Letter to Memphis singer speaks to journalism writing class

June 22, 2015

Devon Cahill, lead singer and ukelele player for the St. Louis-based indie folk band Letter to Memphis, spoke to students in the Journalism Writing class on June 22.

Devon Cahill on Music Style

With an eccentric mixture of folk, blues, and indie rock, it is no surprise that vocalist Devon Cahill refers to her band’s music style as “Indie folk with soul.” Starting as part of a duo covering songs in a living room to becoming a regionally known band, Cahill had much to say about the origins and influences of her music.

She describes the content of her lyrics to be “heavy and deep,” yet “inspiring and uplifting,” a theme that reflects the hardships and emotions that have occurred in her life.

Before the formation of her band, Cahill had a theatre background, but felt as if she had lost her way. She met Gene Starks and said that the two inspired one another.

“After coming together, we lifted each other up” Cahill said.

The two work together on music, usually with Cahill focusing on lyrics and Starks writing the chords. Cahill attests that roots are a part of her music, and when questioned about the nature of her unique style, she said that “It’s kind of like our brand and where our heart is.”

Occasionally, the band receives criticism for the eclectic nature of their music, but Cahill contradicts this claim, saying that her music is a representation of who the band is.

Influence on the band’s music came from Cahill’s childhood as well. The vocalist grew up with an array of musical influences. Her father was in a band, and her mother was involved in musical theatre. In high school, she enjoyed listening to new wave bands such as Joy Division and The Smiths, and her first favorite band was the Cardigans.

Aside from other music and past experiences, there are other influences on the band’s style of music.

“I feel inspired by a lot of things,” said Cahill, “nature, love, past relationships.”

Of all of her songs, Cahill said that “Rest Your Head” was her favorite.

“ Its very sweet. Its like a lullaby.”

When playing the song, Cahill took on a sense of serenity. She often closed her eyes as she swayed to the melody, strumming gently on her ukelele.

Another song of significance to Cahill is titled “Other Life”.

“Its special to me,” she said, describing it as the release that brought her out of desperation.

In regards to her musical outreach, Cahill said she hopes that her music is found to be inspiring by her audience.

“I hope that it does the same thing for them as it does for me” she said.

Life in Letter to Memphis

For band member Devon Cahill, life in the folk band, Letter to Memphis, is a constant thrill. The band includes guitarist Gene Starks, Paul Niehaus IV on upright bass and Sarah Velasquez on violin and harmonies. As imaginable, life in a band can be filled with many experiences, both good and bad. Cahill shares what thoughts and actions occur during a day of an upcoming show.

“A day of a show is always nerve racking. We’ve been playing out for four years now, but I still get a little stage fright. A lot of nervous excitement goes on.” Cahill said.

Cahill has grown close, tight relationships with her fellow band members, including her now fiancé, Gene Starks. The band often has a lot of fun with what they do, and tend to hang out and jam with each other in their free time. Filled with rituals and anticipation, shows can be quite the experience.

“Before shows we often put our hands in and yell ‘just one letter’, because everyone assumes its Letters to Memphis and not Letter to Memphis.”

Devon Cahill struggles with strong feelings of anxiety, but has learned that you just have to shake it off. Although there’s mostly good experiences in being in a band, there’s also some rough ones.

“One bad experience was a panic attack I had on stage several years ago. There were some people there that I really wanted to impress at a show, and when I started to sing a song, my microphone wasn’t on and I panicked and lost my spark. I asked Gene if I could have a minute and took a couple deep breaths. Sometimes you have to take a couple steps back and regroup. The hardest thing when you’re performing is if something happens, you have to let it roll off your shoulders. The audience doesn’t know that you’ve messed up. At this point, I just smile and shake it off.”

Devon Cahill performing the song “Rest Your Head” on the ukulele.

