Interview: Seafair frontwoman Chayla Hope talks band's return, new album and InCuya Music Festival
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It’s easy to see why Seafair lead singer Chayla Hope has been compared to Chrissie Hynde and Janis Joplin. Her vibrant, powerful indie rock voice immediately draws you in and makes you want to listen. Something deep within obviously drives Hope through a song. A strong, passionate force stokes an inner fire that rises and swells with the story she tells and everything she’s feeling in the moment.

Add the rich, melodic symphonic-pop-punk backdrop of Seafair’s two classically-trained violinists, guitarist, bassist, and drummer with Hope also on keys and you’re suspended somewhere in a frequently vulnerable, extraordinary cinematic soundscape that dictates lingering and allows you to experience a song instead of simply hearing it. As a critically-acclaimed Cleveland-based indie rock band, Seafair serves up lots of emotive, readily-relatable songs about love, loss, and pushing through pain and obstacles to achieve your heart’s desire. “Birdhouse” and “Inferno” mark prime examples.

Together since 2012, Seafair has heated up stages across the country and forged an indelible impression in the musically-diverse local landscape which houses the world-renowned Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Helmed by Hope, Seafair is also comprised of Michael Flaherty on guitar, Joshua Riehl on bass, Ryan Kelly on drums and Andrea Belding-Elson and newest member Megan Sullivan on violin. Though frequently compared to Arcade Fire, Seafair’s fierce, unbridled passion and complex, layered musical arrangements help set them apart from their peers.

Seafair made a bold statement with their 2013 EP Photographs, snagging an Emmy Award and multiple Addy Awards for its standout tune "Helm & Anchor" featured in the Downtown Cleveland Alliance commercial. Scene magazine named them Best Band in 2015 and Hope was dubbed Best Female Vocalist by the mag the next year.

Despite these impressive accolades, carving out a successful career in the Midwest where musical support and resources can be of short supply has not come without its challenges. Seafair parted for a while, taking a band hiatus until their collective passion for music inevitably pulled them back together.

The genre-bending group is currently working on an upcoming new album with producer Michael Siefert (Regina Spektor, Tori Amos) and they’ll burn up the stage at Cleveland’s inaugural InCuya Music Festival which takes place at The Malls in Downtown Cleveland on Aug. 25-26 (Tickets), sharing a star-studded roster with New Order, K. Flay, SZA, The Avett Brothers and many more.

AXS recently caught up with Chayla Hope via phone to discuss Seafair’s return from hiatus, the upcoming album, checking off a bucket list item at InCuya and more in the following exclusive Q & A interview.

AXS: Your band bio compares your vocals to Chrissie Hynde and Janis Joplin, which is understandable. You have so much power and depth. Who would you name as your biggest musical influence?

Chayla Hope: Scott from Frightened Rabbit. Scott Hutchison--not necessarily just in vocals, but, just the pain he shows through the music he wrote before he passed away. Definitely his sound. He’s my favorite for that, lyrically and for soundscapes. I love Janis Joplin. I love soul. So, I listen to a lot of Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline, a lot of old school stuff is where I feel like I get my voice.

AXS: Seafair has been together since 2012. As an indie band who’s strong in the Cleveland area, what has been your biggest challenge in your journey together?

CH: Our biggest challenge in our journey together is finding the right ears, I guess. Someone to help us out with albums. I think in Cleveland it’s a little bit difficult to do so. There’s help here but, I have a non-profit (Sixth City Sounds) to try to help musicians here because of this … It’s basically just finding the resources and we have a website for that, just helping bands find people to collaborate with, or mix their album, or do album art, things like that.

AXS: You earned several accolades following your 2015 album The Querencia, including being named Best of Cleveland’s Best Band and Best Female Vocalist by Scene magazine. What does getting that kind of recognition mean to you?

CH: It’s the best feeling in the world. I think the greatest feeling was when Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s people chose us to be in this commercial with not only our song but, our faces at the Rock Hall and it won us an Emmy. That was really the kickoff, and from there we were asked to do it again and a lot of people started listening. It was a lot of likes and watches after that, which we’re really grateful for. It’s just amazing and it feels really great.

AXS: Having the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame there in Cleveland, has that motivated you or do you feel a pressure to succeed?

CH: No real pressure. Cleveland, in general, is obviously not just rock and roll. We have so much great music here. I think what’s pushed me is just watching other bands and seeing how much talent there is in Cleveland. I think it really pushes us along and inspires us.

AXS: Being a female frontwoman may still be a rarity of sorts. Do you feel a woman’s place in music has evolved recently?

CH: I do, in a way. I think more people are listening to it and people are realizing “female-fronted” is not a genre. A lot of people say that when they talk, “It’s a female-fronted band. You might like it because you listen to a lot of females” and I think that stinks. I’ve noticed less of that recently. I think people are starting to realize it’s not a genre and it’s just more music.

AXS: You’ve developed a loyal fan following. What does fan response to your music mean to you?

CH: It means more than anything. They’re called Seafoam. There are a certain group of people who come to nearly every single show and they’re at the front singing all the lyrics at the top of their lungs. We just played this very small, private event and they were there. It’s so cool knowing my words and our sound does something for their life and it’s just amazing. We were just at a wedding and the couple met at a Seafair show. That’s happened twice as far as we know and there are a couple Seafair tattoos out there. It brings me to tears sometimes and I hope for more of it. I want all of it.

AXS: “Birdhouse” is such a beautiful, personal song about loss. Can you talk about the song and how the concept for the music video came about?

CH: “Birdhouse” came about because most everyone in the band had lost someone recently. Our drummer had lost his mother, our bassist had lost his grandmother and our guitarist and cellist had both lost their fathers. My drummer came to me and said, “We really need a song about my mom” and she collected birdhouses. So, I took some of that and I took thoughts about my grandmother and my best friend in high school who passed away and just ran with it and that’s what came out.

