Although collaborators have come and gone, Caleb Cordes has always been the heartbeat of Sinai Vessel. Since first emerging back in 2011 with the album, Labor Pains, Caleb has spent a decade exploring an array of moods through his version of swooping alt-indie. Following 2017’s Brokenlegged, Sinai Vessel returned to being a solo project again, and Caleb headed for new musical waters, seeking to let his songwriting guide the project and strip back the dense layering of that previous record. The result is the upcoming fourth Sinai Vessel album, Ground Aswim, which is released this Friday.
This is a record that moves Sinai Vessel’s sound forwards, without losing the essence of what appealed in the first place, while these songs are softer and more crystalline than previous outings, the flair for melody and story-telling are as crucial as ever. Ground Aswim is a record that seems to touch on a host of topics, pulling them together through a shared thread of confusion, a record always searching for clarity, whether tackling heartbreak on Guest In Your Life or confronting grief on Where Did You Go? Throughout Caleb seems to be searching for answers, a curious narrator, his easy vocal reminiscent of The Acorn, placing his words with perfect precision to fit his thoughts to the musical accompaniment. Ground Aswim lifts its title from a poem by David Whyte; a tale of a peaceful world, destroyed by a flooded stream, Sinai Vessel’s music follows a similarly chaotic path, swimming against the stream, searching for something to cling to, even if letting go and seeing where the currents take you might be the better option.
FTR: For those who don’t know who are Sinai Vessel?
Sinai Vessel is me, Caleb Cordes, a person writing songs, and whatever other people I’m fortunate enough to have around to make those songs a completed audible thing.
FTR: What can you remember about your first show?
It was July 4th, 2009, at a YMCA, and I was 16. I was opening for a Christian worship band, and I was more or less a worship solo project. I think approximately eleven people were there and I was enthralled. I’ve been playing to eleven people ever since.
FTR: Why do you make music? Why not another art form?
I have no idea. It feels like one of the only things that, come hell or high water, I consistently want to do. If I were to try and take a stab at why, I’d say something about how music seems to be the most immediate art form, or the most succinct way of communicating my inner world and understanding the worlds of others — which is maybe all I’m after. It’s a powerful force when it comes to connection — just about every single meaningful friendship in my life has to do with music in some way.
FTR: What can people expect from the Sinai Vessel live show?
What a question — what can people expect from a live show in the future at all? Hopefully the circumstances of that being possible will be so joyous and warm that whoever’s playing will be just one slice of a big happy pie. When shows are good, they can be the rarest kind of magic — I hope we all return ready to cultivate and receive it. But, to answer the question, I don’t know — it’s been a long time. I’d hope for more people onstage, a more playful energy, and more smiles all around. A greater focus on honest communication, less focus on getting something “perfect.”
FTR: What’s next for Sinai Vessel?
Well, at the time of me writing this, the record still hasn’t come out — so I’m presently in the process of reckoning with whatever it means to have run another weird race of record-making. This thing has been my private world for a long time, and now it’s gonna get sent off to school to interact with the worlds of others. That’s special and tender and surreal, so I’ve a full plate at the moment. Beyond that, I admit to having aspirations of quickly following this record up with another. There are songs in the pot. We’ll see.
They Listen To…
Big Thief – Not
My influences for this record felt much more spiritual than sonic — rather than seeking to emulate a certain sound or style, I found myself far more interested in driving my personal “vehicle” to the worlds I witnessed others visit. I wanted to submit myself to similar challenges, to grow along similar paths, to see how I could make myself productively uncomfortable. The world of Big Thief had a bigger role in that than any other. They’re pretty universally adored, and for good reason — they’re on a spiritual frontier that feels way ahead of anyone, and yet they’re inviting everyone to come along. It’s deeply inspiring. Sometime after Capacity was released — which was itself lifechanging for me — a high-quality video of the live debut of “Not” and “Terminal Paradise” went up online. That video became a kind of bible for me — an image of what it looks like to fully immerse yourself in what you’re making. The performance was more than the sum of any mechanical parts — it was spontaneous and raw and vulnerable and risky in a way I’d never dared to be. It changed me and changes me still. The recorded version of “Not” on Two Hands unapologetically retains that spirit.
