Interview: Donna Lynn Caskey-The Love Still Shows interview and photos by Cynthia Brando

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     I consider myself very fortunate to have met Donna Lynn Caskey-in an intimidating city of often ego centric artists-she is a beacon of light; a person that exudes a warmth and friendliness that is gentle and calm in the bustling and turbulent city of greater Los Angeles. We met through the singer songwriter circle and got to collaborate musically where I got to know her better through the process of songwriting. Her process was inspiring and foreign to me-a free form exploratory style of which the jewels were selected; I would later come to find that this embodies her artistic personality. Her latest album, "The Love Still Shows", which she recorded with Ed Tree at his San Gabriel studio, is garnering attention on the folk music scene. I wanted to learn more about Donna Lynn and met with her at her home in Ventura, California.

M.E. “Do you like collecting banjos-why do you have so many?”

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D.L.C.  “Part of it, is that you tune five string banjos differently to get different tunings. For the longest time, I only had one. My first banjo I had since 1999. I got it at Happy’s Fleamarket in Virginia. I wore part of it off learning to play. I started playing it in earnest in 2001. The second banjo I got was fretless and that served a different purpose. Banjos started out fretless; at that time I was playing a lot of old time music and it was really cool to play fretless banjo with fretless fiddle-because it’s not a tempered scale. Frets are an approximation of notes, so it was really cool; you can actually get more in tune, believe it or not, and then you can also get those fun micro tones in between notes, so it was fun to have that as a color….so that was my second banjo-the third one I got was to get more key access. I got the third one around the time I started playing open mics more and going out; so it was nice to not spend my whole 15 minutes tuning…I bought another one out of someone’s trunk. This one came out of a friends neighbors shed for free and it sounded good tuned down. The oldest one; the flea market one…..this one really spoke to me; the one with the star-it’s a Vega; it’s from the 20’s. I walked away from it a couple of times. It feels like my big girl banjo and it’s probably the one I play the most. It just has a really great sweet sound. I was in Santa Monica and popped into McCabes because they have a banjo room and I can’t help myself. This one was unassuming; kind of hung on a lower part of a side wall; not very flashy or anything. I picked it up and it felt very good. Then I looked at the price tag and said…ooooohhh…I have good taste! I had five banjos at that point; so I put it back. A week later I was back and I didn’t see it and my heart fell, but then I saw it, and then a birthday was coming up in a couple of months…but I walked away from it again; but then I called them and asked them to hold it; “I’m sorry I walked away from you!” The latest one I got is a baritone banjo; so it’s tuned down. My home of lost and found wayward banjos”…

M.E.  “What was it about the banjo that made you have the epiphany that it was your instrument?”

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D.L.C.  “Part of it was Mike Seeger making it seem so accessible, but I was already in love with it; the sound of it; something quirkily humble about it. I like music that touches my heart, or music that gives me goose bumps or makes me feel or think. I would go to the Roanoke Blue Grass Club and hear these versions of Shady Grove that were amazing. I loved that ensemble of high ringing banjos, but there was something very soulful to me when I heard people play clawhammer old time songs. That style was geared toward accompanying yourself singing. I had that love of singing, so that style spoke to me, and so I first learned clawhammer; frailing which is the family of the style I play.”

M.E.  “Which one is your oldest banjo?”

D.L.C  “This one is the oldest; it is from 1890-the brand is Gatcomb. It’s funny because I posted something on Facebook when I acquired it and the current owner of the Gatcomb company; someone who works for them found me about a year ago because they were trying to gather stuff for the current owner’s birthday; so I sent a cd and I got a thank you message; it was a bigger company back in the day, and now is smaller I think. How I got it-a couple years ago it was Labor Day weekend and my sister Cathy who lives in Ohio sent me an email with a pic of a banjo and a written sign in squiggly paint-“200 dollars OBO”-so I wrote back; for that price, get it-I didn’t know it was from the 1800’s. I looked up the serial number; there’s a Gatcomb company registry; from the serial number you can see what year is was made….I knew it had belonged to this guy in his 80’s-it was a one day flea market. Labor Day weekend in Ohio; he said it belonged to his grandfather and it been wrapped in a sheet in his closet for decades. He was happy it was going to someone who would play it. I play traditional songs on it; I also play a couple of Christmas songs on it and  there was one song I wrote on it….

