By Shaley Howard
Katie Sawicki started the Portland-based band the Cabin Project in 2010 after moving here from Brooklyn and abandoning the touring life as a solo artist. Feeling uninspired when she wasn’t collaborating and performing with others, she decided to make the band the foundation of her next project. Group members consist of Zanny Geffel on percussions and vocals, Katie Sawicki on vocals, guitar and piano, and Rebekah Hanson on the viola and vocals. They’ve been described as an orchestral indie pop trio with sound influences by Bon Iver. And so far they’ve released three albums; The Cabin Project, Heliotrope and Unfolded and one EP called Sine.
“The Cabin Project has evolved into that beautiful symbiotic place that is much more than the sum of its parts. Over their many years, they have continued to evolve and push into new territory and never has that been clearer than on their latest, intricate and powerful album, Unfolded.” – Portland Singer-Songwriter Chris Pureka.
I had an opportunity to sit down with the members of the Cabin Project recently and ask them a few questions about how they all first connected, their process in creating music and current projects.
PQ Monthly: How did you all meet and start playing together?
Katie Sawicki: It began as a studio project with music friends, which is when Zanny and I started playing together. It quickly turned into a live band. We started playing with Rebekah on the second Cabin Project record, Heliotrope, and we solidified as the core trio of the Cabin Project in early 2014, when we did the Sine EP together.
PQ: Was your family musical?
Sawicki: Not mine! But God bless ’em, they tried. My mom and I did sing hymns together occasionally, which helped me fall in love with harmony.
Zanny Geffel: My mom learned piano as an adult and taught the neighborhood kids, and she taught me a little as well. My dad tried the harmonica once. But after I started playing the drums, I learned that my grandpa on my dad’s side was a big band drummer, which was pretty exciting, he had passed by then, and so I didn’t get to talk with him about it.
Rebekah Hanson: Not really. My dad played the guitar a bit, and my mom had played the piano as a kid. We had a piano and music, but no one played music at home.
PQ: How/when did you start playing/singing music individually?
Sawicki: Mom says I had sung before I talked, which I am not sure is true. I think she might have just like that one line in that ABBA song, ‘Thank you for the Music’. But it is true that I was a musical and a capella geek from early on.
Geffel: I started playing the drums when I was ten but had tap danced before then. I always loved playing on pots and pans and wooden stools before then.
Hanson: My best friend played the violin, and I REALLY wanted to play. I started asking if I could take lessons at three years old and my parents thought it was a phase, and I would forget about it. After three years of asking for violin lessons, they signed me up.
PQ: Do you have any musical mentors or artists you learn from and/or admire?
Sawicki: I love Bon Iver- mostly because he seems as obsessed with ear candy, melding sounds and genres, and collaboration as I am. The National is also a huge influence of mine. But the fact is, I listen to Iron and Wine and Patty Griffin every day of my life.
Geffel: Ditto on Bon Iver – his percussionist S. Carey is a big influence for what I do in the band, as well as Bryan Devendorf, drummer for The National, and Phil Selway with Radiohead. As a drummer, I’ve always been influenced by classic jazz drummers, especially Elvin Jones. Ginger Baker and The Bad Plus’ drummer Dave King. And Warpaint, oh how I love them.
Hanson: The most influential string musician for me is Yo Yo Ma. I love that Yo Yo Ma performs classical music so incredibly well, but also gets out of the box and does a lot of improvising through chamber music. He is such a collaborative and creative artist.
PQ: What does the writing process look like for you?
Sawicki: It has shifted over the years, depending on band members. But now that we are settled in as a trio, I mostly write the skeleton of the song and lyrics, and we work together closely on arrangements. Usually during a band retreat.
Geffel: We’ve always relied heavily on what everyone brings to the table separately and then try to piece it all together. It’s a big part of what makes this band unique because we don’t have a particular sound that we’re all trying to emulate, we are creating and collaborating on a blank piece of paper. Not many bands do that without having a particular genre that they want to “fit” into.
Hanson: I have enjoyed our writing retreats. We will start with an idea and play around with it until we find something we love. We give one another a lot of space to experiment and find what works best together. It’s fun to see how our very different ideas morph into a cohesive song.
PQ: What it’s like being known in Portland, Oregon?
Sawicki: Haha, we’re known? Cool
Geffel: I just want free food, so if someone could make that happen, yeah…
PQ: What are the positive and most challenging aspects of being musicians and working in the music industry?
Sawicki: My favorite part of our band is seeing what comes out of our arrangements. I mean, these are two musicians who are each incredible at what they do. And they are willing to dive into what I bring them and turn it from semi/ok stuff into fascinating/dynamic and emotional arrangements. It’s pretty rad. As a songwriter, you can’t ask for a better situation. And it makes me want to perform our music wherever we can and in front of whomever we can.
The most challenging part is almost all the harshest realities of the music industry. It’s a bit brutal. Just getting on the road is a feat between negotiating jobs, vacation time, working with our agent to set up a tour that will get us in front of new audiences, etc. All of that. But at the end of the day, it’s our choice, and it’s an honor to get to do what we do – I’m super aware of that. You have to work hard and continue to grow to stay relevant, which is a good motivator for us I think. So I guess I can’t hate on the music industry for that part. It forces you to be resilient. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to your actual voice.
Geffel: Katie pretty much sums it up. I think when you’re working in such a saturated music market as Portland is, as well as Pandora, Spotify, Apple music, etc. it’s just difficult to be heard. Sometimes just pushing through those insecurities can be the biggest challenge, and understanding that just because we’re not always received in the best way, doesn’t mean we’re not great musicians who make great music. There’s also the challenge of being queer/gender neutral women, and being placed in situations where you aren’t taken seriously, or thought of in the same way as male or straight/feminine musicians.
Hanson: I agree with what they both said. Writing is my favorite part. I love coming up with new unique and challenging parts to play and incorporate into our songs. It’s so great to see how everything comes together.
PQ: What is the muse for your music and are you drawn to a particular topic(s)?
Sawicki: The Medusa of my emotions haha! Trying to allow space for all forms of feeling to have their say. I work out most of my untalked-about heartache through songwriting.
Geffel: Katie’s also focused on environmental/social justice in the past, and these are topics she seems into her lyrics all the time.
Hanson: I get most of my stuff from the classical music I play. It’s not usually intentional. When we are improvising and playing around with a new idea, I will often start playing a variation of something I am playing in symphony or chamber music.
PQ: Is there a message you want to share with your audience?
Sawicki: When it comes to our arrangements and music, we’re all about the drama. And we want to take our audience on that journey – to take them from zero to in love to heartbroken and back – through music. It’s fun for all of us.
PQ: If you weren’t pursuing music what would you want to do?
Sawicki: Eradicating prisons and reforming all policing and sentencing policy. Or open a knitting shop. I can’t decide.
Geffel: Music therapy or ethnomusicology, and disability advocacy work. Travel a lot also.
Hanson: I teach violin and viola and love it. I love working with kids and seeing them learn and create and grow with the music they play. I don’t know that I could do anything else!
PQ: What would you like to promote about yourselves and the Cabin Project?
Sawicki: Download the new record! “Unfolded“. We wanna share it with the world!
The Cabin Project’s next performances are on February 25th at Alberta Street Pub and March 31st at the White Eagle Saloon. For additional information go to www.thecabinproject.com.