Casey Baker Neon Cowboy shares “Where the Cattle Cross”

Casey Baker

Neon Cowboy: The Return of Casey Baker

If closely following Canada’s post-millennium music scene, you likely encountered Casey Baker’s music at some time. Through his work with City and Colour and fronting bands Sleeper Set Sail as well as Casey Baker and the Buffalo Sinners, he was relatively prolific in the early 2000s, before suddenly seeming to disappear entirely.

After a lengthy hiatus, however, the St. Catharines singer/songwriter is back with some of his most evocative music yet, including his latest single “Where the Cattle Cross.”

Now, he talks about his reincarnation as an artist, including all that led up to where he is today.

I was always really intrigued by music that embodied emotion, the songs that could punch you in the gut. I don’t know why that ever appealed to me as a kid, but it did. By the time I was 14 my sister snuck me into this nightclub downtown to see a band, and that band was called Helicon Blue… It was absolutely mesmerizing, and being a young kid with nothing to lose I had to go meet these guys after they were finished playing. To my surprise, the guys in the band were welcoming and polite and they were happy to see a younger teenager being so affected by what they were doing, and getting it.

The singer/guitarist of that band, Dallas Green, would come to play a big part in Casey’s own entry into making music.

I fell into this role where Dallas was kind of like a bigger brother… He handed me down an electric guitar later that year, and every once in awhile he had me over at his place, and I’d show him little things I was working on, and he would show me what he was working on, and we’d talk about cool riffs and cool songwriting ideas and techniques. That relationship lasted for a number of years, because when Helicon Blue disbanded, then Dallas started Alexisonfire, and a lot of his other ideas that were too soft for Alexis ended up becoming City and Colour. Around that time on his first album [Sometimes], he included a song that him and I had worked on together, renamed “Casey’s Song.”

I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a couple tours as a guitar player for City and Colour and have some tours as an opening support act… I was super appreciative for all the opportunities they gave me.

Parallel to that, Casey experienced success as lead singer and songwriter of emotive rock band Sleeper Set Sail, including the release of the full-length album Eyes Just Like Forest Fires.

Sleeper Set Sail signed to Sonic Unyon Records, which was an indie label out of Hamilton, Ontario. They set us up with the whole package… It was awesome. Then one of the members, Mike [DaSilva], decided it wasn’t working out for him, that he wanted to leave the band.

When that happened, we didn’t really see a way to function without him, so we disbanded. I continued to play and tour just under my own name… I started to get some notoriety, and people were aware that I had some affiliation with City and Colour. Then I filled out that project as a band, and that’s when it became Casey Baker and the Buffalo Sinners. That band was offered a deal with Dine Alone Records.

On the then-fledgling label, Casey Baker and the Buffalo Sinners debuted with folk-rock-centric The Frontier EP, followed later by the six-track Linwell, and plans to make a full-length album.

We did a four-song EP, live off the floor. I was really happy with it, and pretty sure we were meeting all the targets they wanted us to meet… I thought everything was going okay. But the label was still in growing stages at that time. After they postponed our full-length recording session a few times, they came back and said that they would have to postpone it indefinitely because the money was tied up with other projects that took more precedence.

It was my second time in 5 years to be on a record label but not having a future. It felt like, well I must be doing it wrong, if things aren’t gonna work out. Maybe it’s not in the cards for me. Maybe we’re not any good… When that band fell apart, I took it really hard. I said I was done, the music industry has chewed me up and spit me out and taken everything from me. I thought I was doing everything right, but it didn’t work out. I stopped listening to music, I stopped writing music, I stopped going to concerts and stopped being involved in anything, just about everything. I focused on my job, focused on my family.

So he did for several years until a reunion with former Sleeper Set Sail bandmate and meanwhile, hip hop producer Mike DaSilva helped to spur his re-emergence in the music scene.

It turned out that neither him or I had any bullshit or hard feelings about whatever had gone on. He had built a home studio and had been practising his engineering and production skills in the last 10 years that him and I were estranged. He basically said, “Do you wanna get involved here? We could turn some of your old ideas into new songs and see what happens.”

Now Casey Baker is relaunched for the first time in 10 years, under the name Casey Baker Neon Cowboy. The songs are produced by Mike DaSilva, my former partner from Sleeper Set Sail, and we’ve got Trev Speechly playing bass, he was the bassist of Sleeper Set Sail, and the Buffalo Sinners… It’s kind of come full circle. We’ve got our own little label in Niagara, called The Particle Sound, and we’re releasing my stuff as well as a few other artists, in an effort to try to rejuvenate the indie scene here in Niagara.

