[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Cassandra McGrath is telling me the saddest story I've heard in a while. We're in the dining room of the 28-year-old folk singer's Echo Park house and she doesn't really want to read from Rising From the Ashes, an autobiographical anthology she organized and edited last year, featuring pieces by her former Belmont High students. But I'm prodding and so she selects “When Pain Is Your Teacher.”
It's about twins born impoverished in El Salvador, raised by their great-aunt and great-uncle. Neither boy meets their parents until the age of 6, when they visit from America. At 9, the author is brought to L.A. but his twin, his best friend, has heart problems and can't make the trek. The author doesn't see or hear news about his brother until five years later, when his father tearfully informs him of the brother's death. His mother and another brother also die, for undisclosed reasons.
“Knowing that I would never see my brother again made me lose my will to live. I started doing drugs, drinking, getting into trouble and joining tagging crews,” McGrath reads from the text. “I never thought he would pass away but, like they say, expect the unexpected in life.”
You understand why McGrath would rather discuss music than day jobs. There's no silver linings playbook when more than half of your students transfer, drop out, join gangs or get pregnant before their 16th birthdays. The LAUSD system is not a Michelle Pfeiffer movie with a Coolio soundtrack.
“Teaching lets music stay sacred for me. It's about trying to channel a more pristine or purer form of myself,” McGrath says. “Teaching is about making your students feel special and that they have a story to tell. With singing, it's more about what I have to say.”
The nascent music career is equally unexpected. Raised in Santa Monica, McGrath originally wanted to be a writer, though she sang in choir, played classical clarinet and divined the occasional melody for fun. She also may be the best whistler I've ever heard outside of a Gap ad. Guitar was an afterthought until two years ago, when she picked it up and started writing songs in the wake of a bad breakup.
“I always wanted to write songs, but there was always something that held me back,” McGrath says. “I never sat down and said, 'I'm going write a song … yes, I am.' ”
The songs on her self-titled November EP are bruised with a sad seraphic folk in the vein of Grizzly Bear, Fairport Convention and Joni Mitchell's doomed-butterfly laments. There are buskers in long skirts at every farmers market, but McGrath's voice is unusually arresting; plaintive and powerful yet understated. In person, a mandolin and a cello flesh out the album's skeletal beauty.
When you were a kid you imagined that your teachers lived in closets and subsisted on coffee grinds and eraser gum. McGrath looks like someone you'd see in fuzzy repose on the back of an early-'70s album cover, with flat-ironed auburn hair, faintly freckled skin and improvised floral garland.
I ask if she's ever written about a former student and she plays “Nicki,” a threnody about bumping into a troubled student on the Fourth of July — her brother setting off illegal fireworks in the street and her father in drunken squalor on the porch.
It should be overwrought but it isn't. It just reminds you that most true stories end bittersweet.
“My kids always joke that I like to make them write stories to make them cry,” McGrath says. “But honesty is what people react to. You tell your own story and don't sugarcoat.”