“They don’t know what we have here.” How many times have you heard this said, and figured it was just an expression of civic pride, or a nice way of painting over the fact that, for those who have a chosen a life in the arts, it’s more than likely that you’ll toil in obscurity in Buffalo, and the rest of the world will never know who you are and what you do?
And yet, these words ring true.
Ask Caitlin Koch, who practically shouted them down the phone and into my ear earlier this week. The “they” Koch, the former “X-Factor” contestant, was referring to is the population of Nashville – “Music City,” the town with more musicians, songwriters and music industry-types per capita than any other, and the place that Western New York born-and-raised Koch will call home beginning in October.
Koch wasn’t dissing any of the Nashville cats she’s met over the past several months, since heading down there to test the waters in early July. Rather, she was pointing out the obvious – folks in Nashville just plain assume that a backwater burgh like the Buffalo of common (mis)conception could not boast the level of musical sophistication or the depth of talent pool that their own city clearly does.
“Everyone in Nashville is good, if not completely amazing,” Koch said. “The musicians and songwriters I’ve been lucky enough to meet there have been eager to help, and to let me know that, ‘Hey, it’s a pool filled with sharks down here, with some of the best of the best walking down the street at any given hour of the day.’ I’m super grateful, but I’m also like, ‘Well, that’s Buffalo, too.’ ”
We know Koch first as a contestant on Simon Cowell’s “The X Factor,” during its maiden voyage in 2011. Koch impressed both judges and viewership alike with her soulful, powerful singing, eventually being selected as one of the final eight singers on Cowell’s “team.” She didn’t win the competition, but her involvement led to a management deal with judge and former pop diva Paula Abdul. In the time since, Koch has performed on pretty much every major stage in Western New York, from Canalside to Artpark, First Niagara Center to Kleinhans Music Hall, the Sportsmen’s Tavern to the 189 Public House.
Koch, who grew up in Orchard Park singing in church and emulating heroes Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley, amassed a devout following locally. That devotion is based on her ability to channel her own fiery and sensual take on soul, R&B and blues tropes into whatever musical situation she found herself in – be it fronting the Jamie Moses Band, sharing the bandstand with the late great Lance Diamond, getting seriously funky with C.O. Jones, or flanking virtuosos like Ron LoCurto and Dylan Hund, among others. But the move to Nashville represents a radical change for Koch on a few levels – geographical, obviously, and personal, of course, but musical as well.
Caitlin is goin’ country.
“The way the music industry is today, if you want to veer away from the sort of automated sounds of pop, from all the synths and drum machines and auto-tuning, then country strikes me as the place to go,” Koch told me. “It’s a place where you can hear real instruments, real songs, and real singing, and it doesn’t have to be so pop-oriented. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of modern country that I can’t get my head around, stuff that is as automated as modern pop music. But for me, country is an open door right now, because no one really knows where it’s going, and there’s freedom in that. I mean, I’m not sure country even knows where country is going.”
The move toward a more organic and earthy country music was encouraged by Abdul, but for Koch, this is not about attempting to hop on any bandwagon. In fact, the impetus for the change comes from Koch’s desire to, at long last, concentrate on her own songwriting.
“I’ve learned so much from all of the situations I’ve been in, but I realized that I wanted to develop something that is truly my own,” she said. “I’m at the point in my life where I want to be able to say ‘This is mine! This is who I am!’ And in order to do that - as much as I’ve loved reworking other people’s songs and trying to make them my own, in a sense – I have to be a writer.”
Koch found inspiration in another transplanted Western New Yorker – singer/songwriter Tina Parol, who grew up in West Seneca but has been living and working in Nashville for the past several years. During her July visit, Koch commiserated with Parol, who is enjoying success as a songwriter, having placed songs with Britney Spears, and on several television and film soundtracks, in addition to releasing her own album, 2010’s “Shrinking Violet,” released on the Universal Motown label. At the time, Koch was simply planning to make Nashville a consistent stop in her travels, and a place to record her debut album as a songwriter. But Parol had other ideas. “Hey, I’m moving out of my apartment and into a place with my boyfriend; Why don’t you take over my lease and move down here?” she asked, and Koch was hooked.
The songs she plans to record in Nashville are already written, and she plans to write, record or perform with some Music City heavies, among them top session keyboardist Steve Nathan – you guessed it, another musician from Buffalo, who recorded with Spyro Gyra during that band’s earliest days – as well as Grammy winner Gary Baker and rock vocalist/guitarist Derek St. Holmes.
Her years spent on the vibrant Buffalo music scene have taught her “everything I need to know,” she said. “I grew up here surrounded by an incredibly high level of musicianship, and in a way, I’ve been spoiled. The thing is, now I know exactly what to look for in a musician. The people I’ve worked with in Buffalo taught me that exceptional talent can be housed in exceptionally humble people. That’s where it’s at. It’s about the music. I hope to put that vibe out there, and then get that back from the people I work with.”