“YOU DON’T KNOW HOW YOU’RE MISSING THE MARK UNTIL YOU THROW THE DART”
Caitlin Watkins (a.k.a. C.F. Watkins), a singer/songwriter from Greensboro, North Carolina, left her hometown for Brooklyn in search of something new. She was scared to go, but staying put didn’t feel like an option.
“There was pull. To ignore that felt irresponsible.” So she packed her car and headed north without much of a plan.
Four years later, she is set to release I am New, her first album since Seasons, which she recorded in her bedroom when she was 17, about themes she’s glad to have evolved from.
“I’m grateful for Seasons. It captures a very specific time in my life – my first heartache! But going through high school journals when you’re alone is embarrassing enough. We change. Thank goodness for that.”
Caitlin is generous and warm. She has a gentle grace and a patient, encouraging gaze. On stage, her presence and serenity take over with hypnotic allure, her quiet composure giving way to soulful vocals and poetic, lingering lyrics.
Driving all her talents and expressions is an undeniable authenticity. In a noisy world of approval-seeking mimicry and parades for popularity, C.F. Watkins offers refuge, peacefully gliding along, reminding us to slow down and connect to the moment.
THE JALEPEÑO: How has your time in New York been?
C.F. Watkins: Completely different than I expected. I don’t know why I decided to move here. But there was a pull. To ignore that felt irresponsible.
I had a lot of inner conflict toward the idea of leaving North Carolina.
I had been put off by New York. I thought people moved too fast. It was too loud, I didn’t understand the trains.
But I wasn’t finding much fulfillment. And I realize it wasn’t that North Carolina was missing something, or that the music scene wasn’t rich enough there.
Something was missing within me.
I didn’t know how to reconcile my restlessness and curiosity with my uncertainty, So I just drove to New York, listened to Gillian Welch’s “Dark Turn of Mind” on repeat, been here since.
I’m still uncertain, but I’m closer to accepting uncertainty as a constant companion, which is helpful.
THE J: Your uncertainty was overshadowed by this pull.
CFW: Sometimes you have an intuitive feeling and the universe opens a door and says, “Here’s a slide to get through it.”
I’ve been lucky. Things have worked out to support my intuition.
I’m innately very still. When I first moved, I was afraid of everything and everyone.
Coming here changed my perspective on what success means, what cool means. I went through stages – trying things out, challenging myself. Musically, and with the challenge of living in New York when you’re not used to it and you kind of hate it.
THE J: What has it taught you?
CFW: My discovery of New York and music doesn’t ever feel finished. But who I was when I moved here, my expectations, that’s all shifted.
I’ve made amazing friends and met talented people who are all going at their pursuits from different angles.
I’ve realized it’s OK to be scrappy. It’s OK to take time to really mean what you share, to take care of your creation, to share it in whatever way is honest to you. And to whatever audience is drawn to it.
THE J: Honest? What do you mean?
CFW: When I was younger, I tried, sometimes, to write songs I thought might please a certain audience.
I often felt I had to make sexy, hear-me-roar songs. Sometimes that was fun and empowering, but it never felt exactly honest. I didn’t feel vulnerable, it felt like an act.
We all have different roars. It doesn’t have to be loud or obvious, it just has to be your own – you have to mean it.
Whether you’re a whisperer or a screamer, whether you have a grumbling voice like Leonard Cohen, or a crystal clear operatic booming voice – if you mean it, people are going to be drawn to you.
Other times I would try to make music like the music I was listening to. Local bands, The Love Language, there was a time when I said “I need to make stuff like this!”
Those phases were important in discovering what works for me, feeling closer to my own voice.
The Love Language creates music that comes from inside of them and that’s why it works. It’s honest.
When I try to recreate their sound, it’s not me. But maybe I found something in my interpretation that I can use.
I am learning. You don’t know how you’re missing the mark until you throw the dart. I’m working on it.
THE J: Has your experience given you confidence? Hope? Has it been discouraging?
CFW: I remain hopeful. Glad that comes naturally to me, otherwise I might not be a musician. Or I might not tell people I’m a musician if I didn’t’ have a strong connection to hope.
I feel excited. I don’t have expectations for how the world will connect with me. But I do feel in control of my ability to show up and give an honest show.
