Cole Guerra returns with “Carnival Barkers,” his debut as I Am Casting

After releasing Scarves & Knives in 2005 and touring to support it, North Carolina-based Cole Guerra took an extended break from music to pursue a career in clinical psychology. Now he’s back with a new album, Carnival Barkers, released under the name I Am Casting. Guerra recorded the album primarily at home, and he took full advantage of the freedom by experimenting with more rhythmic composition as well as electronic sounds.

There was a gap between your Scarves and Knives album and this release. Could you talk about that, and how you came to record as I Am Casting?

Cole Guerra: Yeah, I took quite a detour after the album Scarves and Knives came out. That was released under my own name. I was finishing a program in clinical psychology and had to make some choices about career and couldn’t wait any longer to go back to this program I had left. Basically if I wanted to keep the psychology option open, I needed to get back to it after I was done touring for Scarves and Knives. And I thought at the time that I’d be able to keep the music thing going and return to it full tilt within a year or two. But what happened was the psychology piece was really immersive. I had to spend a number of years finishing up the school, doing an internship, postdoc, getting my license so I could actually then set up a practice to see clients.

And every time I tried to sit down at the keyboard or sit with my guitar, it just wasn’t happening. And I think part of it was because I wasn’t really doing it full tilt. If anything, it brought up more negative feelings about stuff. I was kind of disappointed that I wasn’t doing it entirely in a committed way. So a year or two turned into a handful of years and so forth. And then what happened was a couple of years ago, I started reconnecting with some people I played with live, people who had been involved in prior recordings. A guy named Ian Schreier, for example, who mixed Scarves and Knives, also mixed this current record, and the outcome of that in part was that I got really interested in the recording process, something I hadn’t really taken control of previously. I’d gone into studios and cut records with an engineer behind the desk, the mixer, etc. And I wanted to kind of try out the spare bedroom what can I do on my own sort of recording approach.

And so I started doing that, and it was my way back in, to be honest. I found it really exciting, I’d never had recording software or equipment or anything like that, so I just took my gear, set it up and within a month or two of just buying some software and getting a basic sense of the setup, I was all in. Probably within a couple months, I had music. This is the spring of 2016. I’d have music going for a few tunes and started to think about lyrics. And the primary process for the presidential election was underway, and that gave me some ideas as far as the lyrical approach, but that was it. So basically I kicked back into gear in 2016, and I think the way forward is a little clearer now. I’ve already written four or five tunes for the next thing, even though this record just came out. I don’t think there’s a danger of me taking another bunch of year hiatus.

Previously you’re recording under your own name. What inspired you to use the name I Am Casting now?

Cole Guerra: I kind of like the pseudonym anonymity angle in part because it just removes preconceptions a bit. And the singer/songwriter implications. I think maybe they were more pronounced five, 10 years ago. I do think people come in, whether they realize it or not, even just hearing the name of the artist and ask is it a band? Is it a solo artist? I think that kind of thing can affect your initial expectations and approach to music. And I liked having more ambiguity. Is this a solo person? Is this a band? What is this? So I just dug the idea of not using my own name.

As far as the particular name, I know it has several connotations that I dig, and a bunch of them suggest sort of creative process. Sort of metal casting, sort of artistic like sculpting or shaping something. Even the fishing, the idea of casting in fishing, though I don’t fish. Just kind of searching for something, trying to get something on your line, creatively speaking. Those things all resonated for me. It felt like an active process. It wasn’t so much about the outcome, it was about the process of trying to create something, in this case, an album or a project. So that’s how I came up with the name.

What impact did home recording have on your creative process?

Cole Guerra: Prior to 2016, when I was writing tunes, I would do the conventional ‘sit with guitar’ or ‘sit at piano thing’ and the whole song would unfold over a period of whatever days or weeks or months, without really paying attention to texture or arrangements or that kind of thing until pretty much the song was done. And then I’d be coming back and think about the arrangement. So arrangements and texture weren’t really part of the songwriting process so much. And what I found was that when I had the ability to kind of go in, whether I was just taking an initial demo type of crack at things or doing something more finished, with the home recording environment, I could basically pull up anything I wanted. So yeah, I had my guitars, and I was sitting at a keyboard, a midi keyboard. And so I could still go that route and record on the fly.