Banjo’s ancestry is African. Instruments that were gords with a stick in them and got strings; and when people were enslaved here, they built similar instruments and that evolved to what we know of as the banjo-and then; the early banjos through the 1800’s, most of them had gut strings.”

M.E.  “Tell me about your latest recording.”

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D.L.C.  “It was in process for awhile-this will be my second; I started recording demos for it over a year ago, but I had this back log of songs. I had some I was clear would go on the new recording and then I had some other songs that were just nice to make a demo of it and have some sort of documentation of it. And in the process of recording demos, I had some songs that I felt there was something to them but they didn’t feel finished; so in the process these songs evolved into more finished forms. I wrote songs for 12 years before I even made my first album. I started writing songs while only playing banjo for 3 months. I was learning everything as I went along; I got my feet wet with recording demos during that time; in a lot of peoples home studios.”

M.E.  “You haven’t felt the sense of rushing to do anything with music?”

D.L.C.  “Well, sometimes there’s self generated pressure, and also people wanted recordings from me or liked certain songs. When I made my first one it was clear that there were several songs that people had been asking me for, for years, that meant something to someone, so it was clear that those meant more to someone that just me, and it would be good to finally provide that. I had written forever, but it took awhile for my banjo playing to catch up to my songs. I was writing songs that were over my head; some of my songs-it took me quite awhile to have the skill to play the banjo to play my own songs; I still encounter that-writing songs beyond my singing skills.”

M.E.  “In your bio, you were made fun of for singing and subdued yourself”

D.L.C.  “Sometimes when I ‘m singing I’m trying to work through the obstacle course of my own feelings and body and physicality and to communicate through all that; my own personal obstacles; sometimes it’s like an out of body experience. Like I’m a lightening rod; it ‘s almost like there is so much energy; it hasn’t felt totally natural to be on stage; it’s a highly activating experience; people looking at you and bright lights; dealing with my glasses and standing a certain way for the microphone; it has it’s own set of skills. Learning what I can do to take care of myself to still feel my feet on the ground to try to be in my body as much as possible and not just freak out.”

M.E.  “So you are part of a calendar featuring women and banjos called “Banjo Babes”-how did that come about?”

D.L.C.  “It’s not my project; I’ve been in it the last 3 years. There is this banjo player based out of San Luis Obispo-Erin English. Her dad plays accordion and there was an accordion calendar for years, and she’s rather enterprising, so at some point in the summer of 2013, she contacted me and some other female banjo players around the world. The first one- we had a banjo player from Uzbekistan who was the only banjo player, far as she knew, in Uzbekistan. Erin asked if I wanted to be a part of this thing….so I”ve been in it the past 3 years; it’s mostly about the music but a fun way to get it out there.”

M.E.  “Part of your creative process is to create collages, and many of them! What is it about this art form that you are drawn to?”

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D.L.C.  “There’s something about a collage-I can’t take myself too seriously-it’s like 3rd grade with glue sticks and torn paper; magazines that I get out of the break room at work or recycled bins. I’m not trying to make some major artistic statement. It’s just tearing through magazines and anything that catches my eye or my heart or makes me laugh in the moment, and then just ripping it out and taping or pasting it together on cheap sketchbook paper. A lot of it is based on Jungian psychology, and Jung talked about “active imagination”-he had these huge books of drawings and writings-art that was not necessarily for the sake of being on the wall, but just to create as your own symbolism in the moment and to process your life creatively. It’s kind of fun for me to make these because I don’t always know what they are about but it’s interesting looking at them because I’ll see parallels I didn’t notice when I was making them. I got more insights about what was going on with me by looking at them. Sometimes there are themes-keys or hearts-hearts are a big deal with me. This one has a rodent theme. It’s playful and child like.”

M.E.  “Is that how you approach music a lot of times?”

