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Dead Horses Look to the Skies on ‘Cartoon Moon’

Sep. 13, 2016
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A song truly succeeds when you look past the individual parts and find its heart and essence. That’s one of the biggest lessons singer-songwriter Sarah Vos says she learned when her band Dead Horses recorded their latest album Cartoon Moon with Grammy-nominated producer and former Uncle Tupelo and Wilco drummer Ken Coomer.

“As far as songwriting, I think the songs we chose were a little more confident in the fact that we followed the song rather than in the past when we felt a little pressured to put a bluegrass vibe into it,” says Vos. “On this record, we just focused on what the songs were, in crafting them to be what they could be at their best and how we liked them.”

Thanks to a chance meeting at the Jammin’ at Hippie Jack’s festival in Tennessee more than a year ago—where Vos gave Coomer a copy of their 2014 album Space and Time—the two parties discovered they shared a common appreciation for each other’s styles.

“He said he heard potential and he really appreciated the songs themselves,” says Vos. “That’s what he would remind me while we recording this record. He reminded me to focus on the songs more than anything. More than the singer, the guitar player, the bass player—just the actual songs. I think he heard that and also heard the potential in the way that we were playing.”

They recorded the album at Coomer’s Nashville-based Cartoon Moon Studios. Utilizing Coomer’s wealth of experience in the studio, Vos says the band learned a lot about the recording process.   

“A lot of what attracted me was, since he was in both Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, that recording is really significant for them. So I knew Ken knew a lot about working in the studio and making a record,” she says. “And that’s something I care very much about and would like to see us put more and more energy into, specifically creative energy. Knowing Ken wanted to be guiding us meant a lot to me.”

One of Coomer’s biggest contributions was that he added drumming and percussion to the songs. It’s something the band had long been interested in adding to their sound, Vos says.

“Ken helped us usher that new phase in and added percussion tracks to a lot of tracks of our record in a way that was so mature and added depth,” she says. “Rather than just the drive, it added depth. And I think that’s certainly the direction we want to go with the drums.”

The trio, which also features mandolin/guitar player Peter Raboin and double bassist Daniel Wolff, now tours with drummer Lemmy Hayes.

While the album has more of a folk and Americana mix compared to their previous two albums’ more bluegrass-influenced songs, bluegrass is still prevalent especially on new song “Ain’t Got Time.” The song features banjo player Noam Pikelny from popular touring group The Punch Brothers.

“He’s arguably the best banjo player in the world,” Vos says. “[Ken] happened to know him. And we are such huge fans of the Punch Brothers. So when we found out that Ken knew Noam we were like, ‘Would he really come in?’ and he did and laid down the track. It was incredible to watch him do that.” 

Overall, Vos feels that they were able to create their most mature album to date. The songs focus on themes of loneliness, existence, love and meaning.

“One of the differences is the maturity; we’ve all gotten to be stronger musicians,” she says. “We know a little more about working on a record. I think we had a little better idea of what we wanted to do.”

The songs range from recently recorded to ones written four years ago. While Vos is not opposed to writing a record all at once, she feels there’s something special about telling a story of what they’ve been up to over an extended period. For example, she wrote “Brothers” when they first started touring more extensively and found out that she loved it.

“When I was a kid I would get homesick during sleepovers and didn’t like leaving home. So I find it so interesting that now I’ve found my home in so many different places,” she says. “I think one of the blessings is meeting so many different people. They welcome us into their homes. Some are families and they tell you very personal things sometimes. That’s an honor as a human being. It’s a responsibility to let that influence the songwriting because then it becomes everyone’s songs.”

Vos feels Coomer’s influence will have a lasting impact on the band.

“We’ve started working on new material even though Cartoon Moon isn’t technically released yet,” she says. “And I thought a lot about Ken and the recording process. That’s something that will keep influencing us in the future. I look forward to learning how to craft even more.”

Dead Horses opens along with Horseshoes and Hand Grenades for Trampled by Turtles on Friday, Sept. 16 at the Riverside Theater.

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