There is a cult-like fascination growing around Kassi Valazza following the self-release of her 2019 debut album Dear Dead Days and her surprise 2022 EP Highway Sounds. She is seated squarely at the vanguard of new American songwriters strengthening and broadening the sound of country music as she tours with celebrated acts such as Melissa Carper and Riddy Arman. The Southwestern native resides in Portland, a hotbed of songwriters producing albums that both bear the torch and bend the arc of American roots music, where she recently signed with Fluff & Gravy Records — a label known for launching Anna Tivel and Margo Cilker.
Valazza’s forthcoming new album Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing is a spellbinding collection of songs that dangle like protective magic talismans, catching dreams and glinting light. She hypnotizes listeners with a sturdy, yet gentle, voice and painterly songwriting imbued with an independent spirit. Though her music plays country cousin to British folk, calling to mind greats like Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention) and Karen Dalton, a Southwestern American streak carves its way through these solemn, sweetly sung melodies like a canyon.
On the upcoming 10-song set, multi-instrumentalists from Portland’s TK & the Holy Know-Nothings appear in varying roles as Valazza’s backing band: Taylor Kingman (guitars, bass, vocals), Jay Cobb Anderson (harmonica, guitars, pedal steel, bass), Lewi Longmire (pedal steel, piano, bass, trumpet), Sydney Nash (organ, Farfisa, cornet, Wurlitzer), and Tyler Thompson (drums). The group’s swirling psychedelia combines with Valazza’s gutsy and graceful vocal poetry for a singular sound that washes over the listener like a flash flood, heavy and without warning.
Album opener “Room In The City” introduces Valazza’s high-lonesome, but never lonely world with sharp harmonica and reeling organ. She sings of a touring musician’s longing for home, and a distant lover, with lyrical imagery of open skies, whistling winds, and sepia-toned rock formations: “Did you think I’d be out here feeling lonely? / If I said I thought so too it’d be a lie / When I talk to you it’s hard to be withholding / And I was born to chase this blue out of my eyes. / In the still, I often wonder about your breathing / I rise and fall to its rhythm late at night / Clay canyons turn to plaster in my grieving / And our ceiling overtakes the sky.”
Using the physical world around her to paint metaphors from the soul, Valazza carries us through her mind and heart, ever the effortless narrator. “Watching Planes Go By” spins a cautionary tale about the dangers of standing still in life and accepting one’s own fate. The song sets a curious and cosmic atmosphere of psychedelic folk-rock as Valazza reflects on the struggles of moving on, “Autumn leaves turn to yellow / and green turns to jealousy / Watching days go by.”
On “Corners,” fingerpicked acoustic guitar dances with bounding bass and twinkling piano, as twanging telecaster and a gentle backing choir flow behind Valazza like a stream through a lonesome vista. “The clouds move slower than they ever seemed to / Still, they find a way to pass me by,” she sings on her breezy lament about the longing that comes with an unhealthy love, “My friends, though, they wonder what I’m used to / To love a man who never treats me right.”
“Smile” opens with a familiar telecaster honky-tonk squawk and a half-time trot, but Valazza sings in deference to traditional bar-room tales. Hers is about acceptance when love is not enough, about being satisfied having met someone at all, and keeping only a farewell note as a souvenir. “I guess I could have left the light on / Or stayed awake to see you home / But good intentions go unnoticed / And I fare better on my own.” In her careful hands, the typical loved-and-lost tale becomes an ode to self-realization and the liberating feeling of going it alone.
As her journey winds down to “Welcome Song” — the album’s final Valazza-original preceding a perfect closing cover of Michael Hurley’s “Wildegeeses” — tension from her nearly behind-the-beat band pushes and pulls the listener into a whirlwind of stream-of-consciousness lyricism. The opening verse, “As I was laying on my floor / Hiding dreams from the t.v. / I heard a knocking at my door / While my eyes faked sleeping,” paints an immaculate mental picture of both the physical surroundings of the narrator and what she’s feeling and thinking at the time. It’s clear that every line Valazza writes carries extreme weight, every simple word is carefully chosen and placed with intention.
Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing captures the romanticism of country crooners with the intuition of a realist poet. Exploring themes of love and longing through metaphors from the natural world, Valazza manages to cut straight to the heart of the human experience, her lucid songs full of delightfully languid characters that haunt the hallucinatory soundscapes her band creates.