If you were to ask Cailin Russo to describe herself, she’ll laugh and tell you that it’s not a simple task. She’s constantly evolving, and very aware of her multifaceted identity as well. “Honestly, I feel like I should be a Gemini, I really have two worlds in me.”
Speaking to her about her new EP The Drama, it becomes clear to me quite quickly that it’s Cailin’s understanding of reality and life as dynamic processes, that dictate her artistry. In fact, a concept that features heavily in our conversation is that of evolution. Cailin started out as a solo act, then went on as a band RUSSO, before transforming back into a solo act once more.
Looking back at the previous work she’s put out, Cailin argues that it’s more so the sound of it that’s changed, than the delivery. “My voice has changed, my tone has evolved, but essentially I think it all sounds like me.”
She makes sure to emphasize that she isn’t at all regretful about the band. “First of all, I loved the band – I loved the whole aesthetic, I did it for a year. You know, I live in Southern California, I grew up in the punk and grunge scene. But I didn’t want to be that person, I didn’t want to be,” she searches for the right words, then relents. “Without shitting on the fucking genre, I just didn’t want to be put in that traditional box. I wanted to expand my sound and vision, and that goes beyond the band and the traditional way of looking at music and genres. I needed to create my own world.”
That world has definitely been pretty successful, she’s already surpassed 1 million followers on Spotify with just a handful of songs. She tells me that it’s just insane to her. “Honestly, it’s pretty – I don’t know what the word is – it’s not shocking, it’s surreal but also interesting timing-wise. Like, when I got my first song out – without promoting it, it strangely wound up on this big playlist. It’s just so random. I didn’t know that these big numbers were going to happen. I didn’t expect that. It’s, like, a blessing. Very surreal to watch, and to see it growing. I wonder where it is going.”
There’s this sense of humility and awe, amazement at her own career trajectory, that make her all the more likable. She’s determined to do things at her own pace, in her own way.
Explaining her desire to stay true to herself, she tells me she wanted to be “her own muse.” “It means that you want to know everything about everything inside of you. I think that takes some really deep digging into my whole life and what I want and then try and execute my goals. So to be my own muse meant really stopping and doing research on myself. All these songs come from such a personal perspective, you know? I couldn’t have written them about anyone else or for anyone else to sing either.”
She’s constantly looking to improve her craft and writes every single day. “It’s something I’ve started doing in the past two years. There’s this book that everybody should read, it’s called “The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” One of the assignments in it – and it’s something you cannot not do – is writing three pages of your stream of consciousness every morning. Once you get in the habit of doing it – it’s extremely hard to break.” She pauses, then is quick to add that of course, if she doesn’t feel like it she won’t force herself. “But for the most part, I do actually sit down to write every day. Even when I don’t have the time, I try and make time to do so.”
Amy Winehouse used to do a similar thing – write down any and every detail she could think of for a given situation or event. If she knew that it was song-worthy, she’d make sure she noted what clothes she was wearing, where she was, what smells were hanging in the air. When I tell Cailin as much, she gasps and immediately tells me she’s going to “take a note out of her book and fucking do that to improve my songwriting.”
Her own process varies a lot. “It’s completely skewed. Mine aren’t as specific – they’re all over the place. I’ll write down thoughts, dreams, bits and pieces of conversations I’ve had, or poetry. It’s not at all situational. It’s just a non-based conversation with myself.”
As an independent artist, it’s also easier to take control of the creative process and that conversation with herself, she assures me. “You don’t have someone else – if someone were to hold that power to say no to your creativity, that could end up being a toxic relationship. It could derail everything if that makes sense?”
That doesn’t mean that she enjoys all aspects of it though. Her EP The Drama featured a trilogy of music videos that accompanied the singles “Declaration,” “Fade” and “You Touch Me, I Touch You.” She wrote the treatments for them and edited the videos herself, but the directing isn’t something she’d ever want to do again.
“Never a-fucking-gain. I mean, I can’t notvoice my opinion and I’ll always want to be involved because I have to live with myself and what I put out. But I never ever want to direct or have to edit a video ever again. I’ll happily co-direct, and co-write treatments, but I can’t. It’s just not my cup of tea, and I’m happy I got to figure that out early on.”
