Remember how everyone used to call Scottish dream-pop group the Cocteau Twins "ethereal" at every opportunity? Well, compared to Sokai Stilhed (pronounced "sockeye steelhead"), Cocteau Twins are Slayer.
The Seattle singer/multi-instrumentalist's music is barely there, but it moves you deeply. Her voice sounds vulnerable yet steadfast, supple yet ancient. Sokai (aka Heather Cullen) often bathes her vocals in reverb and delay via GarageBand, lending them a penumbra of eeriness. Guitar, music box, erhu (Chinese violin), bodhran, and a beat-up accordion sparely augment her ectoplasmic ballads and reconstructed folk and blues standards.
Sokai's two CD-Rs—Sokai Stilhed and Second, both of which she packaged herself in paper left over from her parents' wedding invitations—sound holy but untethered to any organized religion; pagan, but without the look-at-me-I'm-so-fucking-radical Burner associations. Sokai radiates an old-soul/back-to-nature aura (it's not surprising to hear that she works at City People's Garden Store).
Sokai Stilhed's music is lights-low intimate and wispy, but not conventionally "feminine." Her sound transcends gender and corporeality. It's stripped-down like a spindly, denuded tree, but built to last. It seems ideally attuned to dreams and spooked reveries. If you need reference points, think Charalambides' Christina Carter, Linda Perhacs, and Valet/ Honey Owens—as well as Tim Buckley's Starsailor, especially in how she uses the voice as an unorthodox instrument and sounds for their innately expressive value, conveying something beyond language. But, really, Sokai's songs exist in their own world, nurtured by spiritually infused music, but too lone-wolfish for revival tents.
Sokai's musical jones was stoked by her older sister Eilish and their blues-guitarist mother, who sang often and played records constantly in the house. Sokai played flute in grade school, but she claims not to know "music talk" (i.e., don't ask her to sing in the key of A, although she can do it).
"When I was growing up, my sister was always my main influence," Sokai recalls. "She would always make me listen to the music she was into—so far as to make me memorize the lyrics." She laughs heartily.
Eilish's forcefulness paid off, and she became a crucial supporter of her little sister—plus, she gave Sokai her musical handle. "[Eilish] said, 'You always go against the current, and salmon are always going against the current, their lives are always so hard, and they're always working so hard to replenish their species and the life that's around them,'" Sokai explains. "'That's you to a tee. You make everything hard for yourself.'"
Eilish also booked her sister for what turned out to be a pivotal event: an experimental-music gig at a lighthouse in the Bay Area (Sokai had attended San Francisco State University for a couple of years in the mid-'00s before returning to Seattle in 2007). The venue's unearthly atmosphere and the bizarre music played by her billmates inspired Sokai to focus more on her art. "The musicians would go right up to the crowd and play instruments in their ears," she remembers. "After that, I realized you don't need any rhyme or reason; you just need to go for it to express yourself."
Another key figure in Sokai's growth as a musician is Wall of Sound proprietor Jeffery Taylor, who also plays guitar in Climax Golden Twins and AFCGT.
"If you ask him something, he'll give you this wealth of information, but he wasn't trying to promote himself with his knowledge," Sokai says. "He honestly just wanted you to hear really good music and be excited about music. So right off the bat, I had a lot of respect and trust for him. I also love the music he creates, and I like what he does for the music world in Seattle. He gives a lot of people a chance, but he's also selective."
Sokai created her first album with Taylor in mind and sent it to him, along with a letter, without trying to come across as another attention-hungry upstart. "He wrote back and said, 'The only advice I can give you is to keep making music, and can you give me some copies so I can sell them on consignment?' I was blown away."
Taylor's encouragement spurred Sokai to record a second album. As every CD is handmade by its creator, only about 55 Sokai Stilhed discs have slipped out into the world, although local micro-indie Omiimii wants to reissue the first one. It was once unthinkable that Sub Pop would sign loner-folk savant Tiny Vipers; similarly, an artist as distinctively other and introverted as Sokai Stilhed could—and should—gain much wider exposure.
"I'm mostly a private person," Sokai confides. "I'm not comfortable with attention at all." She may have to become accustomed to it—sooner rather than later.
Sokai Stilhed performs at Hollow Earth Radio's Magma Festival, featuring an evening where several local bands cover songs from Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; she is covering "Stumbleine."