Interview: Sinai Vessel Transcends on ‘Ground Aswim’

Posted: by The Editor

Photo by Bennett Littlejohn

Formed out of necessity as well as curiosity, Ground Aswim, the latest record from Sinai Vessel, is the coalescing of years of growth and soul-searching for songwriter Caleb Cordes. Balancing its effortless sound with both an appreciation and empathy for the world we live in, Ground Aswim is a deeply personal album that’s as beautiful as it is vulnerable, a record that gives an unflinching look at the human experience and one that rewards patience and repeated listens as it slowly begins to reveal the hidden truths that it contains. I spoke with Caleb about the making of Ground Aswim, the evolution of the project, the importance of Big Thief, and more.

Get Alternative: How have you been holding up during quarantine? Have you picked up any new hobbies?

Caleb Cordes: I have always been interested in applying myself to exercising a little more and I feel like that’s something that a lot of people have picked up over quarantine as well, like that feeling of I need to take myself outside in some way so here’s the way I’m going to do it. I just started running a lot more which I was interested in before but I didn’t really do it with any kind of regime. I live in Nashville now but prior to moving here back in October of 2019 I had never lived in a town that didn’t have mountains, so I’m very much into hiking and seeing mountains over the city skyline, so I really just wanted to get outside and see green spaces as much as possible, so that combined with running has led me to a love of trail running. As far as new hobbies go I think I’ve mostly just been running a great deal, this quarantine has also refamiliarized me with my love of reading and I’ve consumed books at a much higher rate than I have in years past. I think it’s generally been, apart from the existential crises that are kind of endemic to this whole time for a lot of people, I think it’s put me in touch with what I enjoy outside of music maybe? I would loosely term them as “creature habits,” sort of hobbies that will be sustainable for a long time whether or not there’s any career attached to them. All of those things that I mentioned, running, reading, etc. are all very private hobbies that I don’t really converse with anybody about and it’s been really nice to get all of this time and space to do those things.

That sounds very peaceful. You saying that thing about always having lived near mountains made me realize that I’ve never lived anywhere where I couldn’t see cornfields. I don’t really know what to do with that information, I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing but it’s true.

Yeah, I don’t think you grapple with those things being a part of your scenery until they’re not anymore and then it can kind of take you for a loop, you’re like “Oh, I thought this was the default background to reality.”

For sure. What’s your favorite book that you’ve read recently?

I just finished The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Some people have kind of loosely turned that as a southern version of Catcher in the Rye. In Catcher in the Rye, the protagonist is wandering around Manhattan and in this one the protagonist is ten years older wandering around New Orleans in a similar time, and that was really nice. I came into reading that book out of reading The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, which is a much thicker, denser sort of prose, and The Moviegoer is much more conversational so for a moment there I was used to reading very serious, thick literature and then to get doused in this everyday life was jarring at first but I appreciated the challenge to be that versatile in my reading. I’m currently about halfway through a James Baldwin book, around the time of the George Floyd protests starting I had seen so much video footage of James Baldwin being interviewed, and I began to follow up on those interviews and sort of really began to sit at the feet of his character and his wisdom, which is really timeless but really personable and humble as well. So I was like man I love this person in interviews, I would love to jump into his fiction, and I started reading a book called Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone and I think that will end up being my favorite thing I’ve read this year, it’s really knocked me on my butt.

It’s been over three years since we’ve last heard from you, in which ways do you think you’ve grown as a songwriter since your last album?

