- Photo by Allan Crain
- Letter to Memphis
When Devon Cahill and Gene Starks first partnered as a musical duo, Letter to Memphis was a folk-leaning outfit heavy on cover songs. Occasionally friends would join them on stage, and low-key gigs at south-city establishments (including the late, lamented La Tropicana market) helped eradicate the pair’s shared stage fright. “When we started out, it was vocals, guitar and two really scared people holding on for dear life,” laughs Cahill.
In the five years since those initial gigs, the band has grown to include two more members (Paul Niehaus IV on bass and Sarah Velasquez on violin) and turned its focus to Cahill’s strong voice and heart-on-sleeve lyrics. Come on Home, the band’s sophomore release, continues that evolution. Niehaus engineered the album in his home studio and, as Cahill tells it, was something of a jack-of-all-trades instrumentalist who helped alter the normally acoustic group. “There are a lot more electric tones,” says Cahill, though the band didn’t abandon its folk roots. “There’s mandolin in there, there’s lap steel — there are still some of those rootsy instruments.”
A sense of exploration, both musical and spiritual, heralds the opening of the album. “Anthem of a Wanderer” is the loosest and most quixotic track on the ten-song offering, with Starks’ plangent, circular guitar pattern offering a ruminative jangle against searching drums and fervid cello. Cahill’s lyrics are an encouragement to seek out love, peace and inner acceptance — themes, she says, that set the stage for the rest of the record.
The musical drama of the opening track helps prop up some of the pithy — if a bit generalized — words of encouragement. Letter to Memphis takes the opposite approach on the following song, the album’s title track. “Come on Home” has its roots in Cahill’s family history, the depth of which belies the song’s upbeat country arrangement.
“The title track of this album is about my dad,” says Cahill. “I had sort of lost my relationship with him. He is a recovering alcoholic and a recovering addict. He was living for many, many years in Ohio with his wife. Almost two years ago now I got a call from him, and he needed me to come and bring him back to St. Louis.” Cahill took a redeye flight to Cleveland and drove her father the ten hours back that same day; he entered rehab the next.
“My dad and I are very similar people — we’re kindred spirits — and that song is kind of about that family love and making that reconnection,” says Cahill. “It’s a personal thing that happened, but it’s something that I thought I should write about.”
Cahill wrote the bulk of the album, but Starks composed the music and lyrics for one of its most arresting moments, the gentle, mournful waltz of “To the River.” The words cast a vague outline of loss and regret, with Cahill’s vocals mirroring the magnetic pull of a codependent relationship. The band channels a different kind of romantic force on the next track, “Drawn to You,” with layers of vocal harmony and Velasquez’s drawn-out violin lines enhancing the group’s soft-touch approach with barely-there traces of funk and angst. You won’t hear radical stylistic shifts on Come On Home — most songs hew toward pretty acoustic numbers, with traces of country and introspective indie-folk fitting nicely into the formula.
“It is on the softer side, all of our music,” says Starks. “And it’s not always soft themes — sometimes there are darker themes that come through. But we present it in an uplifting way; it’s almost like we have our arm around the listener, telling them it’s OK. You can make it through.”
And what became of those two scared people, holding on for dear life when Letter to Memphis began? Five years in the band have given both Cahill and Starks an outlet to grow, and the varied songs on Come on Home show both a deftness in musical arrangements and an insight on songwriting that toes the line between personal catharsis and relatability for a larger audience.
“It’s funny; I did all this performing as a kid and I was really fearless, but once I became more self-aware as I got older, I fell out of it for a long time,” says Cahill. “Doing theater, you get to hide behind a character. Now, I can’t get enough of it. I just want to be singing on stage all the time, every day.”
Letter to Memphis
7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 14. The Stage at KDHX, 3524 Washington Avenue. $10. 314-925-7556.