October 31, 2016

Featuring: Fern Mayo

Fern Mayo's Katie Capri on her songwriting process and the power of Rihanna.

While discussing her influences, Katie Capri declares herself a John person. Everyone is either a Paul person or a John person. We all contain multitudes, but at the end of the day we’re either joyously singing, “It’s getting better all the time” or curmudgeonly interjecting, “Can’t get no worse.” Sure, it’s reductionist to boil down the Lennon/McCartney dichotomy to pessimism versus optimism — to imagine John reading the news while Paul pesters him for the “funny papers”— but there’s one clear difference between the two ex-Beatles: Paul has never screamed on a record. Katie Capri has.

Fern Mayo’s “Chomping at the Bit” intensifies following the second refrain. Its energy builds as Capri sings about the exhausting chore of chasing happiness before she lets out a shriek. “Everything you’re hearing on Fern Mayo is my pure, raw emotions that I can’t really contain,” Capri told me as I held her hostage on the phone for an hour and a half. This moment of catharsis follows the couplet, “Fighting off all our woes / Will keep us busy until we die.” It’s this introspective quality that makes Capri a John person. Her songs are personal, yet shrouded in poetics betraying another one of her influences: Conor Oberst. Growing up, Capri's listening habits revolved around artists for whom words mattered. Lyrics are what prompted her to pick up writing when she was around 10-years-old. Later, she memorized every word on the first three Metric albums and wrote Brand New lyrics in her notebook. “Lyrics are very important to me. If it’s a good song with bad lyrics that song is not good to me,” Capri said. This statement should come as no surprise to those acquainted with the music of Fern Mayo, for which Capri is the main songwriter and sole lyricist.

The written word has always been important to Capri — she studied creative non-fiction in college, briefly worked as an editor at Impose and even speaks in long, fluid waves that are conversational yet concise. But her foray into songwriting, she says, happened late. Fern Mayo’s first release, a two-song demo album titled demo de mayo, came out in 2014 when Katie Capri was 24. The Brooklyn-based project was born as a solution to two problems: Capri was feeling disconnected from the world following a lonesome move to New York and determined to channel the negative energy fueling years of compulsive exercising into something lasting, a band. “I realized that it was unhealthy and making me unhappy and super isolated. I literally just said I’m going to stop going to the gym so much and use that time to make something at the end of the day and then I just kept doing it. I had a lot of stuff to get off my chest at the time,” Capri said.

Capri followed up Fern’s demo debut with 2015’s more realized happy forever EP, which came out via the consistently reliable Miscreant Records. The seven songs that make up the sophomore release see her as concerned about the uncertainty of her future as she is troubled by the heartbreak of her past. “It's been almost a year / Since I lost damn near all my fear,” Capri sings on opener, “Going Somewhere.” There’s an inspiring resilience to the release. Having reached such lows, Capri realizes the only way to go is up (“can’t get no worse”), reconciling her demons by exorcising them through song. Capri says she doesn’t write out of inspiration but out of compulsion. She’s always writing but her body of work is brief. Three EPs, 12 songs, all clocking in at a hair under 30 minutes. This is largely due to Katie’s commitment to quality control. Every song released is worked on and worked on until it is up to Capri’s standard. “I’m such a tinkerer. I make people miserable probably and I really wish I wasn’t like that but that’s just the way I am," she said. "I know how I want [a song] to sound or feel and it has to be that way or else I’ll be so deeply and monumentally upset. It’s so vulnerable so it just has to be right or there’s no way I could stomach having it out in the world.”

Fern Mayo’s most recent release, Hex Signs, came nine months after the happy forever EP. The three songs that make up the EP are potentially her best. Listening to Fern Mayo’s discography chronologically is like watching a sapling turn into a mighty oak over just three years. To quote opening track “Pinesol,” it sounds like Capri has “felt loss and learned from it.” She credits her constantly evolving sound to the influence of pop stars like Madonna and Rihanna. Offhandedly, I mention that one day Rihanna will release a greatest hits album and we’re all going to be blown away by how many bangers it contains. Capri agrees and even volunteers to put together her own playlist.

Capri hasn’t mapped out the future of Fern Mayo yet. In going forward, she told me she’d like to be less rigid but then she lets up a bit, adding with confidence that she has a very well-developed vision that she would love to explore by herself. “Like I said with the tinkering, I would love to not ask people to change something a fifth time. I would love to do it on my own. So hopefully, in the next year, I’ll become workable with that and learn how to program drums and do stuff so I can make it happen on my own cause that’s really what I want,” she said. This, Capri explains, is why she isn’t super prolific. She spent months rearranging lyrics and figuring out the best guitar line for track “New Ketamine,” saying she wouldn’t have been satisfied with it any other way. When figuring out which songs are worth the effort, Capri says it all comes down to emotional resonance. “I get really, really, really, really frustrated sometimes and really, really, really sad sometimes and really, really, really angry and so things that hit those nerves in me I’ll keep working on cause it feels super important to me then otherwise it’s like, ‘I don’t care,’” Capri said. The passion that goes into Capri’s writing is viscerally felt while listening to it. Fern Mayo is the best soundtrack for a bad day because sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that having lots of feelings doesn’t mean you’re weak, and that those negative feelings can be channeled into power.

Listen to Fern Mayo on bandcamp.

Photo by Andrew Piccone.

Alex Wexelman is a professional music writer and procrastinator. His most prized possession is a book he got hand-signed by Patti Smith. Like his tweets here.