Kayla Cohen's 2014 album Unmoored by the Wind is a well-crafted patchwork of exquisite folk songs. Self-recorded at Cohen’s Los Angeles home and released under the name Itasca, it’s an endless hallway of hushed vocals, gently plucked acoustic guitar, handcrafted hiss, and the occasional bird squawk in the background. Unmoored is as intimate an album as you’ll ever hear—a perfect vehicle for Cohen’s spectral sound.
That’s why the rollout for Itasca’s 2016 album Open to Chance was so striking. The first song revealed by the Paradise of Bachelors record label was the opening track, “Buddy,” an amiable country-rocker streaked with pedal steel guitar and set to a drum beat. Next up was “Carousel,” a slower song built around a repeated keyboard part. And then came “No Consequence,” a beautiful exercise in West Coast Americana, again heavy with pedal steel. The stage was being set, it seemed, for Itasca’s big aesthetic shift from sparsely arranged bedroom folk to a full-band sound as wide as the horizon.
Here’s the thing, though: Once you get past the singles and another song or two, Open to Chance retreats back into the Itasca wheelhouse. The back half of the album is as quiet and intimate as Cohen’s previous work, with a boost in fidelity because it was recorded in an actual studio. So why not employ the band’s power across all 11 tracks?
“I really like how it sounds,” Cohen says over the phone, “but there’s something about the first time you work with a band, you just want to throw everything in there and really go for it because you are so stoked on having people there who can make your songs sound bigger. But as you work with them, more nuance appears.”
Cohen, who’s originally from New York, started making a name for herself in the early 2010s with a parade of cassette releases that showcased her intricate fingerpicking style, dusky alto, and penchant for lyrical mysticism. The combination of the three placed her squarely into a nebulous scene of solo guitarists, acid folksingers, and John Fahey disciples that has gained momentum over the past few years.
As a guitarist, Cohen is influenced by Michael Chapman and Bert Jansch. Vocally, she has been compared to Linda Perhacs, Bridget St. John, and Judee Sill. Her lyrics draw inspiration from the natural world: “[I love] the desert scenery and the landscape. I’m trying to make the sound of the environment, which is really hard to do,” she says. “I love going for a couple of days into a cabin and staying there to write for a while. That’s my favorite thing. Inspiration will always come when you’re in an environment like that, and things are a little bit quieter than in the city.”
Quieter. Even with ever-more resources at her fingertips, Cohen likes it that way.
“The next record, I still want to record with this band but maybe even tone it down a little bit more,” she says. “It’s hard to explain, but that’s what I’m interested in going for.”