Soft Cat, “Diana”

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When Soft Cat played one of Dan Goldberg’s mountain shows, they brought a cello up the mountain—no small feat, considering it is no small mountain. But the members of Soft Cat are no strangers to putting in the work necessary to make a worthwhile thing, whether it is playing a full band set in the woods, running a farm or DIY space, or crafting an album of warm chamber folk. “Diana” is the second single off of Soft Cat’s forthcoming album, All Energy Will Rise. It’s a hushed intricately layered steadily building track with swells of quavering vocals and warbling strings periodically anchored by resolute piano. For a while, the archetypal “Baltimore band” was loud and harsh—a sonically apocalyptic response to a dystopian socioeconomic landscape. Soft Cat are certainly more than their Baltimore context, but their music is also an oft-overlooked “softer” take on resilience—collaborations and deep friendships, urban farms and patches of nature, strength through vulnerability, the experience of growing something.

We spoke with Soft Cat’s Neil Sanzgiri over email about the circumstances leading up to this song and album, including a fire at Open Space and an experience dressing a buck on an urban farm.

Soft Cat has gotten so full and orchestral. How did it evolve from being a solo project to the complex intricate arrangement it is now?

I couldn’t begin to talk about the album without first mentioning the core collaborators I worked with to make these songs fully realized. Evan Merkel played violin, Brendan Sullivan [Weekends, The Crown] played electric guitar and Kate Barutha played cello. Together we spent many weeknights after work drinking hot toddies at Kate’s house in her living room arranging these songs to be recorded. Almost all of the instrumentals, as well as “Somebody”, and “All Energy Will Rise” were recorded live with some additional overdubs. Previously, I would just bring musicians and friends I knew into the studio and record them myself, but since we were working with an engineer this time around we wanted to have our shit together, so we harnessed the arranging skills of the four of us and concentrated on our live performance so we could get each song in only a few takes. Also a major shout out to Louis Weeks who basically coached me through all of my musical existentialism.

Soft Cat has always been considered my solo project almost out of necessity since so many people I work with move away. Brendan is the only person I’ve consistently worked with since the beginning. I have so much respect for all the musicians who I’ve worked with; not only for their artistic merit and putting up with my bullshit.

How has your process changed between Wildspace and Lost no Labor and All Energy Will Rise?

Wildspace was honestly such an experiment. I was 19 when I recorded it, and had no idea where it would go. I kept bringing anyone into the studio who mentioned that they played an instrument even if I had never heard them before. I would just flat out ask them if they had an hour to record and I would sing melodies to them and we would try out different layerings of sounds until it fit. After Wildspace, I took a year off to finish up school and the summer after I graduated I rounded up whomever wanted to play music with me to work on some new songs. Members fluctuated consistently throughout the recording of Lost No Labor. It was rare for us to ever play a show with the same members—at one point our line up was just three guitars and a cello.

We all agreed that with All Energy Will Rise we wanted to flawlessly be able to perform the material live as opposed to desperately trying to recreate all of the studio production with single instruments. All of my vocals were single tracked and only on a few songs did I return to my personal style of production and arrangements with other musicians that I brought in outside of the four of us.

What does ‘All Energy Will Rise’ refer to?

I don’t know that I have one particular way of looking at it. The phrase came to me one day while I was recording demos in my room locked inside because of a snowstorm. I think I happened to have some sort of cabin fever I suppose, but the phrase has come to mean so much to me. 2013 and 2014 were very traumatic years for me with the collapse of Open Space, losing two jobs, going through a really hard long distance relationship, losing a friend and feeling completely uncertain of the one thing that mattered most to me in life—this album.

To talk about that phrase, hopefully without sounding too pretentious, “All Energy Will Rise” is the evaporating of the ego. It’s the letting go of the self. It’s the moving on and the acceptance that all things will keep going and the world still exists even after you are gone.

Can you talk a little about what “Diana” is about?

I am more proud of Diana perhaps than any other song I’ve recorded, not only in content, but in all of the textures. It’s my ‘Good Vibrations’—it took me about 6 months and three different states to finish that song. I wrote the chord progression as we were in the studio and asked a few other musicians to work on it as an instrumental with no clear idea of where it would go.

