Canty seeks to find discovery once more
NORTHAMPTON — In February 2015, San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic Aidin Vaziri declared that singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty was "ready to be discovered" following the release of her album, "Reckless Skyline."
But Canty is still waiting to realize that abstract level of recognition. In the meantime, she's managing her expectations.
"We have some heroes and stars in our folk-y or bluegrass or Americana world, whatever you want to call it. To me, they are the leading lights of a generation, and most people wouldn't even know their names," the Proctor, Vt., native told The Eagle during a telephone interview on Tuesday. "But these are folks who are creating some of the best art, some of the most important creators that I know, [and] I'm on an even lower rung than they are as far as it comes to being discoverable."
Canty is certainly moving up the ladder. In January, she made a Rolling Stone list of "10 New Country Artists You Need to Know" before the release of her latest record, "Motel Bouquet," on March 30.
"Thoughtfully constructed alt-folk with just the right amount of twang," Brittney McKenna wrote of Canty's sound in the piece.
Still, Canty remains grounded. Instead of staring down the steep climb to commercial success, the 36-year-old chooses to focus on writing good songs and touring behind them. On Friday, April 27, she'll play The Parlor Room in Northampton with the Punch Brothers' Noam Pikelny, who produced "Motel Bouquet." It's her first Northeast trip in awhile, according to Canty.
"There's a line in one of my songs, it's like, 'I wish gone meant forgotten.' I hope that doesn't apply to me," she said.
Beyond her Vermont roots, Canty attended Williams College, where a different kind of discovery led her down a musical path. She was more of an athlete than a musician during her youth, joining soccer, track and basketball teams. At Williams, she competed in the heptathlon. She had visited other colleges but soon fell for the Williamstown institution.
"I just loved the quirkiness and friendliness at Williams and then how active and outdoors-y everyone was," she recalled.
Canty majored in biology. But at one point early in her college career, she decided to take a winter study songwriting course with Bernice Lewis. She had participated in band and chorus growing up, and she owned an acoustic guitar.
"I love singing folk-ier songs, so I thought, 'Well, I'll give that a shot,'" she said. "And I loved it."
"I felt like she came to me very close to fully formed," Lewis, the artist associate in vocal/songwriting at Williams, said by phone on Tuesday, citing Canty's vocal chops and writing ability.
Canty still uses tactics Lewis taught in that course, calling her "a great teacher."
"One of the things Bernice said that I always keep around is the idea of furniture in your songs," Canty recalled. "It's one of her own ideas, I believe. If you're singing, 'I love you,' she would always say, 'Don't tell me that! Tell me what tree you're looking at. Tell me what chair is in the room. Put some furniture in that song. I don't want to just hear about feelings and navel-gazing.' So, I loved that sensibility of hers, and it's just good writing advice in general."
The songwriting course didn't inspire Canty to become a music major, but she played open mics and made sure to keep music in her life during her time in Williamstown. She graduated in 2004 and subsequently moved to New York City.
"I didn't leave Williams with the feeling that, 'I am going to be a singer-songwriter. I am going to be an artist, and that's all I'm going to do.' I left feeling like, 'Wow, I love music, and I want to go live in a city that has a lot of music in it. And I want to try to figure out how to do that more. But I didn't think that was a practical job. I didn't even know how it could be a job," she said.
She initially worked on the music TV series, "Live from the Artists Den." As the now critically acclaimed program's first employee, Canty set up the performances, but didn't have much time to work on her own tunes.
"When you're setting up a show for Patty Griffin, and you're just a kid, it's hard to go home and write a song after you've been working for the so-called real artists," she said.
After two years there, she took a job at an environmental sustainability consulting firm, then called GreenOrder.
"It felt like Williams, part two," she said. "It was a lot of wicked smart, really passionate, curious people, who were driven because they wanted to make the world a better place. It was just great to work with those folks. But it was definitely a job with a capital 'j.' I was working in cubicles and a suit, and giving presentations and spreadsheets, and then I would go sing backup. I would go put on my own show at a club in Rockwood Music Hall. And it just felt like, 'These lives do not work well together.' So, I finally made the leap and quit."
That was 2009. Canty released "Golden Hour" in 2012 before Kickstarter-funded "Reckless Skyline" emerged in January 2015. She moved to Nashville shortly after that. New York wasn't the best fit for her musical career, according to Lewis, who had kept in touch with her former student.
"She was just so frustrated on how to make it," Lewis said.
But Canty has found a home in Nashville.
"I love it here," Canty said.
"She's really nailed it in Nashville," Lewis said.
Superficially, the move might appear to signal that Canty's sound is shifting more toward country.
"It brings me closer in other people's eyes and further in Nashville's eyes probably," Canty said. "I wear cowboy boots because they're practical and comfortable."
At times, "Motel Bouquet" evokes country, but Canty doesn't necessarily ascribe that label to her music.
"A song can be dressed up in any number of ways, and if you put pedal steel and fiddle on it, like I have on this record, then you're bound to be called country, especially if it's coming out of Nashville," she said. "But I do think the current country sounds and the current country world have very little to do with the type of music I listen to or like, and I don't think anyone would put me in that category. They're calling it Americana right now."
Canty's time on the road between albums greatly influenced her latest full-length. She opens "Motel" by singing, "In a motel with a bouquet in the ice pail." She saw this arrangement during a stay in California.
"The thing about songs is, a lot of the images are real. The character in the song isn't always me. That's the confusing thing about being a singer and a songwriter, and singing your own songs. People often think you're singing about your own sorrow or your own story. It's not the case," Canty said.
Canty recorded the album with Pikelny, Stuart Duncan and Aoife O'Donovan, who was on backing vocals.
"She is the most amazing singer. I cannot believe she's supporting me on this," Canty said of O'Donovan.
Canty praised all of the musicians who collaborated with her.
"They are like the stars of their world," she said.
Thanks to her experiences in Williamstown, Canty may soon be held in the same regard.
"The fact that I became a musician after going to Williams — I don't know if I would've if I went to a music school. For me, I was able to develop the love in it without it becoming something I was supposed to do or the future I was pursuing. It was just the outlet. ... Williams doesn't really encourage you to get stuck on a track. They encourage you to have as many tools in your kit as possible. I think that's really the interdisciplinary nature of the way the school's set up and just the way my mind works. The more I'm involved in that doesn't seem to connect, the more I see the connections between it, and the sharper I see the world."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
Who: Caitlin Canty with Noam Pikelny
When: Friday, April 27, at 9:15 p.m. (doors at 8:50)
Where: The Parlor Room, 32 Masonic St., Northampton
Tickets: $20 in advance; $25 at the door
Reservations/Information: 413-923-2800; ticketfly.com
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