California born and raised musician Rachael Cantu has a voice that, if you’ve heard it, you know you’ll have trouble forgetting. Her music has been featured on television shows like Private Practice and Shameless and, more than anything, she’s brilliant.
Rachael has been playing gigs since high school. She’s been in bands, she’s made her own music, and she’s done both at the same time! With three solo albums and soon-to-be-four EPs under her belt, it’s clear music runs through her bloodstream.
I’ve been a fan of Rachael Cantu’s for about a decade. I heard her music when she was touring with Tegan and Sara. Vivek Shraya was there, too.
They became the Holy un-trinity (I mean, twins) in my head for a while. Back in the days when bootlegs from shows filled in gaps between record releases, a live version of “Saturday” with Tegan Quin was one of my most played.
Rachael has also toured with the legendary B.B. King.
In the years since and during, her songs get better and better (“Little Bird” and “Hear My Laughter” being two of my personal favourites) and, judging by the preview of the next Rachael Cantu EP that she’s posted in Instagram stories, the next step might very well be responsible for those pesky little hairs on your arms standing to attention.
Rachael was really cool and let me throw a few questions her way about everything from inspiration to the mantras that help get her through the hard times. We talk influences, learning, writing, and what’s next.
“Peace and Positive” is my mantra. I say it over and over in my head to calm my mind.
I have to start here because it’s so badass: the late, phenomenally influential B.B. King. You got to tour and hang out with him. I would have loved to have caught one of those shows. How did that sequence of events come about?
I was asked by someone who worked at his agency to open some shows and some shows turned into a great deal of shows. It was incredible. His entire crew was so kind and loving and supportive of me. Every night B.B. would call me onto the stage, thank me and give me a hug…I mean, that’s a class act. He didn’t even have to know I was there. Having the privilege to watch the band and B.B. perform every night was something I’ll never forget.
Did you listen to B. B. King growing up? Who did you listen to? Who inspired/influenced you in your own foray into music?
I listened to a lot of punk rock (Bikini Kill, Dead Kennedys, Descendents, Sex Pistols, etc), musical theater, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Bjork, stuff like that. That started it. Over the years everything else in between got mixed in. In my youth, I worked in used record stores for close to 10 years and I was schooled on everything and taught to have an appreciation for it all.
What kick started your love affair with music in general? Was it a big part of your upbringing?
I took lessons as a kid: violin, clarinet, and piano. It didn’t quite stick until I was about 15 and got my own guitar. I taught myself and chose songs that I wanted to learn from bands or artists that I loved. It wasn’t about stuffy practice songs or timed rehearsal, it was just me in my room, door locked, guitar book in front of me and my love for the song I was mimicking.
“I just kind of go with the flow. I did music because it felt good. People liked it so I kept sharing it and doors kept opening so I went through them. And I just never stopped.”
Do you remember the first song you heard that made you aware of music, and has that stuck with you through into adulthood?
For some reason what comes to mind is Martika – Toy Soldiers. So I guess it’s that song!
What was the first record you remember buying yourself?
Green Day – Dookie was the first CD I ever bought for myself. Before that, I was gifted some awesome cassette tapes and mixed tapes. My first cassette I was gifted was Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual. That album really changed my world.
When did you start making your own music on a level where you thought it was what you wanted to do in life?
I’ve actually never had a moment of thinking “this is what I want to do for real” – it was more like, “Oh, this is what I do for real.” I’m very behind in my feelings. I just kind of go with the flow. I did music because it felt good. People liked it so I kept sharing it and doors kept opening so I went through them. And I just never stopped.
Your voice also has the most beautiful tone, which isn’t anything that can be learned or replicated. Do you do vocal warm-ups or do you have a routine that involves taking care of your voice?
Thank you, that’s so kind to hear. I’m self-taught and I definitely SHOULD do vocal warm-ups but I never got into the habit of it. Although, when I started working with the Songs For Kids Foundation, I started doing some minor warmups from the internet and little techniques that friends have taught me. With Songs For Kids, we go to children’s hospitals and sing lots of big voiced pop songs. I didn’t want to disappoint the kids with a soft, sweet weak voice when all they wanted was to hear was a rocking version of “Firework” by Katy Perry sung super loud and fun, so I put some more effort into my breathing and warming up and it really helped.
Identify what you want. Ask for it. Work for it. Imagine yourself getting it. We are capable of so much.
Your hollow body, the dreamy black Gretsch (as seen in the “Make a Name for Me & You” video), what’s your love story? How did you “get together” as it were? It suits you so well, by the way.
No crazy story. I was young, I traded in another electric guitar (honestly don’t even remember what it was) and bought this one. At Guitar Center. Yup, it’s that embarrassing. But it really was meant to be. I’m not a gear freak, but I do love the two guitars I’ve had for so long – my hollow body Gretsch being one of those.
How about songwriting? I love learning about other people’s creative processes because they’re always so different. How is the process for you? Do you have a set way of doing it or does it alternate?
It alternates. It really just comes down to feeling. Whether I’m writing alone or with someone else, I have to feel it. If I feel it, care about it and I’m not bored by it then it stays! What I care most about are lyrics, melody, story, and vocals.
Are there any hobbies or things you do on the side to help you if you get stuck or have writer’s block?
What other non-music-things do you enjoy the most?
Museums, staring at bodies of water.
Does it feel good to sing or play? Then do it!
I talked to Mally Harpaz about composing, songwriting, and recording and she gave some great advice about trusting what feels right to you; not second guessing it or yourself. What advice do you have for girls who maybe want to get started writing their own music?
Does it feel good to sing or play? Then do it!
On your Instagram, you posted a story recently, as well as a few studio shots, that you’re cooking up a new Rachael Cantu EP for us. How’s that going? Will we get a sneak peek soon?
Yup! I’m working on releasing new music very soon. These songs came from top line songwriting sessions (writing with producers, other artists – writing the lyrics, melody, recording the vocal on the track) that I wrote to pitch to other artists or tv/film. Every once in awhile I’ll write a song that I just can’t let go of and that’s where these songs came from.
What plans do you have for the future? Will we be hearing new Little Brutes anytime soon? A collab with Vivek Shraya? Any gigs?
I’ll be putting out a new Rachael Cantu EP in the coming months, I did the score for and wrote an original song for a documentary called “Zero Weeks” that will be premiering at film festivals very soon, and I’ll post about any other stuff I’ve been working on as they come to light!
Lastly, what’s your mantra? What advice have you carried through your life that you can pass on?
“Peace and Positive” is my mantra. I say it over and over in my head to calm my mind – whether it’s in a trying situation or just to shut my brain down in order to fall asleep. Advice: Identify what you want. Ask for it. Work for it. Imagine yourself getting it. We are capable of so much.