After Open Space burned down, I moved to a friend’s farm in the city. He had been wanting to get rid of the deer population that had been eating his crops for the past year, so one night he told me he shot a buck with his crossbow. I had been eating meat for a few years after being vegetarian for about nine years, so I really wanted to put myself to the test. Him, his girlfriend and I all spent the night dressing the buck in our backyard in 34 degree weather in November. The meat fed the whole house all winter, we tanned its hide, and saved the skull. The next day I felt like a totally different person. Days later I wrote the lyrics for the song and went to record them in the studio.

The song’s name comes from the Roman Goddess of the hunt, the moon, and birthing—Diana.

How long have you lived in Baltimore for? What is your relationship with Baltimore, both the city and its arts scene?

I’ve been living and working in Baltimore for nearly eight years after relocating from Texas to go to school. I have a deep affinity for this city and its inhabitants for so many reasons. You can truly experiment here, there are so many people willing to work with you on your project or to collaborate. The other day I accidentally walked into an art opening while trying to do my laundry at the local laundromat. There are so many characters in this city and you get to know them so well because generally everyone goes to the same shows and the same parties and you just eventually meet everyone and see them on the streets. I’ve been very lucky to work so closely with so many artists and musicians in the city because its such an open atmosphere and people are willing to work and play for free. Baltimore is definitely an ebb and flow kind of city. A few years ago there seemed to be DIY music venues popping up regularly and people had so many options to play and go see stuff happen, but now the DIY music spots have been declining and the art galleries are on the rise.

Unfortunately, a lot of my close friends have moved on to other cities to start other lives, and I am so proud of them and lucky to have had my life intersect with theres for the time it did. Even though I am still relatively young I feel like my time in Baltimore is coming to an end. I feel like I’ve contributed as much as I can to the city with booking shows at Open Space and the Bahamas, as well as hosting workshops and panel discussions and a lot of other programming. Because of the large student population, Baltimore is constantly reinventing itself.

It can be extremely warm, welcoming and congratulatory while also being exclusive, cliquey and self-important. I used to think Baltimore was the whole world and it’s taken me these past few years to realize it’s not.

At one point as we were all outside watching the building we all poured so much sweat and energy into erupt in flames, I realized one of our friends was still in the building. I frantically called him and found out that his pig was still in the building and he needed help. So I ran back into the building and helped him cary Pickles down the stairs in her cage.

The Open Space fire sounds truly horrible. Were you there when it happened? What was that like?

To give some context, Open Space was a collectively artist run gallery and performance space that I lived in and helped organize for 5 years. It was my main source of curatorial work and we all cared so deeply about it. It was like Baltimore’s version of the Silent Barn I suppose. 16 of my closest friends and I lived there and at the time of the fire, two other Soft Cat members were living there. In May of 2013, two days after the release party for Lost No Labor, a seven alarm fire broke out of the space, which was located above an Autobody shop, caused by “careless smoking” of one of the workers in the body shop after hours.

I was the one who saw the fire and called 911. I checked all the rooms to make sure no one else was home before screaming at everyone to evacuate the building. At one point as we were all outside watching the building we all poured so much sweat and energy into erupt in flames, I realized one of our friends was still in the building. I frantically called him and found out that his pig (yes we had a pot bellied pig living in the house) was still in the building and he needed help. So I ran back into the building and helped him cary Pickles down the stairs in her cage.

The next 24 hours were some of the most intensely inspiring moments I’ve ever experienced. We had an outpouring of support from all over the city, including the director of the BMA who was in tears with us standing in the field across the street. We had to evacuate all of our stuff in six hours the next day as the building was condemned. Nearly every single hand that was available from across the city’s art community came to our aid that day. People were calling us left and right wanting to know how to help. I saw people there carrying boxes and mattresses down the stairs who I don’t know if I’ll ever see again or personally be able to say thank you to. We threw a massive party months later and raised enough funds to keep the organization a float until we found a new home. Since then, a core group of Open Space members have been working tirelessly on keeping hope alive and finding a new location. After 17 months of searching, Open Space moved into a new store front downtown and is still going strong. Different life choices have forced me to phase myself out of Open Space for the time being so that I can fully concentrate on my music. But luckily for them, they have Colin Alexander, also known as Flashlight O to help keep the blood fresh.

