Itasca: Rainmaker


Itasca is at the head of the river of song

Catch an Itasca concert and you might see a band playing understated, country-tinged songs that map out the states between serenity and apprehension. Or you might see just one person playing those songs: singer/guitarist Kayla Cohen.

Either way, you’ll hear quietly involving music that’s in constant motion but aims at getting to the root of things. The movement comes from Cohen’s fleet but unflashy guitar picking and the empathetic backing of the band on her new album, Open To Chance (Paradise Of Bachelors), each of which implies side paths off the main road taken by her cool, graceful vocals. And what about that pursuit of the roots? Just consider her explanation for the name, which integrates geography, sonority and the word’s Latin origins.

“Itasca is the name of a lake at the headwaters of the Mississippi, and it’s also the name of a couple small towns across the country,” she says. “I thought it was a nice-sounding word to use as a band name. The word means a bunch of different things: the idea of truth and the unknown.”

One thing you won’t hear is a sound that easily dates Itasca’s tunes to any recent decade. Cohen may have grown up listening to Slint and Codeine, but Itasca has more in common with private-press folk from the ’60s and ’70s and obscure heroes of English folk rock.

“It’s a sound that feels natural to me,” she says. “I’m not trying to make something that sounds retro, but I do listen to a lot of music from that era. I really like the sound of someone sitting with an acoustic guitar and letting it all out. Michael Chapman is a big influence, and acoustic guitar is interesting to get into. I’m trying to get to my own natural sound, something that feels honest.”

—Bill Meyer