Caitlin Dee candidly examines life through a new lens.
The indie rock singer-songwriter and guitarist explores identity, society and purpose on her latest philosophical concept album, Daeus x Machina.
“It is actually the outline for a novel that I’m working on … all I want to say is that it follows a protagonist in a new world, and that it’s science fiction-fantasy with elements of romance,” said Dee, who hails from Los Angeles. “It also contemplates mortality, myth, the idea of land ownership and immigration, cultural identity and purpose/destiny.”
Steeped in celestial, lo-fi soundscapes and intoxicating, psychedelic sensibilities, Dee’s Daeus x Machina provides a vulnerable journey of personal and societal transformation.
“It’s not that I set out to write about these things, but they’re so present to me in my daily life as we are watching this rapid transformation of our consciousness and society/systems,” she said.
“The idea of failing to control our consumption of resources on a planet that we evolved to exist on, but thinking that we could more easily establish life on a new planet … it’s just so ignorant and ridiculous to me, but it’s something that real billionaires and supposed geniuses are contemplating.”
The Stratton Setlist chatted with Dee about her ingenious album, past projects and releases, background and future plans.
Daeus x Machina
TSS: What other life experiences helped inspire your latest album, Daeus x Machina? In your mind, do the album’s thematic elements and lyrical content align with “deus ex machina’s” meaning in Greek drama?
CD: From the day I decided that I would FORCE myself to learn guitar, I told myself, “If all I ever write is one album, this will all be worth it.”
Well, after four projects and four EPs, I started to feel like none of them were quite that full album that I had wanted to write. I’ve always been really into the idea of writing a concept album, especially because of my background influence in musical theater.
It’s impossible for me to go into detail about the overall concept of the album without sacrificing the potential listener’s own projection onto the songs, so I want the album to feel a little mysterious for a while …
I also started writing from the masculine perspective, because up until this point, my art has really centered on owning and feeling comfortable with my feminine aspects. And it’s been obvious in my dreams and art in the past year that it’s time for me to reckon with my inner masculine.
In some of the tracks, I’m writing from a man’s perspective – in “Fool,” when I say, “I don’t understand, what is a man?” I’m not asking that as a woman wondering what makes men tick. I’m asking that as a man who is wondering what his own masculinity means to him and how to best embody it.
I have the fortune of being a non-essential healthcare worker, so I spent most of 2020 on unemployment and sitting at home, finally having the freedom to make this album.
The political atmosphere made immigration and land ownership/the meaning of freedom as things that I thought about every day. Those things naturally are elements of any sci-fi story about finding a new world, so it came together in pieces, but always cohesively.
The title is a direct reference to the Greek theater troupe, “deus ex machina,” meaning “god from the machine” because they would use it in these plays as a device to create a fast resolution to a seemingly impossible obstacle to give the story an ending.
They would have actors come down on these big machines playing gods that would solve all the hero’s problems, hence the name. I think right now the idea of divine intervention to solve the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that we’ve created on our planet from the political turmoil to the environmental damage that we’ve caused is really appealing.
At the outset of the story for this album, the hero is expecting the gods to come and solve his problem, but he realizes throughout that gods have their own agenda, and that there are no true clean, happy endings in life. Things get messier and messier until we face them and begin to patiently and persistently pick up the pieces, one step at a time.
It’s also a play on words because I changed the spelling of “deus” to “daeus” to resemble the German spelling of my legal last name, and “ex” to “x” because it felt like shorthand for “versus.” And a huge part of this album was me versus technology, or the machine, since I was learning to self-produce and mix by myself as well as play every instrument as I went.
TSS: How long did you spend writing and recording Daeus x Machina? What did you learn about yourself while self-producing and mixing your first full-length album?
CD: I never sit down to write a song. I just record pieces that get in my head like putting a puzzle together until the thing is finished. This entire record was just recorded sitting in my room with an interface, a guitar, a bass and an Arturia synth. I don’t like having a lot of gear.
I played everything on this album. Zero other humans touched a single aspect of any track on this album with the single exception of the amazing Shamir contributing vocals to “Cowboy.” It really made my inner control freak happy. It was also the fastest I’ve ever finished an album, and the happiest I’ve been with a finished product.