To me, ‘folk’ music in 2015 represents finding moments of peace and nature and calm at a time when access to those things feels really rare. Like something that helps you feel centered and grounded. I feel like both Wildspace and Lost No Labor were examples of that. Is centering/grounding an even more pressing concern for an album so informed by trauma? Has making this album helped to process and honor that trauma?

That’s a really beautiful way to put that! I would say that music for me is a way of processing my emotions and pulling from inside a place I am often not brave enough to confront head first. We cement part of ourselves in song when creating music, so to say one is grounded by music is a really appropriate phrase. I have a lot of problems with the term “folk” and have pined for a different way to term my music, but I suppose nylon string guitars bring out that phrase for most.

When we last spoke you were living on an urban farm in Baltimore. Can you talk about that space a little? Are you still there?

The farm is called Sweet Root Farm and Apiary run by my good friend Rob Stephens. We met a long time ago while working together at a bakery. I was very grateful that he invited me to live there after Open Space. The farm was about a fifteen minute walk from the metalshop I got a job in as a fabricator for a furniture designer, so it worked out perfectly. It was such a beautiful experience to spend my weekends working in the field with Rob and other members of our household. It was a challenging experience because none of us really knew what we were doing, but it was really amazing to learn together. We had kids from the neighborhood helping out all the time. And best of all I could have a massive bonfire anytime I wanted. I’ve since moved off the farm because I missed being close to my friends in the city, but Rob is holding it down strong.

Are you over at the Copycat now?

So in September, right before I went on tour with Mutual Benefit, I moved back to the copycat (where I lived right before Open Space nearly six years ago) after a tough breakup and really needed to see my friends and a change of pace. My friend Colin asked if I wanted to take his room at the copycat in a space he ran called The Bahamas, which I gladly accepted. All of my roommates are super sweet and inspiring and it’s so nice to be around such energy from their work as students. Jake Lazovick, Andy Kim and I are still running the Bahamas and even though we generally have a one show per month rule, I’ve really taken pride in our space as music venue. We’ve hosted some incredible things recently, such as a performance of four different Steve Reich pieces, a secret Dan Deacon show, Suno Deko, Stephen Steinbrink, and a bunch of amazing others.

What are your plans moving forward?

Unfortunately, I caught the tail end of The Bahamas, and we are all moving out in May. I just had an interview today for grad school at MIT to get my Masters of Science in Art, Culture and Technology, so we will see how that turns out! I’m off on a tour to SXSW with Small Wonder in March and then will do another round of tours with the full band in April. I’ll probably tour this summer a lot as well.

I’ve got about half a new album’s worth of songs ready to be worked on. I’m not exactly sure what will happen with them but I would like to do a lot more collaborating and I would like to get them finished up this Summer. I’ve resolved to never stop making music if I can help it. I would just like to find a more sustainable way to do it. I feel like I’ve really bonded with a lot of other musicians I’ve met on the internet and also just through playing shows in other cities. Luke Loseth of Holobody and I are working on a collaborative piece together, and Eric Littman of Steve Sobs/Phantom Posse and I have a secret project in the works. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

Soft Cat tour dates:

28 Baltimore, MD @ The Crown

06 DC @ U Street Music Hall ^
12 Pittsburgh, PA @ Sharkweek *
13 Athens, OH @ Wolf Haus *
14 Bloomington, IN @ Good Girls Club *
15 Nashville, TN @ House Show *
16 Fayetteville, AR @ Backspace *
18 Denton, TX @ Macaroni Island *
19 – 3/21 – SXSW *
22 Jackson, MS @ The Mosquito *
23 Birmingham, AL @ House Show *
24 Atlanta, GA @ Yolk Space *
25 Athens, GA @ Flicker Bar *
26 Asheville, NC @ Das Puup Haus *
29 New York @ Nola Darling

08 Baltimore, MD @ The Bahamas – Album Release party
10 New York City @ The Silent Barn – Album Release party %

* w/ Small Wonder
^ w/ Mitski & Hundred Waters
% w/ Foxes in Fiction & Yours Are The Only Ears