Returning to the studio to produce her latest EP ZINC, provided a much-needed therapeutic and creative outlet for Australian artist, Caiti Baker.
She has thrown her heart and soul into the project, a collection of brilliant, belting songs that fuse a blend of blues, soul, gospel, jazz, big band and rock n’ roll styles.
When her career as a driving force behind electro-soul/hip-hop duo Sietta was cut short by a battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), she found new inspiration in an unlikely place.
Caiti’s blues musician father handed her a USB sample bank of more than 600 of his original guitar licks, harmonica ideas and riffs that he had recorded on his phone.
Teaming up with ARIA-nominated producer, J. Mangohig (Daniel Johns, Briggs), it is this work that forms the foundation of her debut release.
Script & Sound Magazine caught up with Caiti to discuss music as therapy, and where she’s taking her tunes next.
Congratulations on the new EP! What did you set out to achieve on ZINC, and is it different to work you’ve released in the past?
Thank you! My debut solo album ZINC came together as multiple factors collided and enabled me to begin a journey that I’m only now just realising the purpose of! I’ve always created music, since I was 12, maybe even before that. No matter the state of my life, or the relationships I’m in, music has always been a therapeutic reflection. I don’t think I ever set out to achieve anything specifically, other than good music that I hope people enjoy. Even if I didn’t have an audience, I’d still be creating, I’m just humbled that I do have a platform. The sound on ZINC is very different to my previous releases through my first band, Sietta – I was a different person. Art is a mirror to the times, I was who I was then and the music I made reflected that.
How would you describe your sound and style to new fans?
My music is genre-bending. Blues, hip-hop, a dash of R&B and soul…I grew up on blues, soul, big band, rock n’ roll, jazz…American music. At the core, my vocal dynamics are heavily blues-inspired, but my love of 90s R&B, new jack swing, and hip-hop, is prominent in my harmonies, arrangements and production.
What reaction are you getting from long-time fans about the new release?
To be perfectly honest, all the feedback I’ve received from long-time fans, as well as new fans, has been overwhelmingly positive. I guess my sound is quite unique, so it might take a few listens to soak it all in, but as far as my established fanbase goes, I’m lucky to have a supportive bunch.
Can you run me through the story about your Dad’s USB…do you think the whole project would have taken off if it wasn’t for that music?
So, I had been writing music as per usual with my long-term collaborator, James Mangohig, and we were planning a trip to the States. I had a falling out with my father four years prior and we hadn’t talked in that time. One of the aforementioned colliding factors would lead me to reach out and have a go at making amends with my Dad, so I did. The first time we met up, we talked and at the end of our visit, he bestowed upon me a USB key that was filled with audio files. He told me that they were just some ideas that he was stuffing around with on guitar and harmonica that had been recorded onto a Nokia phone that he somehow managed to get onto the USB. I gave the key to James, and, as a hip-hop producer, the gift of original guitar licks and musical scribbles is a Godsend. He had a wild time searching through the 600+ files (after converting them to a usable mp3 format) and building demo instrumentals that I would then write to. I still would have made music no matter the situation I was in but being given the USB definitely established a theme that would then take three years to fully develop and realise into ZINC.
How did you incorporate those riffs and samples into this body of work?
James got in the zone! He downloaded an app that would allow him to convert the audio files into mp3 so that he could begin to soak in all the snippets of music and ideas. He would then cut a loop together, build his signature hip-hop sound around the riffs as a basic demo instrumental and I would begin writing. We collaborated with celebrated ARIA award-winning producer and double bass player Michael Hohnen (Gurrumul, Salt Water Band) who laid down double bass over all the tracks. I would write more, James would produce more, we would cycle around in a way that we could all get our ideas out. There’s still a few songs that didn’t make it on the album that I hope to release very soon.
What influence has your Dad had on your music?
My Dad’s background in music is an obsessive love for the blues. He was in blues bands in the Adelaide music scene. My uncle and he used to play in bands together and that’s how my folks met! My Dad, Greg, grew up with a jazz and classical-obsessed father, so music was always a part of his existence. I’m sure it was his escape too. He played in bands as soon as he could and was well researched on any of the artists he admired and was inspired by. My brother and I grew up in a music-filled household. It was never quiet. My dad ran blues festivals, we attended blues festivals, and gigs and the music was everywhere. There really was no escape. As a pre-pubescent teen, I was definitely sick of listening to just what my Dad wanted to listen to, so I found hip-hop, R&B, new jack swing, soul and pop. I definitely detoured away from the blues as I got older, but these things have a funny way of being stitched into your DNA. The love, respect and appreciation for the music will never leave me. It will always influence me.
