I Love You In the Grocery Store: An Interview with Caitlin Pasko
In “Favorite Dessert,” Caitlin Pasko describes how it feels to detach:
I’m walking up to your favorite dessert in the store
Now I am passing it by
This is letting you go
I’m throwing out the bottle of shampoo you would use in the morning
When I think of you, I think of you
If loving you is letting you go…
Then I love you in the grocery store and again in the bathroom
Since 2011, I’ve worked a Friday evening checkout shift at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, New York. During my shift, I touch strangers’ groceries: broccoli, paper towels, beeswax candles, dried fruit, coconut yogurt, chocolate-covered ginger, organic condoms, tofu, smoked paprika, eggs. I interpret these groceries as one might a work of literature, where there exists ambiguity and exposition, plot and pathos, mood and tone, and humor. When dialogue occurs, a stranger asks: Where is your husband? To which I respond: […].
My husband was never my husband. My husband was my partner, my kind mirror, my ghost. Following a death, my husband became vegan, and I stood in front of the dessert case at the food cooperative and cried. This crying was born of grief, but also of the black box inside me. Of late, it has been moving toward the surface of my flesh.
Exorcising myself of myself, I send a black box to a friend cooking mushrooms. I send a black box to a co-worker locked inside a car. I send a black box to my former employer. I send a black box to an actor asleep in a dormitory. I send a black box to a woman covering her face with a paper plate. I send a black box to the stranger to whom I say everything, with the exclusion of facts, for there is only one person to whom I state facts. One must be careful to whom one states facts, for the statement of facts may result in a swelling sensation in the chest cavity, otherwise known as love without conditions, otherwise known as freedom.
Now it is my birthday, and I am baking a flourless chocolate cake. In this frame, I stand alone in the snow—I, a girl with the face of a clock. To be a clock is to resign oneself to feeling out-of-sync, and occasionally bored. In time, there may also be depression, and disturbed sleep, and the acknowledgement that one is severed from one-half of her immune system.
I inherit a new phrase: emotional sobriety. It is 12-step program language. I resent its origins, but repeat the phrase: emotional sobriety. Its prosody feels apt. My apartment is quiet. I am listening to Caitlin Pasko’s music on a portable speaker. Days pass. On the Internet, four strangers marry. I stand over the flourless chocolate cake, cold and stale, and stab a fork into it.
On June 21, 2018, I listen to Caitlin Pasko perform her music at Pianos in New York City. I drink a glass of seltzer water and sit next to a stranger browsing real estate listings on her cell phone. As Pasko performs “Favorite Dessert,” the aforementioned song about the grocery store, I remember how my ghost and I would eat a well-balanced breakfast before filling our cart with produce, and how we would collect various forms of energy bars whose nutrition facts we studied like flashcards.
What hell is this, I wonder, this world where nothing keeps?
After the show, Pasko gave me a copy of Glass Period on cassette tape. The next day, at 12:25pm, I listened to it on the portable tape recorder you gave me.
My friend Jim emails me: “[Caitlin’s] cassette came wrapped in brown paper with a little note, handwritten.”
In a shower, I lather my hair with shampoo that smells like hibiscus.
I clean out shelves located under the sink.
I watch a documentary. In it, a hundreds of activists put their bodies on the line to language what the government won’t. As I watch, I think: I’m so sorry your secret is lodged inside my body. I will spend the rest of my life languaging it.
Like now, for instance: I am writing this essay naked, wherein naked refers to a particular mode of starkness akin to Glass Period. The record is a sanctuary, and I am unashamed.
Or, like blood, I shed. I place objects—an unopened stick of eyeliner; a calendar; a dead orchid; necklaces; a cassette tape featuring a ghost’s greatest hits—in a cardboard box and leave this box on the sidewalk. Atop it, I write a single word: FREE.
I interviewed Caitlin Pasko in July 2018 via email. We discussed the origins of the phrase “glass period,” the process of collaboration, literary art, and loss.
1.) How do you define yourself as a musician?
I used to describe my music as Fantasia meets The Wizard of Oz, but my sound has changed a lot in the past 8 years. It’s still classically influenced, but it’s quite sparse instrumentally (mostly just piano and voice), and the way I play around with tempo and rhythm and dynamics is a bit psychedelic. There’s a lot of space in my music.
2) Tell me about the name of your first EP, Glass Period.
Well, my menstrual cycle was thrown off for a while in early 2015—following the death of my dad and an abrupt end to a stressful relationship—and I was having my period every two weeks and it was really painful. I made an off-hand comment to a friend along the lines of “it feels like shards of glass are coming out of me,” and as soon as I said it a lightbulb went off. A few days after that I noticed that the words “Glass Period” were still floating around in my mind, and I got to thinking about glass and all of its qualities—how it can be strong and powerful, but also fragile, delicate, and sometimes dangerous, and it occurred to me that a grieving person shares those qualities. I was very moved by the fact that grief set off a physical reaction in my body that then lead me to the title, especially as it reminded me of Picasso’s somber Blue Period.
3) Can you talk a bit about what that led you to create Glass Period?
Glass Period exists because of my friend (and co-producer) Henry Terepka. He approached me after a show—my first one following my dad’s death—and pretty much nurtured the songs out of me. I was a big fan of his band Zula, and I trusted him, and we really connected when working on these songs. I don’t connect musically with a lot of people, and with him it was so natural and satisfying and inspiring.
Sometimes I start and finish a song and I don’t figure out what it means until way later. When this happens I feel like a Clairvoyant! And this was the case with some of the songs on the EP (“Me Alone”), while others came out in one fell swoop (“Barking Dog,” “Favorite Dessert”) and I knew exactly what they meant.
