Cale Hawkins on the Art of the Single, and the Wacky Joy of the Therevox

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

The multi-instrumentalist and composer Cale Hawkins has been steadily releasing a stream of unusual and elegant avant-pop songs over the past year. Hawkins records his crisp, thoughtful arrangements in solitude at Greylock Records, the studio of his friend and collaborator Ben Talmi. On the recordings, which he releases as bimonthly singles accompanied by found-footage music videos, Hawkins plays everything except the strings: keys, percussion, vocals, bass, and Therevox, as well as his first instrument, guitar.

In addition to his work on keys and the occasional out-of-tune banjo in my band, Arthur Moon, Hawkins has collaborated with an impressive list of musicians, like Quincy Jones, Nate Ruess, Wyclef Jean, Bilal, KAMAU, Gabriel Garzón-Montano, Nikki Yanofsky, and others. His original music showcases the virtuosity of an artist fluent in this vast array of genres and styles, yet it sounds distinctly his own. “Deep Dream” is a manic pop nightmare, propelled forward by a pulsing rhythm section but subverted by eerie panning vocal harmonies and disaffected lyrics. “Don’t Let My Ink Fade” jitters anxiety and despair against its laid-back groove, until it suddenly explodes into a sunny, tight, optimistic plea for companionship.

Hawkins tells me his first love was The Beatles, and you can hear their ethos in his work: it often permeates his melodies, his playful chord progressions, and his unconventional choices around arrangement and instrumentation.

Greil Marcus once said, “A virtuoso — any virtuoso — would have destroyed the Beatles from the inside out.” Well, here’s the thing I love about Hawkins as an artist: he’s able to merge the earnest, playful integrity of the Beatles — their unadulterated mix of mystery, joy, and longing — with his astounding technical facility. Hawkins is a virtuoso, yes, and he manages to allow that virtuosity to serve only his clearest, strangest, most personal visions of loss, hope, and societal dread. There’s no egotism to Cale Hawkins’ songs — just an artist collaborating honestly with himself.

Hawkins’ latest self-released single, “Escaping,” drops today, March 12!

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Can you tell me a bit about how you came to music? I know you started with guitar and then took an impressively quick victory lap through Berklee, where you picked up keys and a slew of other skills. But what drew you to guitar? And then what kept you going with music?

The Beatles! And a couple of loving, supporting parents who were willing to listen to my pleas and sign me up for guitar lessons. I was completely wrapped up in the music of the Beatles, though. I wanted to be Paul McCartney. (I had no idea Paul primarily played bass in the group.) I also already had an old, beat-up guitar. My dad bought it at a flea market when I was a kid, and I used to dance around the living room wildly strumming the open strings.

I think I’ve remained engaged with music because it’s limitless. There’s always new territory to explore.

What’s the happiest accident that’s happened while making these singles for the bimonthly release cycle you’ve been sticking to?

The last tune, “Deep Dream,” ended up on Spotify’s “Fresh Finds” playlist. 40,000 people listened in one week. I don’t know how, since I don’t have a publicist, so I consider it a happy accident.

There’s an instrument called a Therevox on many of the tunes you’ve released this year, which I hadn’t heard of until you told me about it. It sounds sort of like a theremin and sort of like an old synth and sort of like a sad cat on a plane. Can you talk about how you came across it and how it has influenced your process?

Ha! It does sound like a sad cat on a plane. I think “sad cat on a plane” is my spirit animal.

I came across the Therevox through my dear friend Ben Talmi. I record nearly everything out of his studio in Brooklyn, and the Therevox is one of several vibey keyboards he owns. I don’t know how he found the Therevox, but it’s very similar to the Ondes Martenot, one of the earliest electronic instruments. We’re both Radiohead nerds and the Ondes is a favorite of Jonny Greenwood’s.

The Therevox isn’t a traditional keyboard, because the pitch is controlled by a string and the dynamics are controlled by touch-sensitive buttons. You put your finger in this little holster on the string, and then move it left and right to modify the pitch. It allows you to get really natural-sounding vibrato and pitch bends. It also has really sweet built-in reverb and an analog filter.