To Cailin, it was vital that the videos told a story-arc befitting of her own experiences. “They all represent the emotions and feelings that I ended up having. In ‘Declaration,’ you start off all alone. You’re fucked, and sad and thinking ‘I’m done.’ And then you go onto ‘Fade,’ and there is this sense of hope, but also this lingering hopelessness. Then as you evolve and moving forward, there’s no longer the looming call that’s ‘Declaration.’ And then you go into ‘You Touch Me,’ where there’s this complete reset of power, and reinforcement. It’s me saying ‘fuck this, this is my goddamn story.’ I’m a huge fan of the underdog, it’s just the true story of getting back on your feet.”
That story arc is also representative of the EP as a whole. The tracklisting will have you go through the same rollercoaster of emotions that Cailin herself went through. “You’re sharing your fucking soul for a second, you know, it’s amazing. There’s nothing that beats that. I just can’t wait to put out more music and to evolve with everybody. All of these songs are coming from such a personal place, the whole evolution and project is all from real places that I was in.”
An EP all about dealing with a break-up released on Valentine’s Day might seem a bit on the nose, but she assures me it’s not meant to be ironic. “It definitely wasn’t intentional, but well – I guess you just gotta live for the drama, right?” She laughs, before continuing. I mean, it does sound like a fucking Hallmark holiday plot. But you know, the whole projects – it’s always a sad time to go through a break-up, but any boy or girl who’s going through some shit will hopefully enjoy it and that’s amazing. I’m really happy that I get to release these sad songs around the holidays. Like, it’s just fun – we all need it. If we didn’t have the Adele’s and Amy’s, people to get sad angry with – where would we be? People would just be full of shit.”
It’s a good point, and clearly one that also rings true in reality. Her own favorite track “Fade” has already garnered over 200,000 streams. She tells me she is still shocked whenever anyone tells her that any song of hers is their favorite.
One of the more distinctive elements of Cailin’s songwriting is how she effortlessly mixes metaphors with more obvious and literal lyrics. To take “Fade” as an example, she uses the evocative metaphor of “there’s a blue sky in my mouth.” When I ask her if then that is intentional, she shakes her head no – it’s just who she is.
“Honestly, if I could, I’d write everything as a metaphor. I’m such a modern woman – I talk in slang, I talk like a 14-year-old boy sometimes. I’m both of these worlds that are like a 50-year-old and a 15-year-old in one. I can’t help it – if I’m saying something extremely obvious alongside something that’d be seen as provocative – something out there – that’s an exact representation of who I am.”
She loves collaborating with others and expanding her work in as far as writing goes as well – even if they have a different approach when it comes to lyrics. “I’ve written with people who write much more obvious, which is not my style – and yet we find a way to complement each other. I’ve also had sessions with Jesse Thomas, who’s much more poppy. I do like living in this era where anything goes really, and sometimes you really need someone else to help you point out the obvious bars that you’ve been missing and it’s just staring you in the face, like “oh, this is so obvious, but so genius!” You have people like Lizzo, who’s just like, a poetic savant. I find I’m inspired by all of these people, and I’m gonna take that and make it sound like me.”
There’s always a precarious balance, though, when it comes to including personal elements in songs. I ask her if she ever finds it difficult or scary to reveal essentially your deepest secrets and feelings to the world. She doesn’t even hesitate before giving me an unequivocal “no.” Cailin laughs and then repeats it again. “No, I won’t say an actual name or, you know, specific details maybe. I will probably do a play-by-play of how things went down, but I don’t think that’s too personal. I like to write from more of an outsider’s perspective anyway. It’s maybe not personal, but also not indirect or vague – I can’t help but write from a personal place as well, though. I will gladly spill my beans if it comes down to it. As long as it relays what I’m trying to say with that song.”
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to convey exactly what it is she’s looking for, musically speaking. “I’m really bad at describing why I like something or not. I’ll know really quickly whether I like something, and it doesn’t matter if that’s on piano or guitar or drums. I just have to like what it is, I base it off of instinct. But a lot of the times I can’t explain why certain things work, and that’s frustrating for me. But I do like writing to guitar, and then I also have times where I’m fucking bored with the guitar. And then I also like writing to the piano.” She ponders it for a bit, then adds with renewed vigor that she actually “fucking loves” writing to the piano.
The piano ballad she featured on with Cody Lovaas, “Love No More” definitely proves that the instrument fits her very well. “Cody is a fucking savant, plays guitar and piano. I was so flattered to be in that world. I’ve done a couple of duets in the past and they’re all different, but they all represent me.”
