Q&A: Case Sensitive on Songwriting and Performance in the Triangle

This bewitching Chapel Hill-based band are making their mark in the Triangle music scene.

“The only voices that can stop me are the ones inside my head,” sings Sierra Shell in Case Sensitive’s simmering single “Count Your Blessings.” But it’s difficult to imagine anything stopping this Chapel Hill-based band. Since their nearly sold-out release show at The Station in February 2018, Sierra Shell (vocals, bass, and keys), Chesley Kalnen (guitar), and Mary Koenig (drums and supporting vocals) have been racking up fans of their otherworldly sound. And they show no signs of stopping, with upcoming appearances at Hopscotch day parties and an EP in the works.

They announced that first release show with a dancing Grim Reaper gif on Twitter- an entirely on-brand choice, given that their social media is full of black cats, haunted woods, and other witchy aesthetics. It’s an appropriate branding decision, given their sound. Their first release is singularly haunting and atmospheric- “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet”- is colored by sonic distortion, and guided by pensive lyrics. It’s a bewitching combination. Case Sensitive’s distinctive sound and charismatic live performances have cemented them as talents to watch in the Triangle music scene.

Koenig, Kalnen, and Shell spoke to The Triangle Guide about the songwriting process and their methods of collaboration.

What is Case Sensitive’s origin story?

SS: Back around 2014, several women were meeting together in a friend’s basement in the hopes of learning and playing together.  Most of us were quite new to our instruments. We wanted a safe space to grow, and found that playing with other women was both fun and encouraging.  At a certain point, Mary, Chesley, and I wanted to start writing our own songs and begin performing, so we broke away from the group in order to pursue music more intensely.

From your otherworldly sound down to the skeleton gifs on your social media, Case Sensitive very much aligns itself with a “spooky” aesthetic. Tell me about what inspired that aesthetic choice. Did you guys plan to align yourselves with an “ethereal/eerie” sound from the beginning of the project?

SS: We didn’t plan that initially, no. Originally, the music we were writing was much more poppy and upbeat.  

CK: We started off very alt-pop and pop rock, heavily influenced by Marina & The Diamonds. We wrote two songs with that inspiration. One of those songs never felt right when performing it, and we ended up ditching it. The other song is Count Your Blessings, which was released February 2018 as a double-single. Often at practice, one of us will noodle on an idea, and the others jump in for an impromptu jam. There was one instance where I was playing a really simple line, and I kicked on a fuzz and octave pedal. The sound was heavy and gnarly, and our eyes lit up. That song became Six Feet, the other half of the double-single release. I think we all were really drawn to that sound (it was so intriguing and haunting) and interested in exploring beyond that. Tone is a really important element to me, and having the band be in to this new vibe was exciting. While we all like spooky things and our band has a quietly-heavy sound, we still hold tight to having a pop-informed ear to our songs, but now have these elements of floral, goth, and fuzzy indie mixed in.

Tell me about how you guys collaborate while songwriting. How do you allocate songwriting responsibilities? Does Mary [Koenig] have final say over drums, Sierra [Shell] have final say over keys, and Chesley [Kalnen] have sole control over guitar, for example, or do you each of you contribute to every aspect of the process?

SS: None of us really has the final say.  We all contribute to the melody, the keys, guitar parts, and drums.  In fact, Mary has written some of the key parts that I play and love.  In reality, we play something over and over, and one of us will get inspired about a part, even if it isn’t our instrument. We’ve gotten good at communicating with one another in ways we can all understand, regardless of the instruments we play in the band.

MK: We have gotten good at communicating parts, but even better at listening and translating, I think! For example, I’m not very familiar with guitar, so sometimes my ideas for Chesley end up sounding like, “what about if you did dun-dun-dun-dun instead?” By some miracle, she takes it and makes it sound good. We’ve all written parts on each other’s instruments this way, and it often results in our best moments.

What’s something unique that each of you brings to the songwriting table?

CK: Sierra can come up with lyrics on the spot. Like, she will be playing bass or keys, and just start spitballing lyrics while coming up with a stellar melody. It’s bananas to watch her do, and we have to record it to catch what she’s doing, so we can remember/transcribe lyrics later. A lot of them stick for our songs, as well as the melody lines. It’s really organic and kinda magical. Mary, in addition to grounding us with percussion and being her own creative force, is a really grounding member of the band. She’s an amazing facilitator, and absolutely amazing when it comes to working through tough things (both with songwriting, as well as processing personal things as well as the current political/social climate).

