As Little Anchor, “Yellow Lights,” is their debut EP, but also Alexa’s maturation of her singing voice and songwriting that she admits, breaks from dwelling on the pessimism of heart break with a renewed outlook, toting optimism. “The world needs more stories about hookups, right?” she would tell me. Despite your assumptions, “hookups” are an alliteration to happenstances that she retells with a resounding narrative, both lyrically and sonically.
The carefully constructed tempo and ambiance are fashioned around Alexa’s predetermined storyline that pulls you into the moment of the memory. Take “SEA/MA” for example. A quick tempo befitting of travel, is embodied in a reflection of her nine year old self looking out the windows during the two week drive, moving from Maryland to Seattle. It puts you into the car and recreates the mind of a naive child, living a rather dramatic change.
With great attention to detail to her life’s journeys, brought to fruition with both somber and elated melodic vocals, and the crescendo and respective decrescendo throughout “Yellow Lights,” you’re can’t help but to be taken onto Alexa’s boat, where beneath it roll the wave’s ebbs and flows, carrying the momentum of her Little Anchor.
MB: Your music is rather “free flowing” and as your band’s name, Little Anchor, evidences, the ambiance of the music puts me in a mood perfect for an afternoon sojourn on a boat. Why does the sea come into play for your group? Is it from Alexa’s Northwest origins?
Alexa Cabellon: Little Anchor started out as my solo project, and for a little less than a year, we were going by my full name (Alexa Cabellon). Coincidentally, I started writing the songs that later became Little Anchor songs while I was back home in the Pacific Northwest for a weekend, staying at a friend’s cabin on the Columbia River Gorge. Perhaps subconsciously, that element of sea, or water, infiltrated our subconscious!
After rehearsing the first few demos I made with my friends, Kendrick Lo (guitarist), Thomas White (bassist), and Ian Chang (drummer), it became evident that the sound we were creating was a band sound, and that the songs I had originally written on my own started to take more shape and contained much more depth when the boys helped me arrange parts for a four-piece band.
We went back and forth on several band names for a few months; I originally was looking to the name the band, “Little Bird,” because I like the imagery that comes to mind when songwriters reference birds in their lyrics, but there was already a band in Texas who had that name, or one similar. Finally, Kendrick and I were going back and forth one day and he eventually came to Little Anchor. It just seemed fitting. As someone who’s always been among the smallest in a group of people, the idea of someone or something small, yet grounding, or perhaps even fierce, appealed to me. And then there is also the endless possibility of design with anchors…
MB: Your influences are The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but when listening to your albums, I wouldn’t have guessed it. What elements from The Beatles and The Beach Boys do you bring into the album?
Alexa Cabellon: My parents were huge Beatles fans, and I learned how to play the guitar by reading through chord charts over two volumes of Beatles sheet music my Dad had around. Both The Beatles and The Beach Boys clearly know how to write melodies, and that’s what I always put first – creating a resonant melody.
Going back to The Beatles, to me, is almost like comfort food. The melodies are so strong, yet the songs are so simple, and the melodies can almost always be sung over four chords. I’ve tried to incorporate that element of simplicity into my songwriting and arranging, while still keeping in mind what I’ve learned from my classical upbringing on piano and the boys’ jazz training. The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is another album that’s like comfort food to me, with Brian Wilson’s amazing sense of harmony.
MB: How and where did your band, Alexa, Kendrick, Thomas, Ian meet and decide to form?
Alexa Cabellon: I met Kendrick and Thomas during our junior semester abroad in Prague. Aside from being musicians, we lived on the same floor and were in the same Czech language class together. I’m not sure we’ve retained much Czech since then, but we all became very close and even took our fall break to Cyprus, together.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later, though, when we graduated from NYU that I started honing in on my songwriting and voice. I recorded a couple of demos in the summer of 2009 after my trip home and shared those early demos with Kendrick and Thomas. Just as I was beginning to show those songs to them, their friend Ian Chang, who they knew through the jazz department at NYU, was looking for a new place to live, and ended up taking a room that was available in my house in Brooklyn. The three of them had played together several times in various projects, and they all expressed interest in playing the songs I had written, so we started doing acoustic rehearsals at my house in Brooklyn and took it from there!
MB: What went into the making of “Yellow Lights” EP in terms of inspiration? What about the album’s title?
