Overlooked Americana Women from the Turn of the Century

Caitlin Cary’s debut solo album, 2002’s While You Weren’t Looking, should have been the launch of a major pop-music career. All 11 of the songs—written or co-written by Cary—achieved that elusive combination of melodic pleasure, musical roots and emotional depth that the fledgling Americana movement had so often promised. Songs such as “Please Don’t Hurry Your Heart,” “Thick Walls Down” and “Pony” boasted choruses you could sing along with the second time they came around, even as they were twisting your heart.

Alas, that career triumph was not to be. Cary’s record emerged soon after the breakup of the North Carolina band Whiskeytown. She and Ryan Adams had been the band’s only constant members from founding till dissolution, but once the band ended, it was Adams who commanded the attention of the Americana press and audience. Meanwhile, Whiskeytown’s fiddler and female vocalist had made the best album ever associated with any member of the band, only to find it overlooked by a distracted media. It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that her gender handicapped her, especially when you consider that a number of other women who emerged between 1995 and 2005 also found their best work under-appreciated. Cary, Laura Veirs, Neko Case, Kelly Hogan and Beth Orton all made terrific albums at the indie-rock end of the Americana spectrum in this era, but none of them achieved the shed-headlining stardom of such male peers as Adams, Jeff Tweedy and Jim James.

Yep Roc Records, Cary’s original solo label, reissued While You Weren’t Looking with three bonus tracks this fall. Listening to it again two decades after its release, a listener finds its strengths more remarkable than ever. The dBs’ Chris Stamey produced the sessions, and Whiskeytown’s final guitarist, Mike Daly, co-wrote eight of the songs and added sparkling fills and solos on multiple instruments.

But Cary deserves most of the credit. Her soprano has that ripe, slightly bruised quality of someone determined to remain hopeful while acknowledging all too many disappointments. Her patient, tuneful fiddling reinforces those same qualities. Her lyrics know how to work a metaphor. “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water” offers advice to a young man struggling to keep his head above the surface while the object of his desire sails by. “Two can float on air,” Cary sings, “one alone’s a sinking vessel.”

And she knows how to inflate her words with music. One of the hardest songs to write is one of sincere apology, but Cary pulls it off on “Sorry,” the aching regret in her voice matching her words, “I’m sorry, sorry, sorry for my arms / I tried to protect you.” On “Fireworks,” she describes a couple breaking up on the Fourth of July, the shadowy silence of the parting contrasting with the bright explosions overhead. When she sings, “The fireworks went pop, pop, pop / I had to let him go,” the soft, bubble-bursting sound of each “pop” is devastating.

There’s an echo of the best British folk-rock in this music—of Richard Thompson and his female-vocal foils Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson. Those three Brits had taken their original cue from the American folk revival of the ’60s, and now Cary and such fellow Americans as Veirs, Hogan and Case were taking theirs from the Brits. It’s no coincidence that Veirs and Hogan have both sung vocal harmonies for the Decemberists, also big fans of British folk-rock. Veirs and Case, of course, belonged to the trio of case/lang/veirs, who released a like-sounding album in 2016.

Veirs recently released her latest solo album, Found Light. At the end of 2019, she announced that she and her longtime husband/producer Tucker Martine were divorcing. She gave her perspective on the split in the album My Echo, recorded before the announcement but released afterward. This new album touches on that (“You crushed me,” she sings on the song “Eucalyptus”), but it’s more focused on her new, post-divorce, single life (in that same song, the tree “reminded me of California, my life way before I knew you”).

The songs are much more than mere personal journals; they evoke the universal experience of anyone trying move beyond a traumatic event—whether it be divorce, pandemic, death or whatever. When Veirs sings, “I need to forget this chainmail in the lake and make room for new arms to surround me,” the imagery is specific enough to be easily visualized, but elastic enough to fit numerous situations.

