Vetiver’s Andy Cabic balances melancholy themes with upbeat sounds
At first blush, Andy Cabic writes upbeat pop songs. But give them a few more spins and you’ll start to hear darker themes hidden in those feel-good songs. The man behind Vetiver, a pop-folk band with electronic inclinations, Cabic brings both light and dark emotions and imagery to his music.
“Those dualities are very much a part of my writing and what I enjoy about songs,” Cabic says. “They leave a lot open to the listener, they reveal more upon further listening, and they maintain some element of mystery.”
On the new Vetiver album, Complete Strangers, Cabic brings that duality to the foreground, positioning the songs so that a cheerful tune may be followed by a tale of misery—and vice versa. “Current Carry,” for example, is a blissed-out song of love-gone-right and visions of a bright future. The next tune, “Confiding,” is an exploration of lies, feeling lost and trying to forget. The juxtaposition is striking, but it gives the songs a nice weight. Buoyed by bubbly beats and melodies that feel like driving up the coast on a sunny day, the sometimes-dark themes provide a grounded, honest glimpse into the complexities of being human.
Cabic says he has a fondness for songs where songwriters give you a really happy melody even though the lyrics may have a “bummer edge” to them. For him, it’s about striking a balance.
“I don’t like my melancholy in songs to be something that you wallow in, or that is too self-involved,” he says. “If you sit through a song that maybe is a little more emotionally on edge, then that makes the next time a sunnier song comes along, that one sings out a little brighter.”
Figuring out which songs to put next to each other is also a matter of space, timing, and the finished product. Cabic takes into consideration how many songs will fit on each side of a record, and which songs he wants at the beginning and end of each side.
The songs on Complete Strangers were written over a period of several years. Cabic isn’t sure why, but this one took him some time to “figure out where [he] was going.”
“I’m not terribly prolific,” he says. “I’m a slow writer. I tend to throw out way more than I keep. These songs are just what I gravitated toward as I realized I had an album nearly ready.”
While Vetiver has always used hints of electronica, Complete Strangers is Vetiver’s most electronic album to date. Cabic’s longtime musical partner, Thom Monahan of indie-rock band the Pernice Brothers, has engineered and co-produced every Vetiver album, stretching back to the self-titled debut in 2004. He’s a big part of the Vetiver sound, offering Cabic feedback on song structure, instrumentation, and production. Cabic says Monahan is someone he can trust as a devil’s advocate. The two were originally introduced years ago when a demo recording Cabic made passed hand-to-hand through a group of musicians and friends. It made its way to Monahan, who reached out to Cabic. The two hit it off, and 10-plus years later, they’re still making music together, furthering Vetiver’s sound.
At one point, Vetiver was lumped into the “freak folk” movement, but that was an ill-fitting placement that had nothing to do with Cabic’s music, and everything to do with the fact that he was friends with some of the freak folk poster children, including Devendra Banhart.
“The freak folk title is not really applicable,” Cabic says. “I knew a lot of those people and was performing with them, and am friends with them, but musically, that’s not really where I was coming from.”
Cabic survived the misapplied title intact, and is still doing what he does best: creating catchy folk-pop music full of contrasting emotions and lyrics that draw listeners in and reveal more with each listen.
“All I know how to do is write songs that are the ones that I can sing,” he says, “and are the ones that I want to be singing five or 10 years from now.”
Vetiver will perform at 9 p.m. on Thursday, June 18 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $15/adv, $18/door. 423-1338. PHOTO: Andy Cabic brings Vetiver to the Catalyst on Thursday, June 18.