When she moved to Athens from Los Angeles last summer, poet and songwriter Claire Cronin says she was struck by the college town’s creative nucleus.
“I like that a lot of the folks from legendary Athens bands are still in town and making things,” she says. “There seems to be a core community of musicians who have lived here for a long time and don’t plan on disappearing. L.A. has a lot of people coming and going, and a lot of people chasing fame for fame’s sake. That’s not a force I’ve really encountered in Athens, thank God.”
Cronin, a PhD candidate in creative writing at UGA, has already made a splash on the local scene with her spare, haunting folk tunes, as heard on Over and Through, a compilation of her material from the past few years released last September by New York indie Ba Da Bing Records. Songs like “Bury My Heart” feature Cronin’s stirring vocals against a backdrop of deliberately plucked acoustic guitar. Her sonic depictions of heartbreak and isolation rival those of the late Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.).
Last month Cronin released the remarkable Came Down a Storm, also via Ba Da Bing. The LP is a collaboration with Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, whom she met while sharing a bill at L.A. DIY venue Pehrspace.
“John was on tour with Annie Lewandowski’s band, Powerdove, and I was playing a set with Ezra,” she says, referring to Ezra Buchla, her creative and romantic partner. “John introduced himself to me and we chatted a little, and then he emailed me a few weeks later about working on a project with him.”
Cronin and Dieterich wrote a song together, “The Unnatural,” for an “international art project [that] ended up evaporating before anyone got paid,” she says. But the process proved rewarding for both artists, and they decided to continue working on an album’s worth of material. Since Dieterich was living in New Mexico, says Cronin, “our songwriting process was to work on different parts and ideas separately, and email little recordings back and forth to each other. Sometimes we talked on the phone, but mostly I think we wrote lots of long emails.”
Cronin admits she was hesitant to allow someone else in on her creative process. “I had never written songs collaboratively before,” she says. “It always seemed too scary and psychically intrusive. Songwriting is very mysterious to me.”
But the pair had an undeniable chemistry, as the resulting album bears out. “The Unnatural” kicks off Came Down a Storm, and it is the most striking track in Cronin’s discography thus far. The song’s meandering pace belies Cronin’s incisive poetry, as a spectral string arrangement creeps alongside and Dieterich’s nimble guitar work adds melodic and emotional depth.
The rest of the record’s six songs are both beautiful and terrifying—abstract stories of personal victory set against a sea of apocalyptic imagery. It’s music that leaves the listener unsettled, like waking suddenly from a vivid dream. In contrast to Cronin’s past work, Came Down a Storm’s crisp production allows each song to stand on its own, unobscured by tape hiss or muddy mixing.
Lyrically, too, it is sharper. Cronin says she considers it “to be more of a concept album than any of my previous works. The songs are all obsessed with death and the afterlife and begin to create their own world of overlapping narratives and characters.”
In addition to songwriters like Molina, Nick Drake, Chan Marshall and Jeff Mangum, Cronin cites Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Frank Stanford, Sara Nicholson and other contemporary poets as having impacted her own work, which blurs the boundary between music and creative writing in a way many singer-songwriters strive for but few are able to achieve.
“I think of poetry and songwriting as equally meaningful, difficult and necessary,” says Cronin. “They may come from the same inner place, but… there is a different burden on poetry to silently perform emotion and nuance to a reader,” whereas “a singer’s voice can impart these things in how it handles lyrics—transforming a really simple refrain into something profound, for example.”
Although she has been writing and recording music for a long time—“since middle school,” she says—creative writing has been her main focus in recent years. “I guess I never really pursued music in a professional way until now,” she says. “I was more interested in writing songs than touring and promoting myself. This is how I ended up in poetry school.”
Yet Came Down a Storm has begun gathering praise from national outlets, and Cronin and Buchla are just back from a three-week tour in support of the album. (This Saturday’s Caledonia performance will serve as a local release show.) One could read this increased musical focus as evidence that, though Cronin has made her mark on Athens, the town has made its mark on her, too. “It’s funny that I came to UGA to focus on poetry,” she says, “but by the end of my first year I’ve been spending way more time on music.”
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