“I went to Guitar Center today and found a sudden burst of joy over the new condenser microphone I’m getting,” writes an excited Catherine Cavanagh in a March 11 entry on her on-line journal. “I also picked out some new monitors, and I’m getting a rackmount effects processor.” Cavanagh is the brainchild behind the electro-pop group Chop Chop and, as you may have guessed, something of a collector of musical toys. When we get together in Central Square, she informs me in a reedy, high-pitched voice that she nearly cancelled to go to an estate auction in Medford. On the auction block: an old organette. “You crank and it makes sounds, kind of like a player piano,” she enthuses. Fortunately, a friend offered to sit in on the bidding.
What could this self-professed electro-nerd possibly want with such a relic? She wants to sample it. “You could go the straight route of guitar and bass, but there’s so many different things you can use to make sounds. With the technology that’s out there, you can pretty much play anything.”
It’s a theory she puts to the test on Chop Chop, the debut by her trio on the local indie Archenemy, the majority of which was recorded in her former attic apartment across from an Allston train yard. “All night long you could hear them [the trains]. They smacked together and the entire house would reverberate. . . . Imagine trying to record with that; it’s not easy.”
Cavanagh diligently composed, arranged, and played guitars, drum machines, keys, and bass for the album. At one point, she went outside with a microphone and bottled sounds. The effort yielded “two very long tracks of a freight train moving and stopping.” She used ProTools to create a rhythm from the train sounds, fashioning the backdrop for the song “Every.”
In person, the now Cambridge-based songwriter is small and compact in a gray zippered sweatshirt. Her face is pale, highlighted by a pair of blue gray eyes. Her straight strawberry blond hair is pushed to one side. Smiling and garrulous, she doesn’t act like the sort who would spend two winters holed up in a makeshift studio. But she had company in band mate Christy Cheng, Chop Chop’s keyboardist and a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Cheng is a trained pianist: Cavanagh has almost no formal musical background, though her mom and dad sing in a choir and her brother Frank did a stint as the bassist for former alt-rock giants Filter. The process went something like this: Catherine, writing mostly with her voice, would sing aloud a melody line and then transfer it to other instruments. Later, Cheng would pop in to add her parts. Along the way, Carla Caruzzo became the trio’s bassist, and the happy accident was complete: all three members had “CC” initials, as does the band’s name.