Alexa Cabellon: “Yellow Lights” was written during a very reflective period of growth that I had experienced after being out of college for a year. Side B, especially, is almost a meditation on what I had learned, while trying to focus on the more positive aspects of life. Side A is more narrative based. The first song, “Don’t Be Scared to Move” was actually the last song I had written for the EP; I had only finished writing it a few days before we began tracking drums for the record. I distinctly made an effort to stop writing about breakups and told myself to start writing about hookups. The world needs more stories about hookups, right!? “Lady Tennessee” drew from an experience I had helping a woman out on the subway and grew into a story of its own. “SEA/ MD” is a reflection on my childhood and adolescence split between Maryland and Seattle.
MB: There’s one ethereal track that lulls me into another world where you, Alexa, are crooning, “Until Our Eyes Adjust,” but that track was carried over from your debut EP, “Sunland” to “Yellow Lights.” What went into that decision and what was the first EP intended for? Was it a feeler EP that you experimented with for “Yellow Lights”?
Alexa Cabellon: I’m happy to hear you’ve listened to “Sunland” and noticed there are two versions of “Until Our Eyes Adjust!” “Sunland” was that collection of early demos that I shared with Kendrick, Thomas, and Ian, which I recorded with my voice teacher in Greenpoint. It wasn’t a feeler EP for Yellow Lights, so much as it was a feeler EP for me in trying to develop my singing voice and my songwriting voice in a very stripped down setting. Maybe it’ll be a Little Anchor collector’s item someday?
“Until Our Eyes Adjust” was my favorite song on “Sunland,” and in my opinion, the most well-written song on the record. I knew that it had more potential to be fleshed out with a full-band and wanted the song to be taken in an ambient, ethereal, haunting route.
In November of 2010, we went to Galuminum Foil Studios in Brooklyn to record a full-band version of “Until Our Eyes Adjust,” which our friend and engineer, Gary Atturio, produced. We also had our friends, Ian Davis and Gabriel Gall of the band, The Relatives, arrange string parts for us, and our friends Kristine Kruta and Josh Henderson, play the cello, violin, and viola parts on the recording.
Gary is a friend of mine through the band, Savoir Adore, and after having such a great experience working with him on “Until Our Eyes Adjust,” we decided to record the rest of what was to be “Yellow Lights” with him in the late Winter/Spring of 2011.
MB: How have you evolved from 2010 into 2011, and approaching 2012? Do you have any goals that you’ve set?
Alexa Cabellon: Being in the studio in 2011 and going through the whole recording process has been such a learning experience for us. It’s really made us tighter as a band, and definitely more than just an extension of my solo project. It’s also given us a clear idea of what sound we’re looking for in the newer songs (post-”Yellow Lights!”) that I’m beginning to write and arrange with the rest of the band.
Approaching 2012, we’re working towards writing a full length album and getting back into the studio to record that. We’d also like to do more weekend runs outside of New York City – we just got back on Sunday from doing three shows in Philadelphia, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Arlington, Virginia/D.C.! I think we’ll probably be back down in DC sooner than later, but hopefully we can make our way up north soon, as well. Now that we’re playing CMJ this year, I’d love to make it down to SXSW in Austin next year, but I know that’s going to take a lot of coordination that needs to be in the works already. If not 2012, definitely 2013.
MB: You’re playing at the CMJ showcase this weekend at The Rock Shop in NYC this Saturday. What should your fans expect and what type of ambiance do you intend to create for your audience?
Alexa Cabellon: We’re so excited to play our first CMJ this year! It’s been a busy month for us – we’ve played four dates this month out of state, which is way more than usual for us in one month. Since we only have half an hour, we’ll be running through “Yellow Lights,” and playing a new tune or two that hasn’t been recorded yet. We will definitely be taking people into that ethereal/ambient world, but there are a few rockers in our set – you’ve been warned!
MB: What’s your opinion on the “indie” pop or indie rock sounds that are creeping into mainstream music charts – for example, Foster the People – typically dominated by pure Pop, hip hop and electronic sounds these days? Where would you like to see your group one day?
