Hometown: Louisville, Kentucky
Album: We Don’t Need
For Fans Of: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Fiona Apple, Abigail Washburn
Cheyenne Mize didn’t necessarily dream of becoming a songwriter in the spotlight, but it’s difficult to see her doing anything else when you consider her upbringing. From a young age, she was surrounded by music; Her parents were ‘70s rock DJs, spinning Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Bob Marley not only to Kentucky FM radio listeners, but to their young daughter.
“My parents weren’t directly musical, but had a lot of music around always,” Mize says. “I remember driving around in the car with my dad, and him saying ‘Okay, honey. This is Pink Floyd.’”
But although her parents weren’t musicians, the young Mize had talent all around her. Her grandmother and uncle played guitar; her aunt played piano. She was constantly exposed to traditional music—be it bluegrass, country or gospel—through her grandma. So it was from these things that Mize discovered her favorite thing: Playing music with other people.
It started in school, where she picked up piano at eight, and one by one she expanded her musical palette with guitar, violin, dulcimer, banjo, the list goes on. “I just really love that shared experience, having 60 people in one room working on the same piece and working toward the same thing,” Mize says. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling. That’s what I knew I loved about music.”
If we fast-forward that idea to the present, Mize is still a firm believer in music as a form of collaboration or community. So that’s why it’s a surprise that she’s stepped out into the spotlight to release two great solo offerings: Last year’s We Don’t Need EP and 2010’s Before Lately. For Mize, the idea of being a musical center of attention wasn’t necessarily attractive. Yes, she’d written and demoed plenty of her own songs, but her true love of music was still rooted in this feeling of a shared experience with others.
In fact, in her time away from performance, Mize had found another use for her talents in music therapy. To this date, she’s still doing it and sees it as an integral part of her life.
“I have a blast doing it. I don’t think I would ever feel fulfilled if I wasn’t doing a little bit of both—playing music with people for playing purposes and using music to accomplish other things with therapy…Even though teaching them instruments isn’t our first goal, it’s one way that we work on everything. It’s how we work on self esteem, frustration tolerance, being able to concentrate on one thing and being able to follow it through.”
But the path to this solo career came from a 2009 outing after she was asked to join the Bonnie “Prince” Billy band. For Mize, it wasn’t the rough start that many people envision a touring artist enduring—crashing on floors and eating disgusting road food. Instead, the tour showed the budding artist the possibilities of turning performance into a means to live.
“With that being my first touring experience, it was a pretty insane thing,” Mize says. “I did a couple of small trips before this larger tour, but I’d never really travelled and played before…We had time for beach days and really amazing things. It kind of spoiled me at the beginning, but also showed me what was possible and not very probable as far as most musicians’ experience. It’s certainly the pie in the sky as far as what I’d like to do.”
It was also this tour that gave her the luxury to do a few things for herself. One of which was to professionally record a few songs that she’d penned in her downtime. That group of songs turned into Before Lately, an acoustic, folk-rooted album that not only introduced Mize as her own artist but showed her knack for penning thoughtful, emotive tunes (just take one listen to “Friend” for proof of that).
But Mize originally didn’t want to release Before Lately. To her, it was a group of songs that she’d hoped to share with friends and family; A bigger audience was just an afterthought. But after some local interest from Gill Holland at sonaBLAST!, Mize took the necessary steps to releasing it. We Don’t Need followed soon after in 2011 on YepRoc Records. It’s an EP that embraces her native Louisville’s ever-present mindset of never settling on a genre and always collaborating with everyone.
“Louisville specifically, there’s so many amazing bands that have come from here have a different sound than you hear [anywhere else],” Mize says. “It’s an incestuous community, but that can be amazing. Not everyone is locked into one thing or one area of music. Everyone plays a lot of things. This is the kind of city with a low cost of living and cheap places to live and lots of things to do that can afford a musician time to play in three or four bands and work a part-time job to make a living.”
Mize’s songwriting chops are sharper than ever on We Don’t Need, but we see her crossing into new territory with a wider spread of instruments and her experiments with music over the course of a year.
“It’s definitely having more experience in playing and writing and it was a natural progression,” Mize says. “There are such different sounds. That EP, even having six songs, it goes in many different directions. That’s also just a function of me being pulled in a lot of different directions in the music that I like and the music I like to play. The stuff that comes to me naturally is always different.”
After the taste of Mize’s progressing songwriting on We Don’t Need, we can only wait for her next full-length, which is expected later this year. As Mize tells it, it’s just as rooted in that scrambled, experimental Louisville spirit as the last. But that won’t make it any less relatable.
“I write from personal experiences, and I try to go a little farther outside of those things this time, even when I write about personal experiences, I feel like I draw on everything I see around me and other peoples’ experiences around me. I don’t know if there’s one thing, but I think anyone could relate to at least one part of the album.”