NewTracks New Artist: Cassa

NewTracks New Artist: Cassa

There’s a whole house load of talent residing within the creative persona of Cassandra McCowan aka Cassa, as evidenced by her Master of Arts gained from a London college. That qualification was a ticket of entry into London’s wildly competitive world of west end musicals, where this triple-threat artist has spent most of her artistic life until recently returning to Aotearoa. Entitled So Long, Cassa’s debut single attracted the attention of NZ On Air who shared the song through their NewTracks compilation this month.

What’s your name, where are you from and what instruments do you play?

Kia ora, my name is Cassandra McCowan and I’m a singer/songwriter/actress. I’ve also started learning the production side of music, keyword being ‘started’ – there is so much learn!

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you? 

I studied three different styles of music – first year of university I studied Contemporary Music at Otago, then I moved to back to Auckland and graduated with my Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice.

My dream had always been to perform in musicals, so I moved to London and completed my Master of Arts at the Guildford School of Acting. I’ve also had some incredible teachers over the years. They have all played key roles in my career so far because they taught me such a diverse range of skills. Music nourishes my soul and I just genuinely love learning about it!  

Any other previous projects might we know you from?

I was in a duo called Hey Miss as a teenager, with my good friend Sam. We opened for Sting, who was phenomenal live! We also opened for Rod Stewart and (almost) Lionel Ritchie. (His concert was cancelled mid-way through when a storm hit and audience members started sliding down the hill!) I’ve performed at Christmas In The Park a few times and sang the anthem for the Lions tour and the Bledisloe Cup.

Earlier this year I played Mary Delgado in the NZ tour of Jersey Boys, which started at the Civic Theatre in Auckland and finished at the Wellington Opera House. But I’ve spent most of my adult life performing in London so I was super grateful to be home for the release of this single.

What’s the background to how you became just Cassa? 

One of the biggest downsides to performing in musicals is that the music isn’t your own. I used to write music quite a bit growing up but my main focus has always been theatre. I did one particular show over 1000 times and it began to feel like I was losing touch with the creative side of performance. We performed 6 nights a week, so I went back to school during the day and studied music production. I started writing music again and then Covid brought me back home to Aotearoa. The silver lining was that I finally had time to focus on writing, which is how Cassa came about. 

How and when did you come up with the name for the new project?

I was trying to think of an easy way to say my name – Cassandra McCowan is a bit much. My mates call me Cass, but for some reason, a one-syllable name felt far too bold. I think, in some ways, I wanted to separate who I am as a person and who I am as an artist. I also find it funny that casa is Spanish for house, totally irrelevant but I enjoy it! 

How has your writing evolved from your beginnings in songwriting to now?

I started writing music maybe 17/18 years ago, and in some ways my writing style hasn’t changed much. The way I hear melodies over a track or a hook in my mind has always come relatively easy to me. But certainly, my lyrics and the meaning behind my music has evolved along with the ups and downs of life. No musician is ever finished learning and growing as an artist and it’s so beneficial to listen to all types of music. You never know what is going to inspire you!

Aside from this release, can you pick one highlight to date?

I got my dream job a few years ago, covering the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock. I was part of the original West End cast for two years then went over to South Korea to play the lead. It’s such a great show (it’s the same brilliant script from the movie written by Jack Black) and Andrew Lloyd Webber is arguably the biggest name in music theatre, so to turn up on the first day of work to find me ol’ boss Andy greeting us and making small talk over tea and biscuits was definitely a ‘pinch me’ moment.

What makes So Long stand out for you as a single?

It’s the first track I’ve made that I actually enjoy listening to. That sounds very critical of my own music, which I definitely am, but I’m usually unable to enjoy listening to it because I’m always hearing things to work on, or new ideas to try out. This was the first song that felt complete – almost like experiencing someone else’s music… I figured that was a good sign so I decided to make this my debut single!

What is the story behind So Long?

I wrote the top line a few years ago while on that tour in South Korea. I was having a weird day because I had randomly started thinking about an ex after a few months of not thinking about them at all. I felt really down about it, but at the same time, I was also having these moments of optimism and motivation. I’m a relatively sarcastic person who considers themselves a realist at best, so writing this summery-pop number felt like a fun juxtaposition.

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the single?

The lyric, ‘Tracing colour in the way you move.’  I had this really strange dream where everything was black and white, except this one person who had these neon lights surrounding them in a border. I wrote it down when I woke up and I’ve been waiting for a song to use it in – this track was the perfect fit!

Who did you record/produce the single with and where? 

So Long was the first song I worked on with producer and musical wizard Dan Martin. He took my ideas and turned them into such a cohesive and crisp track. Dan records vocals like nobody’s business and we stacked up so many different harmonies and effects on my voice, it was definitely the highlight of the recording process. 

What would you like listeners to take away from the song?

That there is no set timeline for getting over someone. You can be totally fine one day and then bam(!), it feels like the first day of heartbreak again. It was a way for me to say goodbye to someone, and let them go without having to actually talk to them. It worked though! 

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

I’m probably not the best person to answer that question as this is my debut single! So at the moment, it’s a total guessing game. I picked a song that I think is catchy and relatable. It’s hard as I haven’t really curated a ‘sound’ as such yet, so I’m just going off of instinct and personal taste. Which I suppose is what music is about anyway, so I’ll let you know if it works out! Yikes. 

Are there any other musical endeavours you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for? 

This is my debut song and it comes with a whole EP! My next single will be released before the end of the year and the EP will come out early next year. 

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

  • Wells: Quitter
  • Mikey Dam: Life Feels Good
  • Goodnight Nurse: Lay With Me

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? Got any advice for others out there? 

This was actually my first application to NZOA and I’m beyond grateful to be included on a compilation with such talented Kiwis. I’d just recommend applying every time you’ve got a good song – you’ll miss out on 100% of the opportunities you don’t take!

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

When I first moved to London to study I used to walk across the uni campus listening to a YT channel called Majestic Casual. Not a massive fan anymore but their 2014 era was sublime. There are some songs that you can’t help but belt your tits off to, so I got some very weird looks. A few smiles. A couple of glares. It was fun because I had just moved there and I didn’t know a soul. I loved the autonomy and the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be.

Who did you make the video with?

I designed this lyric video with an editor I found on Fiverr – would highly recommend this website for meeting some exceptionally talented and creative people! I’m a big fan of trippy/Jimi Hendrix/kaleidoscope imagery and I like that it’s something a bit unexpected.    

Any last words?

I’m not crazy about reality, but it’s still the only place to get a decent meal. So get vaccinated!