Alexa Cabellon: I find it harder and harder to keep up with the “indie” pop / rock scene. I think it’s easy to get caught up in that chase, and it can be fun for a while, but it’s definitely started to wear on me in the past year. I now find myself digging back in time for “new” music. Light in the Attic Records consistently has put out amazing reissues from Serge Gainsbourg, Rodriguez, and Jim Sullivan that I’m really into. As far as more contemporary “indie” artists go, I’m really into St. Vincent, and it’s been fun as a fan to see her evolve in the past three years. Her newest record, “Strange Mercy,” is probably the most experimentally “realized” for her. I’ve listened to it three or four times already and still haven’t digested it fully. Listening to it back to back with her first album, “Marry Me,” proves for very different experiences, yet her voice somehow ties it all together.
Kendrick, Thomas, Ian, and I all listen to a wide variety of music, though. At heart, my interests tend to lie in folk or folk rock. Sometimes I feel pretty old-fashioned, but I like seeing what a band can create without a laptop. The boys are a little more interested in electronic music than me, and I think in the future, it could be interesting to experiment with more electronic sounds, in a tasteful way.
Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” is one of those songs that you can know almost entirely after hearing it once – it’s amazingly catchy. I think my main question with bands like Foster the People is how they will grow and what they will evolve to after their current release. What will their staying power be?
“Yellow Lights” is just the beginning for Little Anchor. There are a bunch of things I’ve learned about my voice and songwriting that I’d like to experiment with for our full-length album. I know my mom wants our record to be played on Seattle’s KISS 106.1 radio station, but I’d be happy to be able to hear our stuff on KEXP radio in the future!
MB: So on the topic of Foster the People, they had their single, “Pumped Up Kicks” on TV shows and commercials. The propelling power of TV as a medium for marketing music is evident. So if you had a choice between any company or TV show to have your music featured on, what track and TV/company would you choose that resonated best with your band?
Alexa Cabellon: I’d love to see “Don’t Be Scared to Move,” or at least the instrumental of that song placed on TV. I heard “Arrested Development” is coming back for a season, and I LOVE that show. “Don’t Be Scared to Move” could probably provide a humorous backdrop for those characters. Otherwise, as a band who truly appreciates food, I’d love to see the Food Network place some
of our music. Perhaps The Great Food Truck Race?
MB: It seems like you do your own screen printing and maybe even designing. Would you call yourselves self-sufficient?
Alexa Cabellon: We’ve been really lucky to have a great team of talented friends help with our design and merchandise, so no, we aren’t entirely self-sufficient. Barclay Douglas has been doing all of the art design for Little Anchor, and I met him through one of my good friends in the Steinhardt Music Business Department at NYU, from which I graduated. Barclay’s been doing design work for us since when we were still going under my full name, but when we made the switch over to Little Anchor, I let Barclay go to town, and the outcome is entirely his natural aesthetic. After developing our logo, he has gone on to do the album art for “Yellow Lights” as well as many of our show posters, which are all hand-drawn. Barclay also grew up in Rhode Island, where the nautical theme runs prevalent, so he really is the perfect fit for our band.
With Barclay’s logo, my roommate, Charlotte, my friend Mia, and I took an evening to screen print a short run of tote bags. Charlotte’s the pro when it comes to screen printing. We only have eight totes left, so I think we may be doing a second run pretty soon! There’s also been talk about making Little Anchor fanny packs!
MB: Is there anything you’re working on that you’d like to tell your fans about?
Alexa Cabellon: Well, right now, between shows, I’m working on writing new songs towards a full-length album. We’ve arranged two of them together as band and have started to play them out at shows. You’ll definitely hear them at CMJ!
Our friends in Philly with the blog, What’s Protocol?, have asked us to do a jock jams cover for a compilation they’re putting together in March. After listening to SiriusXM’s 90s on 9 station on the road, I think we might just have to give into that silliness.
MB: Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Alexa Cabellon: We’re still trying to navigate it ourselves, but as an independent artist, you have to step up and adapt to wearing a lot of hats – you’re the songwriter, the arranger, the performer, the producer, the manager, the booking agent, the record label, the publicist, the publisher, etc. It’s fun to see your dreams take shape, but it can be overwhelming, and it takes a lot of work! Sometimes you’re in artist mode when you’re asked to make “business” decisions, and sometimes you have to carve out time to write when you’re caught up in booking shows.
It’s important to be conscious of that balance between artist mode and business mode. Both sides are important, but at the end of the day, you’re working hard on all accounts, because what you’re creating is something you believe in and can stand behind, and is absolutely worth sharing with the rest of the world.