Newest Skeletal Lightning signee and longtime inspiration Caithlin De Marrais releases her third full-length solo album, What Will You Do Then? tomorrow. Ahead of release day, read an in depth conversation about the voice, inspiration, and meaning behind the album alongside Rainer Maria bandmate and collaborator Kaia F below, plus get an exclusive preview of the album a full day ahead of its release.
You’ve made a record, called What Will You Do Then? What does that record sound like to you?
Caithlin De Marrais:
Or who does it sound like?
Caithlin De Marrais:
I’m trying to think of who or what I was summoning when I was singing, if there was anybody. But, um, it was very—it was my own voice. But a voice that’s subconscious.
Often I feel like—when I make this music, I’m just trying to put emotions into words, because then they resonate and release. Because I’ve always been conditioned to dance around the emotion, to stay, to not cross the threshold, to keep the emotion, to keep it contained—highly, I don’t want to use the word indoctrinated, but like highly socialized.
I’ve heard so many women singers—folk singers, rock singers, other singers—that I know that I’m resonating (with) or referencing. Their guidance brought me here.
For instance, I was just listening to a Tracy Chapman song [“If There Are the Things”] from the album “Matters of the Heart” (1992).
Growing up I listened to her with my Mom all the time. There are lines in the song about fruit, a peach. [Sings] “I open it up, it’s rotten to the core / Why don’t I dream anymore?”
I realized that I had heard that song many years before I wrote down the lines, “The peach is perfect when it falls from the tree / And spoiled by the time it gets to me,” [in the Rainer Maria song “The Awful Truth of Loving”]. And I wasn’t conscious, when I was writing those lyrics, that I was echoing something that a Tracy Chapman tape imprinted on my brain many years before. You’re not recalling the song itself, you’re recalling the spell it put you under, and you’re echoing that.
Because you know, (when you’re) listening to some singers, you’re very, very intimate. [Pauses.] With that artist, in some ways... [trails off]
‘Who do I sound like,’ is that what we’re trying to understand?
I feel like, particularly in the early days of Rainer Maria, music was often this act of re-iterating past experience in order to release yourself from it. It was a kind of public performance in which a private catharsis took place that hopefully kept you moving forward.
But What Will You Do Then? isn’t like that. In the stream of the cathartic creative process, this record is the part where you start singing something new into existence. It’s very forward-looking, even when you’re reflecting.
Caithlin De Marrais:
Right. It’s like a higher spell. I mean, it’s like a higher level of skill? Because whenever I listen to it now, I feel like it’s meant to be an emotional resonator for other people, and I can think of those people in my mind.
It’s not just like nameless people. It’s for certain specific friends, it’s for people I know only by their Instagram handles. And it’s for people I don’t know, but they have names too. Like, I’m devoted to—[pause]—creating that resonance. I mean, something’s resonating in me right now, because I’m getting emotional, I’m getting teary—my desire is to create safe space for others, for their emotional release, you know?
And that [desire] has been to my detriment at times! To my pain and suffering at times. Being too accommodating or trying to, you know—I wasn’t always skilled at how to protect myself.
Caithlin De Marrais:
But I’ve gotten much better at that. And here I am singing about a relationship that has the hallmarks of being a place like that, and my wishes start coming true—like my greatest wishes, just the most beautiful things—[long pause]—start happening.
But at the same time, I’m dealing with a sort of demon of suffering, myself, from physical illness. And then at the same time, being connected more closely than I ever have been to people other people with illness, or with a disability, or who are neurodivergent, someone who personally identifies for instance as having autism, that’s their term, and hearing that they recognize that they’re special beings whose higher calling could be to change the world in a more compassionate way.
And so you’re talking about resonating, dropping the needle onto the groove, creating the world that would be, one that would bring happiness to others.
That’s the kind of music that I want to create. When I say bring happiness, what I mean is bring peace and understanding and self-recognition and [pauses]—you know, the kind of beautiful connection you feel when you go and lay in a forest, or lay on the beach, looking at the ocean or looking at the clouds, anytime you’re in a very peaceful place. Every time you’re in a place where you’re bathing in nature, that’s where my music fits. That’s the place that’s it grows from.