 

Band Synergy Leads to Success

Pictured here are member of Letter to Memphis (L-R) Gene Starks, Devon Cahill, Paul Niehaus IV and Sarah Velasquez. (Photo via lettertomemphis.net)

Pictured here are member of Letter to Memphis (L-R) Gene Starks, Devon Cahill, Paul Niehaus IV and Sarah Velasquez. (Photo via lettertomemphis.net)

Synergy: the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements’ contributions. For indie folk singer Devon Cahill, the synergy that exists between her band, Letter to Memphis, is what has led to their success across the St. Louis area and beyond. The band consists of Cahill as the lead vocalist, Gene Starks on acoustic guitar, Paul Niehaus IV on upright bass and Sarah Velasquez on violin and high harmonies. From the production of their first studio album Phases to their Riverfront Times 2014 Nomination for the best folk band in the area, Letter to Memphis is only growing in popularity since 2011.

“It was something we sort of just fell into. Both Gene and I had lost our way and were overcoming some addiction problems, but when we met, we became really inspired by each other and music became our artistic outlet,” Cahill said. “When we create music that speaks to us and speaks to other people, it’s like a natural high that only creativity can give you.”

Not only are Cahill and Starks business partners, but they also tackle life’s joys and struggles as an engaged couple.

“Gene has two kids, so we are co-parenting and co-workers and although it can be a challenge its a wonderful thing,” Cahill said.

Cahill and Starks have been performing covers since 2011 and writing a few original songs, but it was not until 2012 when Niehaus joined Letter to Memphis and encouraged a greater emphasis on original music.

Paul is my biggest inspiration. He’s a multi instrumentalist and his musicianship and musicality is really strong. I love working with him because he’s my greatest inspiration and my best friend,” Cahill said.

After Velasquez joined in 2013, the foursome has learned that each member of the band plays a specific role in making Letter to Memphis a success and, Cahill suggested, that the group functions best as a synergetic unit.
“We all bring different strengths to the table, Paul and Sarah are both classically trained musicians and know a lot about music theory. Then there is Gene who is such a creative songwriter and can really make the music come together while I really love the performing aspect of the band,” Cahill said.

Life of Letter to Memphis

After battling extreme anxiety and substance abuse, Devon Cahill, vocalist and ukulele player for the Folk band Letter to Memphis , found herself with music.

The group started in 2011 as a duet between Devon Cahill and Gene Starks, now engaged, playing in small bars around St. Louis. Devon grew up in a performing family and got into musical theater as she grew older.

“When I was a kid, probably about 2 or 3, my mom noticed I was very hammy. i was off the walls and wanted to perform. She got me into musical theater when I was pretty young. It was a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t take it back for anything. eventually Gene and i met, we were room mates, and we just started jamming in the living room, playing cover songs, laughing and having a blast. That turned into writing and we made the transition into playing original folk music,” said Devon.

Letter to Memphis blends blues, country, and soul into indie folk to create a style that has been described by critics as whimsical and powerful at the same time. Both Devon and Gene had lost their way, going through substance abuse and a  failed marriage respectively. Their backgrounds in music and their past experiences gave them the inspiration for much of their style and their new song Thursday Night Blues.

“Both of us kind of lost our way, which was an inspiration for our song Thursday Night Blues. When we met, it actually took a little bit, but we started being really musically inspired by each other and neither of us had played music in a while. Eventually, after coming together, we sort of lifted each other up in a way,” said Devon.

The band grew in 2012 with the addition of upright bass player Paul Niehaus IV, then again in 2013 with violinist Sarah Velasquez.

“Paul joined us in 2012. We were playing a show, he just came in and sat down with his upright bass and all of a sudden I was ready to dance. t was weird because I didn’t even really know what bass was. He st down and I was like Please never leave because I like this sound. In 2013, we added Sarah Velasquez who plays violin and sings. It’s mostly Gene and I who do the writing but we all collaborate,” said Devon

 

History of the Ukulele

Ukulele

Overcoming Obstacles in the “Other Life”

Standing and looking out onto a brightly lit stage, barely seeing the awaiting faces of numerous people, people who needed to be impressed. Then singing an entire song wholeheartedly without realizing the microphone wasn’t on. Shortly after, going off stage to have a panic attack. This is what singer and band member of Letter to Memphis , Devon Cahill had faced during a duo-show with her and her fiance Gene Starks, luckily she overcame this obstacle through the songs she writes and performs.

