Photo by Bennett Littlejohn
A wide gulf separates the roiling drum rolls and pressing vocals of “Cork of Worry”–the last track on Sinai Vessel’s 2017 debut, Brokenlegged–and the wandering intro to “Where Did You Go,” the opening track on the 2020 follow-up, Ground Aswim. In the three intervening years, the band’s bassist and drummer left the lineup and their old label essentially collapsed, leaving frontman Caleb Cordes with a lot of empty space to navigate.
But the answer, as it turns out, wasn’t to fill it. Or at least, not all of it. Ground Aswim basks in the emptiness, as on the single “Shameplant,” where Cordes gives every guitar strum, piano strike, and quickly-muted cymbal crash its own air to breathe. He teamed up with a solid core of other players–bassist Jarrod Gee, drummer Andrew Stevens, producer Bennett Littlejohn, and ambient artificer Joshua Marre–but in their artfully super-spare arrangements, more is less.
The result is an album that you can’t just hear; you have to listen. Not that the old Sinai Vessel was making noise for its own sake, but Ground Aswim’s more patient approach offers you, the listener, the vacant chair at the table. It’s a front-row seat to Cordes’ enduring talent for insight and evocative hooks.
The album is out today, digitally and on vinyl, as an independent release direct from Cordes. Before the release, he spoke to The All Scene Eye about the obstacles along the way–physical, mental, and logistical–and why, at this point, playing quiet music felt like an aggressive thing to do.
So here we are about eight months into a pandemic. How are you doing?
I’m doing relatively well, I think. [laughs] A lot of uncertainty, which is a meal on everyone’s plate. A lot of newness. I’ve been living in Nashville, Tennessee for a few days over a year, and now have been in a new city for longer in the pandemic than before the pandemic. That definitely presents an interesting angle on getting used to a new place and a new community of people, most of whom I can’t quite see or organize with like I usually would. But it’s been nice in the sense of reevaluating some things–seeing what’s important, what isn’t. It’s been nice for getting out in nature. It’s been nice for, more than anything, just being a living creature rather than somebody that does things. [laughs] Rather than somebody that makes things or has a particular vocation, just something that wakes up, feeds itself, gets sunlight, and then does it again.
What brought you to Nashville originally?
I moved to Cleveland, Tennessee in 2011, a super tiny town in the eastern part of the state. I moved there for school, and then since then, I’ve sort of been slowly migrating west. I lived in Cleveland for almost seven years, then lived in Chattanooga, which I would say is kind of my true home base in Tennessee, and then a year ago, I moved over here to Nashville. You know, it is Music City, et cetera, but my one reason for moving here was that it was close to a home I’d already sort of built for myself and a community I loved, but this is a place that had more players, and since my band has transitioned to me essentially hiring people to come out on the road, I wanted to have a big grab bag of folks that I could trust to do that. To be able to do that with people that are in town and not spread across the country would be super ideal, because I’ve almost never done that.
I didn’t move here expecting to find resources to make records with, as silly as that sounds. But of course, because there haven’t been live shows in many months, and also just because it’s the way that it panned out, the people that I’ve found here–namely Bennett Littlejohn, who mixed the record, and Edsel Holden, who mastered it–have been a huge, huge part of this record even seeing the light of day and encouraging me all throughout it. So yeah, moved here with one set of intentions, found a different set, as things tend to go. [laughs]
The last Sinai Vessel record came out in 2017. When did you first start working on the songs that would end up on Ground Aswim?
I’d written sparsely, as I always do, throughout touring for Brokenlegged from 2017 into 2018. Towards the latter half of 2018, I just realized, “Alright, I really need to figure out how to carry this thing into the next chapter.” I had also done a couple of tours on Brokenlegged with revolving lineups since the core people, the other two members of the band, had left right after Brokenlegged was released. Touring without those two guys sort of separated me from the context of the way those songs were written, and it was a little bit easier for me to be head-to-head and open with myself about the fact that I was playing music that I didn’t necessarily connect to.