Colour Revolt – Brought To Life
If Big Thief invited me to another world, Colour Revolt gave me permission to exist with whatever I brought back from it. It absolutely stuns me that The Cradle, the band’s third and final record, is ten years old this year — nothing has ever sounded or felt like it, before or since. Colour Revolt was a band borne out of the deep-South obscurity of Mississippi, and their music sounds like it — mostly in the sense that it sounds like it was made in absolute isolation. It’s totally dedicated to its own vision, and uncompromisingly follows its own logic. This record is deeply weird and it is equally deeply confident. I’m in love with that — the best art is made when someone harnesses what only they can bring to the table, warts and all. Records that are wildly sonically wide-ranging and somehow also make coherent sense have always been the most inspiring to me, and this one was a constant resource and friend as I attempted to make my own entry in that category. “Brought To Life” is a perfect example of that weirdness and confidence.
Joni Mitchell – Coyote
For some reason or another, the music of Joni Mitchell has long been the spice I add to the pot of my own influences to make sure I’m not turning out the same bland flavors. I admit I don’t always even like many of her songs at first listen, but resolving to curiously spend time with them in spite of that first impression has time and again turned out to be worth doing. That’s a practice in the craft of songwriting I believe in — paying attention to a worthy teacher even if their sound doesn’t immediately grab me. I’d not listened to Hejira prior to seeing this clip of her playing “Coyote” in a Bob Dylan documentary, but this performance absolutely bowled me over, and I dove into the record accordingly. No one does it like Joni — her chord voicings and movements and lyrical phrasing are all her own. She constantly surprises and subverts expectations in a magical, otherwordly way. She populated a whole world of options for me when it came to my own performances on my own record — when I listen back, I can definitely hear some attempts at honoring Joni’s lessons throughout. Her guitar tone on “Blue Hotel Room” from the same record was something I made frequent attempts at copying directly.
Chris Cohen – Memory
I first heard Chris Cohen live opening for Andy Shauf — whose record The Party was another that changed my life as a songwriter forever, and whose focus on economy and narrative was a huge influence on Ground Aswim — but because I was so focused on reserving my energy for watching Andy, I all but completely ignored Chris Cohen’s set. It just goes to show that our ears are always changing, because I now listen to Chris Cohen’s discography maybe more than any other artist combined. I wasn’t always friendly to the psychedelic, classic rock-influenced world of music his stuff belongs to, but over the last few years it’s surprisingly proved to be an enormously refreshing and nutrient-rich alternative to my deep exhaustion with all things punk and emo. I’m consistently surprised by his melodies and the “rooms” in my mind his songs take me to — when I listen to him, it feels like I’m exploring parts of my consciousness I didn’t know existed, and coming to know myself a little better all the time. Those surprise connections were a big part of what motivated me to explore new ways of making my own music. I’m using a lot of fluffy words here, but my connection to his music feels a lot more emotional than it does literal — just go and try out any of his records for yourself, and maybe you’ll tap into that same wonderful, mysterious thing.
Pile – Leaning on a Wheel
Pile does what only Pile does — and, in doing so, people love them for it. I love them too. That follows along the general rule for what my gut feels like makes for resonant art, but it’s a path that breaks all the rules for how music seems to be marketed in 2020. This may be an incorrect perspective, but it doesn’t seem that modern artists get many accolades for being themselves unto the point of risking alienation. Maybe that’s indicative of an overall trend in “alternative” music, wherein the outsiders compete for mainstream attention and become a lot more palatable in the process. I don’t know. It sounds cynical, I’m as much a part of that problem as anyone, and it’s all besides the point — which is that Pile is wonderful. They’re another band I’d heard in passing at the wrong time, but when the right time came I was obsessed, particularly with A Hairshirt of Purpose. Their music is cinematic in a way that makes intentional use of volume, anger, confusion, and violence — all values I’d grown tired of after hearing them misused, or used without purpose. There’s a reason for every wild thing that’s happening in Pile’s songs, and hearing them approach shades of intensity with actual care (and, of course, a healthy amount of sheer fun) was helpful in that they gave me permission to continue using the same tools. It’s nice to be reminded you can rock thoughtfully.
Ground Aswim is out October 30th. Click HERE for more information on Sinai Vessel.