Singer-songwriter Coles Whalen is planning a big homecoming: a show at Denver’s Soiled Dove to celebrate the release of her latest record, Whistle Stop Road on October 1.
She took some time to speak with us while she and her band were in Seattle, between visiting Pikes Place Market and a local music store, where she picked up a vintage kazoo (“I’ve never heard anything that sounds like it, it’s really amazing,” she laughed. “I just might have to pull that out at a show.”)
Q: The new record, Whistle Stop Road, is a mix between live and studio recordings, how did that come about?
A: Part of the reason we were able to make this record is because we won a showcase in Montreal called the ‘Hit Lab Showcase’ and the four tracks that are live (with the full band) are from that showcase. And if you put the CD into your computer you can see the showcase in high definition.
And the rest of the songs are some songs that we’ve have and wanted to put on a record.
Q: Are there any songs on the album that you’re most proud of or that stand out as favorites?
A: “Whistle Stop” is the title track and it’s one of the first songs I wrote after moving to Nashville and it’s definitely one of the songs I’ve written with the most ‘country flavor,’ it’s pretty much blues country. It’s a fun song, that song is a ‘whistle stop on the train to love,’ but the record was really a whistle stop on the way to a record. We recorded in Montreal, Denver, Nashville, and a lot of things that we did post-production were just all places in between. The band was working the whole time we made it, it’s not like we got to stop and make a record. So it ended up being pretty crazy and I think that song has a lot of energy and it encompasses the whole feel of the record.
And there’s another song on there called “Hole in my Heart” which is one of my newer ballads, it’s one of the last song we finished before the record was made. It’s a sad song but I really like the way that it turned out. It’s kind of piano based, which is how we do it live and I’m happy with the way the piano and the organ solo sounds, I think it’s moving that way.
Q: Can you give our readers a quick run-down of your musical career?
A: Sure, I was in a professional singing group as a young kid, from about 7 to 13 and when I graduated from that as a teenager I did jazz music, because I was living in Denver at the time and it was kind of the only scene that was happening with a vengeance in Denver at the time. So I was playing piano and singing jazz music, the piano was my first instrument.
And then I went to University of Southern California on a vocal scholarship to sing jazz and I actually transferred out of the (jazz) school after a year. I stayed at USC but I decided that I wanted to write my own music. I still continued on with my education but I started a rock band called ‘Whalen’ and we actually did pretty well, we had some really serious gigs in some of the better venues in LA but rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t really where my artistic heart was. We broke up the band and I went solo and I financed an EP and I moved into a camper. It was a truck and camper and I actually lived there full time for about two and a half years, touring. I travelled all the time and was playing 6, even 7, sometimes maybe 8 shows a week and I was able to raise enough money to make my next record, Gee Baby. And then the shows started getting bigger, I got a little more recognition and put the band together.
Finally when I decided to park the camper, to kind of have a place where I lived and got mail, it was Denver that I wanted to be in. I moved back for about three months before my manager told me that I should move to Nashville for awhile and try my hand in the songwriting scene out there.
So, I went to Nashville and I was there for about a year and six months and I just moved back to Denver. But when I was in Nashville, I only went to do songwriting, I didn’t have any intentions of forwarding my artist career but we ended up meeting a fantastic producer who is working with us right now on our next record already.
We ended up kind of finding a home base down there, instead of staying for six months I ended up staying for three times that long. We got to work on the next record and I ended up writing many, many more songs and I had a great time down there. It was kind of like grad school for songwriting, I’m thankful for my time.
I still spend one or two weeks a month down there, working with our producer and moving things along. The whole band will be there over the holidays, in Nashville and Atlanta recording.
Q: What does your songwriting process look like?
A: Songwriting for me varies from song to song and day to day. I write on the piano and guitar so both of those play a big part and it depends on what kind of a song I’m trying to write and which instrument draws me more to it. Some of them start with lyrics and some with melodies. It just depends on, I don’t know, it’s particular to each day. I don’t really have a process.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Vaguely, I think the very first song I ever wrote I was about 18. And I know for a fact that it started with lyrics because in the beginning I was much more of a singer than I was an instrumentalist and I feel that I’ve come a long way in that area. I think it was called “No Tomorrow” or something. All of the songs I wrote before maybe age 20 are hidden away in a dark corner and hopefully nobody will be able to hear them.
Q: What do you always pack in your suitcase when you’re heading out on the road?
A: Fingernail clippers, at least two pairs of jeans, sunglasses, I usually take a scarf or two, I love scarves. And unfortunately, because of technology available to us, we probably wouldn’t get anywhere without our faithful GPS that we’ve nicknamed ‘Hot Pants.’
Q: Are there any areas of the country that you particularly love?
A: I really like Nashville, I like it a lot more than I thought I would. I really appreciate going there. We have a really good time in the midwest, we do really well there.
And I love Texas, we did great in Austin, we had wonderful shows in Houston and San Antonio, so Texas has opened their arms to us, we’re taking the band down there in December.
And of course Denver, there’s nothing like coming home, we’re so excited to have our first CD release show in Denver. I think it’s going to be really cool.
Q: What kind of music do you listen to while you’re driving around?
A: On the longer drives we definitely have the iPod plugged in and we, especially in the band, we have the most eclectic taste in music. You could not even imagine, we thrown on Muse and then we’re listening to Ella Fitzgerald and then we’ve got some classical on, it’s crazy. It’s wonderful though, it’s nice for the ear to get a break from the same old…
And we geek it out all the time, we have NPR on most the time and all of us have podcasts saved on one subject or another, so we get some food for the brain going on the iPod. And sometimes we do just drive in silence, I think that we play so much music and it’s so loud and we hear it so often that it’s kind of nice to take a break once in awhile.
Q: Are there any songs that you’ve always wanted to cover but have never had the chance?
A: There must be, recently I’ve been wanting to cover “Jackson” by Johnny and June and the other one is “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen. That’s my next pursuit, I think he’s a real poet. I’ve always loved that song. My next instrument I’d like to tackle is accordion and so I think I’ll wait until I have that under my grip and then try to do “Thunder Road” with that.
Q: If you could sit down with any other musician and talk with them about their music, who would it be?
A: Right now, Michael Jackson. What a missed opportunity, I know there’s so much material out there about him but I would just love to know what kind of a place he was in at the very end. I think a lot of people, at least from my generation, I remember being three and trying to learn to Moonwalk already. I think a lot of people were really moved by his passing and what I remember the most about him was him being the first big celebrity to call my attention to certain causes – end of racism and end or world hunger and whatever else he happened to be supporting at the time.
Q: What are the causes that you support?
A: We did a children’s record about two years ago for a nonprofit in Colorado, it’s called the SPD Foundation, and they research Sensory Processing Disorder. My family is involved too, it’s been close to my heart for a long time.
I’ve also been involved with the Habitat for Humanity California chapter, I did an Internet PSA for them and it’s been great. They’ve been viral marketing it, which is awesome.
And I composed, recorded and produced a song for the American Breast Cancer Association. I got the chance to perform that at the Atlanta Breast Cancer Marathon. There were hundreds of thousands of walkers and runners involved in it and it was really, really, really touching. They’re getting up, getting ready to run and it’s like 7:30 in the morning, it’s so early and I walk out on stage and I’m like in a trench coat and huge sunglasses and completely exhausted because it’s so early in the morning. And to the track that I produced I start to sing and people are crying and raising their hands up to the sky and so involved. Breast cancer touches so many lives it was really cool to be able to do something like that.
Visit ColesWhalen.com for tour dates and more info.