I think that I’ve been in some capacities a little bit more lucid in taking to the task of songwriting. I think that I’ve spent more time listening to records that I love and distilling what about those records makes me feel at home as a listener, and what about the qualities of those records keeps me coming back and what function music and records play in my life. I think as a songwriter I paid a little more attention this time around to the listener, in the sense of I really wanted to create a world that the listener could rest in and find a variety of nutrients and sounds inside, and that sounds altruistic, like I’m creating a record for some ideal virtual listener but that’s not the case, it’s ultimately still self serving because that listener is me. Essentially I’ve thought a lot more about making a record that I would want to hear and figuring out what kinds of tasks and leaps and bounds it would take in my writing to get there. For a long time I’ve felt, especially when I was touring on Brokenlegged, that there was a pretty big gap between what I made and what I listened to, not necessarily just in terms of quality but in the values that were held in the kinds of music that I listened to. There was a pretty big incongruence there, by the time Brokenlegged came out I wasn’t really listening to much of anything that really sounded like Brokenlegged, and you can chalk that up to the fact that the record was written a great deal of time before it came out. I was kind of left with this tension between what nourished me and what I was putting out in the world and it took a few years to figure out how to make music that would be nourishing on both sides of the virtual pair of headphones, which is to say that it would be nourishing to the friends that I would be giving this record to and it would also be nourishing to me as an artist to play. And just trying to create something that felt challenging and exciting to me, felt like it could give rest to the listener, and felt new.

Are there any artists in particular that had a heavy influence on this new record?

I think Big Thief would probably be the biggest one.

The best band in the world.

I completely agree. I really think that Adrianne Lenker is on the same level as all of the great songwriters that go down in the books, all the Joni Mitchell’s and Leonard Cohen’s of the world, she’s right up there and has this magical, kind of timeless quality. I think whenever an artist is asked the question “Who influenced the shape of this record?” there’s this pressure to list an influence that no one else lists or to list something that goes back in the ages or something that’s obscure and I can’t ignore what’s happening directly in front of me, and that’s Big Thief. I think that there’s a reason that they receive the acclaim from critics and fans and fellow artists that they do, I think there’s so much to be learned from them and how they take to the task of making art. There was a video that I think has since been taking down, I’m not really sure exactly why, but this was maybe sometime in 2018, and a video went up of Big Thief playing a venue I believe in Paris and it was them playing “Not” and “Terminal Paradise” before either of those songs had been released, either on Adrianne’s solo record or the Big Thief record to follow, so they were brand new and it was a really hi-fi live performance, and that performance was like this weird bible to me, I got to this place where I was watching it almost every other day. There was something about it, the songs themselves are of course incredible, but the performance was so much more than just the sum of its parts and it really began to break some things down in me. I think that I used to be an artist that was really concerned with everything being in it’s right place, I think a record like Brokenlegged is evidence to that. All of the nuts and bolts are really right and that is something that I really chased after and sought to cultivate in my years as a younger songwriter, I thought that the best way to deliver the best kind of performance on stage and on record was to have all of the lines scripted, so you would know where to land and put your feet every time. But whenever I would watch those Big Thief videos and then listen to their subsequent records I began to realize that just about everything that moves me comes from a place beyond just the math of “This is what we’re gonna say and this is how we’re gonna play it.” It requires a destruction of the wall that exists between the self that plays music and the self that feels things and eats food and talks to friends and has private thoughts before they go to bed at night. It takes approaching music as a person, a spiritual being, as an emotional being. I think that I had never brought my full self to music in the way that I was seeing Big Thief do it. So yeah, there was this weird spirit that I discovered in that video and it began to wake up something in me that I began to seek out in a bunch of other avenues and sought to bring to my own music.

I’m pretty sure that I know what video you’re referencing. I haven’t seen it in quite some time so I didn’t realize it was taken off of Youtube, but it’s such a powerful and moving performance.

I’m really glad that you know the one. It’s just wild, I’ve gotten that kind of singular feeling from seeing particular shows before, but not to the degree that I was able to with this video, like to be able to go back and rewatch it and get the same feeling again and again. It’s almost like if you were able to go back to a pivotal moment in your life and keep reviewing it and noticing new things about it, that’s what that video was for me. I took all of my values as a songwriter and an artist into that space and then I came out learning what was valuable to keep and what I was able to throw away and what was worth developing. I’ve learned a lot from that band and also learned a lot from the spirit that they evoke.

I feel like Big Thief are one of the toughest bands to try and write about because there’s something inside of that music that I don’t even know how to begin to describe but it’s so obvious whenever you listen to it.

