Gig Economy: I Am Casting

Cole Guerra took nearly 15 years off from songwriting to be a psychologist, and his career informed the songs that came after.

Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Cole Guerra, aka I Am Casting, discusses how the 15 year break he took from songwriting to become a clinical psychologist influenced his latest album.
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

In my mid-20s, I entered a doctoral program in clinical psychology. A year later, I entered a recording studio for the first time, emerging with a demo that could be used to secure live gigs both in and out of North Carolina, the state to which I’d relocated for school. I invited JD Foster, who’d produced some albums I loved, to attend a show I was playing in his hometown of NYC. During our post-set conversation, plans were hatched. After a long period of gestation, out popped the LP Scarves & Knives. I’d taken a leave from my doctoral program along the way, and following some touring in support of the LP, I was at a vocational crossroads. My leave was set to expire. I knew both that I remained interested in a psychology career and that there were personal and professional risks associated with traveling the music-only path. All signs seemed to point in the same direction.

I returned to school. I told myself I’d manage to find some time to write and record, and that I’d dive back in full-tilt once the psychology demands quieted a bit. In reality, almost a decade elapsed without any meaningful engagement in the creation of music. I completed the degree, an internship, a post-doc, and the necessary hours for licensure as a psychologist.  I started a clinical practice, one focused on working with clients who struggle with anxiety disorders and/or trauma-related disorders (e.g., PTSD). The occasional attempt to write music was largely frustrating, even a bit painful — the closest I can get to understanding this now is that sitting down to write connected me to the fact that I’d not stuck with music in a way that felt significant. Occasionally, I ruminated about what could have been. There were entire years during which I didn’t touch a musical instrument.

In early 2016, I began writing again. This was prompted, in part, by a newfound interest in the recording process itself, so I rigged up a workable “studio” in the spare bedroom. Within a couple months, I was feeling pretty good about a handful of songs that were emerging, tunes with solid-seeming chord progressions, rhythm tracks, and rough melodies. It was time to attach some words to the music.

Broadly speaking, my experience as a psychologist as well as the longstanding interests that drew me to the field — interests, for instance, in cognitive bias, in psychopathology, in motivation and emotion — surely guide me towards certain topics and themes, even if I’m not always deliberate or conscious of this, and then inform the perspective I offer regarding the chosen subject matter. I have little doubt that my experience as a psychologist is also related to my aversion to linear storytelling when writing lyrics – there is something that usually reads as psychologically false or naive to me whenever I’ve tried to take a chronological, literal approach to writing about behavior or motivation or whatever within the confines of song structure.  Instead, I tend to be more impressionistic, to lean on devices like metaphor and allusion to suggest an idea or position or to convey a possible emotional reaction to events. I’m fine with ambiguity.

So I brought these general preferences to the very specific task of lyric-writing in spring of 2016, a time marked by the slow-motion car crash that was the Republican primary season. Among his other charms, Trump took pains to repeatedly signal to his political base that they should care about race and ethnicity differences, and he then agitated regarding the supposed threats posed by those in “different” (i.e. non-white/non-European) groups. The study of ingroup-outgroup dynamics has been in the wheelhouse of social psychologists for many decades — there is little surprise about observed hostility and discrimination towards those in “outgroups” once a basis for grouping has been made salient. What kind of person specifically foments these fears and hostility in order to then exploit it for personal power and political advantage? That’s getting into clinical psychology territory — the literature on those with antisocial and/or narcissistic personality disorder might be instructive.

As I thought about these issues and took a crack at writing lyrics for a couple tunes, it struck me that I could frame the entire album as a collection of songs that would observe, from various angles, something about the psychology of the political moment. That’s what eventually unfolded, as lyrics evolved during the presidential campaign and through the first year of the current administration. Most of the songs on Carnival Barkers try to describe some facet of toxic influencers and/or effects on those impacted by the messaging. For example, the stoking and exploitation of prejudice towards racial and ethnic outgroups is at the heart of both “Flood” and “Window.” The songs “Wolf,” “Charmer,” and “Lullaby” are Pied Piper-like riffs, thematically. I view “Helpless,” “Muggers,” and “Seams” as fragments of possible responses by those upended and left feeling powerless in the wake of a malignant carnival barker.

Across these songs, there is ample evidence of the general writing biases referenced above. In “Flood,” for instance, the opening line is an impressionistic rather than literal reference to a politician’s use of validation as tool of persuasion (“They love the way you make them feel about their homes”), while the title image is ambiguous, navigated as both fearsome and welcome (“Here comes the flood, to wash the banks of blood”; or later “Here comes the flood, to hide the holes you’ve dug”).  The closing tune, “Seams,” draws on the car crash metaphor, and ends with the repeated line “You can’t look away from this,” both a straightforward observation regarding the compelling pull of tragedy and, as sung on the final pass, an urgent command to do something in response.

I feel fortunate to have found my way back into songwriting and recording. With Carnival Barkers just released, I’m several songs deep into the next album. The lyrics tackle quite different material, but the biases described above persist. I lift my glass and celebrate a cleared path.

(Photo Credit: Alex Boerner)

I Am Casting is a project helmed by Cole Guerra. After touring in support of last album, Scarves & Knives, Cole disappeared from the music landscape, only recently re-emerging with new music. I Am Casting was adopted as the artist name for the project, highlighting the focus on characters (including “bad actors”), hinting at the music’s cinematic and theatrical elements, and more flexibly setting an expectation that the musical approach might change from scene to scene, album to album.

​I Am Casting’s debut album is called Carnival Barkers. Sitting atop textured arrangements are lyrics shaped to a considerable degree by the political landscape of the time — songs about manipulation, about predators and clowns, about appeals to fear and anger and tribe.

(Photo Credit: Alex Boerner)