Hands down, discovering new artists is the best aspect of running a music publication. Like all other art forms, music has no currency. It’s an endless pursuit, and when an artist previously not in one’s orbit emerges, the deep dive into their story follows.
Sheila Bommakanti’s Cober project is a perfect case in point. The vibrant, pedal-steel-led dreamscapes that dominate her latest release and first in seven years, Beautiful Dissent, fill every inch of the room. From the first note of the opening title track to the closing cut, There Is No Time, everything is placed perfectly. With Beautiful Dissent now coursing through the veins, the ensuing weeks were spent discovering the Cober oeuvre: the results equally as thrilling.
Cober is all about capturing the perfect atmosphere. From the gorgeous one-two of Eulogy (2006) and The Western Cutter (2009), to Bommakanti’s 2016 solo release, Begin Again, Beautiful Dissent reaches the summit of a creative arc that is one of the most heavenly encounters in years.
Following the release of Beautiful Dissent, Bommakanti answered some our questions about her creative process, the Cober story, and what the future holds.
In addition, exclusive to Sun 13, for the first time you can watch the video for Beautiful Dissent’s lead single, Light First.
S13: You’ve been involved in so many things over the years. You’ve a trial attorney and business owner, too. Is music something you see as a circuit breaker of sorts?
Sheila Bommakanti: “Music is my constant, it is my centre, it is me. Unfortunately, one can’t make a living at it too well, so other avenues come into play. But for me, music was there in the beginning, and it is the one thing I’ll do ’til the day I die. The times in my life where music was not as present have been some of the darkest times in my life. So in that regard, music is also a measure of good health.”
S13: Was music and art something that you felt always destined to do at some point?
SB: “Absolutely. It’s in my blood. I was drawn to it as a child.”
S13: What were your first memories of music?
SB: “Apparently as a toddler I used to sing, I Love Rock and Roll, by Joan Jett and Call Me’ by Blondie, too. I guess I’ve always favoured female vocalists! My mom was pretty musical, she was actually a trained Indian classical dancer in her youth. I remember hearing a lot of Indian music as a kid, and Indian disco in particular on road trips.”
S13: Since Crashpilot in 2000 to your solo album Begin Again, your sound has gradually become more atmospheric, to the point where it felt that everything was pointing towards the pedal steel. Is this something you thought about?
SB: “This was a natural progression. I’ve often felt words can’t fully contain feelings, so over time, I think the words have sort of gone away. I want to draw the listener in with sound. And that is where the pedal steel guitar feels like a dream to me. It is a highly emotive, expressive instrument, more than any other. Even in the days of Cober being a rock band, I always thought of myself as a guitar player first, vocalist second. I listen to music this way, too. So pedal steel brought that all full circle for me. It feels so vast, so endless, and for me to create that sound I’m chasing in my head, I have to dive in and find it. That process is what creates the atmospheric nature.
S13: How long had you been working on Beautiful Dissent?
SB: “Probably about a year. Things really took off after I brought home my Sierra pedal steel guitar in August 2021. It was built to my specs with my own custom copedent. I was finally able to get the sounds in my head to come out as I felt them once I got my Sierra.”
S13: I find that the EP has a spiritual quality to it. Was this something you were thinking about during the writing/recording of these songs?
SB: “Thank you for noticing that. When I was putting the EP together, I did not want to not be tied down by traditional things, like a verse/chorus structure or even a tempo. I just wanted it to be free with the space and time that is, and capture that through my pedal steel. I think when one is in that head state, free from the bounds of space and time, that’s when the spirit comes out. The song, There Is No Time is a good example of that. There is a spot where the steel literally slides off tempo from the rest of what is going on. Like a free time jazz thing.
“We are all so bound by this concept of time, feeling like we are racing against it, like there is never enough time, anxiety building all the while. The music sort of parallels this ominous nature of what it is like for us to be dealing with time, but the ultimate conclusion is, there is no time, whether you’ve concluded you can’t win or that the concept of time is not real, so there is nothing to lose. For some of us it’s both, it’s a journey of the spirit.”
S13: I take it your busy schedule has meant time in between releases has been longer than most. Still, at some point of each day, do you think about writing music?
SB: “I practice steel almost every day, and there is an aspect of writing that comes with that. An idea can happen anytime. One thing I love about pedal steel is that it has reconnected me back to that part of myself where playing music is part of my everyday life. I have experienced a lot of positivity from this new commitment. I never want to let that go. The reward is just too great.”
S13: Do you need concrete ideas before going in to record, or is it a matter of letting things play out?
SB: “I may think of things, concepts swimming around in my head. And when I sit down to write, yes, it is more of a matter of letting things flow out naturally.”
S13: And what about your sense of identity? How much of a role does it have in the music that you create?
SB: “At my core, what I am before anything else, is a musician. I think my experiences, which are influenced by my identity, who I am in the world, these experiences shape the tone of what comes out.”
S13: Since Crashpilot and The Breaker, and even through to Eulogy and The Western Cutter, the music landscape how we consume music has changed drastically. Did you think it would change so much?
SB: “I didn’t know what to expect, really. I remember reading a book in law school called The Future of Music. It read to me like a horror book in a way. The authors kept saying, music will be free to consume, all around us, just like water. I thought, ‘We’re in trouble if that is so, because most people walking around are dehydrated!’ An annoying part of human nature is that if something comes so easy, it tends to get devalued, and the monetary value of music from the time of Crashpilot to The Western Cutter, it’s like night and day.
“I think there is another thing that is going on with how we consume music. I’ve met people who literally can’t hear what I hear in music. They don’t perceive it. And they’ve not spent hours in rock clubs or practice spaces, so in theory their hearing should be better than mine. I think an unintended consequence from listening exclusively to compressed files for years through streaming services, is that it is collectively diminishing our ability to perceive subtleties in music. So how we consume is effecting what we can consume. Like an aural de-evolution of sorts. And that is really freaky to me!”
S13: What’s next for the Cober project?
SB: “More pedal steel for sure, it’s responsible for Cober’s resurrection. I feel another EP will be in the works, as songs have already begun to accumulate. I’m grateful for the response I’ve received so far on the EP. It’s been a really nice ‘welcome back’, and it makes me want to create more, and not leave as much time in between records. I would also love to do more collaborating on pedal steel with other projects.”
Beautiful Dissent is out now via East Cape Calling. Purchase from Bandcamp.
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