Interview: Letter to Memphis On Valentine’s Day CD Release Show
Almost 7 years ago to the date, Gene Starks walked into a bar and noticed a pretty young lady getting off work. That lady was Devon Cahill, now front woman of local group Letter to Memphis. Starks and Cahill hit it off. Realizing she needed a roommate and he needed a place to live, they moved in together just a week later. “Time went on, and she wouldn’t stop singing around the house,” says Starks, “So I had to knock the dust off my guitar.” There, in their home off Oleatha in South City St. Louis, the very first traces of Letter to Memphis had surfaced.
Cahill has a background in theater, singing and dancing her way through the Muny at 7 years old. “I honestly don’t know how I knew what I was doing,” she says. “My mom has some acting experience, she’s done theater around town. I was going to a lot of rehearsals for her shows and I would try to get up on stage, so she started taking me to auditions and I enjoyed it.”
Though she was used to being on stage, Cahill had no real instrumental training when she decided that music was her real passion and began to unfold the underground music scene. Conversely, Starks played the french horn since he was 9, picked up guitar at 15, and eventually decided on a music major at Knox College. Due to financial reasons, Knox College only lasted a year, though Starks continued to study jazz and classical arrangements for most of his adult life. “With no practical application for guitar, I just have years of theories and ideas pent up in my brain,” Starks says.
“There’s a song on our new album called ‘Home Tonight’ that he wrote the chords for back in the ’90s,” Cahill adds.
The two complement each other well, filling in where the other one might fall short. “Here’s what’s cool about it, I think,” Cahill says, “The two of us have sort of taught each other”—Starks having taught Cahill how to arrange chords to write a song, and Cahill teaching Starks how to let loose and perform.
“I had no intention of performing,” Starks says, “There were no rockstar aspirations.” “I think you were nervous,” Cahill adds. “I still am,” says Starks.
Paul Niehaus IV joined the acoustic duo back in 2012. “I knew Paul from working at Hammerstone’s,” Starks recalls. “I ran into him one day when we had a duo gig. He said he played bass, and I said come on up.” Paul is a multi-instrumentalist, seen playing bass with the band at live shows. He tackles vocals, guitar, lap steel, mandolin, piano, organ, and percussion on the new record, “Come On Home.” Not to mention, Niehaus recorded and mixed the entire album, as well. “Gene and I are primarily the songwriters, about 50/50 each,” Cahill says. “There’s a lot of songs we wrote together, but Paul helped co-write some stuff on this one.”
In 2013, classically trained violinist Sarah Velasquez was introduced to the band. “She sat in with us a little bit, then kind of joined us in a more permanent way,” says Cahill. “But she’s got other projects she’s involved with, too.”
Velasquez teaches music on top of playing with a few acts such as The Leonas, 18 & Counting and The Only Ensemble. “She’s an amazingly talented player,” says Cahill. “Whenever we get a chance to have her with us, it’s wonderful.” Velasquez also adds beautiful harmonies to the band’s folksy ballads. “That’s the core group,” says Cahill, although they have been performing with a drummer, Drew Lance, who will be at the CD release show, too.
Being a folk band, it’s sometimes hard to break out of that genre box. Starks describes the early Letter to Memphis sound as “a product of what we had,” saying they started in a living room on acoustic instruments and that’s how the style developed.
Cahill mentions rockabilly as being somewhat of genre-driving influence as she stood in with her neighbor, Hudson Harkins’ band—Hudson and the Hoo Doo Cats—in the early stages of the band’s development. “It was lucky I got to sing with Hudson in his band a few times,” she says, “with swing and rockabilly music you really have to get out of your shell.”
An old Letter to Memphis song, “The Oleatha Shuffle,” was written shortly thereafter, and can be heard on a compilation CD put out by the St. Louis Blues Society. “This new album, ‘Come On Home’, is a lot more electric, fully arranged, lots more instruments, tones, sounds, songs that are a little bit jazzy. The title track is very much country blues,” says Cahill. “I’m not going to sit there and say ‘this is not a folk song, we can’t use it.’”
“Come On Home,” speaks on themes of love—love for family and friends, or love of nature. Standout track “To The River” features unforgettable harmonies between Cahill and Velasquez with special guest, Jake Brookman, on cello (who will also play live at the CD release). Starks says the song is about when “the person you love is in a really low spot and you want to convey to them, ‘I’ll be here to make sure you can make it through.’” The song speaks to the throes of addiction which both Starks and Cahill have suffered and overcome. The two made the decision to live alcohol-free just before starting the band about 5 years ago. “Maybe the music replaced the alcohol,” says Cahill. “It’s important to have another therapeutic, healthy outlet for any inner demons.”
“Drawn To You,” a song both Cahill and Starks describe as the “straight-up love song” of the album, includes three part harmonies featuring Natalie Huggins (who will also be performing at the CD release). “Anthem of a Wanderer,” another track from the upcoming album, approaches the idea of community. It’s about looking to the outside world for inspiration, while focusing inward and reflecting on yourself. “If you really want to follow your bliss, it starts with you,” says Cahill.
Writing an album based around love, and all that is inspired by it, makes sense considering the founders of the group, Cahill and Starks, have recently announced their engagement. The couple speaks about being in a committed, loving relationship, as well as being bandmates, as a positive experience.
“I fell in love at first sight,” Starks says, “but it wasn’t until over a year that we decided ‘let’s just be together.’ We were able to build a friendship and a partnership first.” Being the core songwriters of the group, Cahill says “the songs start with us. We intimately bring them together before we bring them to the band, which is one of my favorite processes.”
However, it’s not all fine and dandy all the time working side by side with your beau. “There’s times when it’s stressful,” says Cahill. “It’s about finding a balance. It’s weird because you can end up doing band work at anytime, and you have to realize that there are times when it’s appropriate and times when it’s not.”
From an acoustic duo to a folksy foursome, and now, taking on a larger sound with added guest members, Letter to Memphis has had a successful music career in St. Louis. One of their fondest moments was playing The Sheldon Concert Hall, twice now, including once for a past CD release. “It’s just an honor being able to play our music on that stage,” says Cahill.
Letter to Memphis releases its album, “Come On Home,” at the The Stage at KDHX on Feb. 14. The Magnolia Cafe will be open and serving up beverages for an intimate Valentine’s Day date night with a band that will bring you closer. Hazel Ra and John Donovan open the show at 8pm. Tickets are $10. Preview their music video for “Ol’ Missouri Bluff” here!