Claudia Combs Carty: Songs of darkness and light

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WRITE IT OUT ‘I don’t usually write when I’m happy,’ Carty said. ‘When I’m going through difficult emotions, I sit down and write as therapy.’

Claudia Combs Carty just released her impressive debut, Phases. The nine-song collection by the singer, songwriter and pianist is an intimate look into her passionate heart. The melodies insinuate themselves into the listener’s head after a single listen, and the emotional lyrics leave a lasting impression.

Although it was written before the current lockdown, “Sing for Me” portrays the loss, grief and uncertainty that characterized the past few years. The album’s producer, Avi Vinocur, plays a memorable R&B guitar hook to compliment Carty’s piano introduction, setting up a vocal describing a broken heart’s yearning for connection. “Don’t Blame Me” is a leisurely ballad, with Carty’s slowly unfolding left-hand bass runs complimenting her sininho, as she walks an emotional tightrope between responsibility and guilt. Vinocar’s bluesy guitar fills intensify the feelings of sorrow and regret. “This is actually the first song I ever wrote,” Carty said. “I’ve played it for everyone I know for so long, it feels funny to finally let it go and record it.”

Carty’s emotive wordplay makes “All That” an album highlight. The somber melody and her reserved vocal describe the pain at the end of a relationship, ironically noting that the breakup “gives me something to sing about.” With the exception of the album closer, the uplifting “You Make Me Wanna Stay,” the songs all explore love’s darker aspects.

“I don’t usually write when I’m happy,” Carty said. “When I’m going through difficult emotions, I sit down and write as therapy. These songs document some of my life’s most intense moments. I’ve been playing some of them for 10 years, at least for friends. Until a few years ago, I was terrified of performing. I wasn’t confident about my music. I had a lot of stage fright, I once ran away from a recital when I was 10 years old. I got so scared I couldn’t do it. I ended up coming back and playing anyway, but it’s my scariest early memory. I was terrified. I was in a band briefly, and I’ve done backing vocals on albums for friends, but I like my gigs to have the intimate feeling of voice and piano.”

Carty imagined what it would be like to make a record for a long time. “I don’t write that frequently, but I’ve been writing for a long time,” she said. “I had a few years along the way where I didn’t prioritize music, but these days it’s at the top of my ‘To Do’ list. As I got over my stage fright, I started thinking about making demos of the songs, to have something down. My sister introduced me to Avi. He’s in a country band called Goodnight Texas and works for Metallica; he’s a real professional and took it to a whole other level.

“I sat down at the piano and sang for about four hours. He took those tracks to his home studio for all the embellishments—electric and acoustic guitars, mandolins, bass, everything. I’d listen to what he did and maybe have a few critiques, but mostly we wanted it to sound like a live recording. We left in the times I was a bit off-pitch, or hesitated on the time—the real stuff you’d hear in person. A while later, we went back into the studio to do a few newer songs. I had my friend, Emma Houston, sing some harmonies on ‘All That.’

“I recorded it and had CDs made, back in the summer of 2020, but it didn’t feel right to put it out then. It was hard, because I’ve been dreaming about this project my whole life. Right now, my life is in a great flow, so it seems like this is the time it was meant to come out.”

Carty’s been playing music since she was a child. “I was born in Barcelona. My mom’s Spanish, my dad’s American, but he grew up in Columbia. We moved around a lot,” she said. “My mom thought I should be a musician and asked me what I wanted to play. I told her I’d like to learn piano. We didn’t have much money, but she got me an upright piano. I took lessons consistently, from age 7 to high school. I went to Boston’s Berklee School of Music, but I dropped out to move to New York and be in a band. You know how that goes. It was interesting in school. I had a lot of people to play with, but learning about music so academically took some of the feeling out of it for me. After that, I didn’t play music for a while.

“I took singing lessons at Berklee, but I lean into a deeper, more natural and soulful style of singing. I’m not good at high notes or embellishing. I like to keep it simple, dark and sympathetic. Everyone tells me when I sing, it doesn’t sound like me. In person, I talk in my high range, but when I sing, it’s deeper and warmer and more emotional. I’m touched when people tell me I’ve made them feel something when they’re listening to my songs. That’s what I’m here for.”Watch Ms. Carty perform the songs from “Phases” on her website at claudiacombscarty.com.