Caley Conway is difficult to pin down. Over the course of nine years the ever-busy Milwaukee singer-songwriter has explored the spaces between folk, jazz, rock, and post-rock. She’s released numerous records and singles both with a full band and as a solo artist. She’s played with Field Report and experimental improv trio Argopelter. She has a song about cheese. The one connecting thread is Conway’s voice, intimate and confessional one moment, cool and on the verge of a devastating put-down the next. The push-and-pull is fascinating.
Caley Conway’s latest EP is similarly difficult to pin down. The three-track Only A Dark Cocoon is inspired by the classic Joni Mitchell song “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (from 1971’s Blue), but it’s not a tribute album. All three songs borrow liberally from Mitchell’s lyrics, but it’s not a cover album. Think of it more like a reimagining or an expansion, with Mitchell’s gorgeously rendered song of romantic disillusionment and the hope that lies beyond it serving as a beam of light, and Conway’s voice and sensibility serving as a prism. The colors that emerge are fascinating.
First, the Mitchell original:
And now Conway’s Only A Dark Cocoon expansion, which includes the smokey “The Last Time I Saw Him,” the subtly sparkling “You’ve Got Tombs In Your Eyes,” and the heavy-lidded “All Good Dreamers”:
“Only A Dark Cocoon, for me, is a meditative untangling of a song I’ve been passively obsessed with for the last 15 years or so,” Conway says. “The song itself is drenched in specificity, moodily insists on growth and empowerment, and, somehow, the bed of piano with which Mitchell sets the scene is just as verbose as her vivid story. Her penultimate lyric, ‘It’s only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away,’ is explosive; bursting the song at its seams as the narrator sheds the dark influence of a past love.”
In navigating my role as a song creator, I’ve found I have a need to explore all facets of arrangement, production, and audio mixing unaided (and uninhibited) by engineers and “producers,” who, at the time of my writing this, are overwhelmingly likely to be men. And though genuinely fascinated by ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard,’ my adaptation of it arose from this need to self produce and is by no means an obedient tribute. Only A Dark Cocoon was constructed selfishly and by accident; I reached into ‘Richard’ (it’s never far from the surface of my mind) and pulled out phrases, stretching them as needed, honoring their melodies while retrofitting them over what I was already arranging instrumentally.
The lyrics almost self-organized into themes of their own, which quickly gave way to three free-standing adventures: “The Last Time I Saw Him,” “You’ve Got Tombs In Your Eyes,” and “All Good Dreamers.” Refracted just enough through my lens, Only A Dark Cocoon is a work of fiction—one I’ve created (I’ll be the first to admit) by exploiting Joni Mitchell’s generously honest, almost confessional lyrical testimony. Every word in the EP is dutifully hers, but the environments they have bashed into and now inhabit are mine. My hope is that the listener is sent on a warped, colorful exploration through the iconic 1971 original—that they continue to revel in her melodies and stunning, unabashed storytelling as I have done for years.
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