California songwriter Kayla Cohen retreats to rural New Mexico and returns with new album 'Spring'

While living in Los Angeles, Kayla Cohen, who writes and records as Itasca, began to crave natural spaces that were quieter, slower and more suited to creative thinking.

“I'm really into natural building and that idea of creating spaces and communes that are not the way that people normally live,” she said recently by phone. “We're normally living in white drywall boxes, and it’s just not conducive to being happy. It's weird that we've gotten so far away from earthworks — like cob building and that sort of thing — because that's more naturally human.”

New Mexico, in particular, intrigued Cohen because of its lax building codes. So when she discovered a friend was renting a 100-year-old three-bedroom adobe in rural New Mexico while working on a movie, she packed her things and headed there to write the next Itasca album, Spring. Right away, it felt different.

“The walls are really thick and painted a dark brown, and there's a fireplace in it. It had a deep quietness,” Cohen said of the house that graces the cover of Spring. “It was like you're living inside of a stone. It's just the feeling of slowness that you don't get in other types of buildings.”

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Spring, released on Paradise of Bachelors earlier this month, reflects the unhurried pace and natural, earthen vibe of the adobe. Cohen’s vocals unfurl like a long, slow exhale throughout the album’s 10 slightly psychedelic folk songs, and her warm, intimate acoustic strums sounds as if she could be playing it from a floppy weathered couch nearby.

It took some time, though, for Cohen’s headspace to adjust to her new surroundings. Lyrics didn’t immediately come pouring out. It took a lot of sitting and thinking and drafting and noodling for the songs to take shape. “The main idea that I had in the beginning was wanting to capture the feeling of being [in New Mexico] and the meaning of it — the meaning of leaving the city for being in the country, and what does that mean in 2019 to try to do something like that when it's sort of cliche and passe because so many people have done such a thing?” she said.

Venturing outdoors often led to song ideas. Cohen would hike in the Sandia Mountains, Carson National Forest and throughout Bandelier National Monument, where ancient civilizations once carved their own homes into cliffsides. “All of those places now are on the record,” Cohen said. “Bandelier sparked the song ‘Only a Traveler.’ I came up with the idea when I was there, so now when I hear that song, I think of that place.”

Like any narrative in which an artist escapes everyday life by relocating to some place radically different, the experience wasn’t entirely romantic. Cohen still had to make a living, so she worked a part-time job remotely online and cleaned houses, which provided its own sense of escape. “You can just let your mind wander when you're doing that,” she said. “It's a good break when you're trying to write music to go do some work that doesn't require you to be creative.”

After five months she returned to LA, but the city felt “oppressive and strange” following all that time away, so Cohen relocated to the desert near Joshua Tree. At home, she recorded guitar tracks for Spring on a tape machine with her 1970s Guild guitar, then added some studio sessions in Los Angeles and Chicago, collaborating with several musicians, including members of Sun Araw and Gun Outfit, a band in which Cohen has also played bass for about a year. Itasca’s current full-band tour (including a flute player) will make a stop at Dirty Dungarees on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

The time and place and feeling of New Mexico return when Cohen performs songs from Spring, and the ideas about humanity’s interactions with man-made structures continue to linger. “I think that in 2019 we need to rethink how we are living if we're going to go into the future in a positive way,” she said.