“When you can use creativity as an outlet, whether it be writing music or whatever it is that your writing,” Cahill said. “It’s always a special experience sharing what you have.”

While performing and singing Cahill can release everything that happened that day and overcome whatever comes her way. In her song the “Other Life” it’s all about how she gets stuck in her head and can’t get out at moments. The one way she can is by writing and belting out songs to relieve her anxiety and forget everything.

“It[the “Other Life”]really did bring me out of a moment of desperation and writing that song and then everytime I play it and sing it,it’s cathartic,” Cahill said. “It’s like a release. It’s special to me in that way.”

With being in a band their are bound to be some followers who will feel every emotion in every note the band plays and sings. The band varies from topics from love to even addiction where the band hopes their audience can relate, release their emotions by listening, and enjoying the music they produce.

“ I hope it does the same thing for me as it does for them,” Cahill said. “It uplifts them, it gets them thinking. Maybe it takes them from being in a bad spot to making them feeling better like how it does for me.”

In the past both Cahill and Starks have had addiction problems. During that same time Starks was going through a rough divorce while Cahill became anxiety-stricken and stopped performing altogether. The two were going down a dark path. Not short after the two met and came together to play and sing the instruments they once loved with each other.

“We started learning cover songs, the two of us, with him jamming on the guitar and me singing. It was so much fun and felt so right for him to be playing guitar again and for me to be singing again,” Cahill said.

 

Band life with Letter to Memphis

A lot of bands are portrayed in the media as being lazy, unreliable and unruly, but according to Devon Cahill, lead singer and ukelele player for local indie-folk band Letter to Memphis,  members of her band often find themselves balancing time between working on music, working their second jobs and spending what time they have left corresponding with one another.

Since their band’s start in 2011, Cahill and her fiance (roommate at the time) Gene Starks have since acquired two other musicians who play bass and violin, in addition to Cahill’s and Starks’s ukulele and guitar. According to Cahill, the group has opened for several other groups such as Deer Creek, Sick Sea, Lilly and several others in many different locations, including the Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis.

The road to the band’s beginning was long and Cahill said before it began, she and Starks would often find themselves making covers of songs together and writing their own songs before the two decided to take the leap and start a music group. Since they’ve started the group, though, they’ve been “having a blast,” Cahill said, “playing around town and writing music, and enjoying being a part of the St. Louis music scene.”

Letter to Memphis lead singer inspires students to take note

With a self-proclaimed “indie folk with soul” sound, “Letter to Memphis” thrives within the St. Louis music scene and is expected to soon reach many other heights. Devon Cahill recently visited Media Now STL, a three day seminar held on Maryville University’s campus, and spoke to the program’s writing class students about her personal journey as far as musician and ever-growing individual.

After being asked relatively positive questions about her performance rituals, childhood experience, and things like such, Emily Orr, a student reporter attending the writing course, asked Ms. Cahill (soon to be Mrs. Starks) what her worst experience on stage and/or within being a musician had been and how it changed her.

“I think probably several years ago having a panic attack on stage was the hardest experience that I’ve had. I think what happened was there were people there that I really wanted to impress, and after the set break, I sang a song, an entire song, and my microphone wasn’t on, and I was really, really, really, embarrassed, and I got really far up in my head, and I just lost my whole spark, ” said Cahill.

Devon Cahill’s true personality shined throughout her interview and was made apparent through her extremely honest and hopeful answers. Devon Cahill maintained a certain excitement about her work, as well as an equally excitement towards life in general. She is on all accounts a real artist who is rightfully proud of her art and her journey. Her genuine transparency is not only needed in the music world, but the the world, period.

