On “The Witches Made Me Do It,” Cassata Stakes His Claim
By Mya Byrne
With his newest release, “The Witches Made Me Do It,” Los Angeles-based Ryan Cassata definitively cements his queer country cred. It’s a unique and timeless folk-rock concept album, produced by Jason Hiller, with lyrics co-written with Jeni McKenna. Delightfully underorchestrated, it combines elements of pop punk and modern country, yet feels almost like it’s all been cut live in one room – in a good way. Dare I say there’s a Sun Records quality about it? The arrangements, especially the distant old-school drums on certain tracks, truly bring that home.
It starts with a description of being on the road, a theme throughout. “Bamboo Plants” talks about how he left his good guitar at home and he’s eking out music on one that “won’t stay in tune.” Within the stanza, he’s “had a talk with God saying that’s not want my heart wants…I think he’ll figure it out.” As a traveling musician myself, Ryan’s on-the-road songs resonate, and are lyrically referential to Jackson Browne and Jimmy Webb.
Throughout, many songs feel like they may explode into pure punk, but there’s a restraint almost wilder than that, with so much power behind it it’s unnerving, especially with the skillful use of lyrical repetition. It reminds me of Tender Prey-era Nick Cave in that sense. Eerie and calming at the same time, many of the songs sit on a bed of bowed string instruments over strummed acoustic, and reverb is tastefully used as an instrument, like Stephen Stills’ production in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” an uncommon move nowadays.
I’m also reminded of Patty Griffin’s word paintings on “Catcher in the Rye”, about Ryan’s childhood home. Describing a beautiful, pastoral view of coastal Long Island over minimal instruments, he wishes to bring his lover there: “I want to climb the lighthouse/As the lightning strikes/Watch these storms like artwork/Spelling out our names in the sky”, then seamlessly segues into memories many a queer person might relate to: “I’ll tell you about what happened here…The wind blows so hard that the seagulls get stopped/They’re floating in mid air/Stuck like I was….Can you deal with this place…Where it’s always swamped by rain/And the bay is always tipping over…can you see why I escaped?” It’s at once affirming and heartbreaking.
Most artists are lucky to have one killer hook on a song. Ryan’s got songs with multiple hooks all over the dang record, and sells the hell out of them. “I Never Lied”, about finding love during the 2019 California wildfires, is a great example. You’ve got fab singular lines, like “As we make love the city is bleeding beneath us,” leading into the two main refrains: “As the sirens pass by/my body gently spins/our world is on fire…I guess we’re staying in tonight/We got to know what’s not our fight.”
The strength here is describing that desire to want to help the world outside your window, while the world is literally on fire. Helpless to do anything about it, they acknowledge that being together is the best they can do—to keep living in a bruised and burnt world. For queer folks, pulling abundance from a hurt world is in our DNA. Ryan truly hit that mark.
The title track is a brutally honest look at addiction and recovery within the context of the new relationship. Over a dark, Tom Waits-style tone, we’re back at the beach at night; tales are traded of wrecked cars and mysterious witches, and we are swept up in the way the mystical can turn from dark to light. The incantation of the title line, sprinkled throughout the song, complements the repeated stanzas at the end: “We’ve been hanging with some witches…But they’ve been granting all our wishes.”
The album closer, “We’re Still Living”, feels eerily prescient for our current times, and is the most vulnerable I’ve ever heard Ryan. It’s a plea to eke every moment out of every day, in the reflection of a trusted lover before sleep: “I need to see our truth echoed in your eyes / So please don’t turn off the lights yet.”
Ryan is currently on virtual tour. Check out The Witches Made Me Do It on all streaming services.