Singer-Songwriter Chloe E.W. Levine Talks New Album Cathexis
April 26th, 2018
In her debut album Cathexis, folk singer-songwriter Chloe E.W. Levine tackles what it means to find personal identity through the lens of self-reliance. Currently a senior at Hunter College High School, Chloe sat down with me to discuss the meaning behind her songs, the process behind making the album, and what’s next. Cathexis is available on Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, and other streaming services now.
Maria Milekhina: Cathexis is defined as the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object, especially to an unhealthy degree. Why is this name for your album?
Chloe E.W. Levine: The way that I write songs has a lot to do with that meaning. When I'm investing too much emotional energy in something, the only way I can deal with it and move on is by transferring that energy into a song. So all the songs on the album are imprints of those emotional attachments to other things.
MM: What are some things that you find yourself attached to? And how do those attachments reflect themselves in the songs that you ended up writing?
CL: So the general arc of album: It's not like an Adele album where there's a specific story that it chronicles, but it's sort of about how over the past two or three years I've tried to rely on myself more and define myself less in terms of other people and more in terms of my own abilities. At the beginning, a few years ago, I was very much attached to various people in my life, be they romantic figures or even just like my parents or whatever-- and that's all I wrote about, too. And then, particularly from the beginning of last year, I started being able to move beyond that. The songs at the end [of the album] have less to do with emotional investment into other people and more to do with emotional investment into myself.
MM: You sort of touched upon this, but what would you say singing and songwriting means to you?
CL: Oh my gosh. Everything. I started writing songs when I was 5, and I've always had the most confidence in singing and songwriting because poetry exists solely on the page, (or if you chose to read it aloud, you're still reading from a paper), [which] feels clinical at times in a way that songwriting doesn’t. Across all cultures forever, [songwriting] has just been one of the deepest expressions of personal experience out there. And so being able to transform feelings that confusing or distressing, [that] occupy all my time, into these little three-minute encapsulations of a feeling is so valuable to me-- and I hope to other people. There are a few songwriters like Tylan Greenstein and Joni Mitchell who have really helped me deal with things, and so I hope that for someone, one of my songs could do something similar.
MM: Your song “Underwater” I took to be about being in a place where the world can't touch you; can you tell me a bit more about the feelings that you describe here?
CL: It's about the first time that my romantic feelings for someone were reciprocated, and that affirmation is this sort of place where all the imperfections and annoyances of the world stop mattering, similar to in the way that when you see something underwater you don't see all the hard edges; it just becomes this ethereal thing. I wrote that song when I was doing a workshop with Dar Williams, who's another songwriter I love, and every day she would write an element on the board and ask that by the end of the day we write a song about this element-- [and that day] it was water.
MM: In “Letting It Burn”, there is a strong theme of the risk of vulnerability, of getting better at not regretting taking that risk-- what were some elements in your life that inspired this song? Am I interpreting it correctly?
CL: Without getting too specific, there was a period of time for which I liked this guy over the course of a year and I didn't know what to do about it, and I refused to admit that there was any possibility of [a relationship] existing anywhere except in my own head, despite any signs to the alternative. I'm a very anxious person and there is that fear of vulnerability, but at the same time, I feel that everyone wants to feel that life is spontaneous and there is chance and all these serendipitous things can happen, and obviously they can't if you aren't going to take risks.
MM: For “California,” you partnered with Maya Spanabel: How did you come to do so, and what was this collaboration like?
CL: Maya has been one of my best friends since we were really little. I also know her from [a] dance camp [I went to]. [“California”] was a song I wrote about two years ago about something in her life because, just as I don't know how to deal with my strong attachments to people, she didn't either, but she didn't feel confident at that point in her songwriting abilities, so she asked me to write a song for her, and I did. It's the only song that I've successfully written from someone else's perspective. When it came time to record it, especially since everyone else working on the album was from the same dance camp, it was important to both of us that she be on the record.
MM: “People We Were Once” explores trying to assess the history of one's life and what came before; can you tell me more about what this means, what this exploration is about?
CL: The first part of it that I wrote is the line in the second verse that says, "The more I lose the more I try to step back, reset the score, but I live like Fibonacci, adding all that's come before." There's this idea that whenever you're sad, most people react by saying, "Move on, it doesn't matter," and it's meant to be a positive thing. But that's not actually a healthy way to deal with emotions, and it's not very realistic because we are defined by our past choices. None of us, for better or for worse, would be who we are now without mistakes and losses from before. And so, the conclusion that the song reaches is that being reflective and being able to understand a history with someone and being your own person— refusing to rely on them for self-identification— are not mutually exclusive.
MM: There's a lyric there about "people who believed in something more than futures." Going to an academically competitive school like Hunter, this stood out to me. Did you have Hunter in mind at all?