But what I would actually tend to do is bring up other stuff, particularly rhythm elements, which is where I really found myself heading. So, I would bring up percussion stuff very early in the process and start writing percussion parts. Even if I was only a handful of measures, or let’s say a verse into a song, whatever I was doing with those percussion parts. I tend to write sort of odd percussion parts, I’d say this basically because a lot of percussionists have told me that. So the percussion parts tended to define where the song went, way more than I ever imagined could have been the case. It would create the feel, and I guess the feel shaped the compositions.

So the songs I wrote, I just couldn’t have come at in the same way. I couldn’t have written them. There’s a couple of exceptions to that rule, but of the 11 tunes, I’m pretty confident that eight or nine of them at least, I never could have come to through the standard process I’d previously used. So it was really about how texture and arrangement was part of the compositional process versus an afterthought. I really dug that. So yeah, that was the main difference.

What is your studio setup like?

Cole Guerra: I’m bare bones, you’d be surprised. The DAW I use is called Studio One. I’m using a pretty basic audio interface. So it’s me singing through my mic and putting my guitars in, going through there. And then I’ve got some virtual instrument stuff that I purchased, my midi keyboard and some other random software.

And then in the mixing process, I did leave the home space. Ian Schreier works out of a studio called Manifold Recording here in North Carolina. And so that would have brought some other, more analog gear to run through for mixing purposes, nice compressors, stuff like that. So some of that mixing magic, compression, and other effects stuff was not really coming out of my bedroom, so to speak, but in that space with him. And the only time I left my bedroom to track, to actually record, was when I had a drummer on two tracks, a bass player on one track and horns on two tracks. Those tracks were all cut over at a friend’s house. And other than that, I’m playing everything you hear on the record.

But that was it. So pretty minimal setup. I mean, kind of laughably so. All my vocals were cut in this bedroom. And I didn’t actually buy all the sound dampening, you know, whatever stuff. I just set it up a rigged with an ironing board with boxes, blankets, and pillows. I just did trial and error over the course of a couple of weeks to get a configuration where the room sounded how I wanted it, using this really very simple maneuvering of all crap I had in my house anyway.

And it actually turned out okay. Every time someone in the real engineering world hears it, they are like, really, the vocal was in the bedroom? Yeah. So whatever it was, the ironing board and box/blanket arrangements seemed to work surprisingly well. Though I had a couple accidents with it. I think the first week after I bought the mic, the ironing board with the box on it with a blanket fell onto it and smashed up the mic. So the whole thing was recorded with kind of a dented in brand new mic. But again, it sounded okay, so I’m not going to repair it unless I need to.

Were there any ideas that originated during the time when you were not actively making music?

Cole Guerra: No, it’s not exaggerating to say that I went probably five years without, and not just not songwriting. I went a few years without touching a guitar or sitting at a piano. It just got a little bit painful because of, it’s kind of like, oh, this is the path I didn’t take sort of thing, you know. Instead of feeling good, it just kind of reminded me of this thing I wasn’t doing. I mean, I still listened to music voraciously, but I just couldn’t find my way into songwriting or even playing. So no, everything was written basically from the spring of 2016 through the end of 2017. It was basically a year and a half.

And then because I was doing the home studio thing, I was a bit slow in some of the final tracking, figuring out how to do stuff I wanted to do, and then get it to mix and master and whatnot. So the backend in terms of the recording process was a little slow for me because it was my first pass through doing this way. So hopefully that gets more efficient.

Did you perform the material live at all while you were making the album?

Cole Guerra: I hadn’t performed live since touring for Scarves and Knives. I am playing a couple of local gigs, not the conventional CD release thing. Because I’ve written already a number of tunes for the next thing, my plan right now actually is that if I can get that out in the next year. I’d rather be touring on multiple projects versus this one alone. Part of it is some of this music is going to be hard to recreate live, especially on the road where I can only afford to take so many people on the road with me. And there’s a lot of stuff happening on these tracks.

Since I missed so many years, I’d rather spend the next year or two writing as much as I can, so that in three years I have a few new records rather than one record that I toured the crap out of. And I know that’s not the way to maybe build as much momentum in terms of people knowing about you, going to see you live, that kind of thing, selling your merch, all that. But right now that’s secondary to me. I really want to get back in the full tilt of the recording process. And then I’ll take a breath and go on the road and support this and the best way I can.

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