I wouldn’t say that I listen to anything that sounds like Brokenlegged does. [laughs] I definitely did while that record was being written, but by the time it was released and we were touring on it, I wouldn’t say I took much influence from anything in that world, at least sonically. I realized that there was some work to be done if I was to bridge the gap between what my reflexes and writing style had been honed to do and a kind of music and a spirit that felt nourishing to me. It was also a pretty daunting task to consider when I didn’t have a band, and I wasn’t really sure how to move forward from that point. I was really worried about finding people to tour on the eventual record and I was consumed by all these tertiary details that didn’t really have anything to do with just making music, which is what, you know, being a musician is actually about. So in fall of 2018, I sort of had a meeting with myself and wrote in my journal, and I was like, “What do I really want to do?” And the answer was simply, “Oh, I would just really like to be working on music consistently.” And I was like, “Cool, I’m going to focus on answering that question and absolutely on nothing else.”
So I called my friends Jarrod and Madeleine–Jarrod co-produced the record and played bass on it–and we just started writing music in my house. I would bring them songs and we would arrange them and work on full-band versions of them. We didn’t play any shows. I was not even sure that the project we were writing for was Sinai Vessel–I didn’t want to think about that. [laughs] I didn’t want to concern myself with any kind of complicated detail. But yeah, I would say the songs largely came out of that period of time. I’d written scraps here and there, but having a weekly band meeting to go to really motivated me to begin tying all those pieces together into a tapestry that wound up being the record that you hear today.
When did you know, then, that this was still Sinai Vessel?
I went through some painful deliberation about that, but eventually I just kind of–number one, it was a pragmatic decision. If I want my work to be heard, the name Sinai Vessel has an audience that a new project wouldn’t. There would be the idea of a new venture to be gained, but potentially, with how saturated the internet and how saturated music culture is [laughs] people just wouldn’t hear it.
But also, I had had a conversation with Daniel Hernandez, who was the old bassist of Sinai Vessel–he also painted the canvas that’s at the center of the artwork for Ground Aswim, which is wonderful. He’s since become a painter, and is truly incredible at that medium, but he and I had a conversation just before we recorded the record in August of last year. And he essentially was like, “You know, you’ve been doing this band technically for ten years now, and it’s been a wonder to participate in it,” but the thing that really stuck with me and made me feel comfortable stepping into this next era was that he said, “Sinai Vessel is your creative limb. That’s just what your creative limb is called.”
That really allowed me to step out of being worried about considering it as some kind of brand that needed to be retooled or some image that needed to be pasted over and redone. It was like, “No, Sinai Vessel is what it’s called when me, Caleb, makes music.” It doesn’t have to be any more complex than that. To boil it down, I got back to basics. I figured out how to write songs as me, in my present self, which I guess is the process every time you make something.
A quote I have from you is that you had “a sharp focus on allowing the songs themselves to step out from the fray in a way they had not previously been highlighted.” In a very practical sense, how do you do that?
I think that process is made up of a lot of very small decisions in arranging, in recording, in mixing, just continually asking ourselves, “Does this support that mission or does this distract?” Like, “Could we do less?” was a constant governing idea of this record. That would even come down to, “Alright, I’ll play chords that have less notes in them. I’ll play chords that are tighter clustered so my voice can have more space for the melody. Can we play quieter?” As opposed to a record like Brokenlegged, “Can we restrain ourselves and have that be the default?” Rather than, “Alright, our default is to play loud all the time and then we’ll get real quiet in certain sections.” We just flipped that approach on its head, and it was really nice.
Essentially, the idea was to, one, upset the balance just enough that it would feel uncomfortable and new and honest [laughs] but then also–this record, if there’s any sort of audience that I wrote it for outside my own self and wanting to make a record that I would enjoy, it’s the many friends that have invested in and cared about this project for more than the sum of its parts. What I mean by that is, I have a lot of friends that really have encouraged and esteemed me as a songwriter in a way that maybe wouldn’t be immediately obvious if somebody listened to a record like Brokenlegged. And a lot of those friends, when they’ve heard this record, they’re like, “We enjoy your other stuff, but this is what this band should have been all along,” and I very much agree.
