Karla Moheno’s debut record, Gone to Town, is filled with enough spunk and wit to keep listeners tuned in for days. And that’s not just because Moheno’s voice is both sly and seductive. Or, that she manages to mix despair and optimism: the Californian begins the upbeat, country-tinged rocker “Fool of a Girl” with the lines, “I was left for dead in Chicago/By a cold, cold white man.” And it’s not even her excellent musical instinct on Gone to Town, wherein Moheno strikes a charming balance between country, blues, and alternative rock. The LP’s best attribute is Moheno’s persona, which bleeds through every track and unites all the themes running through Gone to Town. Pancakes and Whiskey sits down with Moheno to Gone to Town and how she found herself in New York City.
Pancakes and Whiskey: You’re originally from California. Tell me a bit about how you got into music and how you found yourself in New York City.
Karla Moheno: I started playing music at a very young age but only really started singing in my last year in high school. Since then, it’s always been my favorite thing to do. A close friend of mine always told me I belonged in New York. So after I graduated college, my thumb twiddling and curiosity sent me east. I love the music community here. You get to learn so much from so many talented people.
P&W: You played with a lot of different bands before releasing your LP, Gone to Town. What were some of the interesting things you learned during your early years on the live music circuit?
KM: The choir geek in me decided to form a swing vocal trio called The Tickled Pinks. This is shortly after I moved to New York, and that was my real first experience leading a band and a relatively large one at that! I really cut my teeth singing in Morricone Youth [New York City-based band that covers film and television soundtracks]. That band taught me to be fearless and take chances. With the two bands, I’ve covered an array of venues in and around the city and have definitely learned how to adapt to the show environment. I love me a rug cutting crowd the most though rare!
P&W: Your songs are really intricate, both on a compositional and lyrical level. What inspires the content in your songs? Are there moments when the creative spark takes a little longer to ignite?
KM: The songs on this album were some of the first songs I’ve written. Ideas would come to me walking down the street or in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. But nothing was forced. I was lucky enough to have the time to just go with what popped into my head and stuck. The songs are personal, though my imagination would definitely take real life stories to fictional places. I’ve absolutely experienced ruts in creative flow, songs written in those moments usually act more like writing exercises, which is great because there is always so much to learn.
P&W: Tell me about the experience of recording Gone to Town.
KM: It started as a just-for-fun project with my friend and producer Scott Hollingsworth. We took our time and at first didn’t anticipate recording a full album. But then I kept writing songs, so that’s what ended up happening. There was really no pressure behind the project so it was just a blast. Scott’s favorite vocal takes were late night on his RCA ribbon mic after I’d had a few cocktails. Those were good times.
P&W: There are elements of film noir in your record. That’s really quite fascinating and makes me think a little differently about a song like “Fool of a Girl.” Can you tell me about the films that shaped the sound of the record?
KM: Well I might say I picked up a bit from my experience playing with Morricone Youth, where I learned so much about the last century’s great film composers like Lalo Schifrin and Henry Mancini. But I don’t think I was really aware of that influence when I was producing the record. I actually think “Fool of a Girl” might be the least cinematic track, and I may have been in a Dylan mood at the time I wrote it. It happens.
P&W: What about the musical artists that inspire this record as well as your overall sound. You conjure images of a postmodernist Billie Holiday, if ever there was one.
KM: Wow what a compliment. She’s really my favorite. My influences are vast, from Lucinda Americana to big band and punk rock. What really influenced me also were singers with real feeling in their music and voice. Irma Thomas and Sam Cooke come to mind. That’s why I like Billie so much too. She wasn’t the greatest vocalist technically, but you could never deny she was one of the most captivating singers. I’ve always tried to just be honest in a performance. People can hear honesty.
P&W: Let’s talk about your live performances. You’ve shared the stage with quite a few New York based artists. How do you approach crafting a set list?
KM: So far, my sets have been pretty consistent with additions here and there of new tunes and covers. My own repertoire is so new that it’s just starting to slowly grow. These days you’ll hear a little more than half my set from my album, and then I’ll play the tunes I’ve recently written. I like to start my set with Time Well Spent, the first track from my album. It nicely introduces the tone for the rest of the set.
P&W: What’s up next for you?
KM: I’m really looking forward to recording my new tunes. I’m aiming at releasing a single or EP this summer, and taking the tunes to as many stages as possible.
Article by Pam Segura