THE J: What about the new album, I Am New? There’s an ouroboros on the cover. What’s going on here?
CFW: I was drawn to the ouroboros symbol. It’s graceful but also violent.
The image was meant to illustrate the human experience, cyclicality, death and creation being linked – each dependent on the other. The hands, hook, and rope representing our desire to control that cycle, to morph it, or even stop it.
When I decided to make the album, I was experiencing a lot of inner change. I could feel a shift happening. No big event caused it, nothing dramatic, I just felt a need to give in. Sort of like the feeling when I moved here.
I felt a real necessity to break free from the person I was. I think the album reflects that.
THE J: Again, the pull. Some notion – not necessarily of discomfort, but of curiosity – a feeling that something needs to bloom.
CFW: Yes. but strangely, still fighting against it. Even blooming can feel so painful.
THE J: It feels safer to ignore it.
CFW: Yeah. It’s easy to stay still, accept your shortcomings, the way other people see you, all the rules you’ve made for yourself.
My mom described this idea of evolving as jumping off a cliff.
You’re climbing this mountain and it feels tough, you’re not really sure where you’re going, even.
And all of the sudden there’s a cliff and there’s nowhere else to go.
“I’m so glad I’m not young anymore. when I was your age, I’d see this cliff, and cling to whatever I could find to keep myself from having to jump off. And eventually, when I jumped off, I’d realize it wasn’t that hard, and it was relieving and it was all worth it.
And then there’s another mountain in front of you – so you start the cycle again, each time it gets easier, because you trust more and more in life catching you at the bottom. Now I see the cliff and start laughing, sprint towards it and jump off eagerly.”
I was approaching a cliff and wasn’t sure I had the strength to do better on the next mountain. I guess that’s how the Kickstarter was born, how I Am New was born.
I wanted it to be this thing that held me accountable for jumping forth, rather than stepping quietly.
THE J: So the Kickstarter was a public confirmation you were going after something and you wanted help.
CFW: Yes, to be held accountable. It was difficult.
It’s hard to feel worthy of something like that. What if it seems like I’m begging? What if it feels selfish when I want it to feel giving?
THE J: You wanted it to be collaborative.
CFW: At first you might think of crowdfunding as a vehicle to get you to the goal.
You don’t realize how emotional it’s going to be.
Realizing how supported I was, regardless of the money or whether I even reached the goal, was overwhelming.
People said, “I don’t have money to give, but I’m going to share this, spread the word, because I really believe in you.” Receiving that was invaluable.
It helped me realize that the most important thing here is love. The most important thing in this life, in creativity, is the sharing of love.
Creating doesn’t have to be self-indulgent, though sometimes it feels that way.
If you are sharing yourself, and your true intention is to connect, to be loving, to show your humanity – people can feel that.
I think people feel honored by that. That’s been a north star for me.
THE J: The energy shared with the audience. What happens there?
CFW: It’s a pretty mystical thing. I have no idea how it happens.
They’re not just my songs, they’re everyone in that room’s songs. Depending on the feeling in the room, the songs will sound differently. The presence of an audience determines how they’re performed.
A song played alone in my room sounds different.
THE J: Have you noticed that energy when listening to other artists?
CFW: I really looked up to the Avett brothers when I was younger.
They taught me the importance of connecting. They were always gracious with fans, talking to everyone after shows, creating relationships, saying thank you.
They seemed honored that you were there and that you would share that with them. You were a part of it.
There was something about that. They were creating pretty straightforward music, simple chord progressions and lyrics. It was accessible and had a message.
They were saying, “We’re all in this together. Let’s learn about growth, let’s learn about family.”
THE J: And you hope to do that, too.
CFW: I don’t compare my music to theirs, but – because it made such an impact on me, because it was my community when I was learning who I was – I hope you can feel what I gained from them in my music.
They taught me about integrity and about being a loving daughter and family member, a loving friend.
They taught me about working hard and being curious.
That has stuck with me.
I want to create a feeling of unity, oneness, vulnerability. A feeling of: “Hey we’re all trying. In this moment I’m going to express it, but I wanna know how you’re trying, I’m available for you.”