The music video was based on the words we had and the director said, “Bring items you love that remind you of them, maybe something they had, and show them to the camera and talk about them.” That’s when you see that very open moment with most of us.

AXS: “Ohio” is about missing someone – and it also pays tribute to your home. Can you talk about that song and where inspiration came from?

CH: My brother was in Portland at the time of me writing this and he was in love with this girl in high school. The way he flirted with her was terrible.  He would leave a Now and Later on her car (candy). She didn’t understand it at the time and I think he asked her to go watch fireworks with him. He ended up leaving and didn’t think anything of it.

Years and years later while he’s living in Portland, she has this dream where she’s driving, and she looks over and my brother is her passenger. She’s a very spiritual, wonderful woman and she took that as he was her passenger through life. So, she called him, and they fell instantly in love. He was always in love with her. He drove all the way from Portland to come back to Cleveland (which he said he would never do). Just knowing my brother was going to be there for shows and just be there all the time (meant so much).

AXS: The band went on hiatus and now you’re back, with a new vio-cellist! What has been the best thing about your reunion?

CH: Everything. Honestly, it was hard there for a while due to resources. It was very business-oriented and hard to focus on our music there for a while. I think now we’re more understanding of each other. I feel like there’s just more of a camaraderie there – even though there was before. We’re kind of more focused. I’m more emotionally available and ready to be myself on stage 100 percent of the time and ready to write like that as well. Completing this album with a producer has helped even more. We’re going to be playing new songs at InCuya as well.

AXS: You played a new song, “Talk About it Now,” at Cleveland Sessions. What was the inspiration behind the song?

CH: My sister-in-law lost her grandmother to cancer right before their wedding, which was unexpected. She had cancer, but it was in remission. She’d already bought a dress for the wedding. They were very close – it’s a big Italian family. So, she passed and that was very hard on her. The very next week, on the very same day, her father died of a brain aneurysm, literally a week before her wedding. They owned a bike shop together and she was just thinking about him walking her down the aisle.

It was just the craziest news to everyone around her and especially her. I just got this melody in my head because I didn’t know what to say. That’s the best thing to do when I don’t know what to say. I go down to my piano or my keyboard and start playing a melody to kind of let out that feeling. That’s what I did and there’s a lot of it about my guitar player and how he was struggling at the time.

It’s mostly about those missed calls. People call to give you news or they need your help and you don’t answer because you’re “too busy” and it ruins things a lot of times. In relationships, one second can change a lifetime so that song is basically about that missed phone call.

AXS: On today’s current songwriting scene who do you find most inspiring? Or, who would you want to do a dream collaboration or writing session with?

CH: It would be Mitski. Her lyrics are so vulnerable and so artful. Her music is incredible. She’s coming out with a new album on the 18th and I’m ready for it!

AXS: How has writing been going on the new album? How far along are you?

CH: We have every song for the album. But it’s not totally set in stone because now we have this incredible producer, Michael Siefert working with us, which we think helps us because we’re from a lot of different genres. So, it’s very difficult because we’re all opinionated. I’ll come in with a song and one person will play it this way and another person will play it that way. So, this I think, is the best way for us to write. To get in rooms separately with our producer and talk about it the next time we see each other. I think it really helps the process along.

The songs are coming out a lot more like how I absolutely envision them and how I really want them to be. “Talk About It” might be a little different after InCuya and the new ones we’ve played a couple of times – just a little different.  This producer’s view is just amazing so, I’m really excited to see where things go.

AXS: What can you share about the new album?

CH: This is the first time we’ve kind of come with our hearts entirely open and just said, “Okay, we’re going to do what we need to do to make the best record we can. Querencia was kind of rushed for us. I was writing some of the lyrics on the way to record it. So, this time everything’s very carefully thought through and it’s more synth-driven. It’s leaning towards a more synth-pop feel. That indie mix kind of Sylvan Esso-styled stuff. Still cinematic as ever.

AXS: Is there an album date you’re pushing toward?

We’re pushing toward a date for a single release. But, we’re not allowed to announce the date until after InCuya. It’s coming very, very soon--expect that!

AXS: You’re playing at InCuya Music Festival on Aug. 25th! What are you most looking forward to about playing the festival?

CH: Everything. We are so honored to a part of it as a local band. I mean Kitten, the band that plays two bands after us, is such a big influence on me I can’t believe it. That was like a bucket list thing for me. Never in a million years did I think I would play a show where New Order was playing. I’m a huge ‘80s synth fan. I showed my boyfriend New Order for the first time and never in a million years did I think we’d be playing on the same day as New Order. I love Modern Electric. I love that there’s other local bands on it. Obviously, that’s a big deal to me. It’s a total honor and I feel so lucky.

AXS: What can fans expect from your set?

CH: I think people are just going to want to watch. I know our outfits, I’ve been leaning towards kind of crazier things as of late because I feel it’s easier to express myself, now that our music is leaning towards where I’ve always wanted it to go. So, just expect a show. I might step away from the keyboard a little bit more and get out there and sing to people.

AXS: What do you most hope your listeners take away from your music?

CH: I want them to take away whatever they want to take away from it. I’ve heard people say a few things about some of our songs that don’t mean what they mean and I’m happy about that. I try to write to make sure everyone kind of feels involved. Lately, I’ve been a little more self-centered. But, I think that’s going to reach even more people. I really want them to take what they want out of a song and feel it with all their might and just really enjoy it or need it for when they need it.

Listen to Seafair on Spotify, check out Seafair’s website and follow @SeafairTheBand on Twitter and Instagram.