In this series I interview the musicians who lent their talents to the Picket Line soundtrack, many of them comics enthusiasts and storytellers in their own right. Laura Cone is the woman behind Portland, Oregon’s charming Upsidedown Cat, and wrote the song “About Your Way” for the soundtrack. She and I talked over G-chat about how she started writing songs, when she thought she was going to learn accordion.
B: Well, let’s kick this off with the same question I’ve been starting everyone with. Describe the sound of Upsidedown Cat to someone who hasn’t heard it before.
Laura: Ha. I usually say Casio-Pop or Indie-Pop. Or songs that are stories. I guess sometimes I find it hard to describe to people. I know it’s not kids’ music, but it just so happens that a lot of kids love it, which I think is awesome!
B: You’ve gotten some radio play on an Atlanta children’s program right?
Laura: Apparently. I think it’s called The Kids Are Alright. Also I’ve been played on 94.7 KNRK’s Saturday morning show Greasy Kid Stuff. The Atlanta show found me through them.
B: I can see how kids would enjoy the sound, but I agree, the lyrics really aren’t aimed at children. Not that they are offensive or anything, but it’s mature songwriting. You touch on emotions that everyone is familiar with, emotions that are particularly intense in childhood: disappointment, fear, frustration, and loneliness, as well as hope, curiosity, and wonder. Combined with very descriptive imagery, it’s all very evocative. Are you writing from specific memories?
Laura: I would say my songs are mainly about specific memories. Sometimes they are imagined, but mainly they are true. In that way the album is really personal, and I guess that could feel young, though I was 19 when I started making songs.
B: How did you begin writing songs?
Laura: I like to say I first began writing songs by accident, haha. I didn’t plan it, and wasn’t really excited about it at first. I had an acquaintance, I guess you could say, who was offering music lessons. I wanted to learn to play accordion, perhaps because my grandma did, and I’ve always liked They Might Be Giants. Anyway, so I signed up for four lessons with Todd Fadel. Except they were songwriting lessons! “Why would you want to learn music unless you could play your own songs?” There was just one problem: I was afraid of singing in front of people. Todd taught songwriting with an improv method. You would take a few ideas and try them out, and then record it, and later go back to it and do some editing, if that makes sense. Anyway, after a few months, I was a lot more comfortable with the process, and meanwhile I was learning to sing at church. Pretty soon after that, if I remember correctly, I became a part of Ink Brethren, which was a group songwriting game. Being a part of Ink Brethren for months really helped me grow and have fun with it, and become less scared.
B: So how long of a process was it, from where you started out without any songwriting, to the point where you were comfortable singing and performing your songs in front of someone?
Laura: I would say I’m still not super comfortable with performing in front of groups. I’m definitely comfortable singing, after years of practice at church, but I need to practice more to perform comfortably, singing and playing at the same time. I would say, though, I took lessons for three years, and Ink Brethren met for over a year, and by maybe three or four months into Ink Brethren I wasn’t as afraid of singing in front of other people. Hmm…so I don’t really know. While doing songwriting, I was also in college and working, and so for my whole music-life it’s been a part-time thing. We’ve made it through the few shows I’ve had, but I’ve always felt just barely.
B: Yeah, I think it gets easier with the doing. Otherwise there is this mystery there, or like, you think of all the things that could go wrong. But when you’re actually doing it, you realize even if those things DO happen it’s not the end of the world
Laura: Yeah, I think the next step is finding some regular people who are committed to practicing with me, because that is the best (the only?) way I practice. With the shows I’ve already had, we would practice for a show specifically and just try to learn six songs or something.
B: Accountability is key. I’d love to have that with drawing, as well, or else it’s really easy to let it slip.
Can we talk a little about “About Your Way”? What was your first reaction when I asked if you would write a song for a comic?
Laura: It was really fun writing a song specifically for the book. It was a fun challenge, pretending to be a character. Another reason the song was fun was that my boyfriend Mike (Alston) played on the song, and I kind of let him add some of his musical style to it. In some ways it’s more like the Christmas EP (It’s Winter) we did last year, because he played a lot on that.
B: You showed me drafts along the way, and it was really fun seeing the progression. I remember there was a big difference after Mike added his tracks. The song was really nice already, but it did add some really beautiful sonic layers.
Laura: It was great to have you there to send tracks to, to make sure the song sort of fit with what you were hoping for.
B: You recorded “About Your Way” in Mike’s studio, Sound Ghost, right?
Laura: We did record at Sound Ghost, which was awesome. I’m so thankful to know someone like Mike who is so knowledgeable about recording. I started recording my demos at home on my tape recorder and computer, but Soon Fall Will Be Here and everything after it are much, much better thanks to the studio.
B: It really does take things to the next level. Your home recordings worked really well as their own thing, but hearing the records you’ve recorded at Sound Ghost, including your Picket Line song, it really does move things into the next bracket, as far as sound quality goes. As for a maturing songwriting style, that’s to be expected no matter how you’re recording, right? Or does working at Sound Ghost affect your song writing at all?
Laura: I’m not sure if working at Sound Ghost affects the songwriting, but I know the instrumental arrangements (with the input of Mike and our other friends) really help bring the songs together. With Soon Fall Will Be Here, I just had bare-bones demos going in. Then, working for months at Sound Ghost, we developed them into more full songs, with bass, and layering real drums and Casio drums. One great thing about hanging out at Sound Ghost is that I’ve heard and seen other songwriters record, and gotten to know more about their processes, or sounds they’re trying to get. I think it helps me think more about arranging songs.
B: This is kind of a generic question, but I’m actually really curious because your sound is so unique, but who are your influences, musically?
Laura: Musical influences… well, music with storytelling, lyrics, and harmonies (especially boy-girl harmonies) are sounds I’ve always liked. when Todd gave me some Mates of State albums, and introduced me to Damien Jurado and Dear Nora and stuff, I think that was huge. I love LAKE, and Nedelle, as well as Quasi and Thanksgiving, and other Portland bands. I think my friends always influence me. I know Agents of Future are a big influence. Also Kelli Schaefer and Drew Grow, as I learned to sing with them on Sunday mornings at The Bridge.
B: It seems like The Bridge has been a great conduit for some of those collaborations, too, hasn’t it? A number of Picket Line collaborators are, or have been, involved there. I think that speaks loudly for the kind of community spirit it fosters.
Laura: Yes, I think without knowing the Fadels or Bridge folks, I may never have gotten into music, or….maybe just at a slower rate. Bringing community together in song is awesome. I definitely believe in sing-alongs. I love that my fans and friends know my song lyrics and want to sing along. And I find it hard not singing along to my favorite bands at shows. I feel really fortunate to know so many songwriters, so we can talk about songwriting process and stuff. And for the few shows I’ve had, I’ve gotten to open for some of my favorite bands, like LAKE.
B: Yeah, what an honor to open for one of your favorites!
Laura: Yeah. I was also honored to be included in your project Picket Line, everything from reading the script a long time ago, to being invited to write a song for it. It was really fun, and I know as an artist, it takes support from other friends and artists, and I think your process of including all of us is awesome. And maybe it makes the book have more voice, if that makes sense.
B: Awesome, yeah, thanks Laura! I think it was a really important aspect for me, to involve other artists. I think you’re right – it does increase the voice. Thanks so much for talking with me!
Laura: Of course!