As for the new moniker, “Neon Cowboy” has somewhat of a dual meaning.

It was just a goofy wrestling name for me and my kid while we were having body slam competitions in the basement. Then what happened was, as I started to consider getting back into the music scene, I assumed I was going to release music under the name Casey Baker… But Casey Baker was already registered on Spotify. In a pinch I decided, you know what, I guess I’m Casey Baker Neon Cowboy, named after my son’s wrestling persona.

If you want to apply that on a more literal level, once I thought about it a little more, we decided that my new sound is primarily acoustic-based singer/songwriting, but I’m working with a producer who comes from a hip hop background. So in some sense he brings the neon and I bring the cowboy, and the finished product is Casey Baker Neon Cowboy.

Together, they recorded and released “Elmira,” a low-tuned, ominous narrative set to a stomp-clap-reminiscent rhythm.

We just kept leaning into the dark… The fantastical fun part about songwriting is that you can get inside the character and you can sing from the perspective of an event that never really took place. It’s basically about jealousy, and having a lady who’s not being faithful to you and what that might do to your psyche, and the lengths you’re willing to go to in order to soothe that aggression. It’s a really fun song to perform, because I think it’s saying a lot of feelings that people think but never say out loud.

It’s such a moody and atmospheric song, I was really certain from the get-go that that had to be my reintroduction to music. I wanted it to be impactful. I wanted it to be a song that was gonna take people off guard lyrically and sonically. And I think we achieved that.

Casey’s latest single, the steadily-building “Where the Cattle Cross,” channels similar vibes, along with thematic inspiration stemming back to childhood.

I would be home sick from school and I would watch these cold case documentary shows with my grandmother. I was probably too young to be seeing them, but she got me hooked on true crime as a kid. That’s never really gone away for me.

At some point in time during the course of years, I saw an episode of Cold Case Files that was about a serial killer from Texas who move around quite a bit, he ended up being caught in Louisiana… He decided to plead guilty in Texas so he would get life in prison as opposed to being found guilty in Louisiana where he was certain to face the electric chair.

Something about that story always stuck with me for years and years and years. Lyrically, I just wanted to write about that… I ask myself the question: What happened in his childhood? What happened in his upbringing that led him to become this monster?

Contrary to that is the musician’s more stylistically lighthearted “Treasures That We Find,” a song inspired by his son’s story of a pirate-ship adventure, and which would come to embody much more.

He said, “There’s a big storm, the ship’s gonna crash-land on a desert island. And we’re gonna wake up, we’re gonna search for buried treasure at the bottom of a cave. There’ll be lava and bats and snakes and we’re running from monsters!” He told me this unbelievable story, and I recorded it on my iPhone, just listening to him talk about his ideas. We sat down and I had my lyric book, and I started writing lyrics based on the details he provided… I started fumbling together some chords and then the melody just kind of came to me, and I booked some time to lay it down.

This past September, we got confirmation that my son Wes is on the autism spectrum… It occurred to me that April was coming up, and it would be Autism Awareness Month, so I had some artwork made up from a friend named Matt Paxton who’s an artist and songwriter out of Hamilton, and he put together this artwork that looks like a Robert Munsch children’s book. From there, my wife and I approached Autism Ontario and showed them the song and the art and said, “Would you guys be interested in using this as a promotional tool to help spread awareness for Autism Awareness Month?” And they absolutely loved the idea.

Now it’s out online, it’s open to the public, and we’re using it. We’ve married it to this concept of perseverance for anybody trying to overcome challenges of autism… It’s a cute story about a dad and a son searching for buried treasure, but there’s these undertones of absolute commitment to surviving, and perseverance in overcoming the storm.

Such perseverance is reflected in Casey’s career, with the storm behind and bright skies on the horizon.

I can’t tell you how good it feels, for all the years that I was living under a rock and hiding, and I became a recluse. I was so angry at music, and somehow in the last year or two, the sun is shining and everything’s clear, and I am writing the best songs of my life. I’m getting the best production available to me, through Mike, and the songs are truly being realized. It feels absolutely fucking unbelievable.

Something about being flushed down the toilet and surviving to come out from underwater on the other end is like—I don’t really care what people think anymore. I’m not trying to win a popularity contest, so to speak. I realize that you need followers, you need listens, you need likes, you need plays, but I’m not really focusing on that part. All I want to do is write and produce and release the best possible music that has been stuck inside me.

You’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, but the stuff that Neon Cowboy has yet to record and release is some of the strongest… I cannot wait.

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