“But…sometimes you have to just take a few breaths a regroup. I think that’s the hardest thing, when you’re performing, you can just get so far into your own head, but I’ve learned that the audience rarely knows if you mess up. At this point, if I make a mistake, i just smile. There’s always a way to overcome and sometimes you just have to get out of your head and feel the music, “ said Cahill.

Letter to Memphis singer discusses inspiration

Down to earth and creative artist Devon Cahill, lead singer of band ‘Letter to Memphis’, joined writing students at their Media Now St Louis class to answer their questions and play a couple of her uplifting and inspiring songs. Within this friendly interview Devon Cahill opens up about her inspiration for her lyrics and she addresses her hopes for her music and the people who hear it.

Q: What was your inspiration to become an indie folk genre?

A: “I had a musical theatre background and Jean [band member] had a guitar background but then both of us kind of lost our way, which was actually an inspiration for our song thursday night blues on our album. So we met and it took us a while but we started being musically inspired by each other. Neither of us had done music for a while as he struggled with marriage…..and i struggled with anxiety but then we met each other and he picked up his guitar again and i started to sing and we started to do covers……and over that time the indie folk was what we fell into and i think roots will always be important …….but we also like to throw genres around and make out own brand”

Q: Who is your biggest inspiration?

A: “Paul is the bass player and he is a multi instrumentalist and he has inspired me as he can go from one instrument right to another. Also he is zen and his life is all about music and playing it which inspires me a lot.”

Q: Do you like to use personal experiences as inspiration for your songs?

A: “Yes, music is like a natural high and i write to inspire others and make other happy. The way our music is made is always different but it is collaborative. I fell like when I’m writing I’m letting everything out.”

Q: What song is you favorite song from your album and why?

A: “I think rest you head is my favorite, it is track 3 on our album and it is one of the first songs i wrote by myself with the ukulele and its just a bout love! Its a lullaby and its sweet and its definitely falls into our indie folk drama and the lyrics are uplifting….to me it always makes me feel good as it is positive.”

Devon Cahill playing her ukulele and singing for the class.
Devon Cahill playing her ukulele and singing for the class.

 

Devin Cahills journey to music

Devin Cahill started out just playing around with a watermelon ukulele with her friend Gene Starks in their living room but then in 2011 they decided to start the band  “Letter To Memphis” together. They decided to name the band after one of her favorite songs by the pixies, “Letter To Memphis”. They then started to book gigs and performing for large crowds at venues all around the St. Louis area.

 

“Its really fun to enjoy and see the other bands perform,” Cahill said.

 

She has been playing in areas all around the St.Louis area and have had many different experiences. The worst she has had is when she had a panic attack on stage. She had to perform but she couldn’t at the moment so she went outside and took deep breathes until she was feeling better and then went back and had put on her show.

 

“Its like a natural high on life,” Cahill said.

 

If Cahill was not a musician she would doing her other job at Washington University as a patient in which she has to learn a script and perform the script. One day she might be a 17 year old with depression and the next day she might be a 80 year old with Alzheimer’s and she then the students have to give the correct medical attention with what her problem that she has is. If she wasn’t doing that then she would be a nanny or a barista.

 

“When you’re making your own original music you do what you want to do and that’s what i like about it,” Cahill said.

 

She knew she wanted to be a performer ever since she was a little girl when she went to her mother’s play rehearsals. She learned all the lines in each of her mother’s plays and read along as the cast rehearsed. Then her mother signed her up for musical theater.

 

“I do it because i like it and if people like that and want to follow us it feels really nice,” Cahill said.

Devon Cahill travels to Media Now STL

Devon Cahill sings, plays ukulele, and plays guitar for indie folk with soul band, Letter to Memphis. Their band name was inspired by the Pixies song title. For this reason, the band named themselves Letter (just one letter) to Memphis.

“Most people say Letters to Memphis,” she said with a laugh.