I learned that I do my best work when I’m producing and mixing on my own, or at least the work that makes me happiest … at least for now. I also learned that if I just keep working at something, even if it’s just five minutes one day, but keep persistently going at it and having absolute faith that the piece exists.
I just have to unmask it like the sculptor Michelangelo said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” It’s always hard for me to figure out when a process like this starts, but I think I have early voice memos for ideas of the songs that came up on this album from July of (2020).
TSS: Your single, “Cowboy,” depicts the story of a guide who’s trying to encourage a hero to accept the challenge of a journey into the unknown. How has “Cowboy” served as a personal journey for you?
CD: The whole Western vibe that underscores a lot of this album came from going out on like two dates with this guy from Montana who shared a lot of great art with me. The romance didn’t work out, but his whole vibe woke something up in me that had been struggling to emerge.
It was a meditation on the Western vibe and how that reflected early Americans’ struggle with the issues of land ownership and cultural identity.
“Cowboy” was one of those songs that wrote itself in the same amount of time that it took to play it for the first time. It was really about me creating a mantra that would help me finish the album and approach every situation in life.
I kind of thought the Montana guy was being a coward, so maybe it was a little bit of a dig at him because I did send him the track early on. But it wasn’t really about him in the end. It was about encouraging myself to keep going in the face of the unknown and to do it with excitement.
I’ve discovered on this journey that I can do anything I put my mind to, like I said, with patience, courage, persistence and belief.
TSS: How did you come to meet and work with Shamir on “Cowboy?” What did he help bring to the track’s overall sound and creative approach?
CD: Shamir was one of our guests on the “Goth Yearbook After Hours” podcast I co-host. I felt an instant kinship and adoration for him and fell in love with his music.
I posted a cover of his cover of Lindi Ortega’s “Lived and Died Alone” … he commented that he loved my voice, and I was working on “Cowboy” already. I had this six-minute song with one lyric, so I had envisioned it being a song that someone else would contribute to as a vocalist. I sent him the track, and he sent me seven vocal parts, and I used all of them and mixed them into the song.
He didn’t work on the song as a producer, but he did influence me making this record by being an incredible supporter and an example of an artist who unapologetically releases music that spans genres and doesn’t strive for perfection, but innovation. I hope we can collaborate again soon.
Past Projects and Releases
TSS: What inspired your creative vision for Tender in 2020? How long did you spend writing and recording the album at Portia Street Studios? How did you come to work with Mars Tru and Stephanie “Santos” DeSantos?
CD: While I was in Pipe Dreams, Jana (Jordan) hated all my songs that were slower or too dreamy. She liked my “fuck you” punk songs, but I was also going through a lot of turmoil in my personal life throughout the Pipe Dreams arc – an on-and-off relationship, my mom died, and I started a new career.
It was a painful time, so I wrote a lot of really raw and personal songs about my heart that we didn’t play. So when Jana had totally left the picture, I did a few shows as Pipe Dreams, but it just felt too different with the new songs and new bandmates.
I decided to just go by my own name from then on. I had always been the one writing the music in all these projects, and I already had too many email addresses and Spotify pages. I wanted everything to feel consolidated, so I just stuck with my own name.
It was probably two to three years of writing the songs. I met Mars actually through Instagram. I needed a replacement for Jana for a few shows that I still had booked for Pipe Dreams. We got together and jammed, and it was just really easy to work with her.
She had her shit together, but also felt really calm and relaxed. She’s also the frontperson (guitarist and singer) of her own project, Moonily. I think she brings that understanding to the project as a drummer. She doesn’t get lost in her own thing like some drummers.
She knew Santos and brought her in, and it was the easiest year of performing I’d had in my entire music career as far as everyone in the band always getting along, showing up on time, knowing the material – just zero drama, and they sounded great. I hope we can all keep playing together for a long time.
How did your musical journey lead you to release projects under the monikers Pipe Dreams, Betty Petty and Kybele? How have all three projects helped lay the creative foundation for releasing your first full-length album as Caitlin Dee?
CD: Kybele was my first project. The name was borrowed from an ancient goddess that was always depicted with two cats. She was a witch that was abandoned in the woods, raised by wild cats and evolved her magic until she became a goddess represented by these ecstatic cults that would have wild parties.
