As rebrandings go, Cara Wegener's decision to stop performing as the Cara Louise Band and simply bill herself as Cara Louise is hardly a seismic shift. Her backing band has even remained largely intact. But for Wegener, the subtle change in how she is billed speaks to a larger reinvention of her sound, which has moved from an Americana-indebted rootsiness to a technicolor, synth-and-strings-laden palette on her new Fragile Heart EP.
"Cara Louise Band started with a phase I was going through, trying to be as true as I could be to the music I wanted to make," Wegener says. She notes, though, that even in her earliest stages, she was never interested in staying in one lane. "I was super into golden country, old-timey, roots music and writing songs that way," she says. "When we put the band together that's what we had in mind, but even on our first EP there were some indie or post-rock ideas."
For Fragile Heart, Wegener doesn't totally throw away her fascination with roots music; rather, she and her band stretch elements of the genre toward the moody and cinematic. "Tears Turn Into Rain" lopes along like a country waltz, and it could certainly have maintained its winsome cowpoke rhythm without much adornment; a few years ago, that's how the Cara Louise Band would have likely handled it. But the layering of a beautifully nuanced string section lends the song an air of eternal dusk, and Wegener's layered vocal harmonies soften the existential dread that creeps into her increasingly impassioned lead vocals.
Wegener credits producer and engineer David Beeman for helping direct her shift in sound. Working out of Beeman's Native Sound Studio, the pair plotted how best to structure her songs. For Cara Louise to step out as a solo artist, she sought the aid of a new set of ears.
"My goal for going my own route was to bring on a producer that had a different vision, rather than me having complete control," Wegener says. That power-sharing meant that Beeman was not merely setting up mics and pressing "record." Several songs were torn down to the studs and built back up.
"Some songs were hardly written; a few changed completely in studio," she says. "I had to be open to letting him take control, which I'm not always good at.
"Lyrics have always been something I start with and that I feel confident in," Wegener continues. "With this album, it was the opposite. I had two songs that didn't need changing, but the other three, we needed songwriting sessions. He's really helped me learn different ways to take songs, thinking outside my little bubble."
"Only You" is the EP's clearest marriage of Cara Louise's approach to songwriting and Beeman's willingness to tinker with the form.
"I had a concept for the lyrics — which was about an ex, and not a good breakup — and the chords for the verse that we had written in practice," she says. "I wanted a big, rock-ballad-y chorus and for it to sound kind of sinister. We recorded the bones of it and I didn't like it — I didn't want to put it on the album. David said, 'Let me see what I can do.' He ended up writing a bunch of the parts, and it was exactly what I wanted to hear." Beeman's additions — trippy drum triggers set against chunky piano chords, overdriven synth counterpoint — help turn the track into the EP's centerpiece.
But all of that studio sweetening makes it hard for a tried-and-true live band like Cara Louise and her gang to recreate the EP on stage. That will be the task at hand for the Fragile Heart release show at Off Broadway on Friday, October 25.
"Adam [Donald, Wegener's husband and guitarist] has been finding a lot of the synth parts on lead guitar," Wegener explains. "We brought in Buddy Shumaker on keys and synth, and he's nailing all those little nuances that David put in. Other than that, the hardest part is all the vocal layers that we put in. It really fills out the sound; I brought in three backup singers for the CD release show."
The show will cap a busy 2019 that saw Cara Louise open for Americana heavyweights including Margo Price and James McMurtrey. Even as she moves outside the lines of that genre, she retains her affinity for the form while remaining malleable.
"I've gotten these awesome opportunities to open for these people I idolize in the Americana world," Wegener says. "It's interesting to transition to a different genre, but I hope to always be changing. I've always said that my goal is to break genres and stereotypes."