CL: For sure. People at Hunter both in their personal lives and in terms of academics think, in my opinion, way too much about what's next rather than focusing on what they're experiencing at the moment. I definitely do that too. I spent a lot [of my time at] Hunter thinking about what I was going to do after Hunter. But that is not good. Even at times that seem really miserable, there are a lot of small things that, if you're paying attention, can help. Somebody reminded me the other day that the measure of a good life isn't per se the goals you reach; it's just how much you're able to appreciate the world around you.
MM: Who is Lucy in “Lucy’s Song”?
CL: Lucy is not actually named Lucy. Her real name is Sophie and she's a girl I met last summer who's, like, the coolest person I've ever known. She bases her entire aesthetic on Wes Anderson, has this amazing giant red curly hair, and is this brilliant poet. [The song] is not like exactly true to her life or anything, but I guess it is sort of an ode to the fact that I am a folk singer-songwriter, and so much of American folk music is based on ballads and telling other people's stories. I wanted at least one song to do that. It was a few months before recording, and I was like, if I don't write a song about Sophie, who else could I write a song about? She's so amazing. So a lot of the details in the song are taken from actual things that happened to her but not all of them. I guess I just wanted to update the idea of an Appalachian ballad.
MM: When was the moment that you remember saying to yourself, "I'm going to make an album now"?
CL: It was because of “Lighthouse,” which is the last song on the album, and I don't know if it's my favorite song but it's definitely the most important to me... I couldn't figure out where it had come from or what I had tapped into in order to write it, but I just knew when I sang it, I felt something I couldn't explain. I performed “Lighthouse” at a folk dance retreat that winter, and Jared [Kirkpatrick], the producer of the album-- who I've known since I was like six, our parents went to high school together-- he came up to me after and was like, "We're going to make an album," and I was like, "What, really?" We grabbed dinner and he was like, “You're ready as a songwriter, I know how to master tracks, we should just do this now,” and it was one of the most sincere moments of generosity I've ever experienced. I don't think I would've done the album, or done it this soon, without his belief in me.
MM: Musically, what was it like composing this album? You play your guitar, but there's also other accompaniment, so what was that like?
CL: Everybody who plays on the album is somebody I've grown up with at dance camp. And we're all kids-- the youngest person on the album was 15, and the oldest person was 19...
I love the sound of banjos, mandolins: It melts my heart so much. Especially since I don't have a lot of backup vocals, they make the tracks feel a lot fuller and more authentic to where I was coming from in terms of genre. My friend Joe Carter plays the banjo, and for a couple of tracks my friend Jakob Raitzyk plays the mandolin, [and] he also plays fiddle. Asher Kirkpatrick, the little brother of the producer, plays saxophone and clarinet and I was actually so surprised the combination sounded good.
MM: What were the logistics of producing the album like?
CL: We just did it in a blanket fort that we built in my friend's house. That's why if you go on Spotify it says, "Blanket Fort Records." We literally ordered foam tiles on Amazon and duct taped them to the ceiling. We didn't have the money for a real studio, but you don't need one. I always saw making an album as this really unattainable goal, but we built a blanket fort in my friend's house, he mastered the tracks, and then we released them online for thirty bucks. I had come into the process with the guitar parts done and vocal parts fully arranged and everything. And then we spent a week just in West Virginia in a cabin playing music together and figuring it out. That I think is what I'm proudest of, the way it came together so organically. That's what folk music is supposed to be about. I would like to think that it comes across to the listener that it's not as heavily produced and automated as so much music, and even folk music, is nowadays.
MM: Would you call Cathexis a coming-of-age album? Or do you think it is more timeless?
CL: For me it is definitely a coming-of-age album; it was written literally during the years that I was coming of age. However, I think the individual songs are relatable to widely different swaths of people. In terms of the general arc of the album, I think it is applicable to anyone who is working on evaluating themselves as an individual more, which I don't think is an experience unique to high schoolers. I'm sure I will continue to work towards that. I tried to leave [the album] unresolved, implying that I'm at a better place now but it doesn't mean that I'm 17 and all my life problems are solved.
MM: What's next for you, your singing and songwriting?
CL: I definitely want to make another album. I have enough material for another one now, but I'll probably keep writing and editing. I'm going to see what happens, I guess. I don't have a clear career plan right now. I'm not going to major in music at college, because I don't have enough classical training for that to be realistic. I'd love to be a singer-songwriter for my real career, that'd be amazing, but I also acknowledge that's not super likely because it's really, really hard to break through, especially now with the way that the music industry works, there are so few people who can exist solely as musicians. But I think no matter what I do, I want to keep music in my life, and hopefully release albums as long as I possibly can.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.