Sinai Vessel, because it’s my only creative extension, has definitely suffered from me trying to do so many things at once, and that also might be what makes it unique. But with this record, I really tried to curate my output a little bit more–be a little bit more thoughtful about what I was putting into a record and why. I also was very clear with myself about the fact that records are communication. There are things that I want to get across. There are rooms and worlds that I really want to build for the listener–not necessarily always just follow my first impulse, but to run those impulses back against my missions for the songs and to have more of a critical conversation with myself about what I want to do with the music.
It was definitely something that I deliberated a lot and took seriously, but despite all those words I just said, I also longed to go in a certain new direction, and I think that my feet just followed too, so [laughs] there’s all that intentionality, but there’s also a fair amount of happy accidents.
The first few moments of this record, there’s so much table-setting for what you’re talking about–about the tighter, smaller arrangements, about building a house for the listener. The first two minutes are this very unhurried lead-in that really speaks a lot about how it’s going to feel and what it’s going to sound like.
Yeah, although it sounds nothing like it, that song happening felt almost aggressive to me in the way that playing loud music used to. To then go the opposite direction and play something that was so quiet and so unhurried and so patient felt aggressive even to me–to my own impulses. [laughs] It was very uncomfortable at first, but because it was so uncomfortable, the margins were so wide for it being so deeply rewarding. I had never played music in that way before in my own project, where I, as the player, could literally sit back and enjoy myself and not feel hurried to get anywhere. So, one, it was a selfish thing, but two, I also was thinking a lot about the qualities that make a record special to me, and a big part of that was just space for the listener where not everything is filled in.
I really wanted some driving songs to be on this record. [laughs] I have driven a lot in my time touring, and I realized I didn’t have any records that felt like that open, vacant, exciting in the sense of space-to-be-filled kind of space. It was really, really important to me to have that begin the record because it sets the dimensions of the space that everything else in the record is going to take place inside, and it was really important for me to add that idea in by having the record end in the same way.
I would say “Antechamber,” the song that ends the record, is very much a sibling to “Where Did You Go?” It was recorded in the same way. It’s completely live, save for the piano, and it was also the first and last songs, respectively, that we tracked as a full band on the first morning and the last evening of our session in Texas. For me, it’s a very nostalgic, powerful image. It felt so vulnerable to put on the record, but so good [laughs] and I was like, “If we do this right and everyone does their jobs,” which everyone so marvelously did, “this could really pay off and it could be a space that the listener would feel snug inside–that they weren’t rushed to get anywhere, and they could find some peace in as well.” That was the hope.
You also explore the darker side of that unhurriedness. One of the tracks that feels the most immediate and timely is “All Days Just End,” right? “If I do nothing with my time, all days just end.”
Yeah, that tension exists on the record, and I appreciate that question because that’s not a relationship that I had thought of. It was such a new value for me in songwriting that I hadn’t thought about the relationship between unhurriedness and the kind of anxiety that plagues other parts of the record.
I would say there are a lot of songs on the record that deal with me processing a recurring theme in my life and trying to sort of exorcise it in song or explore it, or just put down some kind of lesson that I’d learned in order to look back on it so I could step forward out of it. That song has a theme that pops up all over the record where it’s just like, “Alright, in order for me to have a life that I enjoy and that nourishes me and nourishes other people, it takes intentional action.” My life isn’t just going to come to me, and staying in a place of expectation that everything will just unfold and work out by itself–although there is that too [laughs]–is just not the whole picture.
That song was written about a year into my time in Chattanooga, maybe a year and a half, and moving away from the tiny Tennessee town I initially lived in was kind of an adult project in the sense that I had never really moved somewhere as a non-teenager. Building a life for myself proved difficult and disarming and humbling, and I was filled with a kind of dread about, “Man, I have all of this time to kill, and I don’t know what to do with all of it.” [laughs] “How do I make a meaningful shape out of the material of days that I’m given?”
