French Cassettes: Oakland pop perfection

Scott Huerta, the lead singer and main songwriter of French Cassettes, is sitting in Oakland’s Coyote Hearing Studios, with his guitar in hand. He’s working on ideas for the band’s next batch of tunes, while discussing the creative evolution that led to their latest album, Rolodex.

“It’s been a long time since we made Gold Youth, our first record,” Huerta said. “We worked on these new songs for five years. On the first album, if we had an idea for a melody, we rode it all the way to the end of the song, trying to keep the initial creative spark alive. This time, we’d start with an idea and let it go all kinds of ways. Some songs took months and months to write. Sometimes, I’d find a demo of a song that was a year old. After listening to it, some variation would come to me. That’s why there are sections in the songs that sound a lot different from each other.

“I didn’t set out to avoid the verse/chorus structure, but when I finished a part, I’d be excited about that section. I’d think, ‘This is the chorus.’ Then I’d get carried away with the next section, and it didn’t feel right, or sound right, to have any section repeat itself. It sounded better for parts to come and go. You can enjoy them, even if they don’t come back around.”

The songs on Rolodex are full of shifting melodies, driven by unexpected changes in tempo. The cascading acoustic guitar lines swerve between tones and volume, shifting focus from the foreground to the background. “City Kitty” is an expression of love that swims through swirls and eddies of acoustic guitar that ride a funky backbeat and syncopated bass line. Huerta’s cheerful lead vocal is supported by the band’s smooth harmonies. A pair of folky acoustic guitars introduce “Unfermented,” a mid tempo rocker that describes the ambivalent end of a love affair. Huerta’s arch vocal slips up into a near falsetto, making promises he has no intention of keeping to his ex. The backing voices give the refrain a religious fervor that compares the end of the relationship to the end of a life.

Though the use of acoustic guitar wasn’t planned as a theme, it persisted throughout the creative process. “I recorded demos using acoustic guitars, thinking I’d replace them with electric instruments in the studio,” Huerta said. “It turned out the electrics didn’t have the same ambience, so we used acoustic guitars as much as possible. I wanted the guitars to be more fun and play off of one another, more so than we’ve done in the past, and I wanted the vocal harmonies to be more interesting than on the last album.”

Once the demos were finished, it was time to head into the studio. “Even though I had most of the parts thought out, it was a true test of our ability to translate them into the final versions,” Huerta said. “For the first record, we’d get together every Sunday to play. The songs just popped out. This time, I became obsessed with wanting each song to be ‘the’ song on the album. When I was working on one, I thought, ‘This is gonna be the best one.’ Then I wanted to outdo myself the next time. You can go crazy for hours and hours on one idea. I had fun doing it, in my room on a laptop, but a lot of times I missed the filter, or the catalyst, band mates would offer when we wrote all together in a room.”

In the studio, the band helped bring the demos Scott had recorded to life. “I’d walk in all proud and slam a demo down on the table. ‘This is the song. We have all the instruments and equipment we need, let’s record it.’ When we’d finish recording and listen back, we just knew that even though we got all the parts I wanted on the track, that it wasn’t done. It still needed something more. Everyone was very patient and talented in figuring out what the songs needed to make them better. They helped me fine-tune the vocals. Then we worked out the intricate harmonies together. That was probably my favorite thing to do with them.”

The band performed throughout the writing and recording process but, because of the shutdown, they won’t be able to promote Rolodex with live shows. “The current climate does cause difficulties,” Huerta said. “We’ve made some videos and we’ll be putting them up online. We’re hoping they’ll be a good substitute for not having a proper record-release show.”

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