It may or may not be for every place. It may not be for every space of your day-to-day. Not meditative exactly, but I think it’s—emotionally—meditative, maybe. And that’s what I’m interested in doing. I don’t see any commercial relevance in it at all. I mean, I feel like I do have a right to be compensated for my work, because I have a right to feed my children. [cries]
I’m sorry I’m getting so emotional. I’m kind of disrupting the conversation! [laughs]
Not at all!
Caithlin De Marrais:
It’s like a complete refusal of the normal of what was going on before COVID, it has no connection to that, even though it came out of that time. Because all of the songs were written in, like, a self-quarantine before the quarantine , in a headspace where I was deeply detached, deeply, from the frenetic past. That past that we’re emerging from was deeply disconnected from suffering, and nature, and our emotional lives. And you know, I was trying to hold to these very precious, resonating… the resonance of our, you know, of my humanness. [cries] None of this is interesting to read about, I think.
One of my professors said that when you’re teaching music to children, you’re not talking about it. Especially younger students. You’re playing it. Don’t talk about it, play it. That’s how they learn, because they already have the music in them. And you’re shaping it. You’re helping them shape their own music.
So anyway, I feel there’s no point in talking about the record in a lot of ways because…[trails off] Is there something wrong with me if I don’t want to have that kind of conversation? I don’t know.
But so then there’s this other layer of how the songs were brought into existence. Developing them with you has a whole other aspect to it, which is also very, very special and very different from what I’ve been describing. When you’re talking about a song, you’re not just talking about the rhythm or the timbre, you’re talking about all of it. When you hear a song, you’re experiencing all of it.
So what you’re hearing is also a collaboration, and an exploration—[pause]—that goes all the way back to our original collaborations in poetry and in setting up shows and stuff like that. These are things I trust you implicitly on, in our development together.
I’m thinking about what you were saying about Tracy Chapman, and I was thinking about Sinead O’Connor also, these women folk singers, or singers who came out of folk traditions, neo-folk, however you want to describe it—these luminary women singers of the eighties and nineties. You seemed to be saying, “Oh, I realized that I had woven their voices, or their sensibilities, into the fabric of my musical being.” You were iterating them, or something that they did. And they in turn—Sinead O’Connor, Tracy Chapman, Enya, lots of others—they’re also iterating the ones that came before them.
I really relate to that. It’s weird to talk about having produced a record, or most of it, as this separate event, because you and I, our musical beings are so interwoven that they’re just not so separate. And we’re encouraged in our society to adopt the triumph of the individual artist as a kind of ideal, as a picture.
But here we’re saying, this music is hanging around in the atmosphere and it’s all—it’s full. You know what I mean? You’re talking about it almost like channeling things through you, but even that is imagining, “Oh this is a specific, separate process of certain qualities.”
For sure there is the prismatic effect that a person has on what passes through them, and that is going to lend specificity to what’s happening, but that’s only one sliver of the process that we’re taking part in. The process that you’re describing isn’t about individual creators making discreet artworks for sale. There appear individual creators, and there appear artworks for sale, because of where we live and how we imagine things to be happening here.
But if I’ve understood what it is that you’re saying, it’s, “I don’t know what else to do with my hopes for my friends, except to make music. I don’t have any way but this to enact the things I want for them.”
Caithlin De Marrais:
Yes, very much, very much. These women that we’ve been mentioning, they may have been commercial successes, but there was no way that the dominant culture could accept and absorb them. At least at the time. It’s a journey that we’re still on. To heal the generational trauma, the cultural trauma, the personal trauma that has been experienced...
