early days opened him to a new way of making music and allowed him to break with electric guitar, as he began to realize that whatever his music tastes, some styles weren't necessarily a great fit.
"That was the start of me learning how to play an acoustic guitar and sort of realizing that it suited my voice a lot better," he says. "I was trying to sing loud to match the volume of our group, but really, I'm a quiet voice singer and it's smooth. It suits what I'm able to do if I just you know have the volume match to it."
Cabic has come to realize he likes the challenge of searching for new ways to express himself as opposed to relying on new collaborators to maintain freshness.
"It's easier and maybe more conducive to getting people's attention to just spin out different side projects with new names and have the benefit of novelty with each idea, but that didn't seem as interesting to me," he said.