THE J: Grasping for real connection, even if it’s fleeting.
CFW: Yes. And any Avett Brothers fan will emphatically tell you the same thing. It’s amazing how many people have incredible stories about them.
THE J: Do you have any?
CFW: When I was 17, I made an album called Seasons. It was right when Emotionalism(Avett Brothers album) came out. They were getting big in North Carolina. It was past the point of being able to talk to them after shows.
They had kinda become rock stars. To us, at least. I had been going to their shows for a couple years, religiously.
I went to a CD signing.
I waited in line with a burned copy of a demo song from Seasons.
When I reached Scott (Avett), I said, really nervously, “Hi I’ve been working on this album in my room and this is the single, the rest of the album isn’t done yet, I know you get tons of these, but if you get a chance I thought it’d be interesting for you to hear music from somebody who is so inspired by you.”
I handed it to him thinking there’s no way he’s gonna get a chance to listen. He’s on tour, he’s busy.
Months later, we went to another show. It was packed. They were the headliners. I had the full Seasons album at this point.
I wasn’t very gumptious, but I felt like I had to give it to him.
There was a thing separating the back stage from the audience. The show was over, and I was kind of shaking and staring. Then I jumped over the fence. Which is hard for me to imagine. I can’t believe I did it.
THE J: The Pull! Pulled you right over.
CFW: The Pull!
Scott had just gotten off stage, he was dripping with sweat, people were surrounding him.
He saw me looking like a deer in headlights, pushed his way to me and said, “Hey! I listened to your song.”
I said, “You did?!”
He said, “When I’m painting I take out my boombox and I have a stack of demos people give me and I try to listen to ‘em. And often times I just kind of listen to a little bit and set it aside. But I listened to yours three times!”
I was speechless. I could have just died there and been completely happy.
I said, “Well I finished the album. I thought maybe I’d give it to you.”
He said OK.
Then he took a second, put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, with sternness:
“You are obligated to continue.”
I didn’t understand what he meant, because I thought, “Of course I’ll continue, what a weird piece of advice.” Because, when you’re 17, continuing a creative life doesn’t feel hard. Or at least it hadn’t occurred to me that it was optional.
I didn’t understand the word “obligation”, it felt so heavy. I was glad he was saying anything to me. I was glad his hand was on my shoulder.
Years later, I played a show in Greensboro. Not a good show.
I didn’t feel good about it, didn’t promote it, didn’t care if people were there or not, didn’t feel prepared.
My skin was on fire, I was staring at the audience, I could hear the beer bottles crashing. There were very few people in this huge venue.
I wanted to walk off stage so badly.
Then I thought about what Scott said. About being obligated to continue. I heard him say it. And I used it.
I thought, “This is part of it too. This show is not going to feel good for various reasons, but that’s important, realizing what doesn’t feel good.”
It’d be easy to give up, easy to think “Oh well, I’m not cut out for this, I’ll abandon this.”
THE J: It seems that tough times are when it’s most important to remember those encouragements.
CFW: Yea, and paying attention to how you’re feeling, especially when it’s tough.
Of course you’re not going to be joyful all of the time. You have to pay attention to what you don’t like.
It wasn’t anything against the venue, or the city, it wasn’t about the quality of music I was producing. The culmination just wasn’t working for me anymore, it wasn’t feeding me anymore.
So I was learning in that instant that I had to change gears a little bit.
It was terrifying.
THE J: Another cliff?
CFW: Always another cliff. And you’re obligated to jump. What else are you going to do?
THE J: You’ve mentioned your interest in playing house shows. Will you talk more about that?
CFW: I’m curious because I haven’t done a lot of them. I want my shows to feel like a conversation.
I don’t necessarily want it to feel like a performance. I’ve realized I’m best when it feels like I’m next to you, humming in your ear.
And I hope it feels familiar, somehow. Even if you’ve never listened to the song before. Even if you’re not listening to the words.
THE J: Please expand.
CFW: It’s something about being human. Being vulnerable, feeling pain, feeling love. Discovering yourself.
That’s what all these songs are born out of. We all experience those things. It’s hard to go to that place when you’re out – at a bar, for instance – and you have your guard up.
At a bar, it takes more work to encourage the audience to let down their shields.