It all comes back to the same multifaceted nature of who Cailin is as an artist. She adds, “I really tried to put myself in a box, thinking I only wanna make music like this or dress like this. But at the end of the day – everyone is everything now, there is no-one that’s just one-style, one image. And it’s fucking hard to try and operate with that mentality of like, “I’m going to make myself this person.” Like, if you just are what you are, it’s going to fucking work. Obviously, you’ll have to find your thing – whatever it is that makes you you, but it takes a long time to know what those things are.”
When I ask her what it is that defines her, she immediately retorts that it currently is her “red hair.” More seriously, she considers that it’s perhaps her movements on stage. “I think I’m yet to reach that stage of writing where people know right away, “oh, that’s a Cailin Russo melody or rhyme.” I’m not there yet, but I think that’s something I can define myself by as well in the future.”
Cailin demonstrates the same humility when she talks about her collaborators in as far as crafting her sound goes. She emphasizes that she didn’t do it alone. “Chris [Cody] and Nick [Zinner] took my sloppy statue and molded it into Michelangelo. Even when I see Chris now, I just can’t even believe after the stuff that you worked on, you touched my music. I think about it all the time. I saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs [Nick’s band] live and my mind was fucking blown, so it was crazy to be in the same room with him. I started crying, thinking I can’t believe I got to sit in this place.”
She also mentions Jesse Thomas, the songwriter as an important friend who encouraged her to keep going when she was struggling to write “Fade.” “The words that really stuck with me – was that she said, ‘You are gonna write your best song’ – and she’s a fucking sick songwriter. After her telling me that, it kind of made me feel a little bit, like, she didn’t want to work with me, or try and help me write this amazing song, but then next thing you know I had a song that I had fully written by myself. Her words fucking blew my mind, and I just thought – I can’t believe it’s happening.”
Speaking of the future, she still has a couple of names on her wishlist. “I’m mostly focused on assembling my team right now, but I want to work with whoever wants to work with me. I’d love to work with Emile Haynie, Pharrell – I’m hoping we will at one point.”
Highest on her list? Mark Ronson. She tells me about a serendipitous encounter with the artist, as she randomly ended up attending a show where he was a surprise guest. “I was walking with my friend whom I’d never met before – we were just internet friends. And we walked right past this venue, where Angel Olson was playing. It was sold out, but as we turned to walk away, we were offered two tickets. And so we went into the venue and watched like, 5 songs by Angel Olson, and then at the end, she just suddenly brought out Mark Ronson and we both freaked out – like, what is happening?”
Maybe it’s a sign that they’ll work together in the future, I tell her – before asking about her own ambitions when it comes to performing and a possible tour. She says there aren’t any set plans yet, but she’d “love to do a little tour. The EP is called The Drama, so I’d like to do something with that, so maybe like some popups in little theaters. I could play up the theatrical element there. But that’s just an idea I’m floating right now.”
She’s definitely gotten a craving for performing after getting a taste of what a big staging production can look like. Russo was chosen to record “Phoenix,” a track created for popular video game League of Legends. She then got to perform it live at the opening ceremony of the game, a huge ordeal that was broadcast live to 90 million people.
“It was a crazy experience because I didn’t really know how to take up that much space. I didn’t know how to reach out to the public when they’re all watching through streaming either, because how do you then bring all the energy and power to the performance? I told myself “You’re here for a reason, so figure out what it is that you need to be sharing.” So we had a lot of rehearsals, and I got to work with a choreographer, which was cool. On the day of the show, I felt so comfortable – I wanted to be as good as possible. Usually, I’m super raw, rock ‘n roll, I might do a back roll off-stage, and this was so orchestrated and highly produced. It was definitely one of the most memorable moments of my career. It’s showed me what’s possible and how I can grow.”
But first, she’s just excited to see the response to her EP. “The singles so far have left you with different parts of my world. There’s an evolution for sure on this record and I’m so excited to get to the end. Because the end is going to fucking rock your socks off!” And after that? “After the EP, I’m dropping new songs, then another EP, and I’m working on what I assume will be an album, but I don’t want to call it that. There’s going to be so much music, you’re gonna be like “what the fuck is going on?’”
We certainly can’t wait to hear it. Because even though Cailin might not know how to define herself just yet, one thing’s for sure – she’s a rockstar diamond in the rough.