Interview: Soft Cat

Brett Yale

East HIll Farms

Soft Cat is the project of Neil Sanzgiri, a careful and refined folk ensemble found within the concrete corridors of Baltimore, Maryland. Soft Cat’s debut album, Wildspace, was released several years ago and told the tale of a self-sustaining wilderness interspersed between the abandoned buildings and empty lots of an urban landscape.

Three year’s later the project has a new album, which you can listen to in full below. Lost No Labor’s broodings derive from our daily routines, finding beauty and meaning in any task required to keep life afloat.

I recently had the chance to ask Neil about the journey that inspired this new record, Baltimore, and career advice. Take a listen to the new album, out now on Human Kindness Overflowing, and read an interview with Neil below.

It's been about three years since the release of Wildspace. How have you been?

Hi Brett, thanks for asking! Baltimore has kept me busy to say the least. After graduating from college a year after Wildspace's release, I was struck with a very frustrating amount of energy that I did not know where to properly place. One of the main projects I've been working on for the past two years is the collectively run artist gallery and space called Open Space. This allowed for my curatorial goals and pursuits to be met while booking shows for other bands and really contributing to the cultural climate of Baltimore. I've also collaborated on a film/lecture/publication series called Spiral Cinema. Right now I'm presently working towards founding an upcoming arts, design and technology residency called North School Studio with some very close contacts. So all and all, I've been good . . . extremely busy, but good.

Whenever I see a wooded area within an urban setting, or a weed growing out the sidewalk, I'm reminded of the detached ideas behind your last album. Has anything in your life remained sovereign and separate these last few years?

That's an interesting question because I've never thought of the connection between Wildspace and sovereignty. In some sense, my music itself is very detached from the rest of my artistic pursuits. I would also add that I think Soft Cat is somewhat detached from some of the music being made in Baltimore, which can be very difficult. I was taught a very specific way of critical thinking in my sculpture classes which led to a lot of desires to integrate my philosophical background into my music. I think I've been successful in the sense that I hope that I get people thinking about a certain amount of content and don't blindly listen and digest the sounds they are hearing. It's been hard sometimes grappling with the fact that I make such warm and soothing music in a world filled with so many doubts. With all of that said, I think Soft Cat serves as that release from the complications and struggles of the day and if people are able to just take that with them, I think I'm doing all right.

There's always been something very patient about your songs. Does that equate to the songwriting process?

Good observation, Brett. It was very difficult to get back into songwriting and making music after nearly abandoning it all together after Wildspace. I had no clear direction of where we were going as a band, nor where I wanted to go with life. I would pick up the guitar here and there when I had time. Sometimes a melody would stick, and sometimes I would give up after ten minutes and not touch it for weeks. Generally I'll have an idea for a song and then bring it to the band. I would say that most of the songs off of Lost No Labor were written and recorded within a few months of graduating. What you hear, however, is the gradual accrual of other instruments and talents that I layered on to really achieve and fulfill the initial vision. The patience comes from the amount of time it takes for me to get a new idea that I think is worth while and commit to it.

What's the current incarnation of Soft Cat's contributors?

Right now at this moment, Soft Cat is myself, Kate Barutha, Evan Merkel (of the band Strange Fur), and Nina Ebner. Two violins, cello and classical guitar. I think we have really found a new sound actually, and are hard at work on a third album which, if I can manage the funds, will be done in another six months. Before that, we had Brendan Sullivan (Weekends) and Austin Tally (Wing Dam), and before that we had Jeffrey Silverstein (Secret Mountains). These dudes make appearances live every once and a while.

When you wrote Wildspace you were still fairly new to Baltimore. Would you say the city has more of an influence on your sound as of late? What bands/artists have had the most impact on you?

Oh man, I could write a fucking novel about my time in Baltimore. Every setting has an impact and influence on a musicians sound, consciously or not. When we gathered back together after I graduated, we went all electric (literally every instrument was hooked up to an amp with more grit and fuzz). Brendan was heavy on the distortion and everything was just louder. Previously, we were all acoustic and could barely play at venues. I think the city sort of forced us to be louder which was a radical thing for us in some sense. Lost No Labor is definitely way louder and grittier than Wildspace. However, I would say that I also have been focusing on Soft Cat as an escape from all of that. Where Wildspace focused on the forgotten spaces of the city, Lost No Labor is a departure into a more fictional setting for me. My influences never really change. I'll say though that at the moment these things have been on heavy rotation: Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Michael Nyman, Eluvium. I actually think there might be an Eluvium cover on the next album.

You mentioned a trip to an upstate farm in New York being the major influence behind Lost No Labor—tell us about this experience and the friend you visited there.

I guess I shouldn't talk about this too much, since it is so personal, but I will say that the landscapes, lifestyles and people I met there were so strikingly similar to this fictional place in my head. A very close friend of mine went to live and work at this place called East Hill Farms where she still resides. I helped her move there with all of her belongings. I have so much respect for that place. People from the ages of 18 to 60 were all eating, working, sleeping and creating in the same communal areas. Each meal they had was cooked by a rotating group of people and fed nearly all inhabitants. Not everyone worked in the fields, but they all interacted on a daily basis. The album cover comes from this trip.

You described the farm as a commune, with an immense amount of work involved. Do you view this positively, and do you think it's something everyone could benefit from enduring?

The idea of labor as it pertains to the album really took its form from that trip. I realized the connection between labor and the possibility of never seeing the benefits of that labor. I can not say what people could benefit from (I personally have never actually worked in the fields) but I do feel the endurance between the seasons and how destructive things can become. We are all constantly striving to survive, but we can't lose our labor. We have to continue no matter what happens. That is part of what I want people to get out of this album as well.

Why did you choose the Whitelock Community Farm to donate all of the proceeds of the album to?

I chose Whitelock for a few different reasons. It was brought to my attention that this would be a good place to donate to from the friend at East Hill Farms. She volunteered at Whitelock while she lived in Baltimore and it meant a lot to her. With that aside, personally I feel that fresh sustainable food sources are one of the most important ways in which to revitalize a community. Given the option to donate our proceeds, I had to really consider what organization I was supporting and aligning with. Honestly, I knew that I wanted it to go to a place where it would actually make a difference and not just evaporate or barely make a dent. And at the end of the day, Whitelock really fits in with the themes of the album. I wanted to present a fully cohesive sense of what I'm trying to say.

What advice would you give a generation that can access the world with the swipe of their fingers, but can't find a career?

I would advise to listen to Patti Smith:

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