Glass Period looks at different types of loss (loss of life and loss of love) from different perspectives. I lost my dad, but my mom lost her husband. My parents were inseparable for over 30 years, and I was their only child, so my mom and I really only had each other during the aftermath. I also went through a break-up during this time, and my best friend had just broken up with her boyfriend of seven years as well. I was living in a swirl of loss, as we were all leaning on and supporting each other.
4) You worked with a producer, Henry Terepka, on the EP. How did you find one another? What was this process of collaboration like?
I actually did PR for Henry’s band before we became friends. We were friendly enough, but we didn’t really get to know each other until we started talking about making a record together.
First Henry asked me to make a playlist referencing piano sounds that I like (he made one too). I don’t remember everything that went on my playlist, but I’m certain I had some Cat Power and Radiohead on there. After that, we met up at Henry’s home studio in Williamsburg and mapped out the songs on paper and had long discussions about each one, breaking them down section by section to identify shifting moods and meanings. We started meeting up about once a week to work on songs and record scratch demos, which we’d both listen to separately and then work on more once we came back together with fresh ideas. Each week the songs progressed, until finally we felt we were ready to get the pianos and vocals down for real.
We toured four or five studios around NYC, Queens, and Brooklyn in search of the perfect piano, and I fell in love with the spinet piano at Relic Room in the city. We booked one full day in July 2015 and I think we were there for 16 hours straight? We tracked all of the piano and vocals simultaneously (except for “Get Right”), and Henry and Josh (Hahn, who was engineering) added some tape echo and Rhodes to some sections at the end of the day.
Henry went on tour after that, so the sessions went untouched for about a month, but then we got back on our weekly meeting schedule, and recorded everything else in Henry’s home studio and at Studio Radio 45 in Queens. Once we were finished, we spent two straight days with Pat Dillett at his studio in the city, and we drank a lot of coffee and cheered him on as he mixed. Joe Lambert mastered it a week later and then we made cassette tapes out of it, and the rest is history.
5) Your writing (both about the record and your lyrics) is unusually clarion and literary. What is your relationship to literary art like? Do you consider yourself a writer? What do you like to read?
I don’t have time to read as much as I’d like to these days, but I do love to read. Right now I’m reading Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. I love his writing style—how all of his novels have about four or five interwoven stories that he connects in really surprising, clever ways. I love the way he writes about mundane, ordinary things and makes them special. Chuck Palahniuk is another one of my favorites. I love how obscene his writing is. His stories are so dark and out there, but his characters just want to be loved. Same with David Sedaris. And I love Sylvia Plath, too, so… I’m into dark novels about suffering and perseverance (with a bit of humor), I guess. Which makes sense! I also read a lot of self-help books. I really like getting immersed in books that make me think about how I think.
6) When did you start making music, and how has your relationship to music-making changed over time?
I started banging around on the piano when I was a little girl—maybe age 5. I’m sure it sounded horrible to my parents (my mom strongly suggested I take lessons), but I was fascinated with the tone of the piano notes, even when they were clashing. I just thought the sound was so beautiful—I still feel the same way.
I took lessons for about six years and then took a break from the piano because I got tired of the weekly lessons and the stressful music theory tests. But then in middle school I went to a Brand New show at the NorVa (in Norfolk, VA, close to where I grew up), and this female-fronted band Eisley opened for them and changed my life. They sounded like fairies and they sang songs about fairies, which opened up a whole new world to me—a world that felt like mine. Many of my songs in middle and high school were then influenced by mystical things, whether from my imagination or from books I’d read. I remember in college my classmates described my music as “whimsical forest music,” which I loved. My new songs can’t really be classified that way anymore, I don’t think… Maybe. I think my work has matured just as I have. I don’t sing about fairy tales anymore.
7) What is your day-to-day life like? Is music-making part of your daily life, or do you tend work in temporal bursts?
I alternate between playing every day and working in temporal bursts, but it’s more often the latter. Usually a melody will come to me, and I’ll carry it with me in my mind until I can make my way to the piano—usually at night, but sometimes right away. From there I try to work in a lyric that I haven’t found a home for yet, and when it fits its the best feeling. Sometimes it doesn’t fit, though, and then I have bits of lyrics and bits of piano hanging around in my mind ether, which is fun because some other puzzle piece will soon come along and then I get to play the game all over again.
I usually write lyrics away from the piano. I like to listen to my recorded works-in-progress (the piano only, no vocals) on a loop as I write—always in headphones. The piano indicates the mood of the song, and I have to feel it and search for it until the lyrics come. And sometimes what comes out doesn’t really fit, but it might fit with something older or something that will come in the future.
8) What have you been listening to over the past few months?
I’ve been listening to Sam Evian’s new album You, Forever a lot. Like every day. We’ve worked together on a couple of tracks before and I’ve known him for a long time, so I feel really silly fangirling, but I hope he sees this, haha. It’s the best album.
Also Ariana Grande, Dirty Projectors, Amen Dunes, and Benjamin Lazar Davis.
9) If you could collaborate with any musician, dead or alive, who would you work with? What would you make?
Sufjan Stevens. I would be grateful just to make one song with him! It has always been a dream of mine to harmonize with him.
10) What question(s) do you wish an interviewer would ask you? How would you answer this/these questions?
I’m surprised I haven’t been asked about the Glass Period album art. It’s a photo of me at the piano, about age 6, giving the photographer a Mona Lisa smile. My mom went through every single photograph in her house after my dad passed away, and I spent a lot of time looking through them with her. I saw this one and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I somehow look like an adult and a 6 year old at the same time, and I can’t quite tell what it is that I’m feeling in the photo. Something about this photo resonates with me. I feel like it represents my child self, particularly the version of me that I comforted when I wrote the songs on this EP, and maybe I let go of her during this process, too.
11) What are you working on next?
Henry and I have plans to record a couple of new songs in the near future!