EDITOR’S NOTE: This show was originally listed as happening on November 14 and it is on November 17.
Country music always has taken heat for producing lyrics on the sad side of life: Breakups and makeups. Heartaches and drinking problems. Murder and mischief. But nothing tells a sad truth like the slow twang of pedal-steel guitar or creaky fiddle bow or haunting octaves of a baritone voice. Chapel Hill duo Blue Cactus, consisting of Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, admit they were knee-deep in murky emotional waters when they were writing their 2017 self-titled debut album. Plus, they were listening to a lot of Gram Parsons and George Jones.
“The sad songs are usually easier to write,” Arnez observes.
“Those are the ones that write themselves,” Stewart adds. “Much of the material that ended up on this record was the result of our failed relationships, combined with the realization we were falling in love with each other. . . . these songs were our way of coming to terms with the situation—a kind of confession.”
The last time the duo came through ILM was to support local singer-songwriter Chris Frisina at his release show in 2017. Wilmington’s music scene has always been kind to Blue Cactus, so they wanted to return the favor.
“One of our first connections was our friend (and Wilmington-based musician) Rebekah Todd,” Arnez remembers. “We would stay at her place after gigs in town instead of driving back to Chapel Hill. There was a time we played at Ted’s Fun on the River and Rebekah’s place wasn’t available, so she connected us to Chris who, without ever meeting us, let us crash.”
Frisina is now their housemate; they all make music together in Chapel Hill. Frisina and singer-songwriter Kate Rhudy will open for Blue Cactus when they return to Bourgie Nights on November 17. encore spoke with Blue Cactus about their love of country music and how they continue to build upon its foundation of storytelling.
encore (e): Tell us more about a couple of the songs on your self-titled album, released last year.
Steph Stewart (SS): The first song we wrote as Blue Cactus was “So Right You Got Left,” which we started from the title. “I Can’t Remember to Forget You” was another one that started like that. We keep a list of possible titles and will periodically flesh them out into tunes. “Pearl” is a song we tried out with our previous band, Steph Stewart & the Boyfriends (an Americana string band), but it didn’t stick right. It wanted to be a country tune, and it really benefited from the electric guitar and steel treatment, and of course some lush backing vocals.
e: “Years Are the Minutes” is a whopping 7 minutes and 14 seconds. How did that come to be and how is its length just as much a part of the song as the lyrics and melodies?
SS: That one came from a conversation I had with a good friend of mine whose husband was diagnosed with dementia. He went downhill quickly and had forgotten who she was for the first time. It was completely heartbreaking—the thought of this person you’ve known and loved for 30 plus years just totally not knowing who you are—a type of death where the body goes on living but the mind is dying. I think the instrumental score Mario wrote for the tune really takes you to that place moreso than the lyrics.
Mario Arnez (MA): That song grew a lot from where Steph had started it. After we had played the verses and chorus a few times, it seemed to me like it was leading to a big climax with an instrumental outro. We were still performing as Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends when this song was being written, and Omar Ruiz-Lopez, who played violin in that group, was connected to Bill Curry and the Durham Symphony Orchestra when they were looking to premiere new music from local artists. So, we ended up having an opportunity to perform with an orchestra backing us. Our newest song was practically begging for an orchestral accompaniment, and I got to arrange the parts. It’s slow and the chorus is relatively long. We weren’t thinking about keeping this under a certain length; we just ran with it. After all, 7 minutes of symphonic music is roughly equivalent to 3 minutes of country music.
e: Have any other songs continued to develop?
SS: Definitely. We’re always thinking of ways we can keep things fresh ‘cause you can tell when a band is just rehashing the same songs again and again, playing the same solos and doing it all just like the record every time, and that’s never been something we’ve been interested in doing.
e: Are you both pretty big fans of country of yesteryear? Tell us about your draw to the slow-twang before it evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into pop.
MA: Absolutely. There are so many songs over the decades that were clearly written to stand on their own. They hit you hard, and they change your life.
SS: Yeah. I’m thankful to my grandfather for getting me hooked early on as a little kid. He used to take my brother and me out to the cemetery near his house for “driving practice.” We’d take turns, steering his ‘89 Caprice Classic around this massive cemetery, listening to old Patsy Cline and Tennessee Ernie Ford tapes. The voices of those singers was so different than the stuff I was hearing on ‘90s mainstream country radio at the time—so real and honest and utterly heart-shattering. I wanted to sound like that.
e: What’s your modern approach to the traditional sound/genre, instrumentally and/or lyrically?
SS: In the beginning of the project we were experimenting with several different styles of country music, mixing in our favorite elements from Nashville and Bakersfield sounds and stuff in-between. We had a lot of fun thinking about those frameworks as a springboard for creating tunes, but we’re not trying to restrict ourselves to those styles exclusively.
MA: Yeah, we have the benefit of digging through a century’s worth of recorded music to see what resonates with us. I think “Anymore Something (Like Anyone’s Someone)” owes as much credit to John Lennon as it does to Buck Owens. I also love guitar gear and getting different sounds out of my equipment. I spend a lot of time thinking about guitar sounds from my favorite records, and I love experimenting with pedals. So I always have a large pedalboard loaded with modern magic noisemakers. It helps the duo maintain a big sound, and sometimes I (almost) sound like a pedal steel.
e: It may be too soon to ask but do you already have the next project in the works? Any new songs you’re writing or even road-testing at this stage?
SS: Yep. We’ve written a lot of new material since our last record and look forward to bringing some with us to Bourgie Nights.
MA: We put out a single and video earlier this year, “Radioman.” We had a great time recording that with our friends, and we’re excited to continue that process with them very soon. That song has been one of our favorites to play live. Steph started that while we were on a writing retreat, and it kind of blew my mind when I first heard it. I think we tweaked a few things, and it was mostly done that day. I always love the choruses that Steph comes up with, and this might be one of my favorites so far.