CALLICOON, NY — At typical open mic nights, which take place at many venues throughout the region every week, a couple of things are to be expected. You can expect to hear covers of at least …
CALLICOON, NY — At typical open mic nights, which take place at many venues throughout the region every week, a couple of things are to be expected. You can expect to hear covers of at least one song by the Beatles and another by Bob Dylan, you can expect a few performers to draw their songs out for as long as possible before relinquishing the stage to the next musician in line and you can expect that almost every performer will be brandishing an acoustic guitar.
The abundance of spruce-topped six strings can make it hard for singers to stand out. Fortunately for Kali Seastrand, local singer-songwriter, frequent open mic performer and this month’s featured River Recordings artist, her instrument of choice—the Appalachian dulcimer—has helped distinguish her from a crowd of fellow folk musicians in Sullivan County.
Seastrand, who graduated from Fallsburg High School in 2015 and went on to study drawing, painting and sculpting at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan, discovered the dulcimer while listening to Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue” in college.
“I was dealing with some sad feelings and listening to the ‘Blue’ album a lot, and I remember thinking, ‘That doesn’t sound like a guitar that [Joni’s] playing,’” Seastrand said.
Joni Mitchell is one of her most significant influences, encompassing both Seastrand’s love of the style and sounds of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as her admiration of strong women performers; others include Joan Baez, Fiona Apple and Stevie Nicks.
The Appalachian dulcimer, not to be confused with a hammered dulcimer, turned out to be the perfect instrument for Seastrand to dive deeper into her songwriting. With just three or four strings, it was simple and “intuitive” enough to make melodies come naturally. Seastrand also gravitated toward its diatonicism (meaning it uses only the notes of the major scale). As opposed to chromatic instruments which can more easily create dissonant harmonies, the dulcimer is designed for playing pleasant-sounding chords, hence its Latin prefix dulce, meaning sweet.
The physical placement of the dulcimer on the player’s lap helps Seastrand visualize the music she is playing. As a visual artist in addition to a musician, seeing the notes is just as important to Seastrand as hearing them.
“One painting can be four or five different paintings before you make the final product,” she said. “Just how I can look at a painting and say, ‘What do I need to pull this all together?’ I can kind of look at a song the same way and figure out what I need to add [to] it.”
In addition to inspiring her instrument choice, Joni Mitchell’s career as both a painter and a singer-songwriter also demonstrated to Seastrand that she had no obligation to choose either music or visual art over the other. Since studying at FIT, Seastrand has returned to Sullivan County and is currently pursuing both passions. Her time is divided by selling vintage clothing and homemade jewelry and performing her music throughout the region; she will also soon begin a new job as a teaching artist at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
“By working in multiple mediums, if I’m having a hard time with one of them, I can turn to a different medium and odds are I will be able to make something I am happy about,” Seastrand said.
When she returned to Sullivan County, she began her new musical career in Callicoon at Rafter’s Tavern’s Sunday open mics. The experience felt less like a homecoming for Seastrand, however, and more like embarking on a new frontier.
“I didn’t know any of the people there, and I felt like I was a different person myself,” she said.
The idea of performance was nothing new, as Seastrand had experience in musical theatre, but she said performing original music was a completely different experience.
“In musical theatre, you’re being a character, and you’re singing somebody else’s songs,” she said. “[Playing original music] is like standing there naked, you’re showing all of yourself to the audience.”
Years of self-doubt about her ability to play an instrument adequately and dealing with rejection in art school made it all the more surprising for Seastrand when the Rafter’s open mic crowd welcomed her and her music warmly.
“I had never received super positive feedback, I was used to rejection, so then when people [at Rafter’s] told me to come back, I felt like I was in a dream,” she said.
As a featured River Recordings artist, Seastrand is returning to the stage where this newest chapter of her musical career began. She’s performing from 8 to 10 p.m. at Rafter’s Tavern on Friday, March 6.
Before then, you can hear Seastrand performing three original songs in The River Reporter’s office by going to www.riverreporter.com/river-recordings.
She began that performance with one of her hit tunes among local crowds called, “Old Folk Song.” The song is a declaration of love for the folk music that has influenced her own compositions so strongly:
“They say you’re singing an old folk song again, go on play us something more relevant, but I don’t really want to. Cause the war fires on in Afghanistan, and people still don’t know how to get together and stand as one. This song’s for the people. Singing in C, the people’s key… makes it easy to sing along… Singing an old folk song again, singing it all because I can.”
The River Recordings series is sponsored in part by A.M. Skier Insurance.