“I don’t necessarily listen to a lot of indie folk. I listen to a lot of different types of music. when I was in high school, I was really into the Pixies. I thought it was fitting because it has a certain ring to it, and Memphis was fitting since our music is folk and bluesy,” said Cahill.

Recorded in the bass (or bullfiddle) player Paul Niehaus’s basement, the band’s first album Phases displays a heavy but inspiring sound. Cahill proudly captured the picture of a yard in the South City that landed the role of their first album’s cover.

“There’s an old building in the background and an old fence, but there’s sunflowers growing. So, it’s the old and the new together,” said Cahill.

 

Cahill said, “This photo always spoke to me.”

Devon Cahill sings and plays the ukulele solo in the last song Phases.

“It felt really right.” Cahill said about singing the song named after the album.

The illustration on the band website was drawn by Cahill’s friend Michelle Volansky. Volansky is a crafter and illustrator, so she did the cartoon art displaying Gene Starks and Cahill with her watermelon ukulele.

Letter to Memphis website edited
On their website, Cahill’s friend Michelle Volansky drew the cover showing Cahill and her partner Gene Starks with their guitar and watermelon ukulele.

She said proudly, “It’s gorgeous, colorful, and beautiful.”

Big Crowds, Big Nerves

Illustrations of Cahill and Stark illustration via creaturetype.com (blog dedicated to letter to memphis)

Illustrations of Cahill and Stark illustration via creaturetype.com (blog dedicated to letter to memphis)

Performance anxiety can affect anyone at any age. According to Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. Even for Devon Cahill, a singer and ukulele player in a local bad Letter To Memphis, stage- fright hasn’t gone away. The band has been performing together for about four years now, but Cahill shared that herself and her band mate and fiancé Gene Stark get nervous before their shows.

“What is a day normally like before a show” another writing student asked Cahill. She explained that even through four years of performing, she still gets performance anxiety.

“Its nerve-racking, we have been playing for four years but I still get nervous and stage fright, it’s more like a nervous excitement, before a show I don’t eat anything, and neither does Gene,” Cahill said.

Being on stage and performing can be very hard and scary, but when doing the things you love and sharing messages of peace and love, it is easy to lose yourself in the music and the performance itself.

Cahill explains that every time she performs a song that she loves, it is almost cathartic. Sometimes it isn’t always as simple as the saying “practice makes perfect” Even for performers that have a wide range of experience and perform often, the nerves don’t always go away. Everyone is unique and their experiences can be different.

“The first time we played in front of a large audience was probably 2012. A large audience does a couple of things. It makes you nervous but it also makes you feel awesome,” Cahill said. “You can feed off of the crowd’s energy, especially if they are really into it and you can tell that they are digging your music. You feed off of that energy and it instills something extra into your performance.”

Cahill shared that she had grew up and struggled with anxiety, as well as still does to this day. Anxiety has brought her to her worst she said, as well as affected her performances with the band.

“Several years ago I had a panic attack on stage. That was the hardest experience I had. There were some people there that I really wanted to impress and after the set break I sang an entire song and my microphone wasn’t on and it was really embarrassing. I got really far up into my head and I just lost my whole spark and just freaked out,” she said. “There isn’t a lot to hide behind with guitar and vocals. I had to take a moment and stepped outside and took some deep breaths. Sometimes you have to just take some breaths and regroup and start again. The hardest thing when your performing is to let something roll off you shoulders if you mess up. At this point I just smile.”

Cahill also explained that the performance in which she was the most nervous was one in which she had to perform alone. She said that she had to sing and play on stage with no one to back her up or be there on stage with her.

“My band mates insisted that I performed a solo song. It was one of the most nerve-racking things I have done. I’m used to having the security blanket of having someone on stage with me and it was a very cool experience to play alone.

She also goes on to tell how that was the hardest thing she had to do, yet it was exhilarating. “It is very nerve-racking but very rewarding.”

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