Sometimes, listening to an artist for the first time, you instantly get the sense they were inevitably going to pursue their path: that songwriting is a matter of necessity rather than choice. What else would they have done? Where else would those songs have lived if not cracked open and shared with the listener?
Stephanie Cherote is such an artist. She’s readying the release of her debut album, ‘Some Holy Longing’, a record that recalls both the intimacy and intensity of ‘Songs Of Love And Hate’-era Leonard Cohen. It’s a collection of haunting, emotionally raw folk songs replete with soaring string arrangements that transport them into a timeless, almost-mystical place.
The singer-songwriter calls NME from her home in New South Wales’ Northern Rivers, shortly after flooding devastated the region. “Personally, I got away pretty much unscathed compared to what a lot of people are dealing with,” she says. “It’s messy up here, but there’s a lot of unionship and people putting in their best efforts to get things back together.”
Cherote may not be a household name at this point, but she’s far from a newcomer. In 2008, she won an artist mentorship with Island Records, which eventually saw her travel to Los Angeles and be introduced to Jimmy Iovine. The Interscope Records co-founder, so it goes, compared her voice to “Steve Nicks in her early years”.
But, feeling “emotionally unqualified” and with a desire to “deepen [her] songwriting with life experience”, Cherote withdrew. She wrote many of the new album’s songs while living in a semi-converted laundromat in New York City, “just sort of hanging in there”. Cherote dedicated snatches of time away from her day job to quiet moments of writing, slowly collecting the threads that would eventually lead to ‘Some Holy Longing’.
“I was very much swept up in the madness of New York, the beautiful madness, but I guess what was keeping my feet on the ground was about writing,” she explains. At night, she’d stay up, sketching out chord progressions on her guitar and string arrangements on Garageband, sculpting the sounds in her head into something more tangible.
“I still wasn’t clear at this point I was writing an album. I was just writing songs and really loving the process, and it felt like a secret, this little thing I was doing that no one knew about or cared about,” she says. “There was no external pressure. There was nothing outside of me moving things along, it was just my urge to do it.”
“It’s a feeling that everyone carries in some way, some sense of something missing. Looking for something that is not within reach, something that’s a bit undefinable”
She returned to Australia with a little over half the songs for ‘Some Holy Longing’ written, retreating to a cabin in Northern NSW to complete it in solitude. Brian Trahan, a producer she’d linked up with back in New York, eventually flew over to work on the album, arranging the strings that would be brought to life in a daylong session by a 12-piece ensemble with members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
The songs on ‘Some Holy Longing’ live at the exact point between desire and desolation. At their best, they lay bare the all-consuming euphoria of human communion by illustrating the all-consuming ache of its absence. “These sweet dreams of you linger on my pillow / Long enough to haunt me,” Cherote croons on standout ‘Faces’. Longing, as it permeates each song on the album, is an emotion as sacred as its title suggests.
“I feel like it’s a feeling that everyone carries in some way, some sense of something missing. Looking for something that is not within reach, something that’s a bit undefinable,” Cherote muses. “During the writing process in these songs, I was tapping into some sense of not feeling connected, feeling estranged. It being this vague, surreal sense.
“Physically, I was moving around a lot, I felt very displaced wherever I was. I think some people maybe are slightly more poetic or seek a kind of spirit to fill that sense of loss. It’s just something that burns within.”
‘Some Holy Longing’ is Cherote’s debut album, but she’s been slowly working towards this, consciously or not, for a long time. She was around music constantly growing up, her parents playing “anything from country, honky-tonk to jazz, pop, anything on that spectrum”.
She has four siblings, who she says are all musical in one way or another, including brother Daniel, who worked on ‘Some Holy Longing’ alongside Cherote and Trahan, and whose voice accompanies Cherote’s on the album’s gorgeous duet, ‘All Because Of You’.
“I think I just ingested a lot of music from when I was born, for as long as I can remember. My ears have always been tuned to how songs work. I was always curious about how to put a song together and [how] this big slab of music was created,” Cherote says.
“It’s been a pure sort of process. I haven’t done any formal training. I didn’t go to music school at all. But the interest has just been the driver for me.”
“What I really get quite fastidious about is keeping that connection to that pure moment that has obviously come through me when I’ve written a song”
That fascination clearly informs much of ‘Some Holy Longing’. Immediately obvious when listening to the album is Cherote’s deep respect and reverence for craft, for songwriting as a means of communicating raw human feeling, and for the greats who’ve come before. That’s partly evident in the record’s sonic economy. Even with a 12-piece orchestra; the instrumentation never balloons to the point of grandeur or excess; flourishes are only used to add emphasis where it’s needed most.
Take opener ‘Summer Love’. It introduces us to the barest elements of Cherote’s songs, gently fingerpicked guitar and her highly expressive voice, before slowly introducing strings. The contrast of that striking, almost severe sparseness with the lush arrangements that fill them out, gives the composition a cinematic quality. Her songs pull emotional triggers with precision.
“I’m very careful. I like to only use what is really, really necessary. What I really get quite fastidious about is keeping that connection to that pure moment that has obviously come through me when I’ve written a song,” Cherote says.
“If I lose contact with that along the way, if I feel like I’m losing that very sometimes vague feeling that I have when I first decide to write the song, I get quite upset,” she continues. “My priority was protecting that intimate relationship between the listener and just seeing the heart of the song really [come] through the vocals, the lyrics, the melody and the chord changes.”
On ‘Some Holy Longing’, Cherote need not be concerned about losing that relationship. For a record that dives headfirst into the sting of severance, it still feels wholly connective. It taps into a universal ache and, like a memory of an actual person can, lingers long after it’s over.
Stephanie Cherote’s ‘Some Holy Longing’ is out April 1 via Native Tongue