D.L.C.  “I try to be seriously playful about music, but also it helps me when I’m getting serious in a way that doesn’t seem to serve me or the art-because sometimes I can get really serious “I really care about this a lot and I want it to be perfect”, and I get stressed about it and anxious and insecure….so it’s counter productive……to have a lightness about it is important. Collage is helpful because sometimes I’ll be working on a collage at the same time as a song-sometimes I’ve made collages around a song I’m working n and it’s helped me find a word in a song.”

M.E.  “My favorite tune on the new album is “Look at Me,” printed here. Can you talk about what this song represents for you-is it about learning to accept ourselves fully?”  


Look at Me

I confess I dress to impress you

Every day I cast a spell

Paint my face and don a costume

To be the one you love so well

 

Look at me- but not so closely now

Look at me- but not so close

Look at me- but not so closely now

Look at me- not so close!

 

Tailor made to fit and to flatter

Accentuate, slim, trim and hide

Designs to attract and distract you

Looking slick but sick inside

 

Look at me- but not so closely now

Look at me- but not so close

Look at me- but not so closely now

Look at me- not so close!

 

Dressed to kill a secret sorrow

Dressed to fill an empty ache

Dressed to win your approval

And still I didn’t feel okay

 

I’m sorry for the ways I used you

I’m sorry for the times I lied

I’m sorry for my confusion

Begging for what you can’t provide

 

Today I dress to please myself

A grey-green hat to match my eyes

Patchwork kaleidoscopic color

I feel at ease shed my disguise

I feel at ease shed my disguise

 

Look at me- closer now

Look at me- come close

Look at me- come closer now

Look at me- and let me see

©2016 Donna Lynn Caskey (P) Cordulia Music BMI

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D.L.C.  “For me, this song represents and explores some of the ways and reasons we as humans might present a front to other people. The ways we can, consciously and unconsciously, create and craft our identity and the image of ourselves we project into the world. What will we highlight and accentuate? What will we omit or downplay? How will we “curate our content” and “embody our brand” as the ubiquitous marketing buzzwords of the day proclaim? What are we proud of, and what do we hide in shame? Look at me! Pay attention to me! Like me! Love me! Reassure me! Seeking external validation. Clothes, manner of dress can be part of it for sure, but to me, the clothing symbolizes much more than that. For example, a case could be made that just about anything and everything posted on social media is a form of, “look at me!” This song also explores the possibility of showing up as-is, in our regular clothes, so to speak. To validate ourselves, to allow ourselves to be seen more fully; and what might we see when not so preoccupied with managing our own image and impression?”

M.E.  “Do you think there is a larger issue with women and how they choose to dress for men?”

D.L.C.  “Though the narrator of the song makes reference to painting one’s face with makeup and some of the lyrics could also double as fashion magazine headlines targeted at women, I experience the act of putting on a facade of some sort, creating or presenting a story of one’s identity, as a universal human experience that transcends gender. That said, I see where societal gender conventions, messages, and expectations can influence differences in the manner women and men may present a facade.” 

M.E.  “So we both are musicians who are entering the mid stage of our lives and still doing our music-what keeps you going?”

D.L.C.  “It’s funny to me that I feel called and compelled in some way to express myself, share songs publicly, perform, even though it is often not easy or comfortable for me. Look at me?! In most ways, I actually prefer folks didn’t. A big part of what keeps me going when I’m tempted to retreat into a more quiet, private, inward life are the messages I regularly receive from people, often strangers, that the songs I share encourage them in their own lives. A few of many examples- someone recently wrote to thank me since they inexplicably woke up with my song “Time Of Delight” stuck in their head, and that it set a great intention for their day. Another person told me she finds herself singing that song every time she works in her garden. A teacher wrote that listening to my first album helped her prepare her classroom for the year and to serve her students. Someone wrote me that the song “I Am Willing” was in their head the morning they were heading into surgery, and that it brought them peace, comfort, strength, and hope. Another said the lyrics of “It Ain’t Personal” helped him face some difficult tasks. Others have said the song “Beauty Queen” makes them feel better about themselves and their appearance. In the title track of the album, “The Love Still Shows,” I make reference to "my heart touched by a hopeful song" as one of the seemingly little but truly huge things that have “seen me through" life. If any of the songs on the album touch someone's heart in a way that helps them through their day, wonderful.”

 

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