Cahalen Morrison and Eli West travel light. The Seattle-based old-time duo tour with whatever can fit in the smallest rental car possible — usually just two bodies, four instruments and a few suitcases.
“Part of our whole aesthetic is that there are only two of us,” says multi-instrumentalist West, who admits the pair last rented a Fiat 500. “Our soundcheck takes 10 minutes because we don’t plug in. Keeping it simple keeps it easy.”
The music they create together, however, is anything but simple or easy. Ace instrumentalists both, Morrison and West have released three albums of spry, sophisticated acoustic music that exists somewhere between bluegrass and old-time folk.
From his home in Seattle, West spoke to CMT Edge about their latest album, I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands.
CMT Edge: Can you tell me about the collaborative dynamic between the two of you?
West: Cahalen is the primary songwriter, so he’ll come up with the lyrics and the framework for the songs. He’ll bring me something in beta form, knowing it will evolve from its current form, and he’ll let me have my way with rhythms and chord progressions.
We pay special attention to harmonies. In the tradition of acts like the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, we keep our two voices closer in the mix and pushing up against each other, as opposed to one standing way out in front and the other in the background. After that, we look for opportunities to make things weird.
Can you elaborate on “weird”?
While we definitely want to remain within the framework of this kind of music, we love anything that pulls from other sources and makes it a bit more peculiar, like dodging the downbeat — which is used in jazz quite a bit. I particularly love to do that on guitar. But the overall goal is to create movement with the melodies or with the chord progressions. The more layers of movement there are in a song, the better.
That seems to play into some of the lyrical themes of I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands — in particular, labor and travel.
I haven’t heard those themes pulled out, but it’s totally true. I don’t think either of us thought of this as a concept album with a strong theme, but it’s nice to know those stand out. The music itself is more a product of us just being ourselves, so perhaps those themes are products of that. We spend a lot of time on the road, and it’s a lot of work. Hopefully, we’re being as honest as we can in our musical expression and not pretending to be someone else.
Back when you and Cahalen started playing together, was there a moment when you realized this could be a long-term partnership rather than a one-off collaboration?
We met four years ago through a mutual friend who was a DJ at a radio station in eastern Washington State. He knew us both independently and thought we should get in the same room and play music together. Cahalen was already on the road doing his solo thing, and I had a corporate job in Seattle, but I decided to abandon that to pursue music.
Once we realized how weird we both are as musicians, we knew we had an opportunity to make a unique, new sound. Collectively, there was more going on than either of us could create. Plus, I was looking for an eject button from the corporate grind, and I think Cahalen was tired of driving the road solo. Maybe he just wanted another driver! Three months after we starting playing together, we made our first record, Holy Coming of the Storm.
You both manage to balance your responsibilities as a duo with a lot of other side projects. How does that work?
That all makes this possible. If we were only doing this project, we would probably pull each other’s hair out. So it’s good to mix it up. Cahalen has a country band and plays some solo shows, and I have just started a band with a rotating cast of characters. We’re rehearsing for our first gig.
I’ll Swing My Hammer sounds like more than just two people and 20 fingers.
Our second record, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, is just the two of us, so that might be a more accurate portrayal of our live sound. On the new record, we have twin fiddles, and then Tim O’Brien plays some mandolin and sings on one song.
I don’t typically associate old-time music with Seattle. What is the scene like there?
There’s a lot of indie rock, a lot of music for drinking. Our music is for drinking, too, but not like indie rock. There is a collection of older players who are really wonderful but don’t get together very often. Portland has more old-time acts. There are some amazing bands down there, like the Foghorn String Band, but they’ve been under the radar forever.
You wonder if geography holds you back or helps you. If we were in Nashville, I don’t think it would help us that much. We’ve been doing the DIY thing for a while now, and it might be easier to do that in Seattle than in Nashville. Although, when we play North Carolina, I feel a little self-conscious because our sound originates there. Will we sound authentic?
The two of you seem to tour almost constantly in America as well as Europe. Do you find that people react differently to this music in different places?
Europe is different in that this music is an import, so there’s more novelty that goes with it. People are maybe quieter and a bit more attentive in Europe — more engaged in listening. But in the States, people are much more engaged on a participatory level. I’m not judging one over the other. It’s the difference between listening versus clapping and hooting. But I don’t think people come away with different truths from the songs because I hope the songs are consistent and stand on their own.