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The 'Magical Realism' Of Vetiver

Andy Cabic, the singer/songwriter and main creative force behind Vetiver's psychedelic folk, never meant to be a folksinger. An early fan of The Replacements, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, he first wrote for an experimental rock band called the Raymond Brake in the mid-1990s. Yet when he moved from North Carolina to San Francisco, Cabic unexpectedly found himself forced to unplug and, as a result, ended up in a kind of "new folk" bag.

"When I moved out here, I didn't have an amp and my electric guitar wasn't working well," he said, in a recent phone interview. "I did have an acoustic guitar that was given to me by a friend. I continued writing songs on that, and the range and the way the melody moved along changed because of how I was writing them on the acoustic guitar."

Cabic's songs seemed, to him, intensely different from his earlier work, eerily familiar even while he was writing them, as if they tapped into some idyllic past that he himself had never experienced. Indeed, the image-laden cuts on Vetiver's first album, out now on DiCristina Records, feel like rediscovered traditional songs that are, paradoxically, shot through with images of modern life. Cabic said that the very differentness of his new batch of songs made it hard for him to consider playing them live at first. Then, as he began to connect with more San Francisco-based musicians — including violinist Jim Gaylord, whom he had known in North Carolina, cellist Alissa Anderson and singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart — the songs began to take on their present shape, dense with strings and richly instrumented. "We kept broadening the scope of the songs," Cabic said.

Cabic and Banhart, who now live in the same house, began writing songs together, collaborating on the Latin-guitared "Los Pajaros del Rio" and the rollicking, joyous "Amour Fou." "We just get in the same room and start playing — it's pretty natural," said Cabic of the duo's songwriting style. "'Los Pajaros del Rio' was a song that I already had the melody for, and Dev helped me write the lyrics. 'Amour Fou' was just sort of spontaneous combustion that we came up with together."

Banhart, who named "When the Sun Shone on Vetiver" (from his current album, Rejoicing in the Hands) after Cabic's band, says that Cabic is one of his favorite songwriters. "He's the only person I can actually write songs with," Banhart explained. "He's the closest thing to Neil Young that I know...his songs are that exquisite."

In addition to Gaylord, Anderson and Banhart, who appear on most of the album's songs, Cabic drew strong contributions from several other well-known artists. "Amerlie" features San Francisco-based songwriter Joanna Newsom on harp. Colm O'Ciosoig of My Bloody Valentine plays drums on two tracks. Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star sings backup on the country-inflected "Angels Share," the album's only real narrative track.

Cabic admitted that he has, in the past, been more comfortable writing imagistic, stream-of-conscious tracks like "Luna Sea," but for "Angels Share" decided to try to tell more of a story, in this case, a tale of domestic abuse. "It's more of a challenge to write [a narrative] song," he explained. "It was sort of an exercise that I wanted to do that. I tried to match the lyrics to the song, to get the proper words for the melody, and that song seemed to want a narrative, so I worked to come up with one."

The album was recorded by Thom Monahan, who does production for the Pernice Brothers and others, in a series of friends' apartments around the Bay Area. Monahan recorded the basic tracks on his laptop, then worked with them while he was on tour with the Pernice Brothers. The final remix was done in New York City.

Vetiver will tour the U.S. with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsome in June and July, starting in Portland, Oregon on June 4th and finishing in San Francisco on July 11th at the Great American Music Hall. Once that's finished, Cabic said, he’ll be working on new songs for Vetiver, as well as his other band, the Neu-influenced dance-rock quartet Tussle. Further out, he and Banhart hope to record another album together, paying tribute to the Brazilian music — Caetano Veloso, Jorge Ben and others — that both of them love.

Asked to describe what's so compelling about Veloso, Cabic sounds like he could be describing his own music, saying, "Caetano's...an amazing lyricist...he uses a lot of imagistic stuff and almost...magical realism."

He added that the Brazilians' fresh take on traditional sounds is also compelling. "They rework the songs of other composers and songwriters from their country really well. It's always amazing to hear them reinvent these songs and take them further." — Jennifer Kelly [Monday, May 24, 2004]

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