Veirs finds similarly focused, yet flexible imagery for the various aspects of life after divorce: letting go of the past (“Summer has gone and the light grows long”), one-day-at-a-time thinking (“Night stitches day, and day stitches night”), the limits of vulnerability (“Give but don’t give too much of yourself away”), intimacy with new acquaintances (“Spoon you in Airbnbs”), seeking a new partner (“I’m a burning leaf / I’m purple and green and I’m sending you a signal, though I don’t know where you are”) and moving from anger to affection (“I’m turning my sword into a flower”).

In the liner notes, Veirs gives credit to three different poets (John Keats, Anis Mojgani and an anonymous Chinese writer) for inspiring certain lines, and there is a literary quality to these new songs—even more so than in her previous work. But they succeed as songs because the lines are short and the spaces between give the listener plenty of time to absorb what’s been said.

That’s reinforced by the stripped-down music, a contrast to the lusher, more polished, more keyboard-heavy chamber-pop of her 10 Martine-produced projects. This time, the thread from song to song is the nylon-string, classical guitar, usually played by Veirs herself, another departure. She has a light but fetching soprano, and the translucent sound lays her vocals bare as never before. The melodies are often pretty but they never grow sugary, thanks to the push-and-pull rhythms and the occasional dissonance.

This combination of acoustic guitar, jazz harmonies, frail soprano, elliptical lyrics and minimalist arrangements inevitably evokes early Joni Mitchell, Veirs’ original inspiration before she moved on to punk-rock bands and Americana. The new approach serves her well—and the resulting songs help anyone making a similar transition.

Shahzad Ismaily, who co-produced Found Light and played many of the instruments on it, also lends multiple instruments to Beth Orton’s new album, Weather Alive . The link seems to be chamber-pop artist Sam Amidon: Orton’s husband, a contributor to Veirs’ album and a prior client of Ismail.

It’s been half a dozen years since Orton’s last album, 2016’s underwhelming Kidsticks, and 10 years since her last triumph, 2012’s Sugaring Season, which was produced by Martine with backing vocals by Veirs. This new project is a welcome return to form with enough new twists to make it seem like a step forward.

The most obvious change is that Orton has laid aside her old instrument, the guitar, and instead plays piano on all eight tracks. This shifts her away from the folktronica sound that she pioneered on her early records toward the gospel-jazz sound of such female singer-pianists as Nina Simone and Laura Nyro. Like those two women (and in contrast to Veirs and Mitchell), Orton is less interested in fine-tuning every word in the lyric and more interested in finding a fascinating phrase that she can massage again and again with her marvelous voice.

On “Forever Young,” for example, she sings over a patient, synth-and-rumble track to a lover, hoping to get back to a prior state of romantic bliss. She fixates on certain lines (“We could go rolling,” “beautiful as you ever were”) and rolls them around in her mouth to indicate anxiety one time, wistfulness the second and hungry desire the third. She does something similar on the title track, observing that “the weather’s so beautiful outside, almost makes me wanna cry.” She pushes and pulls at that paradox, suggesting that the bright day reminds her of sunnier times in her past—and how that memory can make her sad one moment and hopeful the next.

Orton has long been a master of mixed emotions, relying on the tension between the implacable steadiness of the electronic instruments and the wobbly uncertainty of the acoustic instruments (and her own voice) to reinforce the drama. In that sense, the replacement of her acoustic guitar with the acoustic piano doesn’t matter that much; the tug of war remains the same. Many of these songs ask if the best moments of the past can ever be recovered—that summer in New York, that spring when they lay on their backs “under spider-spun trees,” the taste of that Proustian biscuit still lingering in the mouth. Maybe they can, the songs imply, but nothing is guaranteed.

Something is seriously broken in a music industry that can allow someone as talented as Cary to give up full-time music-making in 2010 and turn instead to visual art. The art world’s gain is the music world’s loss, as the reissue of her stunning album makes clear. Orton may have taken too many years between albums, but at least she’s making new music. And nothing, not even the rupture of divorce, seems to stop Veirs. But why should women as gifted as these find it so difficult to be heard and acknowledged in a world where music this exceptional is still a rarity?

Revisit Veirs and Orton performances from the Paste archives below.