MK: I echo Chesley. Sierra can write a catchy melody effortlessly. It just comes out of her mouth, lyrics and all, completely naturally. Part of the beauty of what she does is that she does it with no ego: she’s not held back by having to make it perfect on the first try. We then take the best bits and add just a little something (or sometimes, nothing at all!) and it’s a complete vocal part. I see Chesley as the one who encourages us to be “extra”, but she’s also the one to gently push back when we say we’re doing “too much.” She contributes a lot to our crunchier, heavier vibe and brings out the angsty kid in all of us, plus writes those dark, moody lyrics that are so fun to yell along to.

SS: I think Mary brings a certain gentleness and sweetness, a high-femme feel, to the project. She’s great at coming up with catchy pop lyrics and supportive synth parts.  Chesley brings the fire, and probably represents our wild side. Chesley has driven a lot of the genre that we play, and pushed us toward our heavy, fuzzy, grungy sound.

Do you ever have disagreements about the direction a song should go in? If so, how have you settled them?

MK: We have disagreed about the direction a song should go in, and we always address it in the moment. We talk through our reasoning for wanting the direction we want and then come up with a solution together. The best part of how we settle disagreements, I think, is that we don’t ever let someone be “out-voted” into doing or playing something they’re not comfortable or happy with. We keep putting in the work until we come up with something that feels right to all of us.

Your first release, “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet,” shows two very different sides of what Case Sensitive is capable of. Lyrically and sonically, “Count Your Blessings” comes from a place of melancholy, and “Six Feet” rages. How important was it to the three of you to demonstrate a range of emotion and technical prowess in your first release? As it’s a double-single, do the two songs connect, or are they separate beasts?

SS: “Count Your Blessings” was one of our earliest tracks.  When we wrote that song, we hadn’t quite figured out our direction or sound.  I improvised many of the lyrics to that tune off the cuff, so it probably came from a more personal place for me than some of our others.  Chesley brought in the lyrics for “Six Feet,” and the themes were pretty different from CYB. But once we wrote the beginning of the song, with the searing synth coming in and the drums banging, I think we realized we loved the high intensity and energy and, really, anger the song drew from us. I think we wanted to keep walking down a similar path, and that feeling led us to write the songs “Dirty Habit” and “Can You Stand It.”

MK: Honestly, I think initially we selected “Six Feet” and “Count Your Blessings” because they were our favorites and the ones that a lot of folks coming to our shows responded particularly well to. But as we started thinking about how they fit together more and more leading up to the release, we started seeing them as “sisters, not twins.” They both bring out different manifestations of feeling listless, stagnant, or anxious to change. While “Count Your Blessings” explores the more melancholy side of that, “Six Feet” is like an outlet for the frustration that feeling can produce.

Drum roll…you have plans to release an EP! What themes will you be exploring in the EP? What are you most excited to show the world about Case Sensitive?

MK: We do! Our EP explores a lot of themes that are more interrelated than they sound: from the anxiety of change to frustration with current politics to strange intense friendships to toxic exes to how Marilyn Monroe was maybe killed by the U.S. government (that last one isn’t a joke). They are all rooted in our feelings and emotions. A lot of those feelings are universal, but a lot of them are rooted in our experiences with gender and the stage of life we’re in: figuring out relationships, identity, and self-expression. I hope that people find something that they identify with in the EP and feel a little less alone in their anxiety, anger, wistfulness, or late-night conspiracy theory binging.

What’s your favorite gig you’ve ever played? What do the three of you find makes for a great show?

SS: My favorite gig was our single release show at the Station.  We had such a huge crowd, but more importantly, so many of our close friends came out to see us play.  There was a lot of excitement in that room. My favorite thing about a show is the audience, mostly because I’m trying to speak directly to them when I sing. I prefer a crowd of friendly and supportive faces, but also enjoy a crowd of absolute strangers.  I’m confident in our ability to connect with the audience, so I enjoy playing for strangers and watching them react, even having no idea who we are or what our music is like initially.

CK: Playing The Cave in Chapel Hill for Manifest 2017 has been one of my favorite shows to date. The crowd packed it in, there was a lot of interaction and smiles, the energy around the fest (featuring artists of marginalized identities) was buzzing, and we just really felt embraced in that moment.

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Twitter: @Case_Sensi_

Instagram: @case_sensitive_

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