I really resonated with that myth at the time. I had just moved back to LA from spending some time studying Yoga under the late Baba Hari Dass in the woods up in northern California, and I had my two cats with me and was really coming in touch with my own magic.
That music was much more classic singer-songwriter-y, but as I started going out and performing more in LA and developing as a singer/guitarist, I started writing more rock songs. I wanted a break from the sort of sad and deeply contemplative vibe that I had been in. Betty Petty was more of a fun, give-no-fucks, house party rock vibe, and I’d do things like rhyme party with naughty and rad with sad.
It was a time in my life that I needed to feel happier, so I tried to write happier songs. That band was really tight, but ultimately it made me realize that I really wanted to play with females. They were great musicians and all men, but it was really hard for me because I came to my instrument late in life. I didn’t have a good idea of my identity yet, so having my authority challenged in any way made me really crumble.
I started Pipe Dreams in 2016 with the sole intent of having an all-female group. Not because women are less challenging to work with, but because in a very general sense, I think we have less access to learning to play and perform music growing up. A lot of the women I have met started either in their late teens or twenties compared to most men who started playing as soon as they were walking.
I also was in a phase of my life then … I desperately needed to come to grips with my relationship with my body, with sexuality and with men. I had a lot of anger from sexual trauma, and I learned to cope with it by figuring out how to own my sexuality. It was a messy process, and our shows were messy and fun.
For three years it was me and Jana Jordan, whom I had met at a show and asked to jam with me. We jammed for a year before we started the band together. I actually started writing songs for my band Betty Petty while jamming with Jana. It was the first time I felt comfortable enough in a room with a drummer to improvise because we were both at the same level.
We kind of sucked, but we got better with time. Then for me, it was incredible to go and play shows with just two girls showing up and unleashing all hell on a bar or party. It felt so much riskier than showing up with three expert male musicians backing you, but also so much more fun.
For the last year, Jana’s best friend, Jamie Langford, joined us on bass. We had a great time, but ultimately we wanted different things. After a while, we went our separate ways. That was really hard for me, and it was a huge part of my identity and my life for a while.
TSS: How did you get involved in music while growing up in LA? At what age did you start playing guitar?
CD: I wasn’t involved in music at all growing up, other than wanting to start a band, but not being taken seriously as a teenager. I asked for an electric guitar for Christmas one year, and I did get a cool one, but then when I asked for lessons that never happened. And being loud wasn’t really encouraged in my house, so it got plugged in I think once before I sold it.
That felt like a personal failure, and I didn’t revisit my desire to learn guitar again until I was 25. By that point, I had gotten a head injury falling off of a bike, and I honestly think it changed the way I listened to and approached music. I had a lot more space in between my thoughts for a while, and I was more patient with myself, so it made it easier to learn.
Also, YouTube was a thing by then. For a while, I was just the annoying drunk girl at parties who would do Lana Del Rey covers on ukulele. I’m not really proud of that, but there it is.
Then, I was asked to play rhythm guitar and sing backup vocals for Jeff Davies’ band Paz. He used to be a guitarist for the Brian Jonestown Massacre. He was so encouraging to me in the beginning when I felt super clueless and gave me a lot of advice that I still touch on today. He’s an amazing person.
I was inspired by Dolly Parton growing up. The wholesome slut thing she has going on really resonates with me, and of course, she’s just a complete badass and positive role model. Rihanna and Lana Del Rey were big inspirations for me in my 20s. Also, the Dum Dum Girls.
Growing up, I was also influenced by a lot of musical theater. I grew up acting, and my brother produces shows on Broadway. I think that definitely influenced my desire to make albums or songs with a narrative feeling.
TSS: What plans do you have for writing, recording and releasing additional new material? Do you have plans to release any new projects for Pipe Dreams, Betty Petty and Kybele?
CD: No, all those bands are dead in the water. Everything going forward will be under Caitlin Dee or something new. I have no idea what I’m going to do next … usually it isn’t up to me. I just get things in my head, and they don’t leave me alone until I record them. I really want to do meditation music, though, that I can use in my healing work.