People all around, the things they’re protecting themselves against feel so close. But asking them, nevertheless, “For a few minutes I need you to join me in this song. For a few minutes I’m asking you to connect.”
And that can be incredibly powerful, when you can get people to meet you there it’s an amazing feeling.
I’m curious about house shows because I’m agreeing to come to them, to meet them where they’re more comfortable. Asking less of the audience. It feels more kind.
THE J: I guess you then become less of an icon. As in, there’s less of a separation between you and the audience when you’re playing in someone’s backyard or living room.
CFW: It takes the ego out of it.
THE J: How do you get to a point where you’re ready to put down your own shield?
CFW: I don’t know, exactly.
Sometimes before shows I’ll be worried it might not happen. But I try to remain open and vulnerable.
THE J: Is that easy for you?
CFW: Yes, sometimes unfortunately so. I’m a sensitive person, I have a weird mixture of being open to what’s emotionally going on in a space or with a person, but I’m also able to cut off and observe the emotion.
I have a good friend who feels everything so intensely all the time. She’s a writer, and once told me it’s as if she doesn’t have skin. Just these insides walking around all the time, exposed to everything. That quality lets her create very visceral, honest work. But I don’t have that.
Sometimes it shocks me how detached I feel. But, in a different way, it allows me the ability to observe and relay.
THE J: Relay the emotion?
CFW: Yes. To be present, to observe, then to share.
THE J: Is that what you hope to draw out of your listeners, presence?
CFW: It’s what I hope to give to my listeners. These people are here, and I want to give them everything I have.
THE J: They could be anywhere else.
CFW: Yes and they’re just as human as I am.
I don’t know if my music is that great, but I do know that I can give it everything I’ve got – that I can give this performance, this conversation, every bit of my intention.
THE J: You’re going to show up and put the effort in to share the moment.
CFW: Not just as a performer, but also as a friend.
THE J: Do you hope to bring that same presence to your life?
CFW: Yes – I would love to feel that way off stage too. when I’m performing there’s a hyper-awareness.
Because I don’t have anything else to think about during a 45 minute set, I’m not wondering what I have to do the next day, or even the next moment.
THE J: You can only control certain things. You have confidence in knowing you believe in the music you wrote, because on some deep level you wrote it from your heart.
You created it as a response to your experiences and inspirations and emotions, and now you’re going to sing about it.
And because it was created honestly, it has integrity when it’s performed. Now the audience feels connected.
CFW: I hope that’s how it feels.
THE J: Have painting and photography affected your music?
CFW: I’m easily interested in things. It’s a constant battle figuring out how much time and energy to put into something, how much to commit to an interest.
Music always won my attention. It never felt like work. It takes work but it never felt like work.
I love painting, drawing, writing, photography because you can see them. You can watch them come to life.
If you see something you think is beautiful, you can draw it. No one else is going to make it like you make it.
If you and I draw the same tree, they’re going to look different because we’re different. Apart from our drawing ability, we see differently.
THE J: Does that make you a more observant writer?
CFW: photography has been most helpful with writing. I’ve been carrying around a manual camera. It was my grandmother’s. I’ve become used to taking photos with my phone or a digital camera, which offers immediate gratification.
But with film, it’s a process. You can’t take fifty photos of one thing and figure out the best framing. You have to spend time, you have to decide if it’s worth the expense of taking the shot. There’s more care to it.
It helps me notice. Streets I’ve walked down hundreds of times, it’s like I’m seeing them for the first time because I have this camera in my hands.
There was a lawn chair in front of an older apartment, which was painted a very odd shade of peach. It looked like someone purposely set the chair there, like they sat and watched the neighborhood from that spot often.
The area looked as though it was swept constantly. It was clear that someone took a lot of pride in that little corner.
And the way the light was hitting it, lighting it up. It was more than a white lawn chair, or an apartment, it was a sign of life! Of heart! Like how some well worn t-shirts can be surprisingly beautiful, because they show how they’ve been loved.
Before, I would have walked right by it. But I was actively looking.
Having a camera reminds me to notice. To be present.
C.F. Watkins’ album, I Am New, will be available on Spotify and iTunes on January 29, 2016