I’m so sorry to hear about your battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. How difficult was it to create music for this release?
I had Chronic Fatigue for six years, essentially the entire time I was recording and touring with Sietta. Creating music with fatigue was a struggle. More so for the people I was working with – I was just out of it. Asleep or in a bubble of numb. To be honest, I don’t remember much of those years, they definitely weren’t my best. One of the aforementioned colliding factors was that of meeting a wonderful human who was able to properly diagnose my mental health conditions, as well as the CFS (the symptoms of) which cleared up when the correct treatment was applied. I was essentially born again. I spent a long time working out who I was. After being asleep for most of my 20s, I had a bit of an identity crisis. Luckily, I have music and the therapy that comes from writing about how I feel. A lot of ZINC is a result of me finding myself and going through the awakening process. So, in a way, it was easy for me to write this album, because I had a lot to deal with.
Did you write I Won’t Sleep as an empowerment song?
The instrumental to I Won’t Sleep was the first track James created after being given the USB. The first riff he made a beat out of. I had been clear of my fatigue for around six to eight months and I wrote the song. I didn’t, at the time, truly know what I was writing about – as I said, a lot of my writing is therapy, my subconscious working things out. It wasn’t until a few months passed that I realised that I was writing about finding my identity again after having been asleep for so long. I hope it’s empowering, it definitely defined a big moment for me.
What was it like working with J. Mangohig? What was the partnership like, and were you involved in the production as well?
James and I have been creating music together since 2007. We both come from very different musical backgrounds so we’ve taught each other a lot. James is at the helm, but I definitely hear things and muck around with sounds and ideas. I co-produce along with Michael Hohnen. We all have input into each song and the song is king. So, we always end up doing what’s best for the song. I’m just such a fan of the music that James makes – I’m in awe of his abilities and the connection we have musically works so well.
Where did you record, and what was the process like?
I recorded in a studio space close to where I live in Darwin on my laptop through a beautiful vocal chain and a wagner microphone. The space, when not used for recording, is used to do medium readings. Sometimes I would finish up a session, walk out and see someone waiting to have their future read. The process was rock up, set my laptop and sound card up and spend hours recording. For ZINC, I had laid down demo vocals already, so I was going in knowing what I was doing so as not to waste time. I would definitely experiment more while I was in there though. I don’t work with an engineer, I recorded it all myself, sometimes doing 80+ takes just to get the right one. I could spend all day in the studio and it only feel like a snap of the fingers. It’s my happy place.
Did you co-write, or do you prefer to write alone?
I definitely prefer to write alone. Besides the opening track on ZINC - Believer – which James and I wrote together; the whole album was written in solitude. Because music is my therapy, it’s a vulnerable thing for me at first. I like to explore my thoughts and approaches by myself and enjoy that creative outlet before I share. I love writing with people who I have a solid connection with and I do it occasionally.
Were there any particular messages you wanted to get out to fans through the music?
I definitely write about what’s going on for me at the time. ZINC has songs that span four years – four years of me finding myself, reflecting on social and political situations, the relationships around me. ZINC really centres around identity, love, relationships, social and political thoughts and empowerment. I don’t ever set out to send a message, I just write and it’s there - all there in the music.
Is it important to you to creatively merge genres, rather than be stuck in one sound or style?
We never set out to merge genres, it was by the forces of those colliding factors that lead to the music that is so uniquely mine. It’s important to me to make music that is authentic. It’s also important to me to be able to make the music that I wanna make, no matter the genre. I love blues, soul, future R&B, trap, country, pop, minimalistic, acoustic – there’s so much variety that I have bubbling away…
Do you find the Australian music scene is generally embracing of different musical styles?
Good question! I don’t know. I truly don’t know the answer to that. I hope so! We have such a diverse scene that is growing with so much diversity and it’s truly exciting. I’m humbled to be a part of it all.
Where do you source a lot of your inspiration from?
I source inspiration from a lot of music, current and old. For lyrics, my inspiration comes from what I’m going through, what my friends and family are going through, and what’s going on in my community. I might even pick up bits of inspiration from books I read, or movies and TV I watch – I’m a sponge.
What are your goals now, and what do you have planned next? Will you be touring in Australia, and any plans to come to the UK anytime soon?
My goals are always to continue growing as an artist. Learning more, creating more and performing more! I am going to the UK in May which I am super stoked about. I have been to London once before but I’m so excited to be returning and hopefully playing some shows. You can catch me at the “AUSSIE BBQ” at the Hoxton Square Bar on May 20. When I return home, I’ll be going on tour with The Teskey Brothers. After that, I’ll return to the studio to write and record music.