It’s been an intriguing tracking and writing tool because it’s monophonic. It forces me to think of each part as an individual voice, and each chord progression as a collection of individual one-voice melodies. I typically stack three or four Therevox parts separately, so I really have to be conscious and deliberate about where each voice moves.

“I haven’t started cutting and rearranging words out of magazines yet, but if I stumble into writer’s block, I’ll pick an object or idea at random from the world around me, and challenge myself to write a few lines about it.”

Do you ever find yourself migrating towards songwriting or recording practices that introduce an element of the unpredictable to your process?

Absolutely — certainly during the songwriting process, and especially since I started making music with you. I haven’t started cutting and rearranging words out of magazines yet, but if I stumble into writer’s block, I’ll pick an object or idea at random from the world around me, and challenge myself to write a few lines about it. Those lines sometimes make it into the tunes.

“Polyester Day” was one, actually. What’s a polyester day, anyway?! I saw “100% polyester” on the tag of a shirt that was lying around my living room, and somehow managed to find a parallel between synthetic textiles, synthetic emotions, and synthetic keyboards. Go figure.

You threw down some fantastic bass lines on your latest release, “Escaping,” not to mention all the other instrumentation. As a multi-instrumentalist, where do you start a song? Is it a different instrument every time, or do you have a go-to starting place?

Thank you! When I’m writing, my go-to starting place differs. I used to only write on guitar because I was most comfortable exploring there. Nowadays, I mostly write in my head, and try out little parts from time to time on whatever instrument is lying around. On “Escaping,” I wrote the chorus on bass, but the rest of the song gradually took form on an iPhone note over the past year or so.

In the studio, I always start tracking with the most rhythmic part. Otherwise it’s hard to lock into a groove, especially when I’m multitracking everything on my own. Usually drums fill that role, but sometimes I’ll start with a synth to keep the pulse.

Speaking of your multi-instrumentalism, what made you decide to play almost all the instruments on these releases? To my ear, there’s a really interesting outcome that emerges from that — especially because you’re making music that lives on the borders of a few different genres that traditionally have a “band” setup, with each member bringing their own perspective. Having it just be you allows for a real clarity of vision, for sure, but there’s also something kind of beautifully unusual about it, like the feeling of taking your sunglasses off after wearing them all day. Is your choice to play all the instruments an intentional investigation of this uncanny thing, or is it more just because you can (and/or have to)?

At the risk of sounding like a cop-out, all of the above! The main reason is simply that I love holing up in the studio and experimenting. Building songs from the ground up is an intensely rewarding process, and handling all the instrumental duties allows me to explore abundant new ground each time. I also find it far easier to nitpick and be self-critical when I’m the only one in the studio.

What’s been inspiring you lately?

Björk’s album from last year. I’m a little late getting into it, but she and Arca made some beautiful music on that record. I’ve also been digging Serpentwithfeet, Phoebe Bridgers, and Tim Hecker.

What’s been boring?

The Grammys. Williamsburg. Songs with 10 different cowriters. PR companies with $2,500/month promotion fees. Mumble rap. The new Porches record.

“I love holing up in the studio and experimenting. Building songs from the ground up is an intensely rewarding process, and handling all the instrumental duties allows me to explore abundant new ground each time.”

At Soundfly, we use the term “Incorrect Music” to describe the things an artist does that might go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Ha, I love this term. A lot of my musical choices feel natural to me, but I’m also naturally a really weird person. Sometimes I change tempo, key, and texture in the middle of a tune because it feels right to me. Why not?

One of those tunes made it out into the wild — it’s called “Apt 1F.” Other times, I’ll eschew all traditional instruments for something unusual – a choir of Therevoxes, for instance. That happened on the second verse of “2:30 Tuesday.” “The Ferryman” used to be a fingerpicking, folky guitar song until I hit the studio, ditched the guitar, and played the part on the Prophet.

Any plans for a more formal collection of songs in the future? Or are you committed to the art of the single?

The album will always be king to me as a listener, but I feel like most people are constantly barraged by music these days. I’d love to do a collection of songs with some conceptual thread at some point, but for now, I’m committed to the art of the single. I think releasing one song at a time is the most effective way to reach folks these days.

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