Cahalen & Eli interview, new album release

Mike Costello's woodcut features on the album cover

As regular readers will already know, I’m a huge fan of Seattle-based duo Cahalen Morrison and Eli West. I stumbled upon their music back in early 2011 and was knocked out by the quality of their musicianship, their gorgeous harmony singing and Cahalen’s superbly crafted original songs and tunes. Their new album Our Lady of the Tall Trees makes its official debut at their CD release party in Seattle today, and I look forward to getting hold of a copy soon! Back in July, they played a sold-out gig at The Live Room in Saltaire as part of their UK tour (see my concert review on TLR’s site here) and I was lucky enough do a short interview with the lads.

You’re in the middle of your second UK tour – how’s it going so far?

Cahalen: So far, so good! We’ve done nine shows so far and they’ve all been very well received and pretty well attended, so it’s been a lot of fun.

Going back a little, how did the two of you come to be playing music together?

Eli: Well, we both had our own very different projects prior to meeting. There was a natural closure on what I was doing, and Cahalen had been flying solo for a while when he came to Seattle to see his sister. While he was in town, a mutual friend said we should get together and play some music.

That sounds like serendipity! Your first album, The Holy Coming of the Storm, came out in late 2010. Tell me a bit about the recording of that.

Cahalen: That was a really fun project; the first really big studio project for both of us, and it was produced by Matt Flinner. It was a really good experience, very challenging but we were surrounded by incredibly helpful and musical people, so that was really good. 

I would say that you’re not straight ahead bluegrass but that your music certainly has elements of old time and bluegrass. Have you spent time playing traditional songs and tunes? Which artists have influenced your style?

Cahalen: Well, I spent time when I was younger playing traditional music, mostly old time, with my dad who plays fiddle and guitar, so I grew up playing some of that stuff with him. My dad listened to a lot of Doc Watson, Norman Blake and Hot Rize, and he also listened to a bunch of cool country blues like Rory Block and Mississippi John Hurt, so my background is fairly varied as far as that stuff goes. Of late I have been playing mostly original material.

Eli:  I’m more recent to the genre; it’s been about twelve years. I was always pretty musical growing up, not from a musical family though they were very supportive of me, especially my mom, getting me to practise and helping me to see the rewards of doing that. I started out on violin at first, then I switched to guitar aged around nine or ten and I’ve been pursuing that since. 

For me, the blend of your two voices makes your music particularly special. Is harmony singing something you have both done before, or something that has come to the fore since you got together?

Cahalen: I’m gonna throw that over to Eli. I’ve been a singer for a long time but I’ve always been playing my own stuff, so I never actually learned how to sing, I just made it up as I went along. I don’t consider myself a harmony singer very much at all, whereas Eli, as you know, is a phenomenal harmony singer.

Eli: It works really well with Cahalen, I don’t know if that’s a personality thing. But before this duo, I was in another band where I was just singing lead and no-one else sang, and I always felt that void, that extra layer that was missing. So I feel like I am a recent harmony singer. I’ve been quite proud, since I’m not much of a songwriter, to own that area of our duo. For better or worse, some of the stuff I’ve been coming up with is quite strange in terms of the chord progressions and rhythms…

From the reviews I’ve seen, you get particular praise for the harmony singing element of the music, so you must be doing something right!

Cahalen: I would also say that since we haven’t both been doing it for ever, I feel like we’re not locked into any sort of routines, rules or tradition either.

Eli: That’s also an extension of the reality of our geography. We’re not really part of a certain scene. You’ll be well aware of the Nashville scene, and the Boston scene. We’re just free to do our own thing.

During Sunday’s concert in Saltaire, you played a number of songs from your upcoming second album, Our Lady of the Tall Trees (or OLOTTT, as I have coined it) so tell us how that’s coming along.

Cahalen: I like it…we’re actually going to shorten the title to OLOTTT, and let people infer for themselves what that might mean. The album’s coming along really well, we just yesterday got the master through, so it’s mixed and mastered and the audio is ready to go, so that’s exciting. We did it in the same studio as we did the last one, up in Fort Collins, Colorado. We used the same engineer, Aaron Youngberg and we also employed Matt Flinner again to help produce it, so he was there for a couple of days and it was really fun to have him around – and helpful!

Are you going to feature a mix of originals and traditional songs again this time?

Eli: There are maybe three or four traditional songs, or ones written by other people, mixed in with Cahalan’s originals this time. Cahalen also wrote a set of tunes that’s really fun to play, called Pot Luck Dinner and Vicco Returns from Spain. Also, I was recently turned on to a contemporary songwriter called Gary Harrison, so there’s also a tune of his called Red Prairie Dawn on the record.

I understand you’ve been on the road solidly for the past year or two, so do you tend to write on the road or did you have material already written for the second album?

Cahalen: I did a three-year stint without a home and just basically lived in my car and toured all over the country. So I think that taught me how to write on the road and to always have a little notebook of some sort. Before cell phones got really fancy, I used to call myself and leave messages of little tunes and such. So that kind of taught me how to write on the road.

We met you last winter when you were touring over in Germany as part of the Bluegrass Jamboree line-up. How was that, it must have been a bit different from the usual duo touring experience?

Cahalen: That was fairly otherworldly as far as I was concerned. I’ve never done anything like that before. We were on a big tour bus for20 days, with a show every day, on a triple bill with Della Mae and The Deadly Gentlemen, a travelling American freak show! Yeah, it was an incredible experience, we were playing to really big theatres and clubs, and it was a lot of fun.

So what are your plans for the rest of 2012 – do you have a lot more touring on the calendar?

Cahalen: We do have some things booked. We’re going down to Colorado for a little bit, then Texas, and we’re going up to Alaska for some festivals and tours and whatnot, but we have a lot of home time planned as well.

Most importantly, are there any plans to come back to the UK? You got quite a bit of media attention last year, including a BBC Radio 2 session, so hopefully there will be further interest when the new album comes out in August/September.

Eli:  I imagine we will be coming back, although we haven’t formulated anything yet. I’m sure it’ll be in the works.  I really enjoy my time over here and I hope we can make this an annual thing.

Thanks for talking to us and we hope to see you back in the UK soon!

Update: it looks like an April 2013 UK tour is in the works, which is great news. For more information and news of the upcoming release of Our Lady of the Tall Trees, visit their website at

This is an abridged version of my interview with Cahalen and Eli, which will be published in the Autumn 2012 edition of British Bluegrass News.