That theme definitely pops up all over the record and probably is why I prioritize that sort of unhurried peace so much, because it’s hard to find. It’s hard to make that for yourself if you have too much time. Which, like you said, yeah, it accidentally wound up being very timely.
You spent some time this summer shopping the record around, and I’m curious–what has it been like on that side of the process, getting the record from being recorded to being released?
It was definitely one that faced a lot of difficulties and uncertainty in the sense that really, once we began sending this record out, it was the weekend that things began shutting down. It was on the eve of everything being overturned, so that was definitely a very strange time to send it out. The process of getting the record to see the light of day more than anything, for me personally, has just been an exercise in guarding my own vision and belief in what my friends and I, my collaborators and I, came together to do, and it was really difficult.
I can still go back and forth about, “Alright, did no one pick this record up because of the context of it being shopped around?” You know, there’s not a lot of money in independent music. Margins are tight and ever tighter because of what’s happening. Or, “Does the content not work? Does it not come across?” I think what I’ve ended up settling on is that it wasn’t built to be advertised, if that makes sense. [laughs] This record is not the most immediate. It does have immediate sections, but it was built for the solo listener. It was built to have a lot of vacant, empty space in it. I think that if somebody is coming to the record as a new listener, and maybe perhaps had been directed toward the more immediate single or something, the anxiety of wanting to hear something that clicks pretty quickly–this record, at least to me, doesn’t have those kinds of hooks in it.
Or it might, but to quote–I think it was Aldous Harding, she said, “I’ve never heard an Aldous Harding song.” I’ve never heard a Sinai Vessel song. I’ve only made them [laughs] so I truly have no idea what it sounds like on the other end. Ultimately, the response so far from the record has been a really encouraging one. Like I said, music is a means of communication, and it seems so far that people that have heard the record like yourself and people that have heard the singles seem to be picking up what I put down, wrapped in sound, and released to the world.
It was a stressful process. We lost our label in November of last year, but ultimately, I think self-releasing has really been the right move for this particular record. It makes me feel all the more proud of it because if I’m not, who else is going to be? [laughs] And it’s great that I myself get to speak for it rather than having other people speak for me, although I do have a wonderful team that is cheerleading me all the way and doing a great job.
The title of this album, Ground Aswim, comes from a poem by David Whyte. How did you first encounter that line and how did it become something that you thought could represent this group of songs?
Yeah, David Whyte is an English poet. My former partner had exposed me to his work. She was a big influence on the record in exposing me to a lot of poetry that spoke to difficult times that I was going through living in Chattanooga and negotiating the dissolution and putting-back-together of the band. David Whyte was one of the particular poets that I resonated with and he has a poem called “Fishing,” I believe, that the words “ground aswim” are taken from.
He has so many poems that are for specific times in life, and poetry–as with everything, there are different aims in it, and a lot of his poetry sort of seeks to counsel the reader, which I was definitely inspired by. There’s not a lot of music that really seeks to be directed at the listener, if that makes sense–it more is focused on the artist. As an aside, that was an inspiring factor to me, but yeah, more than the content of the poem itself, those words, “ground aswim,” stuck out to me as being like–”Oh, man.” Sometimes you see word combos that just feel like the whole thing. [laughs] It’s like, “Oh, that’s all of it right there.”
Everything falls under that feeling of the ground being aswim. It’s such an efficient way to communicate a particular kind of chaos. Like, a particular kind of tension. Floods are natural things that happen, but in a way, they feel unnatural because, “Alright, this is supposed to be dry and it isn’t.” It’s kind of no more complex than that. Even before the lion’s share of the songs were written, I knew that was going to be the title, and it stuck.
You mention that you want this to be an album that counsels or says something to the listener. Is there one major takeaway that you want people to hear from this record? “No” is also an answer.