Yeah, I stopped short of saying this because the people that make that music are absolute strangers to me and I have no idea what goes on in their personal lives and I feel uncomfortable making any kind of conjecture but I also feel like music like that has to come out of a practice that is not only musical but also personal. 

I think that the whole idea of music being a shared experience is something that’s much different and a lot more special in their hands. That’s the kind of feeling that I think they evoke for me, it’s otherworldly, and I feel like I don’t have the vocabulary to accurately describe what it is that they do.

The way that I described it to a friend, and I think it’s the best metaphor that I’ve come up with for being inspired by that band, is that they present the kind of fruits of their own journeys in such a way that is very open and invites the listener to also make their own journey. What I mean by that is whenever I watch them and listen to that music and then seek to make music of my own it’s not “Oh, how can I make something that’s similar sonically?” Clearly these people have been driving the vehicle of their music to some other kind of planet and I want to take my own vehicle there too and see what I can bring back and see what it brings up in me. So it’s not so much of a direct influence of like what can I steal and what can I borrow, it’s like I want to take that same journey or I want to ask similar questions of myself and bring up similar vulnerabilities in my own music. I want to grow as a person and I want to let it touch everything that I do.

What was the recording process like for you this time around? Was it different than how you approached previous records?

Yeah, it was completely different. For starters, we did all of the primary instrumentation live, so there are some songs on the record, namely the first and last one which also happen to be the first and last song of the initial live session, that are completely live. And then all of the other songs have at least two or three elements that were recorded at the same time. So that was a completely different way to do things and my goodness it was one of the most wonderful ways to make a record that I could have imagined. It was a way to take all of those values that we’ve been talking about, music being more than the sum of its parts and more than the tightness of the script so to speak, and being more about the spirit of what’s being exchanged in the room. I think at one point I put it as this record feels more akin to an improvised conversation than it does to a play, where everybody knows their line and has it down pat. Maybe it’s a combination between the two, where everybody knows their lines but is free to improvise them and live inside of them as need be, even if it requires stretching those lines out or throwing them away. At the beginning of the recording process, I went with Jarrod Gee to Silsbee, Texas to a studio called Lazybones Audio, which is operated by Tommy Read, brother to Hannah Read of Lomelda. Lomelda is actually a connecting agent to all of the people that helped me make this record. I booked Lomelda several years ago, we had a bunch of mutual friends but actually hadn’t met before. I ended up becoming buds with those folks and through that ended up in Texas to record with Tommy and also one of the live drummers of Lomelda, Andrew Stevens, played drums on this new record. Through the connection of booking that one Lomelda show I ended up meeting the cast of characters that would make this record happen. This process has also been really different after the point of initial recording in that I was able to be far more involved in the mixing and the curation of the other elements of the record besides the initial performance, and I think that’s due to the mix engineer Bennett Littlejohn making so much room for me in the process. I was able to sit in with him every night for several weeks and learn about how to shape this record and I’ve come out of this whole process a completely different person and I think it’s really due to the strength and openness of those collaborators along the way.

What kinds of things do you hope that people take away from this new album?

One thing that I would hope they take away is that there are many rooms in this little house of a record that I made with my friends. I hope it will be felt that there are a lot of different uses for this record, that there are many sides to it, and that every side is outfitted for a different purpose. I hope that it’s felt that there are different places to rest, there are places to get energized, there are places to rock out, places for all different sorts of moods. I hope that it feels compatible with a human life and I hope that it feels well suited to be a companion. I think there’s a lot to explore there and I hope people are able to take it on long drives and long walks, that was a big thing to me, I wanted people to be able to drive with this record. I wanted there to be long instrumental spaces where people’s own thoughts and emotions and lives could sit and there wasn’t anything being forced down their throats. I hope it feels and comes across as being multifaceted and thoughtful and I hope there’s ample room for the listener to put in their own experiences as well as listening to mine.

Ground Aswim is out now


Michael Brooks // @nomichaelbrooks 

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