A Musical Polymath Embraces Her Inner Drummer

Written by January 26th, 2012 at 10:25 am

On Louisville native Cheyenne Marie Mize’s new EP, We Don’t Need, there’s tension between pretty sounds and harsh ones, like raunchy electric guitars juxtaposed next to Mize’s often-alluring voice. On “Call Me Beautiful,” she seems to make light of that very characteristic when she sings, “Don’t call me beautiful, you don’t know how ugly I can be.”

Mize’s new EP is a world where layered Radiohead-esque digital beats and blips find a place next to the hypnotic rhythms Mize learned from modal fiddling. Though she admits that the EP is “six songs that don’t necessarily fit together,” maybe what does tie them together, after all, is her fascination with rhythm.

Some songs seem to pick up where Mize’s debut full-length, Before Lately, left off. There’s the piano-romp “Going Under,” which recalls the West Coast hippie soul of Jenny Lewis. There are two electric guitar-driven rockers—“Keep It” and “It Lingers”—that find Mize in more traditional rock arrangements, along with drums, a fuzz bass, or a ‘60s-sounding organ.

The EP’s last song, “Back Around,” with its liquid, lulling post-rock guitar and choppy vocal samples, is the clearest homage to the Radiohead side of Mize, who cites the group as a major influence. She’s got the chops to pull it off too—putting her own stamp on the tune when a plaintive violin comes in.

But before Mize was a rocker, she studied classical violin and played in orchestras. She admits to leading somewhat of a double life even then. At home, she’d be listening to classic rock, Radiohead and Bjork, while at school she’d play symphonies and sonatas.

At a certain point, though, it was time to let the rocker out. Mize began playing traditional music and learning fiddle, and playing with a diverse range of Louisville bands like The Fervor and Trophy Wives.

“The hardest part was breaking away from written music, from the page,” Mize says about leaving classical. “The first time someone tells you to just play something and you don’t have something in front of you telling you what to play, you’re kind of clueless. That’s hard for people to understand unless they’ve been classically trained. It’s a really daunting task if you don’t have anyone telling you what to play. It was definitely a long process.”

In 2009, Mize was tapped to join Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy touring band, as they traversed the U.S., Canada, and Europe for the Lie Down In The Light tour. In April 2010, Oldham and Mize recorded and released a small set of 19th and 20th century parlor songs called Among The Gold. Mize had been researching tunes from the era for her music therapy classes and was struck by how beautiful they were. Back in the parlor song era, Mize says, “the only way to share music was to sit around and play for each other. That tradition is lost in so many ways.”

Though she says the parlor song project did not influence her songwriting any more than other types of music she listens to, she says she was struck by the different chord progressions and sounds in the parlor song catalog. “[They are] a little more complex in some ways, and simple in other ways,” Mize says.

But, if you only knew about Mize from her parlor song project, or even Before Lately for that matter, you might not have anticipated the opening song from We Don’t Need, “Wishing Well.” It is sparse and rhythmic, with lyrics that are more rapped than sung. Mize wrote it one night on a drive back to Louisville, pounding the rhythms on her car’s steering wheel to keep herself awake. Instead of fleshing out the song with other instruments, she left it true to its origin, with only vocal and drums.

“It was fun to do a song that wasn’t beholden to those other instruments,” says Mize. “There is a drum kit and a lot of overdubs I did in my living room—beating on a guitar, shaker, stomps and claps, a pot—I was definitely using a kitchen utensil at one point. I was trying to find a lot of different timbres and ways the little rhythms fit together.”

Mize says she could sit around and make up rhythm parts all day long. It might be a far cry from classical violin, but she seems like she’s on to something.

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