Yeah, I think I lean more towards no. I don’t think that there’s any one particular value or answer. I wanted there to be gaps for the listener and I wanted it to be wide-ranging such that it would be versatile and open and would just be a world to explore.
Because no matter if I was, like, sloganeering, and I had some real hard takeaways that I wanted people to catch and take into their lives, when it comes down to it, what a listener finds in a record they are finding in themselves. They are finding something that they already carried with them, and if I can present enough interesting curves or sharp edges or challenges, but then also comfort and openness and space–enough to upset the balance or make people curious or lean in or be surprised–that feels like what a good record is to me. You come out knowing yourself a little bit better than you did before, and that’s all that I could hope.
I know some of the people that are listening to this record, but definitely not a lot of them, and I have no idea what they need. [laughs] They know better than I do, so if they could find something that meets their own needs inside the music, then, sweet. Job well done.
Earlier this year, you went through a major bout of tinnitus, at which point it wasn’t clear whether you would be able to continue making music. How long has that been part of your relationship with music, and how did you make the decision to go on with it?
That’s such an interesting, difficult development, and one that I still don’t claim to fully understand. I’ve had tinnitus since maybe–I would say it popped up in 2017. That’s whenever the song “Ringing,” which is one of the earliest written songs on the record, which is particularly about that–and I think that was a real freaky moment to me because I was very, very privileged up until that point to not have to reckon with the idea that, “Oh, I’m mortal and things can break about my body that can’t just be repaired by being explained away.” And that said, of the ailments that somebody can have, it’s an extremely mild one. [laughs] Sorry, I say that, but that kind of recognition–but yeah, it got worse over the past summer, which was pretty difficult amidst the context of uncertainty, to have this thing just spike out of nowhere.
It just got louder, the amount of frequencies began to multiply, and I think it was a dreadful thing for my brain just because I’m a person that struggles to let things lie. If there’s a problem, I always tend to think that the answer to the problem is inside the problem–inside looking in it further and further, prying it apart, parsing it, and thinking about it to no end. That really just doesn’t work with tinnitus. I bit the bullet and paid cash to see an audiologist, and essentially, my hearing is fine, but I have this kind of bonus loud ringing, and the doctor was just like, “You know, there’s nothing you can do but ignore it.” Like, “Find your own way of ignoring it,” which was just crazy for me, but it was such a helpful challenge in that that really is all you can do for some things.
Not to advocate for just being lazy and ignoring anything that presents pain, but I hadn’t considered not thinking about something to be a proactive practice. [laughs] In this case, it has turned out to be. Right now, and in the past several months, it has not bothered me nearly as much. I sort of just decided that the only way to deal with this is to get on with my life, and that has proved to be the case, but in the meantime, that kind of pause combined with the pandemic has certainly caused me to consider what I’d do if not music, which I think is just a healthy consideration in general–to just recognize, like I was saying at the start of our conversation, that I am not what I do.
I am a person who has capabilities and a personality and things to offer beyond what I’ve done so far, and beyond where I’ve staked my own identity. There are other things, and there will be other things, and though I eventually decided to continue for however long I’m continuing, I think it is a healthy practice to always be considering what else is there.
How are you planning to mark the release of this album with, you know, the state of things?
That’s a good question–I don’t know. Sinai Vessel has always been a project that’s toured so hard, which is obviously not possible right now. Classically, that emphasis on touring has led to a longer gap between releases, and I would really love for that not to be the case. I think I’ll largely just try to give it the best push into the world that I can, to make things that are supplemental to that world and give the listener a look into it just so that remains engaging and exciting, but also, more than anything, I think that the best way that I can honor putting this thing out into the world is to move on to the next thing, which I already have. I definitely have two feet through the door. I would love to take this as a creative challenge to emphasize just making music instead of recreating it on a stage. [laughs] Who knows if that will actually happen, but I would like to remain accountable to the idea, so we’ll see.