You sent me a clip of Sinead on The Late Late Show [from 1993, singing “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”]. This was a big television appearance, and she chose to sing a Catholic folk song, a song of Catholic mysticism. I remember it was from a very specific time in Catholicism, [after Vatican II,] when women were newly allowed to participate more in the church. And folk music was being played during services, and it was a break from Rome, and it was a special time. And that was a movement that my Mom identified with—[trails off] [long pause]
So I want to repeat what you said about there’s no other way right now to perform, for my friends, the lives I envision for them. There’s a much deeper connection to it than to this separation into individual categories of performer / producer / listener / consumer. That has very little resonance or relevance.
This is also one of the reasons—aside from insecurity, or shyness—that I wonder what is the best way to perform this music.
I had a performance at my school, at University of Bridgeport, where my fellow students spontaneously started snapping along like a rhythm track. Their snaps became the percussion. It was this unexpected risk. And I always want to take a risk like that when I’m performing, because it’s not about just the song. It can be more than rote performance of the song-as-recorded. When that happens, a collaboration is happening. And the desire to have the song be more than just the recording of it continues, always.
When you were talking about singing the songs and you were like, “I was trying to reach down into a subconscious self,” or something like that—
I remember in those first sessions, there was a point, maybe in recording “Secret Book Club,” or maybe it was “Gambling Heart”? You were in one room, and Annie [Nero] and I were watching you record vocals through a doorway. You were holding that big Heil microphone with both your hands and you were really, like, bent down over it. That’s not what people think of as a typical stance for recording vocals. We expect the chest to be open, the head lifted. And Annie was remarking on the particular energy of what was happening.
But so when I imagine what you mean, when you say “subconscious,” and that you’re calling on that, it’s like—all of our friends, or loved ones, even people far away, everyone we know, in a sense live inside of us as well as outside us. Like when you say my friend’s name, there’s that recognition, the image of my friend, and a love for my friend that lives right in my body. Something lights up in my head. Something lights up in my heart when I hear their name.
So when I hear you describing this process of what happens when the time comes to sing, what I have witnessed is that you’re going into the body, and you’re finding these people that you care about, and you’re bringing your awareness to the things that they need. And then in some sense, you’re giving them those things. In your heart, at least.
A society that’s really individuated and that really reduces things down—
Caithlin De Marrais:
—that tells us, “You are alone!”—
—and that conceives of things in this atomistic way, is a context that makes it hard to understand what you’re doing there. We don’t have great ways for describing that process.
For me, because I work with religious texts [as a translator], I’m like, “Oh, it’s something like prayer.” But all of the available language we have to describe those activities is very specific and weighed down. “Oh, what you’re talking about is this one thing that happens someplace over here, and it’s automatically about certain kinds of things, and not about others. It’s this, and it’s never that.”
And if what you’re doing can never be that, then what is it? Is it hope? Am I hoping something for my friends? Am I putting something into practice? Is this something that ‘I’ do, apart from everything else? Who is enacting? There is an enactment. Maybe there is an enactment, of relationship with all these people. There is the presence of the truth, of a relationship between all these people, which enacts itself in singing.
Caithlin De Marrais:
Yes. Because all I’ve ever cared about are relationships. That’s all that I’ve ever obsessed over. From my family, to my loved ones, lovers, friends, to my children—the only thing that preoccupies my mind, 24/7, is that kind of thinking, relationship thinking. It materializes in my head, the connections—the actual, the very, the very—[trails off]
They’re demanding attention. And—[pause]—I can’t help but be a conduit for that. And so once a door has been unlocked for me—I’m like, yes, more relationships, yes.
So many different people, I was not permitted to be in relationship to them until now. And now I’m starting to have a relationship—inside, outside. So when I go to sing, whether or not I’m naming it, in some sense I’m saying “Look at this relationship. Look what we can all share that is so precious. And look! Look at this relationship that we can have with our children. Look at this relationship we can have with our elders! Look at this relationship we can have with nature!”
Nature—that one I’m still too locked away from right now, for my comfort. As a child, wandering freely in the forest, that was the most freedom. That was all the freedom one could have, to experience magic.
Thanks so much to Caithlin and Kaia for sharing their thoughts and insights with us! We're grateful to team up with such wonderful humans and honored to share What Will You Do Then? with the world! Thanks for listening.
Sean + Mo